At the top of Impromptus today, I note something that the Associated Press said about Afghanistan: The new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, is dealing with “the jarring difficulties of shutting down a war.” I have been wondering: What does “shutting down” mean? Losing? Winning? Quitting? Are we allowed to think in terms of winning and losing, where Afghanistan is concerned?
I further note in my column that Hagel has been opposed to the Afghan War for a long time — even to the point of opposing the surge that President Obama ordered in 2009. “Fair enough,” I write. “But here is my question: If you were in Afghanistan today or tonight, wearing our uniform, how could you fight on, knowing that we were ‘shutting down’ and knowing the mindset of the new SecDef? Why would you risk your neck? You just would, I guess.”
A reader writes,
Sir, I am here in uniform in Afghanistan. You are right to be confused. I know I am. Frankly, I worry sometimes that I’ll have fought for over a decade to install tyrants and preserve political capital for politicians I could care less about. But I also look around every day and see a country that is much better than it was and where 90 percent of the people I deal with are either helping us or just want to be left alone (a feeling I well understand). What does it even mean to win here? I sure as hell don’t know. By some measures we’ve already won. By others we could never hope to win. We’ve pretty much done what is achievable. Did we win then?
On my good days I focus on what’s right in front of me. Doing the best I can, helping whoever I can, killing as many bad guys as I can, and taking care of my guys. On my bad days I just want to cut our losses and end this thing (I work with the Afghans directly and see that many of them, they care less than we do).
If pressed, I say that I feel like we need to fight on, if only to honor the sacrifices we’ve already made. Then Karzai says something stupid, or our “partners” attack us, or our own leaders refuse to step up — and it’s back to the dark thoughts.
It sounds trite, but that is why duty is such a sublime concept. You do what you must, and ignore the rest. Many would say that is the answer of a simpleton, or blind man, or automaton, but I don’t see it that way.
Amazing, the people we have fighting for us. Amazing. I sometimes wonder whether we deserve them.