Closure In Afghanistan

 

256px-Flag_of_Afghanistan.svgThere are a lot of people in Afghanistan who have volunteered to return here, looking for closure.

There are those who have experienced their own direct trauma; I am fortunate to not be counted in that number. I am not stalked as some are. Some have their indirect trauma to work through, such as seeing friends and comrades dead or dying, grievously wounded, or pushed beyond limits. I call this indirect as — no matter how close you are — it could have been you, and there’s a healthy gratitude that coexists in a corrosive cycle with survivor’s guilt. I have some of this.

There’s also a cohort who were true believers in the earlier mission set. The mission changed over time, for all the right reasons, no matter how doomed or how poorly executed the misson may have been. The problem here arose when the mission stopped changing while the goal kept creeping away. The mismatch between words and deeds is an unfair and dishonest approach to a task which takes some lives by design, and takes others by misfortune.

When I came to Afghanistan the first time, I trained to partner with Afghan military officers, Afghan contractors, coalition counterparts, and US military folks. I was steeped in the exciting new (old) notion of counterinsurgency. We studied. We exercised. We ate peas with a knife.

While I was here the last time, I noticed a growing disparity between the stated mission and the effective goal. That was frustrating. The things that should have been easy were hard; the things which could have been found were missed; things that could have helped did not happen. We subverted our stated goals to the lethargy of bureaucracy and bean-counting, to the fiction of a competent Afghan government as a partner — a prophylactic to protect us from charges of colonialism — and to our support of thoroughly despicable people.

I don’t just mean the warlords, many of whom weren’t as bad as the alternatives. I had Afghan soldiers raping boys in the facilities I built for them. Not that we ever saw it, of course — all rumors, officially — but the source made it credible to me. And it was credible to those I reported it to, and it’s the sort of thing that just goes up into the policy and realpolitik world and then disappears. It’s cultural, you see.

It is, of course, and that’s the problem. And now we officially accept it in our own federal diplomatic culture, because we find it less bad than the alternatives. Everybody knows, few say anything, and absolutely nothing will ever be done about it.  And after all, we must build them more facilities.

The difference between effective counterinsurgency and our approach is illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal explanation of the “tradition” of burning women in India, and the British retort, “When men burn women alive, it is our tradition to hang them…” Well, if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And if you’re not, then for God’s sake, don’t play at it.

In Iraq, our current unfolding disaster regarding IS is incredibly frustrating. It’s particularly galling to see this predictable farce doled out by the people who threw away everything that had been gained. While the cameras focus on Syria’s Kobane, Anbar Province is falling. Anbar, the home of the most profound lesson available about the impact of United States power in the Muslim world: that we are genuinely here to help. That lesson has been cast away, inverted. Perverted. Our enemies have converted victory into defeat. They have turned the good guys into the bad guys. They have shriveled sacrifice to mere carnage.

I do not believe this was incidental. I believe that this was intentional: that it is yet another goal at odds with our stated mission. There are those who so despise American power that winning is unacceptable.  The object lesson that the United States is not to be trusted is not lost. Now IS is calling the bluff of a man who crumples and burns his cards for spite.

Think of Benghazi and look at Iraq. Now, look at Afghanistan and realize that it will look like Iraq — or worse — some time after we leave. Our enemies are patient, more patient than we, and they are determined, more so than we. Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have crucial interests here, and the well-being of the Afghan people (whatever that is) does not figure into it.

This is so completely scripted that if it were a thriller it would be panned by the critics. It was always hard to engage the locals from across our gulf of space and time — what do you give to the man who has… nothing? — and now it is impossible. In counterinsurgency, you don’t peas with a knife; you eat them with your fingers, while others eat nothing at all.

I didn’t lose anybody I knew in Iraq — my dead friends were killed in Afghanistan. I’ve elided that distinction before, “for a number of reasons,” which matter less as time goes by. Things are drawing to a close.  Achieving a goal may not be so much about the goal itself, but about obtaining closure by whatever means are available. Completing a thing which stands alone is no more difficult than achieving half of a thing twice as difficult, but it is much more satisfying. Closure is what people pay for when they buy a book or rent a movie, play a game or engage in a sport. And, perhaps, when they go to war.

