Was it worth it? This question echoes in the minds of the thousands of veterans of America’s generational war in Afghanistan.
The men and women who served are a select fraternity. A brotherhood and sisterhood of the few. In a nation of more than 300 million, some 800,000 Americans saw combat in Afghanistan — less than a quarter of a percent of the population.
For 20 years, a fraction of America’s citizens have voluntarily shouldered the nation’s wartime obligations, often completing multiple combat tours of duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq: “We few, we happy few . . .”
Like many veterans, I spent the last several days watching the events unfolding in Afghanistan with a clenched stomach. The sight of Taliban flags flying over familiar landmarks was devastating, as were the broken bodies littering the streets, and crowds surging toward overflowing aircraft.
I was a junior Army captain on the day passenger planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, changing the world forever. This weekend’s heartbreaking video of Afghans plummeting from departing C-17s was eerily reminiscent of New Yorkers plunging from burning buildings against the backdrop of a beautifully blue sky.
But what I’ve seen isn’t the worst. The worst is this: a social-media post from a fellow veteran asking for prayers for his child. A child who’s deploying to Afghanistan to provide stability for the ongoing evacuation. A child who very well could have been born after 9/11. Responsibility for this war has now passed from the first generation to the second. How can this be?
If I were king, the war would have ended 10 years ago. Perhaps earlier. Before entropy, or generals without plans, or politicians without convictions, before our nation simply stopped paying attention to those serving overseas on her behalf and allowed our elected leaders to continue sending wave after wave of troops to the land that time forgot.
Democracy can’t be imposed nor exported. If a nation’s citizens aren’t willing to fight, and potentially die, for the right to be free, we can’t and shouldn’t bear this burden for them. If the Afghans couldn’t govern themselves after eight years or 10, they certainly couldn’t after 15 or 20. American men and women shouldn’t be fighting for Afghanistan’s freedom, if Afghans can’t or won’t rise up en masse to join them.
Was it worth it?
Ultimately, this is a question answered in thousands of different ways, or perhaps not at all. Like the war itself, the answer is deeply personal and culled from each service member’s experience. Of battles won and comrades lost. Of years passed and memorials constructed to those who will never have the chance to grow old. Of frozen images and cached feelings. Of spikes of adrenaline and moments of pure terror. Of triumphs and heart-rending losses.
Was it worth it?
I don’t know anymore. I want to believe that our initial foray into Afghanistan was just. That destroying al Qaeda and giving the Afghan people the chance to live free was noble and worthy of our highest ideals. But the shadow of the years that followed is impossible to ignore. Years of squandered blood and treasure. Those years drive doubt into the hearts of men.
Which brings us back to the fall of Kabul. While I don’t know if the two decades in Afghanistan were worth the terrible price, I do know this: Those of us who answered our nation’s call deserved a better ending. We deserved a resolution without mass executions and bodies falling from planes.
To my fellow veterans, to the quarter of 1 percent of American who willingly bore this crushing weight without fanfare or complaint, you are the very best of us. Your sacrifice won’t be forgotten.
Don Bentley deployed as an Army Air Cavalry troop commander to Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Air Medal with “V” device for valor, the Combat Action Badge and the Bronze Star Medal. Adapted from National Review.