“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” This is a powerful and blunt truth.
The quote is usually attributed to Plato, although the reality seems to be that it was George Santayana who said it in 1922. He’s also the same guy who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” How appropriate.
To my fellow veterans, and especially those who are trying to make sense of everything happening in Afghanistan right now, I offer a slight revision:
“Only the dead have seen the end of war… in Afghanistan.”
For many of us right now, there is no end to this war. There never will be an end to it. Is there a day or week that goes by, that we don’t think about our war?
Do you see this war at night in your dreams or recount it in your memories?
Do you feel this war, every day, as your back hurts when you get up in the morning?
Are you still on patrol, when you enter a crowded place, and cannot be with your back to the door? Are you still scanning for the enemy when you sit somewhere so you can see the entire room, and watch every single person who enters?
Is it a fight to keep this war inside you, every single day, when some idiot says something stupid, and it takes every bit of strength that you have to not lash out and destroy this person?
Our war is very real, and it has not ended. I am still fighting our war every day, in some form or another. Many of you are still fighting our war, as well; I’m sure of it. I expect to keep fighting it for the rest of my life. Only then will I have seen the end of our war.
The End of a War 20 Years Later
Now, as we watch in shock and confusion as the last 20 years of our lives are swept away in days and weeks, right before our eyes on cable news and social media, how do we reconcile that war? Can this — this — be the end? Can this be the end of our war and the closure for all that we have fought and suffered for? How is it that our enemy, and the enemy of the people we served, has swept away all the progress and effort that we made, in such a short amount of time?
What do we do with that? How do we make sense of and accept what is happening right now? I don’t know about you, but I cannot look away. I cannot unsee it.
It’s everywhere, and it’s all-consuming. After all, it is my war. Our war. And someone else is ruining it. Someone else has messed it up. Everything we did, has been undone. They didn’t listen to us. They didn’t take us seriously when we told them what needed to be done, or how we should have handled things. And they ignored us because they “knew better” or were the “experts.”
They didn’t pay attention to history. In order to be successful, they had to approach Afghanistan differently than those who came before us. They didn’t.
Most importantly, we could not force Afghans to be… us.
In their arrogance, these “experts” did not seek to understand that the Afghans do not follow a Western, Judeo-Christian concept of guilt. Despite the country’s endemic corruption, the Afghan society is characterized by an Eastern, tribal code of honor. A code of honor that we might not understand or even define as such.
In Afghanistan, It’s All About the Tribe
We tried to tell them. We tried to make it work. The Afghans also tried to tell them, and still, these experts would not listen or learn. Afghanistan’s borders were not natural to these tribes, their rivalries, or alliances. These lines on a map were not inherent in their lineage. Borders define a physical space and group people together, but to the Afghans, they are arbitrary. Decided by outsiders and foreigners two centuries ago, the borders set the stage for brutal conflicts over a hundred years in the future.
Afghanistan has not seen the end of the war, either.
When we told them we needed more soldiers and Marines, we were not the priority. When we needed more trucks, more resources, and more helicopters, we had to make do with what we had. And we did.
It became clear that we would never truly win because they would not let us. We could not fight, because the decision-makers lacked a will to fight — even to let us do the fighting.
It became clearer that we might not ever truly defeat the insurgency, because the insurgents could simply melt away into the mountains and disappear into Pakistan. When we knew that we needed to hold Pakistan accountable, and we realized they were playing both sides, the experts still did not listen. Drive on, soldier.
We are being told that it’s time to see the end of this war. But we won’t. We can’t. It’s not over for us, and now more than ever, it’s going to be even harder to settle it.
That is not your fault. Don’t think for one moment that you did not make a difference. We played a part that has changed world history. Forever.
While I am not trying to shift, or even assign, blame, the ones who made our war difficult to fight, and who have now made our war difficult to end, and impossible to reconcile with, will never, understand.
We know what we were fighting for, even if everyone else, even after 20 years, doesn’t. We fought a devious enemy, who struck our home and our people. Even when we lacked a clear and proper strategy on how to continue this mission, we brought some level of hope and light to people who needed it. Beyond that and just as importantly, when we were fighting these misguided and twisted enemies there in a faraway land, we were keeping people safe in the United States. We made it impossible for the Taliban-supported terrorists to strike again. Do not forget nor lose sight of that. It is no small thing and it should not be dismissed or ignored. We took the fight to them, and they could no longer bring the fight to us.
The Romance of a Mysterious, Far Away Place
I have said before that Afghanistan is a magical place. I understand that to most people there’s probably nothing very magical about it at all. It looks quite horrid and appalling at the moment. But it is magical.
Afghanistan is mysterious. There is something mystical in the mountains and something precious in the plains of this primitive, beautiful mess of a place. There is something romantic in the brutality of it all; something alluring in the wild, untamed nature. Something seductive in the chance of conquest. Or even if not in conquest, in the adventure of it all.
A part of me came alive and was born in Afghanistan. A part of me remains in Afghanistan. And a part of me died there.
I tested my mettle and learned how to overcome fear. I was forged in the refiner’s fire, and I triumphed over my enemies. It has shaped me for the rest of my life and taught me that we can personally overcome almost any challenge or struggle.
“There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
Ernest Hemingway said that.
And he is right. After hunting armed, evil men in the mountains, valleys, and villages of Afghanistan, nothing else will ever measure up. Nothing else will even come close. And that is a huge part of why we struggle once we come home. It will always be hard to find something we care for as much.
There is a longing there. A feeling like I have forgotten or lost something important, but I can’t remember what it was or where I had left it. Or like losing a special someone who will never be forgotten. Afghanistan still calls to me.
I also suffered hurt, pain, and loss. We lost friends and brothers, and those who gave all. All of us gave some, and the giving never goes away.
I will always feel like I left something there, and have unfinished business. Maybe, I will never get back what I left, either. I do not know what that is and perhaps I never will. A piece of me is still running around in that desert, hunting those men…
The end of the war will be hard to reconcile with; the end of our war will be even harder. We will not see the end of it. Check on your buddies. Make sure they are in a good space. Let’s help each other through this mess. It is creating an unexpected reaction for many of us. Conflicting thoughts and feelings in our heads and our hearts. Hurt. Sadness. Defeat. Anger. Confusion. Loss. Longing…
I imagine many of you feel the exact same things. And you are allowed to feel them.
You are allowed to feel all of them.