Did American troops in Afghanistan die in vain?

August 20, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.

57 thoughts on “Did American troops in Afghanistan die in vain?

  1. Seldom are the history’s of war written by the soldiers who fought in them. Generals and politicians write their memoir or other accounts but often you have to read many and make a judgement on them individually. Also seldom is there a good reason for war. Notice all of the so-called wars since the end of WWII have been undeclared war. This is not by accident but instead is by default and pushing the responsibility on to someone else. I can say from my study that every war and conflict since the Korean conflict has been rushed into without thought, without reason and without a plan. This insures that the attempts will fail and they always have. We refused to see the obvious reasons why they fail so we do it again. Any country that keeps such a large standing army will find a reason to use it. That is why Americans, back in the early days refused to allow a standing army. The best advice I will give anyone is to read all you can about our wars and take into account the political nature of war. Politics are very much a part of war and always have been. I remember some who fought in Vietnam liked to say, if the politicians had stayed out of it we would have won. That is a total misunderstanding of war in general. I would also encourage people to read Clausewitz to understand more about the nature and policies of war. To enter a war without fully considering how you are going to fight the war and win, to have the people behind the war and to understand the cost, you are just kidding yourself. If you understand that Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan were not winnable that will be a start.

    1. ‘I can say from my study that every war and conflict since the Korean conflict has been rushed into without thought, without reason and without a plan.”
      I think the First Gulf War was a notable exception. Objective was clear: end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. After that was achieved, Bush Sr -we have to give it to him- decided that that was enough and, although US troops were as far as Najaf, decided to call back the troops: objective achieved, Kuwait freed, and that was that.

      1. Yes you are right about that one. In fact, Bush Sr seemed to know what his son obviously did not. And we paid dearly for that.

      2. I believe that was all in accord with the so-called “Powell Doctrine”, developed by then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell.

        As Secretary of State in 2003, Powell tried to pump the brakes on the invasion of Iraq. Loyal soldier that he was, however, Powell eventually fell in line, and ended up damaging his reputation badly by making his presentation in support of the war to the United Nations — a presentation that sounded convincing at the time, but that was (as later revealed) based on cooked intelligence.

  2. “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.”

    Interestingly, Jonathan Rauch, known best of late as a staunch advocate of free speech, expressed similar sentiments in a piece posted shortly before the fall of Kabul. He wrote:

    “Regardless, consigning Afghanistan to the ‘lost wars’ category is a mistake. Even if withdrawal brings chaos, that does not mean the operation was a failure. Decisive triumphs like victory in the Cold War are grand but rare; more often, liberal countries succeed by muddling through, temporizing, and preventing the worst rather than achieving the best. In Afghanistan, the U.S. did not achieve the best, but a generation-long dividend of security, stability, and decency is something to appreciate and learn from, not something to condemn and dismiss.”

    So, Rauch doesn’t consider the war lost because good things were accomplished during the 20 year conflict. Maybe he’s right, but the opinions of pundits shouldn’t count. What does count is the opinion of the mass of Afghan people. I don’t know what they think. From the American point of view, the argument is that supposedly the occupation prevented another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11th, 2001. But, is this true. Could terrorism been defeated without an occupation? This is a question that will be debated for a long time. Undoubtedly, the failure of the United States to establish a stable, democratic republic in Afghanistan in conjunction with the chaotic ending of the war and the perhaps betrayal of the Afghans that helped us will convince most Americans that the conflict was a tragic mistake. As most events in history, the ramifications and significance of the Afghanistan war will be debated for a long time, probably with no resolution.

    https://www.persuasion.community/p/the-afghanistan-war-was-a-partial

  3. Except for getting rid of al-Queda, this was never going to be successful. What’s missing anymore is Congress authorizing this stuff. They hide behind the President so they can criticize when they don’t like what happens, and take credit when they do. It’s supposed to be one of their constitutional duties.

    When Obama asked for explicit congressional authorization he couldn’t get it but he got heat for leaving Iraq as I recall. Congress wants it both ways and so do the American people.

    By the way, I realize that we didn’t really get rid of al-Queda but we did get the people that counted at the time for what that’s worth.