Closure comes in many forms. Sometimes, you don’t get what you wanted, and you don’t even come close. The wisdom to know the difference in Niebuhr’s plea is not an end, but a means. Acceptance brings closure. Change brings closure. Knowledge does not. We focus on knowing, and treat it as a goal, but neither debate, nor knowledge, nor wisdom brings satisfaction.

God grant me the cowardice to hide, the hypocrisy to lead, and the indifference to sleep soundly.

If not you, whom? If not now, when? If not possible, well, that’s where you’re wrong, so get busy. This is a productive mindset for staring down momentous decisions, daunting tasks, and unwelcome facts. I will not accept defeat; I will win. I will make the change, master the change, be the change. I will attack the unpleasant and destroy the unwelcome, and after a balanced breakfast, I will protect you all, conquer death, and reverse the flow of time.

Well, maybe not, and acceptance is not so bad a thing as it may once have seemed. I do not quarrel overmuch with my former opinions. They seemed good enough at the time, and who needs that kind of self-doubt anyway? Acceptance doesn’t change things, but it does bring closure. All those frustrating problems are still out there, from the failure to ensure that soil compaction tests were conducted, to the fact that any number of ridiculously small changes would have allowed my friends to live instead of dying. A minute earlier. A rusted bolt. Trivial changes, millions of them, each with the power of life and death, and here I sit.

Typing.

I came back to a war zone to find peace. Mission Accomplished.

There are 26 comments.

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  1. MikeHs Inactive
    MikeHs
    @MikeHs

    God speed, BDB.

    • #1
  2. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    BDB,

    Would you change your title to “November 4th: Surprise”? It helps to have a similar format so people know it is part of the group. (If you do it one letter at a time you should stay at the top of the feed for days. :-) )

    • #2
  3. 10 cents Member
    10 cents
    @

    Thanks for writing. Is the surprise that Afghanistan turned out differently then you expected?

    • #3
  4. Kay of MT Inactive
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    The surprise is the betrayal of our military by the Commander in Chief, congress, and the bureaucrats. They did the same thing in Vietnam. Sorry, BDB, this post has me crying for you, and all our people who have tried and died in this endeavor.

    • #4
  5. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Ditto Kay at #4.

    • #5
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    10 cents:Thanks for writing. Is the surprise that Afghanistan turned out differently then you expected?

    I thought the surprise was this:

    If not you, whom?  If not now, when?  If not possible, well, that’s where you’re wrong, so get busy.  This is a productive mindset for staring down momentous decisions, daunting tasks, and unwelcome facts.  I will not accept defeat — I will win.  I will make the change, master the change — be the change.  I will attack the unpleasant and destroy the unwelcome, and after a balanced breakfast, I will protect you all, conquer death, and reverse the flow of time.

    Well, maybe not, and acceptance is not so bad a thing as it may once have seemed.

    The surprise was acceptance in one who had thought he would not accept defeat, and it was masterfully done.

    • #6
  7. J Flei Inactive
    J Flei
    @Solon

    Thanks for writing.  Reading your post, I feel frustration, sadness, and honor and gratitude for people like you.

    • #7
  8. She Member
    She
    @She

    Ball Diamond Ball:The difference between effective counterinsurgency and our approach is well illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal explanation of the “tradition” of burning women in (then) India, and the British retort, “When men burn women alive we hang them…” Well, if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And if you’re not, then for God’s sake, don’t play at it.

    If Charles James Napier didn’t actually say that, he should have.  These five lines of your post perfectly define what’s been wrong with the prosecution of most of the wars for the last 100-odd years.

    If the politicians were the ones paying the ultimate price, perhaps things would be different, but they’re not, and they aren’t.

    My father was fond of quoting George Orwell on the “self-loathing of the English Left” and the inevitable effects of same on Britain’s ability to present itself and its culture in anything like a positive light after about 1960.  It’s the same thing here, now.

    Child rape?  Honor killings?  Female Genital Mutilation?  Genocide?  Who are we to judge? (to quote the Pope).

    coexist

    (Note to self:  not sure what the Star of David is doing on there.  Need to see if it should be replaced with something more indicative of diversity and tolerance, which is more in line with our self-effacing and multicultural goal).

