The World

When I Joined the Military, I Thought We’d Learned the Lessons of Vietnam. I Was Wrong.

Veterans of the global war on terror wonder what it was all for.

Soldiers in fatigues pick up their duffel bags, which are arranged in neat rows on the ground. There are shipping containers in the background.
U.S. Army soldiers arrive at Fort Drum, New York, on Dec. 10 after a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan. John Moore/Getty Images

I was 10 years old when the global war on terror started. Fifteen years later, I took part in it during the war against ISIS in Iraq. Now, with the fall of Kabul yesterday and the utter collapse of the Afghan government, it’s hard to see what the purpose of all of this was. I’m not alone.

Thousands of service members, both current and former, are in anguish, watching their hard-fought gains crumble into dust. Billons of dollars in aid were given to the Afghan National Army over 20 years, and most of it now lies in the hands of the Taliban, if footage from captured installations in Afghanistan is to be believed. U.S. forces suffered 350 casualties from “green on blue” insider attacks by Afghan forces alone from 2008 to 2020. And in return for all the blood and treasure spent, the entire ANA crumbled within two weeks. For many of the veterans who served in Afghanistan, the remaining hope is that the thousands of those who assisted American forces can be evacuated to safety before we fully leave.

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Like many soldiers of my generation, I entered the service thinking we had learned from the mistakes of Vietnam. Now, after 20 years of war—and the growth of domestic terrorism as we sent thousands to fight abroad—it seems we have not only repeated our mistakes, but also failed to achieve the majority of the goals we hoped to accomplish.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, we can state that we were never defeated in a tactical engagement. But as Sun Tzu wrote, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Strategically, our failures have been plentiful, and many of us who were on the tactical level accomplishing those objectives began to realize it as we were deployed to these countries.

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In 2007, a group of soldiers in Iraq wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times about how our tactics were failing, in part due to the questionable loyalty and quality of the Iraqi Army and police, whom they noted were at some points working against them. The official company line was much more positive, but it turned out those soldiers were right. When I was in Iraq in 2016 after the collapse of the Iraqi security forces when ISIS first invaded in 2014, the reality couldn’t be denied.

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ISIS was the spawn of our strategic failures in Iraq from the initial invasion onward. Even as we achieved tactical victories over the terrorist group, it become readily apparent to a lot of us that some of our best “allies” in the country were associated with Iran, which now found itself with more influence than ever before in Iraq.

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In Afghanistan, our military found itself at a loss over what its objectives were in the country as early as the battle of Tora Bora in December of 2001, when high-level strategic leaders of the Department of Defense improperly positioned their available forces, failing to block the escape route of Osama bin Laden to Pakistan. Pakistan, our nominal ally in the conflict, would be a breeding ground for the insurgency in Afghanistan, with bin Laden himself found a mere mile from Pakistan’s premier military academy. With attention drawn to Iraq for the next seven years, 20,000 to 25,000 troops were expected to maintain control of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, including the bloody Korangal Valley where multiple small outposts were attacked and almost overrun. The Taliban resurged, and in 2009 the Obama administration began surging troop levels in the country to over 100,000. They did little to stem the tide of the insurgency, and as demonstrated by the fall of Kabul, our goal of training the ANA to be an effective fighting force was just as ineffective as during the Iraq war.

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Thousands of service members are now facing the question of whether the violence, the friends lost, the traumatic brain injuries, the years away from home, were worth it. Many of us thought we were doing the right thing, but have found our moral fiber torn by what we were a part of and what we saw, and the question of whether it truly served any higher purpose at all. If it didn’t, what does that mean for the rest of our military service? What was the point of our leaders pushing overzealous training schedules, or forcing us to watch multiple friends pass out and be rushed to the hospital due to the blazing summer heat after standing outside for hours to rehearse something that can be done indoors? What was the point of being told that seeking needed medical treatment affects the mission readiness of our units?

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What about all of the innocent civilians who have been killed in the fighting and will be killed or die in the aftermath of these conflicts due to humanitarian crises?

There were 35,000 civilian casualties and over 2,300 American dead in Afghanistan, with a further 20,000 personnel wounded. In Iraq, there were over 207,000 civilian deaths, 4,500 American personnel killed, and an additional 30,000 personnel wounded. One of the personnel killed in action, Sgt. Jason McClary, was part of my unit’s deployment to Iraq in 2016. Just under 24 months later, he suffered mortal wounds after an improvised explosive device strike in Afghanistan that killed three other personnel. He was only 24 years old.

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The costs of the wars will continue after their end. In the past 20 years, the suicide rate among service members has skyrocketed, with over 30,177 service members and veterans dying due to suicide in the same time period. The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reported over 400,000 traumatic brain injuries among service members between 2000 and 2019.

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After 20 years of the war on terror, it’s hard to make the argument that we’re even safer domestically. Military technology, including drones and up-armored vehicles, have begun to proliferate and be used within our borders, along with counterinsurgency tactics that see American citizens as the enemy, rather than people to be protected.

A year after getting back from fighting ISIS, I watched in horror as domestic terrorism began to spike, part of the trend that has seen the far right kill more Americans at home than Islamic extremists in the past 20 years. During this same time, I’ve watched over 620,000 Americans die due to COVID-19, partly due to the actions and beliefs of these same extremists. Just seven months ago, we witnessed a terrorist attack on the Capitol of the United States, in an act of violence never before witnessed in those halls, with members of the armed forces even participating. Extremism in our ranks is now a growing threat to national security.

It’s hard to believe that we kept America safe when, despite all of our best efforts overseas, these terrible events are continuing to occur. The effects of the war in Afghanistan will be felt long after the fall of Kabul, just as with the war in Iraq. With all the attention now on American foreign policy and its effects, this is a perfect time to reassess what are goals are and how we seek to accomplish them.

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