    1. Yes and no, the main original objective was to destroy Al Qaeda , and prevent the Taliban from supporting those terrorist groups planning that from Afghanistan. The nation-building part was like an afterthought (of course, if it had succeeded it would have achieved this for a long period). The 20 years succeeded in doing that more or less for 20 years. That is an achievement.
      The world is very different now from 20 years ago (eg. information is unstoppable now). I think the Taliban will think twice before engaging in supporting those groups (well, I guess). If so that was also an achievement. So no, they didn’t die completely in vain.(Also note that the US and allied casualties are minimal compared to the Afghan ones).
      Afghanistan is now open to the Chinese, but I think they will not try to tame the Taliban with military intervention. They will ‘colonise’ Afghanistan with all kinds of lucrative ventures. The last thing they want is the Taliban giving support to the Uighurs.

  4. Agree with both a) and b). Combine them with the two decades of comparative westernization the Afghan people got out of it, and I fall on the “not in vain” side.

    On a peacekeeping force: first, I would not have justified it by saying it’s “our job” to stop the Taliban ruling Afghanistan. I would’ve justified it in pure realpolitik self-interest terms. We had the opportunity to emplace an allied western democracy and big permanent military base right between Iran, Pakistan, and next to the Xinjiang area of China. You know, the district we liberals think human rights violations are happening in and want them revealed, monitored, and stopped. That’s frankly a better basing opportunity than Saudi Arabia, and to be brutally honest, the Afghan government would’ve been much more pliable to boot. But second, I’d say that not setting one up isn’t Biden’s fault, and to be fair not Trump’s fault either. Bush should’ve floated the idea. Once he publicly said we were not staying permanently, he set the expectation. Making it far more difficult for any President after him to reverse it.

    1. I have long thought that a permanent large military base in Afghanistan to be a potentially valuable idea. But it gets complicated b/c (a) we already shoulder enormous military expenses to maintain bases in Europe, Japan, South Korea, and of course in the U.S. So building a new one would invite some drawing down elsewhere, and that gets super controversial super fast. The age of doing Big Things seems to have slipped by.
      Then I think there is (b): the Afghan government did not want us there forever. I think that’s right but Im not sure.

      1. I think something like this might have been a good idea, and might even have eventually had good results, but not so much if the US had attempted it alone. I think it would have been much better in many ways if a long term presence had been done via a large coalition under UN authority with lots of other countries contributing significant resources, and the US just one of many. Sort of the biggest ever UN peace keeping mission.

        Unfortunately we (humans) don’t seem to be able to make collaborations like that work very often, many different interests cooperating well enough on long term projects, and the UN has rarely lived up to the promise of the concept.

  5. There must be a huge range of aims and causes for which different people would be willing to die. Insofar as US soldiers in wars like Afghanistan, Irag, and Vietnam tell themselves they’re risking their necks for grand concepts like “freedom” or vague notions about the wellbeing and prosperity of their friends and neighbors, they are definitely delusional. And if they died, their lives were wasted.

    Of course, the desire to serve is still laudable, even if it is misplaced. But casting their final, irrevocable sacrifice as an instrument of liberty or some other cause is dishonest. Recognizing–openly and out loud–when and where soldiers die for nothing seems a necessary first step to preventing more from doing likewise.

  6. I am the same age as Dr. Coyne. I grew up on military bases in the 50’s and 60’s. My father, a Brown University graduate, fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He labeled himself a “3 time loser”. Prior to WWII he was active in the University peace movement that called for staying out of a world war. After Pearl Harbor he enlisted and ended up making a career in the military. However, after his tour in Vietnam, and with me still in High School, he made it obvious to me and two brothers that his pacifist leanings of the late 30’s had been rekindled. His Vietnam experience haunted him until his death in the mid 1990’s. I was able to secure a college deferment until the first lottery, when my birth date earned me a pretty low number. I was heavily involved in the anti war movement, and prayed (faith more than fact was still embedded in my wiring) that I would not get called to fight in that horrible war. My number never was called.

    I am no pacifist, but I have been very much opposed to our policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan. At the same time I do not feel conflicted as I have heartfully supported the troops who serve in these wars that never seem to end.

