The Helmand Province I remember is one of dust storms and heat, danger and heroism, and–in the end–wasted effort. Only a few weeks ago, we acknowledged that loss by fully withdrawing from a province we barely understood and never controlled. This has been weighing on my mind considerably, especially during the build up to Veterans’ Day–a holiday that was created to celebrate the end of war, but now serves as our collective reminder of all things military. Does this one day purify our larger guilt to an all-volunteer force–a move that has largely separated politics from war? Should a day that was a reminder of how close we came to losing it all (there is a reason it is the eleventh day of the eleventh month) include only the military and not the society for which they fight? Does our ability to compartmentalize the military absolve us from political decisions about the use of that force?
In answer to that last question–it certainly seems so. One general lost his job for the botch-up that was Afghanistan, and not for his failure to effectively prosecute his orders, but because he let a commando team of Taliban storm the largest base in Helmand. So far, no one else has been held accountable for our debacle in Afghanistan. Our media, punditry, think tank, and politicians’ deference to the military does a disservice to our veterans. We listen to our generals and refuse to question their assertions–we can win with airstrikes, we need a few more troops, we’ve created more green space, and so on. Our civilian leadership is culpable for not telling truth to lie, yet the entire civilian budget for the ISAF mission amounted to less than a tenth of military spending. Even if they hadn’t been preoccupied with their next posting or how to move up the ladder of their agency, State and AID would simply have been the poor china shop owner as the bull smashed the inventory. We are currently engaged in Iraq III, with many of the same leaders whose record would get them relieved in any professional sport, and yet, the failsafes of our democracy seem to be silent. We accept that more troops are needed to fight ISIS because our leaders have said so. What defense of American freedom was underway in year eleven of the Afghan war? Does ISIS threaten my lifestyle more than renewed attacks on civil liberties from those empowered to protect those self-same rights?
I love our service, and I love the men and women I served with in Helmand. The loss of Helmand province does not mean that our brothers and sisters died in vain–many have pointed out you don’t sacrifice yourself for the politics, but for the man or woman next to you. But a glorification of militarization is frightening–it means we stop questioning whether we should send those men and women into harm’s way. It stops us from asking simple questions–what is the end game? What are our goals? What are the possible outcomes? Is this worth the effort? In the name of security, we begin to rationalize our hammer of military presence in other nations–a presence that supercedes all other efforts–and see all problems as nails.
We cannot trust generals simply because they are in charge. We cannot believe pundits and journalists who have been in Kabul or Baghdad and believe this is “ground-level” expertise. We cannot continue to elect politicians who believe in exigency opposed to comprehensive and lasting solutions. We must be an engaged body-politic that thoughtfully deploys its resources and forces for greater outcomes than simply quenching the fire of the day.
We must honor our veterans by utilizing the society they defend. We must force our leaders to answer hard questions, again and again. We must support honest discourse, not simply rely on pithy slogans and shows of produced patriotism. This Veterans’ Day comes on the heels of one of the lowest voter-output elections in history–that is not the America that honors its service nor its society. We can change this–we can honor veterans through more than simple war movie marathons and the occasional stand-and-applaud at our stadiums, but it takes effort. I believe we are capable of this effort–and for that, thank a vet.