    • #8
  9. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    She:

    Ball Diamond Ball:The difference between effective counterinsurgency and our approach is well illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal explanation of the “tradition” of burning women in (then) India, and the British retort, “When men burn women alive we hang them…” Well, if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And if you’re not, then for God’s sake, don’t play at it.

    If Charles James Napier didn’t actually say that, he should have. These five lines of your post perfectly define what’s been wrong with the prosecution of most of the wars for the last 100-odd years.

    I agree.

    BDB and I may never see eye-to-eye on war as a metaphor for ordinary civilian interactions, but if you’re going to literally go to war, then go to war. Don’t, um, single-buttock it. If you’re gonna go, go in with both buttocks blazing.

    • #9
  10. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Can hardly type for alternately weeping and grinding my teeth, BDB!  Godspeed and thank you!  May you find the peace you seek!

    • #10
  11. user_512412 Inactive
    user_512412
    @RichardFinlay

    This post resonates with me as an echo of the VietNam aftermath.  Watching VietNam, Laos, Cambodia fall away as we abandoned those to whom we had made promises.  The goals shifted and the people didn’t matter.

    • #11
  12. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Since my son joined the Corps I have tried to immerse myself in this new culture of his. One of the things I’ve done is read Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed,” his account of the 5th Marines campaigns on Peleiu and Okinawa.

    What I learned in his writings is that the much vaunted “Greatest Generation” didn’t come out of the war as unscathed as the myth suggests. Many men did crack. Some came home broken. Nobody came home the same.
    Many a Marine, having survived the hell of Peleiu with a “million dollar wound” (severe enough to send you home but not bad enough to kill you) could not cope with life back Stateside. They rehabbed and chose to rejoin their companies back on the lines, often with fatal results.

    There is no magic formula for surviving battle. Guilt is heavy. The sights and sounds never go away. Nor does the God awful stench of it all.

    We civilians try to say thanks, it’s all we have. God bless them. God bless them all.

    • #12
  13. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    EThompson:Ditto Kay at #4.

    same here, ditto #4 & #5. Thank you for sharing this view point.

    I’m sorry for the frustration that you and so many of our service people face. Frustration is small when compared to lost and damaged lives, but it is very real.

    Thank you for your service and your efforts in conquering “bureaucratic lethargy.”

    • #13
  14. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    She:

    Ball Diamond Ball:The difference between effective counterinsurgency and our approach is well illustrated by the perhaps apocryphal explanation of the “tradition” of burning women in (then) India, and the British retort, “When men burn women alive we hang them…” Well, if you’re going to take Vienna, take Vienna. And if you’re not, then for God’s sake, don’t play at it.

    If Charles James Napier didn’t actually say that, he should have. These five lines of your post perfectly define what’s been wrong with the prosecution of most of the wars for the last 100-odd years.

    I agree.

    BDB and I may never see eye-to-eye on war as a metaphor for ordinary civilian interactions, but if you’re going to literally go to war, then go to war. Don’t, um, single-buttock it. If you’re gonna go, go in with both buttocks blazing.

    as said in another post,

    Don’t fight evil with half-measures, fight it all the way down.

    • #14
  15. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Everything in this life comes down to the good work of individuals–never governments–in crazy situations.

    Thank you for your good work, BDB.

    • #15
  16. Boomerang Inactive
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    This is what America voted for in 2008 and 2012.  One tragedy is the “betrayal of our military [and, I would add, the countries we have fought to liberate] by the Commander in Chief, congress, and the bureaucrats” as Kay says, the greater tragedy is that the betrayal is accomplished with the direct consent of millions of Americans.

    And yet, BDB, there are so many of us who stand with you and are so grateful for all you have done on our behalf.  Thank you.

    • #16
  17. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Lions led by donkeys,

    Thank you BDB.

    • #17
  18. dgahanson@Reagan.com Inactive
    dgahanson@Reagan.com
    @kowalski

    Thank you for this post.  You have summed up my frustrations spanning more than two decades of active duty, contractor, and gov’t. civilian trying to contribute to what ultimately was a non-warfighting doctrine in the hopes of getting something close to a victory.  It never did, and never will.  Edward Luttwak said it best: COIN as implemented today is military malpractice.