    About 12 years ago my job as an environmental engineer led to an opportunity to work on the design of an aquaculture project in Vietnam. My travels there, to parts of the south and north, were emotional as I worked with Vietnamese who ranged in ages from their 20’s to 70’s. Most were well educated and seemed genuinely excited about working with “the American members” in our consulting team. I was the oldest person on our team and the only one of age who could have served in that war, and had been apprehensive about visiting this country. I worked side by side with men and women who would have been quite alive during my father’s time in that country. I never experienced anything hostile while working on that project, and found the people there to be exactly the way my father described them when he related his war experiences to me and my brothers.

    When I hear the stories on the news about our Afghan war vets working so hard to help and save Afghani friends and colleagues, it reminds me of the times my father would reach out to Vietnamese who had made it to America, and how emotional he would get when he thought about those that were left behind. I thought often that my father would have loved to know that I had traveled back to some of the same places where he had walked the streets and beaches. I would like to believe that there will be a time in the future where American Vets, or their children might one day be able to work with the people in Afghanistan. But in my gut I fear that the hard religiously wired culture of that region of the world will do its worst to prevent that from happening in the same period of time for the post Vietnam era (less than 30 years).

    1. Your father seems to have been a kind and compassionate man. I wonder if he told you more as to why he considered himself a “3 time loser.” Apparently, he reached this conclusion sometime later in his life since he didn’t have to serve in Korea or Vietnam, I would think. I think that most Americans that served in World War II, despite the many horrors they may have witnessed, viewed this conflict as the “good war.” Did your father ever tell you his views about that war? Perhaps he didn’t want to talk about it. My father served on an aircraft carrier that was torpedoed and kamikazed, but survived to fight another day. What I learned about these incidents was from books, not from him.

      1. I believe you misread the early part of my post. My father did serve in Korea and Vietnam…. three wars in total…. and when he used the term 3 time loser, that was really his attempt at self deprecating humor. I have heard a lot of regular army guys talk like that. His view on the his first two stints in war were that they were justified. He was quite the patriot. He originally felt the same about Vietnam, but had changed his view before his one year tour was completed. He served as an advisor with the 7th Special Forces just prior to the big surge in troops in the mid 60’s.Yet he referred to that war as some of his worst experiences. He was in his early 50’s when he was there. I just have a couple of photos of him with his carbine, but in every one he is the only American surrounded by dozens of South Vietnamese troops. Despite having 5 kids at home, the Army sent him there because they viewed him as an Asian theatre expert, having spent a year fighting in the Pacific (mostly in the Philippines and 6 months in occupied Japan…. as well as a full year in Korea. But the main reason they sent his ass over there was because he spoke fluent French, and so many of the senior officers of the S. Vietnam army were bilingual with French as a second language. The Army often has its head up its ass, In late 1943, they send his butt to the Pacific Theatre of War, when he was fully expecting to be shipped to Europe because he spoke French. Of the few photos of him I have during WWII are of him on deck of military transports out at sea. He claimed that he spent a lot of time on deck because there were so many sea sick troops down below, and that he never got sea sick himself. I must have inherited that trait, because after 50 years of sailing (recreationally) and many trips at sea, I have never gotten sea sick.

        One photo I wish I had was of him in the early 1970’s after he retired from the Army and was working for the Navy Dept. He was at the Newport RI naval station working in his hotel when a large anti war protest marched down the street toward town. There was a contingent of Brown University students carrying banners and he left his hotel to join them in their march. Shortly after that he began supporting Vietnam Vet’s Against the War.

  7. The initial reasons for invading Afghanistan were successful–oust the Taliban who supported bin Laden and al-Qaida. Americans eager to kick some Muslim ass after 9/11 were happy.

    Then mission creep set in and a nation-building exercise that was doomed to failure began. No one learned from what happened to the Russians. The military always said “just give us more time, men, and weapons” despite knowing better (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/).

    The public did not hold Congress or any president accountable for a prolonged war with no clear objective, measurable benchmarks, or exit strategy. So most of our efforts there are a failure.

