Afghanistan. The Graveyard of Empires.
By the end of this year, a new tombstone will be erected there, a monument to another world power who spilled the blood of her sons in an effort to subdue this wild country and failed.
Here Lies the Bones of The United States of America
The mightiest army to ever walk the earth.
Defeated by the willpower and persistence of tribal men fighting to preserve their way of life.
I was a senior in high school on September 11th, 2001. I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center live on the news. The rest of the day was wasted as we waited for war. War that would define a generation of those who graduated into a changed world.
Twenty years later, I am watching the end of the war on the news as well. As U.S. military forces hastily withdraw from their fighting positions, Taliban forces are sweeping in, overwhelming their unfortunate compatriots who joined the losing side. It will be a bad day for those not killed in battle.
In the twenty years in between, over 2,300 U.S. military personnel went to Afghanistan and never returned home. More than 20,000 returned home wounded, including myself, while thousands more carry moral injuries that cannot be seen or felt. By the time it’s all over, close to 1 trillion dollars will have been spent in the campaign.
During the two deployments that I spent as an infantryman patrolling the southern province of Kandahar, there was never any sense of impending victory. We weren’t there to win: we were there to take our turn and hopefully come home in one piece.
There were small victories, of course. Insurgents killed and captured. Afghan soldiers trained in the art of war to someday defend their own country. Hearts and minds of citizens won through some humanitarian effort that we told them was the work of democracy. Democracy. See how good it feels?
My best memory of my time spent there was in the early summer of 2010. At the northern edge of the volatile Arghandab district there was an empty school that sat on a ridge overlooking a village called Khvajeh Molk. Every time my platoon passed through the village, dozens of young boys would flock to our patrol, asking for candy or pens to write with. Some of these boys reminded me of my own son, who was three at the time, and safely back at home with his mother. He spent his days watching cartoons and learning his ABCs, while they spent their time playing in dirt streets and dodging the IEDs that lined the paths of pomegranate orchards.
Wanting to make some meaningful difference in their lives, we requested funding to reopen the school. After paying a few men from the village to clean out the inside of the building and several more to put a fresh coat of white paint on the outside, we held an opening day celebration a few weeks later. With the Arghandab district governor and some other local officials looking on, my soldiers passed out backpacks filled with school supplies to fifty or so elementary age boys with beaming smiles on their faces. School was back in session.
My personal adventures in Afghanistan came to an end on my second deployment two years later, with my tibia shattered by the bullet from the rifle of an Afghan soldier who turned out to be playing for the other team. My son, then five years old, greeted me in a hospital bed with an honest assessment of my mixed performance in war. “Dad,” he said, “the first time you went to Afghanistan, you did pretty well. The second time, not so much.”
My son is now fourteen and headed into high school. I pray that when he graduates, it will not be into a world at war as I did. With the way things are now, it probably will be, but at least it won’t be in Afghanistan. As for those young boys in Khvajeh Molk who are now high school age themselves, I hope the best for them. I hope that they will overcome the violence occurring within the vacuum created by the retreat of American democracy and harness the Afghan spirit used to defeat empires for thousands of years to build their own future.