Pink smoke marking the landing zone, an Army medevac helicopter touches down in Kandahar in 2011 to pick up several wounded soldiers.

Pink smoke marking the landing zone, an Army medevac helicopter touches down in Kandahar in 2011 to pick up several wounded soldiers. Ben Brody via The Atlantic

‘How Does One Process Defeat?’

A letter to a civilian who deployed to Afghanistan.

A few days ago I heard from a former student of mine, whom I will refer to as Scott. He began by assuring me that he, his wife, and their three children were all well, and filled me in on his career since a period of extended service in Afghanistan as a civilian. He wrote the following:

You might have seen the news earlier this week that Spin Boldak, the Afghan border town in Kandahar, is now under Taliban occupation. After spending a bit of time in the Arghandab River Valley (which still induces nightmares) I spent a year in Spin Boldak (which induces slightly fewer nightmares).

I got home from a thirteen month deployment almost a full decade ago … but ten years later the place I spent a year on patrol with the three different cav squadrons, and on the back of Afghan Border Police pickup trucks, now has the Taliban flag flying at the border crossing.

However I feel conflicted on how to feel. Part of me is sad, part of me is enraged, and part of me just doesn’t care any more—and it is a weird way to feel. How can I be mad while also shrugging it off? Or trying to shrug it off?

So I thought I would drop you a line because I always appreciate your perspective. Do you have any good books to recommend? I’m sure someone has written something intelligent (fiction or nonfiction) that would help one understand the injured psyche of individuals who spent a not insignificant amount of time supporting what ends up being a futile or losing side of a violent conflict … How does one process defeat in a healthy way? Is it possible?

Since Scott specifically asked me to write an article on this subject (for The Atlantic, in fact), I thought I would share my response, which would normally be private.

Dear Scott,

Thank you for writing, and for a confidence in my perspective that, like any teacher with a conscience, I fear may be misplaced. For much of my career, I have found myself counseling and attempting to console veterans of multiple wars. The first came to me more than 30 years ago, a tightly wound young Marine officer who had lost men to what is cruelly misnamed “friendly fire.” This is, I suppose, to say that the experience of war can torment even the winners, and veterans of a conflict that (by historical standards) entailed very few losses on our side.

Your questions call, it seems to me, for multiple answers, at different levels, and with different degrees of detachment. You asked for a good book to read. Carter Malkasian’s new work, The American War in Afghanistan, looks to be the best account of that war. He teaches, like I do, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, but more to the point was a senior adviser to General Joe Dunford, and even more to the point learned Pashto and spent a year in an Afghan village. His view of the entire war, including from the vantage point of the other side, may help.

Elliot Ackerman: America will have to reckon with its cynicism about Afghanistan

As for the psychological and emotional issues of veterans—and you may be a civilian, but a veteran you most definitely are—I can suggest to you only Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and, even more so, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of HomecomingA psychiatrist and a classicist, Shay captures like no one else what it means to come home from war—even a war that has been won, which, if you think about it, is the story of Odysseus.

The truth is, of course, that very few wars are ever clearly “won” or indeed “lost.” We talked about that in the first course you ever took with me, “Strategy and Policy.” Wars simply bring consequences, and these invariably include political and social transformations, lives lost, bodies and souls maimed, courage and nobility displayed, horrors perpetrated and witnessed, and comradeship transformed into a kind of love that those of us who are not veterans of war will never experience.

On a colder, more political level, one is always impelled to ask: Was it worth it? But surely that is an unanswerable question. Even in victory, many doubt the cause for which they fought. That is one of the themes of Michael Shaara’s great novel about Gettysburg, Killer AngelsFrom the individual point of view, it gets harder yet. Surely no American war was more just or more completely won than World War II. Yet in the 1960s, could any of us have dared look into the eyes of Alleta and Thomas Sullivan, who lost their five sons in the sinking of the USS Juneau in 1942, and said to them, “It was worth it”?

This is not to say that all wars are pointless and thereby make a case for a thorough-going pacifism. There are things that are worse than war. And there are achievements of which those like you who have borne the burden should be proud. The American effort in Afghanistan improved life immeasurably for many people whom we once cruelly abandoned. Girls and women, in particular, found freedoms unimaginable under the tyranny they had endured and, alas, will almost certainly endure once again.

Those achievements have their own value in their own time. If I could urge one thing upon you, it would be to take pride in what you did and what you and your comrades, civilian and military, achieved during your time on the line. That is all any of us can do, because it is not given to us to see very far ahead, and when we attempt to do so we are usually wrong. Afghanistan’s future looks dark. But it is not the same country that the United States entered two decades ago, and we do not know what it will be two decades hence.

As for our withdrawal from Afghanistan now, like you, I am torn. For the past 12 years, we had presidents who kept sending soldiers and civilians to a conflict in which they did not believe. One could argue that Joe Biden simply has a courage that they did not, to act on a conviction identical to their own. One could further argue that although Afghanistan has not seen American losses in some time, and although the actual troop footprint is small, it is a losing game that takes up disproportionate time and energy from the country’s senior leadership, when the United States has other, more important troubles on its hands.

Jonah Blank: The original sin of the war in Afghanistan

And yet I would feel less disturbed if America’s leaders owned the decision. That, it seems to me, is a test of all leadership, in every domain and in any kind of organization—owning it, accepting responsibility, and looking truth in the eye. To suggest, as the administration has, that the catastrophe that impends in Afghanistan is not our responsibility is factually and morally false. We have made a brutal choice, an understandable choice, but not a morally neutral choice. All involved should lose some sleep over it, and I hope they will.

The last paragraph but one of your letter is the toughest to respond to:

For the first time, I brought my older daughter to Arlington on Memorial Day this year, and didn’t want her to see me cry and I kept my sunglasses on as we walked through section 60 and I tried not to bawl too much in front of her. Seeing markers of kids—and they were kids—who were closer in age to her than me now, are buried in the rows and rows, it tore me up.

For that, Scott, your former teacher has no perspective to offer, only tears, and a wish that I could put my arm around your shoulders.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.