  8. Anyone who is thinking that someone in the military “died in vain” in Afghanistan would be wise to remember that many more die in training accidents. According to a 2019 congressional report:

    “Since 2006 … a total of 16,652 active-duty personnel and mobilized reservists have died while serving in the US armed forces. Seventy-three percent of these casualties occurred under circumstances unrelated to war,”

    https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/06/politics/us-military-deadly-accidents/index.html

    1. There are a large number of US military members. The vast majority are in support positions in the US or in safe locations overseas. Of those deployed into combat zones, most are still in support positions, and never see combat.
      So sure, those noncombatants are just as subject to auto accidents or falling down a flight of stairs as their civilian counterparts.
      If the newest version of the report referenced by CNN is accurate, over 80% of those who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters died due to hostile action. About 30% of those who did not die due to hostile action committed suicide.
      It is telling that the phrase “circumstances unrelated to war”, quoted by CNN, was omitted from the revised version of that report. Besides the argument that some percentage of the suicides were probably related to war, it is also a fact that military training is always part of war.

      But really, it just seems wrong to compare the two groups. If yours is a fair comparison, than it is just as reasonable to observe that more people died in auto accidents on 9/11 than were incinerated or fell from the towers, the pentagon, or that field in Pennsylvania.

      It would seem logically that a death is a death. I see the argument for that. However, I have witnessed both kinds of death during military operations, and watching someone bleed out after being shot in the head really sticks with you. Accidents are sad, but seem kind of random.

      1. As you say, watching someone bleed out after being shot in the head is horrible but dying in a training accident doesn’t mean dying in one’s sleep and is arguably even more pointless than dying in battle.

        My overall point was that being in the armed forces is a dangerous profession. While I’m not in favor of people dying, it is what they signed up for, statistically speaking. A strong argument can be made for keeping a force in Afghanistan, perhaps thinking of it as an extended training mission, allowing girls to go to school and lead normal lives, and preventing the country from being used by those who would attack the US or its allies.

  9. Seldom are the history’s of war written by the soldiers who fought in them.

    Vietnam gave us some great books by grunts and by junior officers who commanded combat troops in the field — both fiction and non-fiction — Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire, Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story among them. And the first Gulf War gave us Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead.

    I think those books are more informative than, and would rather read them any day of the week over, self-serving crap like Gen. Westmoreland’s memoir A Soldier Reports.

    For the big picture on Vietnam, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie are much better than anything put out by anyone from the Pentagon or elsewhere within the government.

    1. Those last two books were very good on Vietnam. I recall another one written by the inside you might say, On Strategy by Harry Summers. A really good one on the Iraq war was Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks. David Halberstam also wrote a good one on the Korean war.

      1. Yeah, my comment was meant in response to yours at #1. WordPress screws these things up sometimes. Or maybe I do. Probably the latter.

  10. They did not die in vain, for America’s mission was about wellfare for arms contractors, and exploiting Afghanistan’s rare earths. Both of these aims were successful. Americans should stop complaining about “mistakes were made” when in fact, everything went according to plan. It’s just not the kind of plan the public wants to hear. Mission Accomplished, congrats America. Onwards to the next target!

  11. I will always maintain deep respect for members of our military who served in combat, so I don’t at all like disagreeing with this person who I can regard as a hero. It was clearly a situation that was mixed as to whether it was worth staying or leaving. There were salient reasons for staying on, and also for leaving.
    So we have to weigh this matter and try to choose the least terrible of two choices, all while being keenly aware that what we do will still have heavily tragic outcomes, no matter the choice.

    In my opinion, we needed to go. I don’t think its true that we could have remained as an indefinite standing U.S. military presence of “volunteers”. I don’t believe that for a minute. The questions about the rightness of further casualties and expense will only mount, and mourning parents of American soldiers will rightly ask “Is this worth it??” Their opinion should matter too.

    I don’t really see how it could have been done much differently as well, sad to say. We delayed our accelerated exit at the behest of the Afghan government who was concerned of widespread panic. It turns out they were right (!) but if we started a fast exit earlier the panic would have started earlier and last longer. We counted on the Afghan military to not collapse so quickly (that was probably rather predictable, to be honest).

    Maybe we could have held a military presence structured to hold the Taliban thru the winter non-fighting season, but as I understand it a massive pullout of non-cambat people during the winter was not feasible, owing to weather.
    Holding out to the spring (and better weather) only delays the inevitable fiasco of a collapse (and there was no avoiding a rapid collapse), and that would be up against mid-term elections. Sorry, but this is a real calculation that a politician has to make.

