Twenty years ago, on a fateful day that would come to be known as 9/11, terrorists from Al-Qaeda boarded planes and piloted them into American buildings, felling two of the greatest creations in America. They would take the lives of 2,977 innocent victims, topping even the Japanese, who had killed 2,335 in their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier in 1941.
Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, killed more innocent people with box cutters, knives, and four commercial aircraft than the Japanese had with a coordinated attack of 353 planes and five submarines.
But like the Japanese before them, al-Qaeda had gone too far.
As the smoldering heaps darkened the sky over New York, a country united in spirit and grief.
The response would initially be directed toward an under-developed, war-torn country listed on the maps as Afghanistan. The Taliban, a religious order that ruled most of Afghanistan, refused to give up the leader of Al-Qaeda. So America added the Taliban to its list of foes that would feel the harsh wrath of an angry, wounded country.
And in this fight on foreign lands, America brought its richest resource: it brought an ample abundance of optimism and can-do spirit. Something that has fed and fueled America’s expansion since settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia, more than 400 years ago in 1607.
Despite the fact that Afghanistan’s massive size rivals that of Texas. Despite the fact that its literacy rate hovers at 20 percent. (Most countries average above 80-plus percent.) And despite the fact that the country had endured twenty years of war prior to 9/11, America believed it could destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as create a democracy in one of the poorest, most uneducated countries in the world.
Sadly, America did not rally its full effort for this task, sending less than 1 percent of its population to attempt the impossible. Worse, it mostly ignored the fate of these men and women, quickly losing interest in this grand enterprise, caring more about the Sopranos, Lost, the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and a dozen other TV shows and movies that dropped the past twenty years.
To this day, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name even three Afghan cities, to say nothing of the many historic battles, hills, and valleys where we spilled the blood of our people.
The brutal truth is that we sent our professional Roman Legions to a far-flung land to defend us while we laughed and loved and dined on grapes and wine in the shade here at home.
And even in this GREAT unjustness, our U.S. service members never faltered in their duty. They never complained. They never refused orders. Instead, they threw themselves into the task with the vigor and participation that should rival all wars in history.
Of the 800,000 that served in the country known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” almost 30,000 volunteered for more than five tours there. (That number would probably be far higher, but many also served tours in Iraq.)
Twenty-three hundred would die in this harsh land of hills, snow-capped mountains, and sun-baked desert in the south (Helmand). It was actually in the scorching oven of Helmand, where temperatures often topped 120 degrees, that more than four hundred British or American soldiers would be killed; more casualties than any other province.
Even Americans who survived without physical wounds returned to America having surrendered years of their lives, thousands of marriages, and their own mental stability.
To this day, most Americans remain blind to this offering and contribution by so many. It is an act that borders upon a crime.
Sadly (incredibly even), suicides among military personnel are 4x higher than deaths from operations, with more than 30,000 service members paying the ultimate price after returning home safely from our two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They have laid down their lives, no differently than their brethren and sistren who bled out in the retched poppy fields and maze-like mud compounds of the old world.
The footnotes are ugly; as gruesome as the IEDs favored by the enemy. Let us not dwell on these.
The headlines are prettier:
Osama bin Laden is dead.
Al-Qaeda has been dismembered.
America has been rendered safe.
And Afghanistan is now a mostly functioning democracy, in the fight of its life against a resurgent Taliban.
In a country that whipped men who shaved, forced women to remain covered, and executed offenders in a soccer stadium for amusement, America did the near impossible.
We deployed our military more than eight timezones away to a land 7,000 miles distant, and in this unknown land, we chased our foes into the hills with near-reckless courage. Sometimes, even on horseback.
We created a young democracy that Afghanistan can preserve, if it does not wilt in its fight.
In that barren, desolute country, we created a miracle. We created a democracy. It’s true that it’s one that sputters and needs fine-tuning, but it is a democracy nonetheless.
A place where women can be treated as equals and rise to the highest levers of power. (A place where they already have, in fact. More than 20 percent of parliament are women. Females have even served as ambassadors, in a region where twenty years ago they were property; not even allowed to leave their homes without a male escort.)
It’s impossible to know what the fate of Afghanistan will become. But let’s never forget what our courageous and brave American fighting men and women achieved there. (With the help of Allies, of course, but let us never forget who bore the brunt. And who bore the grievous wound that started it all.)
America did not lose Afghanistan. Never believe those words, no matter who speaks them.
America built Afghanistan. And we did it in the span of 20 years.
Let us never forget this great accomplishment, despite what might happen in the years to come.
If you are a veteran who served in Afghanistan, thank you for your service. Your experience has not helped Afghanistan, it’s also inspired young boys and girls in America who will read of what you’ve done, of your countless selfless acts, and they will decide to enlist someday. (I followed this same track, having read of veterans who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam; they inspired me to enlist.)
My veterans of Afghanistan, I beg you to be proud of what you achieved and do NOT view our withdrawal as a defeat. As something that was a failure.
Seek help when the monsters in your head are raging. Take it one day at a time. One hour, even.
Do not strip our country, nor your family, of your greatness.
Be proud of your work because it is something that will forever be remarkable.
I hope you enjoyed this post.
Part of it comes from the foreword and words in Hill 406.
That’s it for this post. Please share if you enjoyed it.
Stan R. Mitchell
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