Though it hardly seems possible, Nov. 11 marked the 12th Veterans Day in which the United States has been at war in Afghanistan (nine of which also included fighting in Iraq).
On that day, many pat veterans on the back and say with genuine appreciation, “thanks for your service.” While combat veterans past and present are grateful for that acknowledgement, I am discouraged that so few in America realize how much physical and emotional damage has been inflicted upon these service members.
But I have been outright troubled at the ease with which some pundits and opinion-makers continue to advocate sending U.S. armed forces to engage in lethal combat — or keeping them there indefinitely — as if those filling the ranks were soulless drones.
The price this nation has heaped upon the backs of this tiny portion of our population in a war now into its second decade has been profound. A U.S. combat veteran I recently talked to shared an all-too-common story of the cost silently endured by so many American troops. He told me about a friend of his who lost his battle with suicide.
“These statistics have faces. He was a four-tour vet. He suffered from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Despite my best efforts and the efforts of others, we could not save our friend. I was in a meeting when he called to say goodbye. Insanely painful. I lost my first friend to an IED in 2004, my most recent to suicide in 2011.”
Reflecting the agony suffered by thousands of American families largely outside of public awareness, the father of a U.S. Marine killed in action in 2006 described in a new book how egregiously many of the surviving family members suffer.
“As I read the report [of his son’s death], disbelief, numbness and an unimaginable pain gripped my body, mind and spirit,” he wrote. Six torturous years later the parents said they are only now coming to grips with the loss of their son.
If the approximate 57,000 physical casualties (6,500 killed, 50,500 wounded) and the estimated 250,000 psychological casualties (PTSD, traumatic brain injuries) we’ve suffered since 9/11 had succeeded in reducing the al-Qaida threat and made the United States safer, the cost might be considered worth it. But according to a growing chorus of studies and reports, the tactics and strategies we’ve used over the past 12 Veterans Days have resulted not in the diminution of the al-Qaida threat, but in its growth.
Regrettably, that fact has not kept some pundits from writing opinion articles advocating the continuation, if not expansion, of the same tactics and strategy that have failed to curtail the terrorist threat.
For example, on Oct. 22 in The Wall Street Journal, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane argued we had to continue fighting with large numbers of conventional troops in Afghanistan — where there are only a handful of al-Qaida fighters — because “we are in Afghanistan, and in numbers substantial enough to secure and hold territory denying Ayman al Zawahiri and his followers a foothold in Afghanistan.”
Given that Zawahiri and other top al-Qaida leaders haven’t been in Afghanistan for a decade, it wasn’t clear how the general supposed the U.S. would deal a “decisive strategic blow” against an organization that wasn’t there.
Another writer in The Washington Post three days earlier, without providing substantiation to back up his claim, and against an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, flatly stated, “the United States and its many allies are not losing in Afghanistan.” He also noted as a foregone conclusion that we would “bear the heavy burden of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years” to come.
If this were the third or fourth year of the war, then dogged persistence might be applauded as a virtue. But this is the 12th year of war, and neither a host of different command personalities nor the application (and subsequent withdrawal) of 30,000 combat troops has accomplished our objectives.
By all measurable accounts, al-Qaida is now far larger and more broadly scattered around the globe than it was on that horrible day in 2001. Before moving forward in Afghanistan we must make a serious and sober re-evaluation of the approaches we’ve used over the past several years and give consideration to the application of bold new strategies.
What we must not do is continue spending this nation’s most precious commodity (the blood, limbs and emotional well-being of its sons and daughters) as though they were animated characters in an Xbox game. To do so would continue to weaken the fabric of our armed forces while potentially setting the stage for strategic failure.
Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who has served more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, has been deployed to combat zones four times, twice to Afghanistan, and won the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling. These views represent only those of the author.