  12. I want to try to parse out a difficult and uncomfortable thought I’ve been mulling, and would be interesting to see what the readership thinks. I keep seeing people refer to ‘Afghans’ and ‘The Taliban’ as if they were two distinct groups – but really, isn’t The Taliban made up almost entirely of Afghans? And if so, perhaps we, as a nation, wrongly assess how fondly the average Afghan feels about our 20 year endeavor on our soil. For every Afghan we helped, how many did we kill? If there were a nationwide poll of Afghans, what would they say about our time there? Would the majority view it favorably? I’m skeptical that they would. As well meaning as our attempt at boosting democracy there, we effectively tried to impose it. And you can’t impose democracy.

    So, as I reflect on the human cost of this war, not just our soldiers (so many of whom were so young – I maintain they should raise the age of enlistment to 25), but Afghans on their own soil, and the lives of the returning veterans (like my brother, who spent over a decade in the marines and was deployed multiple times and whose life is seriously fucked up now, excuse my language). For what purpose, and to what end – would have been a question we ought to have considered more carefully.

    1. Seems like reasonable labels to me. As I understand it, the Taliban is a well-defined group. “Afghans” is just shorthand for the non-Taliban regular folk.

      I’m not sure a poll on whether Afghans view the American occupation favorably is all that relevant at this point. It’s a complex question and, therefore, polls can be misleading. I doubt if anyone would like their country occupied by gun-toting foreigners. A more relevant question would be whether they prefer it to being occupied by gun-toting Taliban. I suspect they would but it’s not a question to which most would answer honestly at this point.

      My guess is that the Afghans really liked the modernization of their country that took place in the last twenty years and are justly afraid of losing it to the Taliban. They probably didn’t think much of the Afghan government but still prefer it to the Taliban.

      1. I suspect it is hard for the average Afghan citizen to appreciate Afghanistan’s modernization in the past 20 years with a per capita GDP (2020) hovering close to U$500.

        1. Not sure about that. The prevalence of cell phones, internet access, children going to school, and women running around without their heads covered might give it away.

    1. Jeez, the news may not have reached you all the way out there in right field, but the Soviet Union lost the cold war — though I suppose you consider the US Democratic Party a front organization for the International Red Menace, huh?

  13. I hate to tell you this but the reason the draft we had once, was for 18 years of age is because, if you wait until they are 25, you will get very few. And they will not take orders well at that age. People like your brother probably had it much worse than draftees back in Vietnam. The draftee only did one year in Vietnam and they were out if they lived through it. But in Afghanistan many soldiers went multiple times to the front. That was really wrong and very damaging. That is what happens when you no longer have a draft.

    1. You are right about the age – and I suppose that would be in my mind a positive thing, for wars are a terrible thing. Fewer would be better. But, your point about the draft spreading out the potential damage is taken. I think I would be in favor of compulsary civic service/military service for all, whether it be for the forestry department, for cities or counties, etc.

    2. I would expect too that the draft of younger people stems from olde days where late teens were considered men. Yes, this ‘voluntary’ US military force has been effectively conscripted into fighting in decades long conflicts over multiple tours. As a group they are getting pretty well exhausted and irreversibly traumatized.
      What is especially troubling is how we have drawn into the ranks of normally non-combatant servicemen, including our National Guard, who (I thought) were intended to be used over here. But instead of maybe heroically helping a family escape their flooded home in Arkansas, like all the recruitment commercials show, they find themselves on their 4th deployment in the backroads of Iraq, rolling down a road in a HumVee and wondering where the IUDs might be hidden.

      1. Okay, this is a serious topic that I don’t want to detract from… But:

        wondering where the IUDs might be hidden.

        This is an amusing typo. That is all. Especially since our home grown, would-be theocrats would have to do just that to carry out their agenda.

  14. Do we know what the mission was? Was a lull of freedom a side effect in the main mission? How long could the US have sustained a presence in Afghanistan?

    One of the problems with nation building is that nations will only succeed if they build themselves. Our military were in another people’s homeland, not our own, and unless we are willing to make Afghanistan a territory, we needed to bring our military home.

    Now, could the State Department have done a better job of arranging for refugees and collaborators to be safely moved from Afghanistan before pulling out? Absolutely. That’s where we failed.

    One thing that may come out of this is a revoluton or Civil War in Afghanistan that is initiated and fought by Afghanis. Many more people are going to be killed in Afghanistan, that’s the only thing certain. I don’t think that the Taliban will be able to maintain strict control over the people for long.

