Donald Rumsfeld died June 29. June 30, I concluded 27 years as a United States Marine. On July 1, the last American at Bagram Air Base stepped onto a plane and flew home from Afghanistan. These facts have little relation as discrete events. They are simply three disparate events on three subsequent days. But their confluence, and the tension between the reality of time and the fiction I generate to make my time meaningful, spawns a dissonance I can’t seem to resolve. It somehow matters to me both deeply and not at all. Friends are dead because of decisions made over the course of 20 years. More friends will die in the coming months. But I can’t care more than the America that sent us there or the Afghanistan that acted as if we would never leave. To do so would finally be more than I am willing to give.
Time is a purely human construct, an evanescent force over which we have no control. Time moves only forward, without regret or resolve. It is a measure without intrinsic meaning, happening to us, despite us, in support of us, without any interest in outcome. We impute individual and collective import to time’s relentless progression, but that meaning has only the weight to which we assign it. As nature’s most self-aware creatures, we are by some measure solipsistic, dancing on stages of our individual creation—believing the acknowledgment of our passing moments to be actual evidence of their substance. No matter how fraught my individual moments may be, they are essentially meaningless within our collective existence. I am thus loath to classify myself as the origin of even the tiniest ripples in the vast river of time. Yet, I can’t restrain my attempts to validate my own tiny existence. Such is whatever it is that makes us human, be it divine spark, soul, or simple zygotic happenstance. We mark our moments in time as a means of making all of this matter. So even as I realize, as unemotionally as time itself, that each of us only matters as much as we decide we do, I cannot help but consider the convergence of people and time and events in an attempt to make some grander human sense of it all; to make myself matter as much as I wish I did.
It will soon be 20 years since the towers came down. Our daughter, for whose birth I was in Bagram, has only a conceptual understanding of that day, though she asks questions simultaneously simple and blindingly nuanced, without an adult’s subtext or agenda. Perhaps that honesty and genuine curiosity can only come from a child. Despite that she links major moments in her own time progression to my deployments, she is unmarked by the kind of emotions I still pin to that day. Those emotions carried me to Iraq as part of what is undeniably a blood-sotted legacy.
I watch film of Rumsfeld from that time. I see his famous prickliness, that air of intuiting complex answers the rest of us just can’t comprehend. But I also see just another talking head making pronouncements about war without acknowledging that killing isn’t clean; that blood and hair adhere to poured cement walls; that the stench of a last, involuntary bowel movement is all the legacy some men ever get.
But let me not rewrite history to escape my own inclinations during almost three decades intimately entwined with a Tuesday and clouds of dust visible from space. I was 31 years old in Iraq. A fully formed man and Marine; a repeat volunteer. I was in New York in October 2001 and made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero. The smell still lingered in my nostrils in 2004 when I arrived in Iraq. I wanted to see blood on sand. Questions were for policymakers, and I bought Rumsfeld’s essential arguments about revenge and imminence with little, if any, consideration. I found the blood I sought in Iraq, but left with more questions than answers. I felt the answers lay in Afghanistan. I went there twice by the time the writing began to appear upon the wall in 2013. Now I am inexplicably old, a “former,” and I’m waiting for the inevitable bitter taste of what will be at best an uncertain peace.
I think often of one man with whom I worked in 2010, an Afghan police officer for whom I felt deep regard. He was as good a man as I would want in a brother, uncle, or son. He called me “Pahkah brootha,” an affectionate echo of our American habit of calling one another “brother.” I saw him again in 2013. We bear-hugged and struggled to cross the language barrier, two friends catching up. His English was no better for the years behind us, and I had abandoned my limited Dari with him when I left in 2010. Frustrated and energized at the same time, I asked him for a way to stay in contact, knowing full well that we would eventually arrive at the precipice at which we now stand.
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Feeling a deep need to get something right, I asked him for a mailing address, an email address, a cell phone number. He smiled sadly and shook his head, as I do when my daughter asks me those simultaneously simple and blindingly nuanced questions. He had none of those things. We were not going to stay in touch. I would go home and he would stay there, and both of us would respond to the dictates of politics and blood debt. I hope he somehow knows I am on the other side of the world, hoping he survives, that he doesn’t die cursing the day he cast his lot with us.
It is time to leave Afghanistan, a conclusion that may be one of the few expressions of bipartisanship left among our legislators. Nonetheless, watching our time in Afghanistan come to a whimpering end, after so much struggle and pain and sacrifice, is driving hard conversations with my fellow veterans of that war and its stepbrother in Iraq. We look at two decades of life and wonder, “What is the value of time spent in a lost effort? Missed moments in the life of a family? What price youth? What is the value of a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother?”
A friend’s text exchange narrated the last American boot at Bagram boarding a commercially contracted Boeing 757, a fitting emblem of what I call the commuter war for the seemingly endless turnstile nature it held for some of us. Reading it, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Were each of us ultimately little more than a potential $450,000 worth of Service Members Group Life Insurance and a $12,000 death gratuity?”
After 20 years, I can’t find the strategic value in an effort that appears to be headed backward, toward a Taliban resurgence.
Despite my regrets, even knowing what I know now, I would do it all again. I believe the preponderance of my fellow veterans feels the same way. The nation called, we answered. We agreed to carry a weight for the citizenry. Along the way, we gave of ourselves, lost parts of ourselves, and simultaneously saw the best and worst versions of ourselves. That is the calculus upon which service is predicated. I could not comprehend some aspects of that as a young man, a commentary on the callowness of youth rather than any indictment of the military service of which I am so deeply proud. The nation requires that youthful willingness to simply go without question as surely as it requires others to speak up in opposition to the very instincts I followed to war; to ensure blind faith is not squandered by incoherent policy. Would that more of both could be found among the people who ask for the sober duty of setting policy and making the decisions that send the youth.
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The dissonance I and others feel over our pride in having answered the call while inevitably doubting the value of the things we were called to do generates questions I expect to attempt to answer for the rest of my life. It is shaping up as a pursuit that will likely end on just another dissonant note, as unsatisfying and ephemeral as the last 20 years of promised turns of the corner. In the end, I suspect I will find myself suspended, remaining where I am now; once again reading the words of Igor Morozov, another veteran of another Afghan dalliance whom I discovered in Rodric Braithwaite’s Soviet history, Afgantsy. It’s just another rueful shake of the head in a long line of them.
“Farewell, bright world, Afghanistan,
Perhaps we should forget you now.
But sadness grips us as we go:
We’re leaving, we’re leaving, we’re leaving.”