Since 2010, writing on this blog has been a bit… curtailed. No one has censored me, although I have refrained from posting, at times, because what I had to say may cause a negative reaction from chains of command which I fell under at those points. Sometimes, it’s better to wait to say what is the truth as one sees it until those who would retaliate are out of range.
What I had to say would not have changed what was happening. I’ve got several draft posts that I never hit the “post” button on. Some were written shortly after arriving in Afghanistan on my last tour in 2012. Since returning, I’ve felt that what I see and what I’ve got to say is so unfashionable as to be viewed as ridiculous. Spitting into the wind. Swimming against a current that is impossible to overcome. The feeling has been beyond frustration, and I’ve opted to remain silent and be thought an idiot rather than speak and remove all doubt. I pretty much gave up what began to feel was a hopeless cause, a message that could find no ears… save those that would wish to quash that message while they could.
As a person who has invested a lot of time and energy into Afghanistan, and who has returned three times to the sudden shock of re-immersion in the sea of American attitudes, my experience has been a little… disheartening. My first tour ended with a return to a society that was disengaged from what my fellow Soldiers and I had spent a year of our lives doing. For some of us, it was, “whatever.” Some just want to put the experience behind them and move on. I understand that. I’ve experienced feelings like that myself. More than that, I felt that people needed to know, to understand, what the purpose of it all was, what it was like, and… apparently… why Afghanistan and its people deserved such attention. And so, Quixotically, I wrote.
The part about deserving the exertions put forth was a surprise to me. “Deserve” never occurred to me. To me, it was clear that the fates of what have come to be called “fragile states” are directly tied to both our national interests and our national security. That is not so clear in the minds of many here at home. Many would argue with my assertion even today. Even as ISIS, ISIL, IS… or whatever they are eventually to be called by history… creates havoc and ripples throughout the middle east, we question whether or not these events even concern us. To this observer/participant, it became clear to me even on my first tour that they do concern us. It also became clear… largely because I was in the middle of a perfect example of the results of our ignoring this fact… that the costs of kidding ourselves into thinking that they do not matter accrue over time. Things, in short, get worse and the costs to us increase.
Meanwhile, we ask ourselves if the indigenous beneficiaries of our efforts “deserve” such efforts. All the while, the truth does not change; we aren’t doing it for them, we are doing this for us. Just because the indigenous benefit from it does not make them the sole beneficiary. In the end, we do these things because they are in our own long-term best interests.
Afghanistan taught me that that what happens in the dark little backwaters of the world sends ripples that reach us here. Whether it is something obvious, like the cost of oil, or something less tangible or seemingly less menacing, those ripples reach our shores. What appears to be a humanitarian issue may someday result in something of more obvious concern. Did the Taliban plan the attacks of September 11th? Clearly not. But the conditions in that dark little backwater were such that haven and cooperation was available to those who did. Afghanistan is remote. So is Somalia. Yemen. Syria. Northwest Iraq. These are places where ungoverned spaces and generational turmoil make the conditions ideal for violent ideologues to plan, organize, recruit and launch. 9/11 is a tired cliche, and so we wait for the next, more convincing example of the truth.
Afghanistan taught me that we live in a community, and that the world is a pretty small place that is only getting smaller. Some may deny this. Some may rue this development and long for the perception of isolation to be a fact. I made it from the good old United States all the way to Afghanistan in less than a day. I have looked down and seen New York and London pass beneath the aircraft in the matter of a few hours on the same flight. I have watched Turkmenistan become the Aral Sea, then the steppes of Georgia followed by the Black Sea all in the matter of a very few hours. I saw the Faroe Islands from 42,000 feet. I could see most of these remote islands, home to a small community living in a place few ever visit. Mere hours later, in less time than it takes to complete a work day, I was seeing the east coast of the United States with its millions of people. I’ve flown over Iran, looking at the lights of cities in a country that would not have been kind to me, an American Soldier, had I been just a few miles closer to sea level. Less than a day earlier, I had been a part of the bustle in Hartsfield International Airport, reading signs that led me to the opening gate of that same journey.
Anyone who has traveled internationally has seen such sights, although it seems that many just want to sleep through their flights. I considered, as I looked down on these parts of the earth, the millions of lives that were being led as I was carried past high above. Every aspect of the human experience was being had in each tableau as I made my way to and from where my work was being done. Down below, some were having the best day of their lives. Others were having the worst. Lives were beginning and ending. Loves were loved. Arguments were had. Business both small and large was conducted. People listened to the radio, read the paper, went to school, laughed, cried and slept. All of the things that people do were done as I rocketed past. And, really, it was all very small geographically. We are just smaller.
What we do, especially as groups, spans that distance. Sometimes that spanning happens faster than any aircraft I’ve ever flown on. ISIL, having ennobled itself by declaring statehood, murders a journalist and when it releases the video the impact on our experience arrives before any jet that left the Middle East bound for the United States. That is a rather obvious example, but the actions of people affect the complex system of humanity in which they exist. From the micro to the macro level. This is particularly true of people acting in groups for whatever reason, be it for business or politics.
Saying that what happens around the world doesn’t matter to us is like saying that what happens in South Central L.A. doesn’t have any impact on other neighborhoods in the city; the larger community. I think that we’ve seen that what happens in one section of a city does affect the other parts of the community. What happens in Louisiana does affect what happens in Ohio. Sometimes it’s a little. Sometimes it’s a lot. But we are all intertwined in a complex web of interactions and relationships that span not only our local communities but also the larger community across the globe. This is something that my experiences in Afghanistan drove home for me. Experience is sometimes the hardest teacher… but is often the most irrefutable.
My silence does not mean that I’ve stopped thinking. In fact, I’ve been thinking quite a bit… but feeling as if either I was waaaay out of step, or that I was just very alone in my thinking. I’ve said much of what is said in this article, and in fact I’m jealous that I didn’t write it. Of course, if I had, it wouldn’t have the impact. But you can’t imagine my excitement at reading such thoughts coming from experienced, “been there, done that,” professionals.
Perhaps, I’m not as alone as I have felt.