Afghanistan Was Not Vietnam 2.0 and It Requires Its Own Lessons

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A Veteran’s Perspective

Watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban was hard. On September 11th, 2001 I was sitting in Algebra class when school halted, the building went quiet, and one of our teachers rolled in a TV so we could watch the news. Seven months ago, I finished my tour of duty in Afghanistan, where as a captain in special forces I alternated between packing up equipment to ship home as part of the draw down, and responding to nightly crises across the provinces my company was responsible for. These past few weeks my colleagues and I watched in real time as one province after another fell, seeing reports in the news and getting frantic messages from Afghan allies who were being targeted by the Taliban for execution for helping us. We weren’t particularly shocked by what we were seeing, we all sensed what was likely to happen after our troops finally left while hoping for something different. As a group we took pride in knowing we had at least done the job we had been given competently and professionally, and everyone we brought overseas with us returned home. That small comfort lasted until a few weeks ago, when one of our soldiers lost a fight with demons we didn’t know he was wrestling with and took his own life.

Our withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftermath has already drawn comparisons to the Vietnam War, and how the end of that conflict affected our public, our global standing and image, and our veterans. However, there are some key differences for the people who served in Afghanistan. We were all volunteers, who for the most part saw service in Afghanistan as the culmination of years of personal and professional work. Some of us spent most of our young adult lives there, and despite being intimately familiar with the country’s challenges, enthusiastically toiled and sacrificed along with our families on our own small piece of the war. As infuriating as our struggles sometimes were, there was hope that there were cooler heads above us who saw the big picture and were competently, if slowly stitching the whole plan together.

Unlike Vietnam, our greatest challenge moving forward will not be feeling like our service didn’t matter or that our nation doesn’t care about us. We know what we did mattered and that our nation does care, even if it doesn’t quite understand what it’s been asking us to do for 20 years. Our challenge will be wondering if we were fools for ever hoping for a different outcome, and realizing that although people at home may respect our service, few were aware of what was going on and are only now waking up to the realities of the war. Who were the cooler, wiser heads supposed to be across the four administrations that oversaw it? What kind of involvement and awareness should we reasonably expect from the nation we serve? Is there something we can actually learn from this, or will it be just another tragic chapter among many that is used for the talking points it can generate in political debates rather than an understanding of what it means for a democratic society to try and wage a prolonged conflict half a world away from its own shores? In spite of all the naysayers and overnight Afghanistan experts who have cropped up, it’s important to acknowledge we got more right than wrong with our campaign there, if only so we can properly diagnose why our efforts ultimately failed.

My time in service is shortly coming to its end. My son, who is six months old will never have a memory of me wearing combat boots, jumping out of airplanes, or being gone halfway around the world getting into fights with strangers. Perhaps one of my old uniforms destined for a box in the attic will make a good Halloween costume for him one day, or he’ll ask me about the custom engraved pistol dad keeps framed on the wall from one of his old work trips. I’ll have to figure out what to tell him.

America has to decide how it will react to the end of our longest war. We responded to Vietnam by moving to an all volunteer force and developing a more professional military that our citizenry goes out of its way to show respect for 50 years later. We should respond to Afghanistan by wrestling with hard questions about how America has come to view wars and its connection, or distance, from the people and families who serve in them. This extends to our national dialogue, popular culture, and institutional structures in the executive and legislative branches.

The war ran so long, at such cost, for so little in part because as a nation we never held each other accountable for having an honest conversation about what we were doing there and why. As a citizenry we left the war to the professionals while outsourcing responsibility for oversight to politicians who spent most of their time on the domestic agenda which drives re-election efforts. Between the citizenry, the politicians, and the professionals, Afghanistan was left simmering on the back burner, and we lost the plot on what we were there to do and why. Perhaps the abdication came from a good place, a desire to avoid politicizing war. Such a desire is naïve, as everything in war is inherently political, and the separation exists only in the minds of those who have never sought or been forced to look war in the face. This naivety is something we’ve always struggled with, and points to a great need in our country to learn how to have honest conversations about difficult topics. Hopefully we will take this lesson to heart before we get here again.

One thought on “Afghanistan Was Not Vietnam 2.0 and It Requires Its Own Lessons

  1. As a British observer, I love American optimism and the ‘can do’ attitude. However, the one thing I would take away is not so much the need to politicize war, but the need to discuss that going to war means accepting that before doing so that one has clear objectives to measure success or effectiveness.

    Of course, that in and of itself also has a down side, because when measures are turned into operational goals it inevitably distorts what is done. For example, counting bodies is not a goal that leads to victory, but a body count probably needs to be kept.

    The problem with Afghanistan, or anywhere else, is what is the purpose of the invasion? Going in and sending a message that it will not tolerate the local government harbouring Al-Qaeda is one thing. Nation building is another.

    Historically, Afghanistan has only been successfully conquered by empires that wished to control the country. Arguably, the United States is not suited to the empire building business.

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