  15. The initial American invasion of Afghanistan was entirely successful: it chased Al Qaeda out (and even eventually caught up with Bin Laden), and also helped the Northern Alliance drive out the Taliban, which had been Al Qaeda’s host and sponsor. After a couple of years of consolidation, a new order in Afghanistan included a new constitution (2004), a presidential election that same year, and parliamentary elections in 2005.
    But the new government did not have sufficient military force to maintain security against the renewed terrorism of the ousted Taliban. So, this task was left perforce to the American and NATO expeditionary forces. Should these forces have abandoned Afghanistan then? In fact, the US and NATO role in sponsoring a relatively liberal (albeit seriously corrupt) political system in Afghanistan left them with a responsibility to safeguard the new system that was difficult to evade: bugging out of Afghanistan in 2005 would have been a disgraceful betrayal. It is not easy to pick a year in which
    bugging out would not appear disgraceful.

    So, blaming the 20-year US military campaign in Afghanistan on George W. Bush’s “mission creep” is tempting, but it is too simple. Rather, the long US military presence in Afghanistan reflects the inescapable Pottery Barn Rule. Ignoring that rule—both the Trump government’s negotiated surrender, and the Biden government’s continuation of the same—never looks good.

  16. Coyne’s last paragraph in this post is the critical one for me. What would one die for, indeed? The vast majority of people in advanced, liberal Western democracies would not risk their lives for anything, I’d say. That’s “risk,” not sacrifice per se. I can’t prove this but just look around – the volunteer armies of the world largely are an employment opportunity for the enlisted men and women, but the officer corps are pretty good, at least until these higher level volunteers become disenchanted with the incompetence above them in the chain of command. Coyne was a CO, which was not easy to get during the Vietnam War, so he must have been authentic. Virtually none of my peers as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago during the Vietnam War went into military service; almost no legislators who came of age during Vietnam ever served, yet now they lead (though they are dying out). I was a VISTA Volunteer, then taught in inner-city Chicago schools, both of which qualified me for a 2-A deferment (or was it written II-A). Most fellow students I knew just got medical deferments, or didn’t talk, but they didn’t go. I remember one fellow’s quote – “Only suckers let themselves get drafted.” Think about that one. The anti-war protests overwhelmingly moved from elite colleges, once everyone figured out how to beat the draft, to lower grade colleges such as Kent State or Southern Illinois when those young men figured out they were being screwed both by Johnson and Nixon on the one hand, and by the anti-war movement itself. The abiding tragedy, of course, is the lives lost and ruined by failed policies. We can blame Kennedy and Johnson and McNamara and the Bundy brothers and Nixon for Vietnam easily enough, but the North Vietnamese had other, diplomatic and political avenues to accommodation and/or victory that they eschewed, and they sacrificed more than 600,000 of their own young men as soldiers and guerrillas. Leaders decide, young men die. It is disgusting.

    1. As long as you’re spreading that Viet-blame around, Abe, may as well take it all the way back to Ike — who called off the 1956 North-South unification election agreed to in the 1954 Geneva Accords, because he knew Ho would’ve beaten Diem like a redheaded stepchild — and his guys the Dulles brothers, too.

  17. The folly of Afghanistan is analogous to the folly of Vietnam. I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam Conflict. I served as an infantry platoon leader with the 25th Infantry Division in 1966. I was wounded in combat. We were stationed in Cu Chi, Republic of Vietnam. Twenty miles from the Cambodian border and about the same distance from Saigon. We were stationed there to prevent a National Liberation Front takeover of Saigon. What brought us there? A string of decisions by Presidents from Truman to Johnson. The Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh were our allies during WW2. At the end of the war, the French returned. These were the same French politicians that served in the Petain (Vichy) Administration that were allied with Hitler. They wanted to rebuild the French Empire. Truman helped them. After their defeat in Dien Bien Phu, the Americans under Dulles took over. The story is long and can be shortened to one word – imperialism. The USA is an empire. We have the largest air force, navy and military bases around the world. This empire has a companion and it is called militarism with a secular religion called patriotism. Most Americans do not want to accept this, but it is true. May I recommend an excellent history book? I helped write it.
    The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Marilyn B. Young, John J. Fitzgerald and A. Tom Grunfeld. (175 pages)

    Yours truly,

    John J. Fitzgerald

    1. Thanks for the analysis, for the book recommendation, and for your service, GI.

      Củ Chi — home to the Viet Cong’s most elaborate tunnel system, if I’m not mistaken.

