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<< 3. PTSD (poem)5. Afghanistan: Who's Responsible? >>


By Bill Shunas

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Some thoughts about the Afghanistan War and the Taliban takeover.

Concerning the 2,500 dead American military personnel. Concerning the very seriously wounded. Concerning those who weren't wounded until they came home where they were introduced to the ghosts of PTSD. These things are what some commentators use to put across their viewpoint that the troops signed up for a noble cause, for which they should be honored. And that honor should be in the form of kicking ass in the War on Terrorism. They say this makes it honorable to take vengeance against the perpetrators of 9/11 and the new generation of such people. Therefore we are not to look at the invasion of Afghanistan as anything other than noble. Anything else is disrespectful to the troops.

The problem is that there is a disconnect. Just because many thought the war was a good thing doesn't mean it had to be carried on indefinitely. Just because troops signed up for a noble cause doesn't mean it had to be continued. Just because civilians thought that the troops must be supported didn't mean that ending the war was wrong. Fighting meant something to the troops. That was sincere. However, policymakers used the sincerity and sacrifice of the troops to justify an endless war. The troops were honorable. The politicians who sent them were not.

There was another disconnect twenty years ago which enabled the Bush government to get us into this mess. That's when al Qaeda was in Afghanistan after 9/11. Bush sent some troops after them, but it wasn't enough. Soon the enemy was gone as Bush turned his attention to Iraq while al Qaeda dispersed into Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East and Europe. The narrative in Afghanistan had changed to fighting the Taliban who were mainly interested in conducting terror at home, not exporting it. So you can't claim that the American military who sacrificed in Afghanistan (and Iraq) did so to bring down the perpetrators of 9/11. Those terrorists weren't there (or in Iraq).

And that is hard to take. The sacrifices deserve respect. Yes. Those who served there are worthy. You don't have to pretend that the cause was noble to justify respect. And worse. You don't need to put the troops in harm's way to justify a bad policy.

For many, it was a shock to watch the withdrawal from Afghanistan play out on television and social media. It reminded us of Vietnam. In one situation you had desperate Vietnamese clinging to the skids of departing choppers. Then you had desperate Afghans putting their bodies in front of a massive C-17 or hanging on the wings of the departing aircraft. The Afghan withdrawal took a turn for the worse when the suicide bomber killed our marines and many Afghan civilians This made it seem worse than Vietnam. And there are the civilians who should have got out and didn't.

In the beginning, there was sympathy for the idea that we were responsible for the Afghans who had worked with us in various capacities. Over time this has been the situation in most wars. Our army leaves and abandons our friends. It happens in colonial wars and imperial wars. It happens when a powerful force is in town to fight a war against terrorism or whatever you want to call it that day. If that army stays long enough there will be friends and allies in the population that get left behind, presumably to face something dire. In the Afghan debacle, the Taliban were thought to be perpetrators of the direst kind. Hence the outpouring of sentiment.

So we leave behind civilians. We have fought several unjust wars in other countries. Whether the wars we fight be just or unjust our civilian friends were abandoned, sometimes to imprisonment or execution. Of course no tears for the likes of Thieu or Ky or Karnak or Ghani. This kind always seems to get away. C ivilian victims have stories that are heart-wrenching. But that always happens. War is hell. That's a cliche that can be misused to avoid responsibility or evoke empathy or simplify a complex issue. I don't know exactly what hell is, but maybe this is what we need to say to describe the many images of war. War is hell, and part of that hell is what happens to civilians who chose the wrong side or who lived in the wrong place.

One aspect of wars is that they are much easier to get into than to get out of. Afghanistan was slightly different in that it was bait and switch. We started by warring against those who pulled off the 9/11 attack. Easy. Then they left the country and left us with a face-off against the Taliban. Then getting out twenty years later indicated how hard it was to get out. If and when there is a break between wars it seems easier to make war because it is an easy solution. There is a need for more vigilance and more skepticism. Anything less is disrespectful to our men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Refresh my memory. The Vietnam Syndrome? Back when they talked about the Vietnam Syndrome it always confused me. From what I can gather (Wikipedia) it was a term referring to the fighting of American wars after there was so much domestic opposition to involvement in Vietnam. It also raised the question of whether we were able to win any wars. The first president who was confronted by the Vietnam Syndrome was Ronald Reagan. To prove himself, he invaded and won a war with Grenada. We had about eleven hundred and eighty-seven times the firepower of Grenada (not counting nukes), but at least we won that war. Showed them. Then George H.W. Bush took on Iraq in the first Gulf War. A little tougher than Grenada, but doable. And Bush was able to brag about laying the ghosts of Vietnam to rest, pointing the way for future wars. And Junior listened to dad. But something happened along the way. There was the Iraq War which hasn't totally been sorted out yet. And twenty years in Afghanistan? So the Vietnam Syndrome? Maybe some of those ghosts returned. It's not so simple. The getting in part was simple. The getting out part, not so much.

Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author, and long-time VVAW member.

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