    As others have said, if we choose war as the solution, then we need to jump in with both feet, and fight to get our victory.  My observation is that anytime the military and civilian powers in DC have to convene war councils to determine what victory is, then we have already lost.  I also believe that the unstated cause of many the mental and, yes, spiritual ailments affecting those who served is the repeated tours of just being there with a bullseye on the chest and no operations to achieve victory.  Any programs to combat PTSD, or other afflictions though well intended, do not get at the “what was it all about?” thoughts of the vets.

    Thanks again.

    • #18
  19. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments.  Let me point out that I am fine, and this is only peripherally about me.  I’ve never fired a weapon in anger, although of course I can’t help but wonder what would be if I had been closer, sooner (better).  That’s fine — I experience just enough of this sort of stuff to be attuned to it in others, and to try to engage folks who seem like they could use some square talk.

    Some of the thanks expressed here are messages which I pass along to those who have more claim to them than I.  Not false modesty, just proud to be in very good company. Part of why I came back (I have about nine or ten reasons) was an opportunity to pass on some of my observations and stress some things I think are important to people as they arrive, and especially, as they depart.

    I was 100% good with the mission on my last tour, and I am 100% good with the mission on this tour.  Different missions, different mindsets, but if you can’t get down with the mission, don’t take the paycheck (at a certain level — not everybody has to agree, but some folks must be true believers, or the whole thing falls apart).

    • #19
  20. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Ah, and the other thing is that over the last fw months I have discovered/decided that I do have peace.

    I will relocate in several senses, and align my career portfolio to support the next big fight I’m going to pick.  I’m not done fighting, not by a long shot.  But I no longer feel that I have unfinished business in Afghanistan.  The memorials for my two fallen friends have been brought home.  My interpreter and another have made it to the States.  I have been able to give the best advice I can collect and some personal observations to folks on the way out (and on the way in, uh, stay armed).  I am at peace — regarding this.  For other things, I am just getting started.  Life goes on, and fury is too valuable to waste on the past.

    • #20
  21. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Ball Diamond Ball: Life goes on, and fury is too valuable to waste on the past.

    Amen.

    • #21
  22. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Re: #20, BDB, Amen and thanks be! Keep fighting the good fight, giving aid and comfort – and the occasional rhetorical kick in the buns.  This ‘prayer warrior’ has got your back.  Oh, and “RAWR!” to one of the best Neanderthals around. <grin>

    • #22
  23. Julia PA Inactive
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Ball Diamond Ball: My interpreter and another have made it to the States.

    Great for them…I hope their transition is smooth.

    • #23
  24. user_645 Editor
    user_645
    @Claire

    Ball Diamond Ball: While the cameras focus on Syria’s Kobane, Anbar Province is falling.

    I realize your post was both a more personal one and a larger one, but it’s beyond me how this fact is almost not in the news at all. I wonder how many Americans fully grasp that a few days ago, IS swept through Anbar province, killed hundreds upon hundreds of Albu Nimr tribesmen–including dozens of women and children–and stuffed their bodies down a well? If you’re not actively looking for that news, I don’t know how it would find you.

    And I really doubt people who don’t already know something about our policy will grasp a particularly horrifying aspect of this–because no report of it I’ve seen comes out and says this clearly, though it’s true: They were killed because we encouraged them to fight ISIS and they trusted us enough to try.

    • #24
  25. user_512412 Inactive
    user_512412
    @RichardFinlay

    Claire Berlinski:  They were killed because we encouraged them to fight … and they trusted us enough to try.

    The recurring dishonor of this infuriates me.  The same thing has happened in other countries, other years.  The US engages enough to create an oppostion in another country, then domestic politics changes and the effort is abandoned.  Our ‘allies’ are effectively betrayed.

    On a more micro, internal level, I see the same mentality toward our own military.  If something is important enough to engage in a war, it is important enough to win it. Fighting for a draw, an ‘honorable’ withdrawal, etc, is a betrayal of the men we send to fight.

    • #25
  26. hawk@haakondahl.com Inactive
    hawk@haakondahl.com
    @BallDiamondBall

    Claire Berlinski: …it’s beyond me how this fact is almost not in the news at all. … IS swept through Anbar province, killed hundreds … of women and children–and stuffed their bodies down a well.

    Well, there was breaking news about sashaying in Manhattan.  So I can see how this fell off the radar.

    • #26
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