      1. Hello Ken,
        You are correct about the elaborate tunnel system. It was constructed by the Viet Minh and used to combat the French from 1945 to 1954. And then by the NLF. French Colonialism was also mixed up with Roman Catholicism. The Colonizers spoke French and practiced Roman Catholicism The Vietnamese who got on the French gravy train joined the Catholic church and spoke French. 80% of the French war effort was paid by the USA.

        Diem and his family are a good example of this. Diem had a brother who was hoping to be the first Roman Catholic Cardinal from Vietnam. Back in the USA a number of upper income Catholics were supporting the Friends of Vietnam. Among them were Sen. John F. Kennedy, Sen. Mike Mansfield, Henry Luce and Notre Dame and Michigan State University. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Dulles brothers and Richard Nixon were all part of the campaign. This is an example of religion distorting American foreign policy.

        Onward!

        John

        1. As I understand it, it was the French Catholics’ brutal crackdown on Buddhists (and, to a lesser extent, on the practitioners of the syncretic Cao Dai religion) — pushed in large measure by Diem’s brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, and sister-in-law, Madame Nhu — that eventually led to the erosion of support for Diem and, indirectly, to the 1963 coup that deposed them.

          1. Ken, You are correct. That was a factor. Diem no longer controlled the country folk. He did nothing for them. All of his support was in the cities and then it was the people on the gravy train of US financial support to Diem and the huge money amounts to the ARVN military folks. We never had the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. They admired Ho Chi Minh.

  18. Yes, they died in vain. Not all. While the Iraq excursion was highly debatable as necessary, I think we did have to go into Afghanistan and dismantle the terrorist training camps and kill members of al-Qaeda. After Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, we should have left then.

    Many here claim that it is tragic that after so much war and loss of life and treasure that the poor women of Afghanistan will have to live under the brutal fist of the theocratic Taliban and lose their basic human rights that they’ve come to appreciate and enjoy. While all that is true, there is an antidote – that the men of Afghanistan step up and fight to preserve those rights. It is their freedoms that are in jeopardy after all. I know many did and died trying. But why should Americans remain in a failed state, losing our sons? What is the point of fighting for their rights if they roll over so quickly and get swept by the Taliban? Maybe the Afghanis don’t value their newly gained rights enough to fight for them and thus don’t deserve them. The gift we bought and paid for (and they paid dearly for too) has been returned it seems.

    Here’s how to know if they died in vain – what if your son or daughter was killed in Afghanistan? Would you now think it was worth it? After 20 years? WW2 was a just war. Vietnam was a tragedy and a painful lesson in American foreign policy hubris that democracy cannot be exported to remote parts of the world at gunpoint. Afghanistan is a repeat of that mistake from US leaders who themselves lived through the Vietnam era and didn’t learn from it and I find it disgraceful.

  19. If they died in vain, then it’s on the US military command not having a clear picture of what they were supposed to do in Afghanistan. As Biden remarked this week, the Afghanistan mission was not about nation building as it was about preventing terrorism. Setting up a thriving democracy wasn’t really on the cards.

    What was the goal of the war? Honestly, I thought it was to get revenge on the people who perpetrated 9/11. Getting rid of a brutal regime and “freeing” the Afghan population were post hoc justifications in the years between the invasion and the eventual killing of Bin Laden. (And those post hoc justifications led to the Iraq war).

    There are plenty of brutal regimes in the world with people living under opposed conditions. Afghanistan was temporarily displaced from that, but it’s hard to pretend now that the US’s goal was to make Afghanistan a nation free from tyranny.

