What an odd cultural moment, that since the new year much of America – veterans and their families, sure, but many others outside of our community too – would suddenly decide to ask now (finally?) if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were worth it.
Confluences produce these moments, but so do mileposts and dreaded days, and we had all of those at once. Let me review briefly.
On January 3rd, the city of Fallujah officially fell under the sway of Al Qaeda, the victory symbolized by lines of pick-ups bearing black flags parading through the streets. Al Qaeda, a simplified term for the many franchises into which it has evolved, has been on the rise through-out the Middle East and Africa, and America years before (or perhaps during the Syria debate last year) could have asked itself whether the wars were worth it, if our prime target was now simply dispersed and multiplying. But we didn’t. It took the fall of a touchstone, Fallujah, the scene of two ferocious battles and the closest we have to a traditional air/ground set-piece campaign in any of these wars, to spark the debate.
Paul Szoldra, the editor of Duffelblog and a Marine Corps veteran (but also an editor at Business Insider), admirably started the discussion with the question on everyone’s mind: if Fallujah is controlled by Al Qaeda, what did my friends die for? Similar stories appeared on larger outlets, NPR and CBS News. The Army veteran and author Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter for his followers to explain to him how the fall of Fallujah was not analogous to Saigon.
There is an answer to that: Fallujah is actually Khe Sanh, a distraction from the main effort into which we poured men and bombs and more men until we ultimately retreated. Baghdad’s eventually fall is really the Saigon we all fear, but this misses the point, of course. The point is we bled on a piece of ground until the sand wouldn’t take any more, and now Al Qaeda boots walk there.
This line of questioning would have inevitably faded with the 24-hour news cycle if CNN host Jake Tapper had not interviewed former SEAL and author Marcus Luttrell about Lone Survivor, the new movie based on his book. Tapper asked Luttrell if the whole thing seemed senseless. Luttrell responded that his friends certainly did not die for nothing. Analysis of the exchange and takedowns quickly followed.
Tapper is the author of “The Outpost,” an excellent story of the sacrifices and tragedies at COP Keating, a dismal fire base in a forgotten corner of Afghanistan that maybe should never have been built in the first place. Tapper and I were on the same panel at the Miami Book Fair in 2012, and in his opening remarks he discussed his motivations in researching and writing the book. He said the day his son was born was the day Keating was nearly overrun, and in watching the news at that moment he realized how disconnected from the war he was, how other sons just like his were dying in a far off place and he wasn’t sure why. “The Outpost” was part of that answer to that. Then and since I have found him to be an honest, thoughtful and forthright man – asking Luttrell about the senselessness of the whole enterprise was not a throwaway quip from an uneducated talking head.
Not every veteran wanted to take out Tapper’s throat for daring to question the meaning of the overall mission. Paul Szoldra again weighed in, concisely summarizing the thoughts of military veteran journalists like Andrew Exum and Alex Horton, and noting, again, that that instead of attacking Tapper, we should all be asking the same question. Why were we there? Why are we still there? Was it worth it?
I will try to answer that.
Well, no, I’m not sure that’s possible in this space. Let me instead at least explain why the question is hard to answer for veterans of this war.
At the risk of over-categorization and playing amateur psychologist, among the veterans who have spent any time affected by or thinking about this, we fall roughly into two camps.
There is a group that wants the whole horrible business to mean something. Maybe they need it mean something. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, a completely understandable one. Maybe it’s embedded in their fundamental worldview, that things happen for reasons. Maybe they’ve held onto 9/11 longer than the rest of the goldfish-memory America, and felt they were preventing another attack. Whatever the motivation, none of this was senseless or for naught. How could the sacrifices of one man for another really mean nothing?
Maintaining this view in the face of military and foreign policy failures is tough. As the wars progressed, the enemy became less certain, the mission less clear, the patrols sometimes an end unto themselves. It would all be easier if we had won something, anything, definitively and permanently and then everyone got on the same boat home. Instead, the sacrifices become self-reinforcing, like a closed Mobius Strip that always leads you back to the beginning. Alex Horton has written that the unquestioning hero-making of veterans only reinforces this – if we look to America for perspective, it can be hard to find (think: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk).
The second group says this isn’t enough. Paul Szoldra writes “The only reason they died was for the man or woman beside them. They died for their friends. I’m just not satisfied with that.” Matt Gallagher said something similar on CBS: “Wars are so rarely worth it. But, that said, that doesn’t mean that the sacrifices American soldiers and Marines made weren’t profound.” Jake Tapper tweeted “there is a big difference between saying a death is senseless and saying the person died for nothing.”
There is a certain amount of love-the-sinner-but-hate-the-sin here, and this nuance can also be hard to maintain. How does one, concretely, question a policy and not the soldier? Tapper tried and got vilified for it. The best of this second view, though, says that to “support the troops” is to question hard what they are asked to do. That providing opportunities to win medals is not “support.” That sometimes the best way to honor a sacrifice is making sure another soldier doesn’t have to give his life the same way. That if soldiers are in a war that makes no sense, you dishonor or discredit no one by questioning and then ending it.
I wish I had the objectivity for the second, but instead I fall closer to Elliot Ackerman, Marine veteran and Silver Star recipient, who wrote a thoughtful response to the “was it worth it” question for The New Republic. Ackerman’s answer is to write a story about Fallujah, about being pinned between enemy gunmen and a barrage of friendly artillery fire, about how his friend Dan that diverted the fire was the first one to die that day. He concludes:
When I think about my wars, and what happened, I do sometimes ask myself if it was worth it. I’m not thinking about Bush or Obama, or about Iraq or Afghanistan. I’m thinking about Pratt and Ames, and of course Dan, and unfortunately other friends like him. I hope they’d think what we’d did for each other was worth it.
The war is still too personal for me to sufficiently answer the “worth it” question. Matt and Kermit and Jeff and Ricky have always been far more important than any country or it’s government, including my own. And yet what value does this self-tightening knot have objectively if none of us should have been there in the first place? In my worst moments the sacrifice for sacrifice’s sake feels like a sporting event, like playoff hockey game where players throw their bodies infront of pucks and take concussions and permanent injury and for what? A trophy important only within their closed circle? What effect does it have on the greater reality? What does it matter if no one notices and nothing changes in the end?
I am fortunate that I have my wife’s outside perspective in this. She was never a good military-spouse, and that helps me now. She says that any meaning to be made from the sacrifice is to be found in what happens later, what one does with one’s life from now on. She says that Sydney Carton in Tale of Two Cities is right: “I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy.” She says that no one earned their death, and no one earned their life, but in the middle of such unethical troubles some purpose can still be discovered, something will make it “worth it,” in the subsequent unrelated labors that fill the rest of your time.
If nothing else, such thoughts provide the hope that meaning can still be found in the future, in some other land far away, beyond the reach of the war itself and in something that the fall of Fallujah can not tarnish.