Opinion | I Don’t Regret Serving in the Afghanistan War

Was it value it?

I don’t imply the wars — it’s practically not possible to argue the wars have been value it, absolutely — however what about our service in them? Did it imply something?

This query haunts many veterans on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 assaults. Did something we do in the years that adopted matter? Worse, if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan damage the United States greater than they helped, did our participation in them betray the nation we had pledged to serve?

I was already a second lieutenant in the Army in the fall of 2001, and far of my life since then — two fight deployments to Afghanistan, one to Iraq, time again in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser, a number of years in the Pentagon as a senior protection official — has been formed by America’s eternally wars.

The chaotic closing weeks of the warfare in Afghanistan prompted outdated associates — army veterans, support staff and diplomats — to get again in contact. Some have been laboring mightily to get susceptible Afghans out of the nation, however principally, they have been simply making an attempt to make sense of all of it and wanted somebody to speak to.

I did too. As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban’s lightning offensive, I grew queasy, unable to open the newspaper in the morning and never significantly keen to debate what was taking place, not even with my spouse and household. I deleted social media apps from my cellphone. I prevented the tv. The solely individuals I needed to listen to from have been those that could be experiencing the identical feelings as me.

Before we knew it, twenty years of warfare had ended not with any treaty of give up or climactic battle however fairly, as one Marine buddy famous, with a discover about uncontrolled airspace.

We are solely now getting a clearer image of the warfare’s prices. We spent trillions of — we would as effectively have set on fireplace in the many “burn pits” that when littered Afghanistan and Iraq. We sacrificed 1000’s of lives — 2,461 American service members in Afghanistan, practically twice as many in Iraq — and that doesn’t embody the lives of U.S. companions, or the many 1000’s of harmless Afghans and Iraqis who perished in our follies.

So it’s not a shock that many American veterans, together with a few of my shut associates, are extremely cynical about these wars. We are additionally conflicted about our personal service. I have associates who remorse they served and appear decided to forestall their very own youngsters from following in their footsteps. Others don’t consider the wars have been value it however stay happy with their service — which appears unbelievable given the quixotic, immolatory nature of the wars themselves.

I discover myself in that latter class, however I’ve spent the previous a number of weeks asking myself why. Knowing what I know now, why would I do all of it once more? Why, understanding what would occur in the weeks and months that adopted Sept. 11, understanding the means in which my elected leaders would squander the lives of so many associates, would I make the identical selections? And why — with worry, sure, and apprehension — would I really feel comfy with my very own youngsters sometime serving their nation?

The solutions at which I have arrived converse to each the particular person and the collective expertise.

I grew up in East Tennessee, the place traditions of army service stay robust. In my mom’s household, a minimum of, there was a powerful expectation that any able-bodied younger males would serve in uniform. And as a younger man, rising up with my grandfather’s marketing campaign medals hanging over my mattress, I keep in mind considering that I wouldn’t wish to look again on my life having by no means served in uniform.

I nonetheless really feel that means many years later. I was hardly the first younger man for whom army service was a ceremony of passage on the journey to maturity. It needed to be, for me. At what, at the moment, looks like an impossibly younger age of 23, I was given accountability for a platoon, and I was anticipated to battle with sufficient braveness and intelligence to deliver all of my males dwelling with me if in any respect attainable.

A 12 months in the past, my former platoon sergeant paid me a go to in Texas, and the two of us mirrored on that shared accountability, marveling at how younger and immature we have been. The stress, each bodily and psychological, was immense. There’s an image of me from the finish of my first deployment to Afghanistan. I am shirtless, and I look emaciated. Days spent patrolling above 10,000 ft on one meal a day will try this to you.

Yet I look comfortable. I had survived, in any case, and I was stronger, in so some ways, than I was when I had arrived. If these experiences don’t show you how to develop you as an individual, nothing will.

The warfare had the identical impact on so many others. I lately spoke for a number of hours on the cellphone with a buddy, a former support employee who spent a number of harrowing years in Afghanistan after which had moved again to the United States and retrained as a nurse. She informed me her experiences helped put together her for the trauma and calls for of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was, she concluded, grateful for these experiences. The warfare was like calluses on a hand, earned by labor, making future challenges extra bearable.

One tragedy of the wars was that they claimed a lot expertise — so many luminescent lives snuffed out in late adolescence. Still, to have served alongside such women and men — to have labored collectively, to have fought collectively, to have laughed collectively — was a blessing.

If we have been to collectively abandon service, it might imply abandoning the concept of America. Our nation has by no means been extra, or much less, than a democratic experiment. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t the first time the experiment has gone awry, and they won’t be the final. But for the experiment to proceed, the nation wants residents keen to decide to it, even once they know their elected leaders may make selections that finish in disaster.

I have been requested to serve my nation a number of instances over the previous few many years, each in and out of uniform, and every time is frankly thrilling. To be part of this formidable American mission is to be part of one thing a lot grander and a lot bigger than your self. I know now, in a means I didn’t totally respect twenty years in the past, that fallible or outright malign policymakers can take my service and twist it into fruitless and even merciless ends.

Yet I would do it once more. Because this nation of ours is value it.

I hope my youngsters sometime really feel the identical means.

Andrew Exum (@ExumAM) led mild infantry and Army Ranger items over three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2004. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of protection for Middle East coverage.

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