    1. Agree with your last point. I cannot excuse Biden’s lame excuse though. The mission of the war, its stated political objective, comes from the president even though it’s supposed to be endorsed by Congress. The military tries to formulate a strategy to deliver that political outcome. A 20 year war was about preventing terrorism? After we killed Bin Laden, the US could’ve just pulled out and continued to drone strike the Taliban indiscriminately to keep them off-balance and destabilized which is what Obama did. Why ten more years of occupation then? Why not ten more years now? While Biden is doing the right thing now by pulling us out, he’s overtly contracting his past justifications for why we were there as Obama’s VP and he has failed to say if the terrorist threat posed by the Taliban to the US has been neutralized or remains. So I can’t fault the military really, there was no victory to be had. Terrorism can last indefinitely and enemies will always outlast you in their own country which is the history of Afghanistan.

      1. My take on it all is that once Afghanistan was taken, withdrawal would always look like a weakness on the part of America. What we’re seeing now would have happened whenever a withdrawal would happen, complete with the narrative that it would have cost lives and undermined the objectives of the mission.

        Maybe there were some people who had the fool’s hope that Afghanistan would have matured into a nation on its own given enough time. Maybe there were concerned about the US intervening too much being seen as nation building (i.e. Western imperialism). I would love for the generals and officials who oversaw the deployments to write their account of what the American mission was supposed to achieve.

        In any case (I can’t believe I’m saying this) some credit needs to be given to Trump for doing what no sane president would have done and pushed for withdrawal, and how smart as a decision it was to put that date after the US election so that it could potentially be someone else’s problem. It’s certainly no move any seasoned politician would have done, or any politician who cared about the fallout would have done.

  20. The fact that Afghan National Army troops gave up so quickly strongly suggests that they did not view the government as worth fighting for. There were approximately 80,000 Taliban fighters and 300,000 Afghan National troops. Anatol Lieven has a pretty good analysis at Politico, although he neglects the point I just made.

    So I don’t see any way this could have ended otherwise. In the process of US/NATO invasion and occupation, about 60,000 Afghan police and soldiers, and 70,000 civilians, were killed in the war. Was that worth it for the additional freedoms they gained in the meantime, or to avoid the casualties that continued warfare between Northern Alliance vs Taliban would have inflicted? I don’t know, I’m not an Afghan. And nobody seems to be listening to Afghans. For example, in 2012 President Hamid Karzai called for the American forces to confine themselves to bases, as if Afghanistan was his country to govern, or something. He was roundly ignored.

  21. I’ve been completely dead on this issue. I have a number of veteran friends who fought, tour after tour. My airforce friends have a different take and experience than my friend who was in the special forces. This 20 years war was a debacle from the start, and to steal from Churchill, it was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” And unlike those pre & post WWII years, today’s “war efforts” are solely about MONEY. They did well in that department. Stock market never seemed to suffer much in the last 20 years, eh?

  22. There isn’t a conflict since WW2 that I’d take part in. I’d have gone for the Big One, but fighting communism or the 21st century’s insane wars (Republican + donors + “defense” contractors) of choice in the Middle East: no way.
    I was against both of them, and also the next one(s) when Halliburton gets another prez to do its bidding.
    D.A.
    NYC

  23. “Died in vain” is probably the wrong term to use. Soldiers are rarely motivated by the same strategic interests that the leadership is. In Afghanistan, we were very much aware of our mission against Al-Qaeda as a response to 9/11. Gulf War 2, we all thought it was a terrible idea. But our feelings about the larger causes were not relevant.
    You go because that is where you were sent, and you try to complete the specific mission you were assigned. When a soldier makes a decision to break cover or to transit an area known to be dangerous, they are generally doing it to protect someone in their platoon or company. Or to evacuate wounded troops or civilians. Sometimes you go because if you don’t someone else will have to do it.
    You can look at MOH citations, and they are almost always given to a person who put themselves at great risk or even certain death, to save someone else.

    Their sentiment could be- “It sucked that we were there, but I am glad I was there to protect my buddies”

    The war itself was a mess because the objectives kept changing, and seemed to be based on unrealistic assessments of the situation. Additionally, micromanagement from those who lead from the rear and absurd ROEs led to stagnation and eventual retreat. Those same issues turned Somalia into a disaster, but at least in Afghanistan victory in the initial mission was well within our capabilities, had we been allowed to do so.

  24. In the middle of the chaos I saw a group of Afghan women holding up placards asking for their freedom. I wonder what’s happened to them?
    It’s less the rights and wrongs of leaving Afghanistan but the inept way the withdrawal was handled that should shame Biden (but doesn’t) and his administration (but doesn’t).

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