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Generation of veterans left with ‘emptiness’ after slow end to failed war

Those who fought there say they are conflicted, angry, and sad, but knew for years that Afghanistan would never be 'won.'

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

At the beginning of the Afghanistan War in 2001, every American eye was glued to the television. Tactical developments were reported in real time — the routing of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces playing out against the backdrop of the country’s shock and grief over the 9/11 attacks, and a metastasizing War on Terror at home. The nation’s military forces were at the center of this drama, and they remained so in the early years as media “embeds” in the field made sure their story was told — the way the Pentagon wanted.  

Of course, not all of the stories could be spun in the military’s favor as the wars in Iraq, then Afghanistan moved into the counterinsurgency years: there was a wave of IED injuries, war crimes, the kidnapping of Bowe Bergdahl, green-on-blue killings, soldiers coming home with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and deadly exposure to toxic burn pits raging on U.S. forward operating bases. A scandal over atrocious conditions at Walter Reed Military Hospital in 2007 accompanied by pictures of soldiers with amputations, lined up in wheelchairs, reminded Americans that yes, we were indeed in a two-front war and our men and women were sacrificing their limbs, and their minds. 

Then something happened. After security was turned over to the Afghans in 2014 and troops numbers started decreasing in larger numbers, America’s attention started shifting away. News organizations started pulling foreign correspondents and television networks stopped covering the war altogether. Seven years later, Washington is by all accounts bringing its remaining troops home from Afghanistan, but there are no victory parades because, by any measure, there is no victory to celebrate. Billions of dollars of equipment will be left behind, much of it destroyed, because, after two decades, the Americans can’t trust that it won’t fall into the wrong hands.

Furthermore, Washington knows the country will likely cave to Taliban control or suffer a resumption of the inter-ethnic, inter-tribal wars dominated by rival warlords that followed the Soviet withdrawal in the early 1990s, because the Afghanistan military, for which the United States spent more than $90 billion training and equipping, aren’t expected to hold it together for long without U.S. support. 

It’s no surprise, then, that some veterans are expressing mixed feelings about the withdrawal and their role in the war. And this is a big group — those in their twenties at the beginning are middle-aged; others did their deployments in later years. In 2019 the Pentagon reported that over 775,000 Americans served in Afghanistan at least once. In April, Military Times published a story about these veterans’ reaction to the news that the last troops would be leaving by September 11, the 20-year anniversary of the attacks — an event many count as the reason they joined the military in the first place.

Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran who lost a comrade to an IED during a patrol in Helmand province in 2012, had been lobbying actively for withdrawal as part of the group Common Defense. But when the news came, “Lucier had a different reaction: Emptiness at first, he said, and then, to his surprise, anger crept in.”

"And I don't know why," Lucier told the paper about the anger he felt. "This is what I wanted."

Lucier, reporter Stephen Losey wrote, “wondered whether he's angry that the war didn't end sooner, or because he thinks the war has been lost for some time, or if he's upset with those arguing that troops should stay. Or, he said, perhaps he's angry over the loss of his friend.”

“There’s no easy answer, no victory dance, no ‘we were right and they were wrong,’” Jason Dempsey, 49, who deployed twice to Afghanistan as an Army officer to train Afghan forces, told the New York Times in April. 

Veteran Elliot Ackerman told the paper that when he heard the news, he thought of the Afghans, particularly those who worked directly with Americans over the last two decades. “What about these people who trusted us? Will this be seen as a great betrayal?” he asked. 

Several vets interviewed for the story felt the same guilt over “abandonment” while knowing the war hadn’t been going right for some time.  “I didn’t even know how to feel — I had to text other vets I know for a gut check because it’s so confusing,” recalled Ashleigh Byrnes, 37, who had served as a journalist in the Marine Corps. (The military has recently suggested there are plans being drawn up for an evacuation of interpreters and others who helped coalition troops — there are currently upwards of 18,000 waiting for visas to come here.)

“It seemed like a lost cause when I got (to Afghanistan) — the leaders were talking about winning hearts and minds, but that’s not what we were doing,” said James Alexander, who the Times says was an Army private serving “at a tiny infantry outpost in Kandahar near the height of the troop surge in 2012.”

A few months into his tour, his commander Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in what the paper called “the worst American war crime in recent memory.” 

“After that, I knew it was done — that we could never make progress, and this war would just keep chewing up people for as long as we fed it,” Alexander said.

That was in 2012. Veteran after veteran interviewed since the withdrawal announcement has expressed some level of skepticism that the war was ever turning a “corner,” or that the Taliban could be curbed or defeated if U.S. troops were given one more year in the field. Sadly, military and civilian leaders have known this dirty secret for some time, as detailed in Craig Whitlock’s Afghanistan Papers. Yet they kept feeding it, and our men and women kept getting chewed up, physically and mentally.

Numbers can be conveyed: $2 trillion spent; 241,000 people dead in the war, including more than 2,400 American service members, 1,147 NATO partners, at least 71,344 civilians, 78,314 Afghan military and police, and 84,191 opposition fighters. 

What can’t be measured so easily: conflicted feelings — anger at the U.S. government, guilt about comrades and Afghans left behind, relief that it may finally be over. America may have long since turned away from this war, but a generation of veterans, along with their Iraq War counterparts, are living every day with the memories and the gnawing sense that they ultimately accomplished nothing. It is for them, and those who are no longer with us, that the memorial “holiday” exists. Most would rather have closure than a parade, but the best we can do for them is to remember, and, at the very least, learn. It is just as much the fault of our own neglect of the situation as it is of the government that supported this long, tortuous goodbye. 

Members of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) march in the annual Americas Parade up 5th Avenue on Veterans Day in Manhattan, November 2015. (Shutterstock/Glynnis Jones)
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