It’s the Afghan War, Not Bergdahl, That America Has Forgotten

A Marine Corps corporal shields himself from dust kicked up by a CH-53E Super Sea Stallion lifting off during a mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2014.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joseph Scanlan

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A Marine Corps corporal shields himself from dust kicked up by a CH-53E Super Sea Stallion lifting off during a mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on April 28, 2014.

It took the murky circumstances regarding a POW's return to remind us we are a nation at war. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Less than one percent of Americans have fought this 13 years of battle in their country’s name. And now America’s forgotten, invisible war in Afghanistan is suddenly and finally being remembered by a public that largely thought the fight had ended. It took the murky circumstances regarding a POW’s return to remind us we are a nation at war, no matter how many in Washington and well beyond want to forget it.

For an administration whose foreign policy slogan is said to be “Don’t do stupid shit,” the tone-deafness of the White House announcement of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahls’ release is thundering. But it is also not terribly surprising given the arms-length distance at which many in Washington have sought to keep this country’s longest conflict.

That Washington leaders appear surprised by the firestorm ignited by the decision to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergahl is only the latest sign of the growing chasm between America’s fighters and everyone else. In our desire to forget we are at war, we also have forgotten to remember what the lives of those who served actually look like. And what it is we have asked them to do in America’s name.

The war in Afghanistan had long ago grown into a niche topic, occasionally humored by Sunday shows and more often forgotten outside of national security circles by a Washington elite and an American public desperately ready to move on. If it was discussed at all, the Afghanistan fight was framed in throw-away campaign lines and bumper-sticker slogans viewed and written through the lens of domestic digestibility. 

Nearly every time Washington policy makers discuss the war it’s to talk about its “responsible end.”  Last week, as he announced the drawdown in Afghanistan with a timeline attached to 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in the country until 2017, the president noted that “this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies, but through decisive blows against our adversaries.” 

But the war is not ending for the Oregon National Guard, which right now is preparing for its second-largest ever deployment in the post-World War II era, according to Oregon’s Mail Tribune. Nor is the war over for the families of 24 service members who died in Afghanistan this year. As a nation we act as if the war has ended already, while men and women still risk their lives in it each day and night.

Now comes the case of Sgt. Bergdahl. It is indeed very good news that he is in Germany and recovering from the hell of five years of captivity. Few can imagine what he has endured.

But a gut check on the realities of the brutal battle in which America is still engaged should have prepared Washington for the outpouring to come from a community that has attended 13 years of memorial services and funerals.  America has not wanted to reckon with the sacrifices we have asked our troops to make. We have fast-forwarded over their losses and we even forgot about them during the government shutdown, when it took media reports to focus politicians on the fact that death benefits would not be paid to those killed in action during Washington’s civil war. Unless America is ready to stop sending its soldiers into war, its government should never shut down.

The Obama administration has done itself no favors by using talking points that veered toward the hyperbolic to discuss the exchange.  When National Security Adviser Susan Rice called Bergdahl a “soldier who served the United States with honor and distinction,” the words sounded wildly out of touch to those whose children had actually done so and had never come home.

“It gets really hurtful when I think, this guy was worth my son’s life? My son who was patriotic? Who was a true soldier? Who defended his country with his life?” the mother of one Army officer killed in Afghanistan told the Army Times.

On Tuesday, the president said in Poland that if the released Taliban return to the battlefield, “we have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses.” 

Only as the president knows better than anyone else, it is not so simple — “going after” these guys is neither easy, nor cost-free. Each mission to kill and capture targeted individuals, missions Americans undertake all across Afghanistan on a regular basis, places troops’ lives on the line. Families who have lost their children on these missions know the pain that comes with the price of such pursuit.

We have become a nation comfortable with “support the troops” platitudes that have all the actual substance of cotton candy when it comes to acknowledging their actual mission. If the discussion surrounding the safe return of Bergdahl has at last put Afghanistan back on the nation’s agenda and brought the battle closer to home, then something positive will come from it. And perhaps America’s war will be forgotten no more – for now.

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