Marine helps Afghan woman
A Marine helps an Afghan woman at the airport in Kabul. Defense Department photo

I write this not as a detached writer with no relation to this question. My first sense of proximity to the conflict in Afghanistan came on a trip to Balboa Naval Medical Center. I came face to face with another Marine entering the door I was exiting in 2009.

I had recently returned to active duty to support my fellow Marines in the ongoing Global War on Terror, though I was not deployed. The Marine entering the door had recently returned from combat in Afghanistan, minus his right leg which now had a prosthetic in its place. I held the door but did not know what to say. Too many things were crowded in my mind to speak. 

I didn’t come back to active service because I had some wild notions of being able to defend my country and hand out prepackaged democracy like an MRE to oppressed people. I knew better. I came back because I knew that my fellow Marines had sworn an oath that would be misused whether I was there or not. Because they were being ground up for lies chasing lies, and our nation was not going to stop that.

This was no Vietnam. In some ways it was worse. Because our nation cared about whether we were in Vietnam or not. They marched and clashed in the streets because they cared. 

No one cared about this. No one’s child was being involuntarily plucked from home to fight. And we were too caught up in our own lives to do anything to stop the machinery that had started. We wanted our revenge for 9/11, sure. But then we started an enterprise and went into Iraq on a lie. The checks could not be written fast enough so pallets of cash were flown in.

I sat one night across the table from a young Marine who had just returned from Iraq. He was in a daze, and almost desperate to return. I was dumbfounded. But all around him was a detached country blissfully unaware and unengaged. Eager to thank him for things they really didn’t understand. “Thank you for your service”. What was it he was serving though? What were any of us serving? Halliburton? KBR? Black Water? 

What was so profound about sitting with him was how he felt about the people and the country he’d returned from. How many of them were invested fully in a struggle for a decent life, risking everything. The sense of purpose that he found there. Here, everyone seemed passive, disinterested.

It dawned on me that perhaps what drew him there was a feeling that people there believed they might have the capacity for change. They wanted it. The drive to create a society they could be proud of. Perhaps we no longer believed in our ability to do that here. So why not be there? 

But the inevitable was coming. We knew it had to. So did our adversaries. 

So why did we send good men and women there? 

Ostensibly it was some combination of defending our nation, and promoting democracy and equal rights abroad. Something we struggle to do at home. Most of those who served, needed to believe in that nobility. I never did.

Sure, many in our government genuinely wanted to see a glorious Afghanistan rise as a shining democracy. But let’s be brutally honest, that was not our main motive for being there. It was probably a dream worth chasing, if we had any real notion of how.

But if we knew, we have surely forgotten. In postwar Japan, we knew. Former fascist nations of Germany and Italy were reintegrated to Europe. In South Korea, a stable and decent nation stood up. We knew then. 

I recently read The Ugly American, a 1950s treatise that for having been so widely read, seems greatly misunderstood or misapplied. In it, the protagonist is careful to listen to and empower the yearnings of those whose country he was a guest in. Not implant his vision or seek his own profit.

We forgot that lesson, or perhaps never fully learned it. We came to Afghanistan, for our own reasons and agenda, not theirs. And most there knew it from the start. We tried to build our vision, not theirs. And so we failed. 

The price for that falls least on those who committed us to this folly. 

So what do we say to those who served? 

I can only hope that we say that we will do right by you and your family to the extent we can. We commit to do better as a nation before we call on the oath of those who serve. We say that if we do our part as a nation to learn the lessons we must — then your sacrifices will not be in vain. 

A nation does wrong. Sometimes little, sometimes large. It happens to almost every nation, democratic or otherwise. Germany was a democracy when it launched a Nazi war machine across Europe. Then, a young democracy stood in the breach, and together, we turned back tyranny. It was a moment of rare moral clarity in war. Which is why so few of them should ever be fought. 

War has become too easy for the nations that wage it. Buttons for triggers. Video in place of bloodshot eyes. And little political penalty for the politicians who start them. 

In a way, I see President Biden as a rare courageous figure. He chose to end a war that he could easily have let go one another eight years. And we would have let him — to save our pride. He will pay a price. And perhaps he should for a shoddy withdrawal.

But it really should be us that pay the price. We let it go on. Without marches or protests or tear gas. Without hardly any debate. We have been acculturated to unending conflict. Patriotism has come to mean allegiance. We cannot decry repression abroad when we are too lazy to muster expression here at home. 

America the preacher, heal thyself. 

Timothy P. Holmberg served 17 years in the Marine Corps, during both Iraq wars, and the Global War on Terror. He is a former reporter with the Gay & Lesbian Times and has written about his experiences as an HIV positive Marine serving on active duty. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Words & Deeds blog by Doug Porter.