The question above, which many of us are asking, is one posed (and answered with a tentative “yes”) by Jordan Blashek, a Marine infantry officer deployed to Afghanistan for eight months in 2013, acting as a combat advisor to the Afghan army. He’s also written a book about a cross-country drive/conversation/voyage of discovery involving a Democrat and a Republican.
Blashek’s short essay is posted on Bari Weiss’s site (as I said, Weiss seems to be concentrating on podcasting, subcontracting the writing on her site to others). Click on the screenshot to read (I think you can read without subscribing, but if you do that often you should subscribe, as I do).
Blashek’s response is an answer to a friend whose cousin was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. Now the cousin’s mom is devastated because we’re pulling out of Afghanistan. Did her son die in vain?
Mike thinks our pullout was a mistake: that we could have kept some nominal amount of troops in Afghanistan to maintain order and stave off the Taliban. A short excerpt:
We don’t talk much about virtue today in American public life. It seems like many of the people in positions of power have given up on ideas like honor, duty, courage and integrity.
But these things still matter. They matter to those of us who served. We went to Afghanistan because we were willing to die for them.
I still believe in them. I also believe it matters that we eliminated thousands of terrorists over there who wanted to hurt Americans here. It matters that women and children were able to experience freedom and a better life, even if only for a short time. It matters that a generation of Afghans saw our courage and commitment to that freedom.
In a different time, our national leaders would tell us what it was all for. They would find the words to bring meaning to sacrifices like Mike’s. We don’t live in that time. But their failure doesn’t make those sacrifices any less real.
For over a decade, our political leaders have failed to give a reason — any reason — why this mission was worth our sacrifice. The commander-in-chief owes that to our military and their families. That is their job. And they have failed.
Each year, they should have made the argument for sending new troops into the theater. Instead, they only talked about how they wanted to pull us out, even as they sent us in.
President Biden failed, too. He blamed everyone but himself for the failed implementation of his withdrawal. He called the Afghan soldiers cowards — the same soldiers who bled on the battlefield with us. He set up a straw-man choice between pulling out everyone or scaling up combat operations for a country that would not fight for itself.
But that was never the choice we faced. By 2020, this had become a peacekeeping mission. Our small presence of a couple thousand troops was keeping the Taliban at bay. That was something all of us would have signed up for again and again.
The country needed President Biden to say that. We needed him to explain why the last decade of our service, why keeping the Taliban from taking Kabul, was worth the sacrifice. If he had done that, perhaps Mike’s mother, and others like her, would not be in so much pain.
So yes, it looks as if he thinks that yes, those troops died in vain. But it’s not really that clear from his answer, for Blashek gives two reasons that lead to different conclusions:
a. We could have “kept the Taliban at bay” with a peacekeeping force, and Blashek says that troops would have volunteered to do that. Now that’s not possible, and there is no peace. This leads to the conclusion that the troops, whose presence wasn’t justified by our governmemt as a permanent peacekeeping force, did indeed die in vain. There is no peace now and there will not be. The country, barring a miracle, will now be ruled by an oppressive medieval theocracy. To keep troops there in that capacity, of course, requires realizing that Americans would still be killed (but as volunteers), that our commitment would be open-ended, and is it really our job to keep the Taliban at bay in someone else’s land?
b. On the other hand, Afghans did have nearly two decades of relative peace, and that is not “nothing.” Years ago, after I had ended a relationship that lasted nearly two decades, I told a friend that the relationship was a failure. He responded, “No it wasn’t, because you had all those good times together. Isn’t that something?” He was right.
And so Afghanistan had a long period of peace: a long period of freedom in which people—especially women—experienced a freedom that they hadn’t had. That is something, and it means that those who kept the peace didn’t die in vain.
Sadly, that freedom is gone, and those who, as young people, just started to taste it, must now relinquish it—or leave their country. If it’s true that a nominal number of military volunteers could have kept the peace, well, then maybe we should have stayed in that capacity. But the Afghan government was corrupt, and it’s neither in our power nor our bailiwick to tell Afghanistan how to govern itself.
You are invited to weigh in below. And a comparison with Vietnam is apt, because it’s a different situation, in which American involvement wasn’t needed to allow the kind of freedom that Vietnamese attained. Not only that, but the human toll was much higher. As the Brittanica reports:
Not until 1995 did Vietnam release its official estimate of war dead: as many as 2 million civilians on both sides and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. The U.S. military has estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the war. In 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., inscribed with the names of 57,939 members of U.S. armed forces who had died or were missing as a result of the war. Over the following years, additions to the list have brought the total past 58,200. (At least 100 names on the memorial are those of servicemen who were actually Canadian citizens.) Among other countries that fought for South Vietnam on a smaller scale, South Korea suffered more than 4,000 dead, Thailand about 350, Australia more than 500, and New Zealand some three dozen.
Although I’m a conscientious objector, I can imagine wars in which I’d participate (as a medic). Vietnam was not one of them. I would not go, and would have gone to jail rather than go to Vietnam (or be in a supporting position) had I not received CO status. Those millions of lives, including nearly 60,000 American military, were lost for no good reason.