Withdrawal or defeat? Armchair quarterbacks and history books will debate the question for decades to come. For the majority of Americans watching the debacle of Afghanistan, this question is merely a matter of national pride and not an existential question intruding into their private lives. Unfortunately, for the small minority of Americans who chose to fight, they are now forced to ask themselves if twenty years of continual combat was worth the cost to themselves, their families, and the nation.
For most Americans, the reality of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was a burden left for others to shoulder. Politicians who had no familiarity with the military, nor had sons or daughters serving in the military decided quickly, and maybe even fecklessly, upon military engagement. At the same time, there was no national appeal to America’s youth to fight and serve. From the very beginning of both wars, there was a pervasive attitude that this fight belonged to someone else. Certainly, it was not a matter of personal responsibility, nor for one’s own family members to take part.
There were no calls for victory gardens, war bonds, or even the smallest of sacrifices to acknowledge, much less contribute, to a national war effort. Instead, woke politics and shopping were the order of the day. “Thank you for your service” rang hollow while college applications, sports scholarships, SAT prep kept most parents from encouraging their children even to consider military service.
Since 2001, almost 3 million members of the military have served in post-9/11 war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 7000 United States troops, and sadly, now 13 more, have died in the past 20 years fighting in the wars against terrorism. Many of our European allies also suffered significant losses. Even more tragic is the number of returning troops who have committed suicide. The psychological wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have proved deadlier than actual combat. Four times as many than died in combat have died by the taking of their own lives. Over 30,177 service members and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have committed suicide.
This war was a family affair. Many military members served multiple deployments with more time spent away than at home during the past two decades. The cycle of deployments, returning home and preparing for the next deployment never stopped. Family members intimately bore the costs of war as spouses, parents, children, and friends had to cope with absence and – more often than not – had to adapt to the changed person who returned from the battlefield.
Since the beginning of the brutal and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, spouses of soldiers have been posting photographs of the welcome home ceremonies they attended, over multiple years, for their loved one. Photographs of two, three, or four ceremonies, with children chronologically aging according to the year, bear witness to the true personal cost military families paid for this war.
Reports that Afghans were not willing to fight are simply false. Afghan soldiers died at 27 times the rate of U.S. and allied soldiers. For the past ten days, American officers have fielded phone calls, texts, and Facebook messages from Afghan counterparts and interpreters pleading for help. Old wounds have reopened since most are powerless to provide the aid needed by their loyal colleagues to flee the Taliban
War and conflict are as old as mankind; so is defeat. But defeat does not mean defeated. The Old and New Testaments and the lives of the saints are full of examples of loss and renewal. Moses found hope in 40 years of wandering through the desert, without the reward of entering the Promised Land. St. Paul ultimately found victory in chains. He knew that the real victory only comes by rejoicing in hope, being patient during tribulations, and remaining constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12) Saints and sinners throughout the ages have willfully chosen to rise from defeat by turning a painful past into a hopeful future through faith and service to something greater than themselves.
Ironically, our renewal as a nation, church, or community of believers may come from an example of service being set even now, in the shadow of hardship and loss, by our U.S. military community. Service members and their families, a people without extraordinary financial means or material resources, who have been most affected by America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, are still serving, sacrificing, and asking: What more can we do to help?
As Afghan refugees begin resettlement into U.S. government-sponsored detention centers in Germany, legions of military families and veterans are volunteering as translators and workers. I’ve seen them the past few days at the Ramstein Air Base – a response that can only be described as awe-inspiring.
The simple act of a military family member buying a diaper for an Afghan baby whose father may have contributed to the violence targeted against their own loved one is a defining moment for our nation. Serving and sacrificing even more, instead of succumbing to resentment, has become a source of healing. Service and giving to others are a simple reflex for those who have chosen to serve. Americans really need to reflect deeply upon this humble example.
For Christians defeat is always just around the corner. Christian life is a battle against sin, temptation, and despair. Our true strength comes from the simple, yet so hard to live, commands of loving God and neighbor. A less violent future may lie in the hearts of men and women willing to organize their lives as God has commanded.
On a Friday, several centuries ago, in the Middle East, on a desert hill called Calvary, defeat and death seemed absolute. Three days later when the sun crept over the horizon it shone upon an empty tomb – the most profound victory in human history. Defeat can only be tempered by love and with the knowledge that His victory is ours, now and forever.
St Michael the Archangel, Defend us in battle.
1. U.S. Special Forces hit the ground riding in Afghanistan in October of 2001. (U.S. Army photo)
2. Among the flag-draped caskets of servicemen and a servicewoman killed in the recent suicide bomb attack in Kabul. Dover Air Force, Delaware, August 29, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)*
3. After midnight August 23, 2021, the first group of evacuees from Afghanistan leave Ramstein Air Base, Germany for the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo)
*Their names: Marines: Hunter Lopez, Rylee McCollum, David Lee Espinoza, Kareem Nikoui, Jared Schmitz, Daegan Page, Taylor Hoover, Humberto Sanchez, Johanny Rosario, Dylan Merola, and Nicole Gee; Navy: Max Soviak; and Army: Ryan Knauss.