Stunning reporting this week from The Washington Post confirms what service members and others have known for years: There is something twisted in the story we’ve been told about the war in Afghanistan.
As a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan and a Catholic, it’s been hard for me to reconcile the stories senior U.S. government officials have told with the war I experienced and the faith that helped bring me home.
The crucifixion, the center of my Catholic faith, is a moment of accountability. The ugliness of sin, of violence, is written on the body of Christ. There is no hiding the horror of our human failings. It is there, in the nails punched into his flesh by soldiers … soldiers like me. Like the horrible violence inflicted at the crucifixion, war is the business of violence.
However, there has been, until now, a failure of accountability, of public acknowledgment of how deeply the war in Afghanistan failed, despite its tremendous costs in dollars and blood of U.S. service members, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.
When people ask me about the war, I tell the story about the first dead body I saw in Afghanistan. We had tracked fighters coming out of a house in a village called Krum. The large blimp that floated 1,000 feet above our combat outpost (COP) had a high-powered camera. My patrol was a few kilometers away from the outpost when the COP radioed us to tell us about the enemy activity.
War is the ultimate denial of others’ humanity, and all war needs to be mourned and lamented.
I was nervous and excited and fumbled with the knobs on the Leopold scope of my MK-12 rifle. We maneuvered for the next few hours without seeing the enemy until the Marines at the COP confirmed they were trapped against the Helmand River. The patrol called in a gun run from two A-10 close air support planes. Four enemy fighters were killed; the rest scattered.
After the gun runs, we conducted a battle damage assessment. We walked across the open field to the river bank. I took a security position on the banks, while other Marines went down the embankment to find the bodies. A crusty staff sergeant asked me if I wanted to come see one of the bodies.
I did. I had been in Afghanistan for three months, and I hadn’t seen a bad guy. We hadn’t killed one for me to get close enough to see a face. I walked down the berm and looked at the shredded meat of the dead fighter’s back, torn apart by 30 mm rounds fired from above.
I wanted to feel some kind of accomplishment, some kind of closure, some kind of justification, or even, lacking that, horror. Instead, I felt nothing. I thanked the staff sergeant and headed back to my position.
I like that story. Even though it never gets a laugh, it’s the one I like to share. Never seeing the bad guys. Never knowing their names. A dead body. My own emptiness. Walking back up a hill to hold security. That was the war I knew. Walking endlessly through Helmand province without a mission, without meaningful metrics for success, without a purpose. Walking through the poppy fields, waiting to be replaced and go home.
Those at the top knew the truth was murky. On the ground, I didn’t know who the bad guys were, but neither, apparently, did then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said in a 2003 memo: “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are. We are woefully deficient in human intelligence.”
However, despite knowledge at the top that little progress was being made in Afghanistan, that victory was never likely and that the entire enterprise seemed to be fatally mismanaged, that isn’t the story that the government or the military told the public.
“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” said one official in interviews released by The Post as part of “The Afghanistan Papers.” “Truth was rarely welcome.”
Instead, time and time again, officials talked about how local forces were getting better, how it was impossible for the Taliban to win this fight and the infamous sound bite that American forces always seemed to be “turning a corner” in Afghanistan.
As a Catholic, that lack of information makes it harder to understand and judge whether war was just. In 2011, Boston College social ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill said in U.S. Catholic, about Afghanistan, “I don’t think we can know that it really is a just war until it’s over and done with and all of the information has surfaced about what actually happened.” These papers cast profound doubt on key tenets of the “just war” theory. If there was never a reasonable chance of success, war cannot be just.
I knew I was a soldier of a lost war, but no one back home seemed to understand that. Everywhere I went I was thanked, patted on the back, venerated for my hard work. This clashed with that confusion and emptiness I’d felt on the banks of the Helmand looking at that dead boy.
Penance for Catholics starts with lament, public acknowledgment of sin and wrongdoing, recognition of it both by the wrongdoer and the community. But how can we lament war, how can we mourn war, when the Pentagon and the White House were at pains to paint a rosy picture?
The veneration and justification I encountered from civilians was undercut by my own experience, but the lying about progress in Afghanistan helped prevent shared lament and mourning with my community. How many service members, with their own experiences of war, were isolated and cut off from friends or loved ones, because military brass failed to communicate the truth about the war?
All violence stands in the way of human connection. War is the ultimate denial of others’ humanity, and all war needs to be mourned and lamented. However, Afghanistan, in particular, is a lingering wound for so many who fought there, because it hasn’t ended and because no one in government speaks to what so many of us know to be true about the conflict.
As a Catholic, I believe the first steps toward healing require accountability and lament. Hopefully, “The Afghanistan Papers” brings us closer as a country to taking that first step.
This article appeared earlier in outline