LIVED THROUGH THIS

Reflections on 20 Years of War

A veteran’s musings on leaving Afghanistan and the killing fields

Photo courtesy of the author

I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell. — William Tecumseh Sherman

“Do you still think about war?”

I let my finger hover over the keyboard after I fire off the text message. I expect the responses might be slow or nonexistent, but a green bubble appears.

“I swore I would never be this person, and yet, I think about it every day,” my old teammate remarks.

I sigh relief, knowing it’s not just me. Though it’s been 14 years since Iraq and 17 since Afghanistan, I catch myself thinking about war every day.

It probably sounds odd to dwell frequently on an experience that happened so long ago. I imagine it’s reminiscent of the guy who reflects on his glory days playing high school football. Granted, that guy wasn’t running around on the field while people tried to kill him. Nor did he face the moral quagmires the coach and referees kept putting into play. And when the “game” ends for soldiers, we can’t just leave it all out on the field. We either readjust or never come home. So when President Joe Biden announced we’d be leaving Afghanistan after 20 years, I felt conflicted and once more dwelt on my time in combat.

I think the reason I feel conflicted about leaving Afghanistan is that since World War II, we haven’t had a single clear victory, let alone overwhelmingly positive outcomes. As Americans, we love to joke about being “back-to-back World War champs.” However, while having a lively discussion on the United States leaving Afghanistan, a friend of mine in a government paramilitary job pointed out the obvious: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been — at best — toss-ups where we just leave. They’re not victories. Sure, we might be the “superior” force and get results, but to what end? What was our goal?

The pat answer to a question of goals for recent wars is “to stop terrorism.” But the better question to ask is “Have we accomplished that?” It’s easy to point out that we helped stop the Nazis in World War II. It’s much harder to say we’ve stopped radical Islamic terrorism. Instead, the process has been like combatting a hydra — you cut off the head, and three more sprout in its place. Al-Qaeda became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which evolved into ISIS and ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Soon we were fighting not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Djibouti, Yemen — most of the Middle East and North Africa.

The honest truth about combat is that there’s nothing redeeming about it — save for the people you fight next to.

Many people want to point fingers at one political party or another, but neither could figure out our foreign policy goals in Afghanistan or Iraq, which led to the longest-running wars in the history of the United States. With no draft enacted, less than 1% of the American populace bore the brunt of repeated back-to-back deployments. And both parties kept the wars going. We send our young to die based on the whims of politicians who’ve never served in the killing fields. The results of our politicians’ actions, regardless of the party in power, tend to be disastrous.

Still, I’d like to think what I did mattered. I helped build schools for girls so they could receive an education (the Taliban blew up one a few months later, so we had to rebuild it). We helped put a stop to evil men, ended human rights violations, and bore the sword in defense of the marginalized and oppressed. Those are all worthy endeavors.

And yet, they were not without a severe cost, loss of life, and collateral damage.

The honest truth about combat is that there’s nothing redeeming about it — save for the people you fight next to. Like William Tecumseh Sherman aptly pointed out, the more fighting you endure, the more blood spilled, the more bodies, guts, and brains stretched out on the battlefield, the more weary of it you grow. That’s partially why I left the military. The Army had me slated to head overseas a third time, and I couldn’t muster the energy after having returned home. I woke up one morning in my late twenties and realized all I’d known for almost a decade was war or training for combat. I was worried about what I was becoming. I thought of the Ernest Hemingway short story “On the Blue Water”: Would I become a man who longed for nothing more than the hunting of armed men?

Truth be told, when that thought occurred to me, I was already there. I loved hunting armed men — and that scared me. The average person might assume that made me a sociopath, but in reality, it was about purpose. I believe that’s why combat veterans dwell on war so much — combat gave us a profound sense of meaning. There wasn’t the distraction of cellphones and social media; there was the simplicity of a mission and the soldiers beside you. You knew what you were there to do and what goals needed to be accomplished. The experience alone was a roller coaster of emotions ranging from crushing grief to unadulterated adrenaline. You’d ride high and build bonds with fellow service members only to have the friendship stripped by an improvised explosive device or bullet. The whole experience made life grand and exciting.

I suppose that’s the troublesome part about coming home; everything else feels… blah.

In the 2008 movie The Hurt Locker, there’s a scene the director nailed (despite the overall absurdity of their portrayal of the Iraq War). When Jeremy Renner’s character comes home from Iraq, he stares dead-eyed at the million cereal choices in the grocery store. That scene resonated with me. In war, you wear the same outfit every day. The food’s the same. The mission is the same. You clean the same weapon 80 million times and go to the gym because there’s nothing else to do. Then you come home and the intensity and simplicity are gone. Worst of all, you don’t stay in touch with the people you would have died for. Hell, it took a member of my unit dying from cancer until I spoke with my old teammates. That was 10 years after we fought together in Iraq, and it’s only been within the past two years that we rekindled the brotherhood. They are the few people I can tell anything, and sometimes I don’t even have to say anything because they instinctively know.

Perhaps that’s why I feel torn about Afghanistan, knowing that a generation of soldiers after me won’t get that — let alone comprehend such a level of devotion for their fellow human. Nor will they experience the beauty that comes from the simplicity of needing nothing more than a cot to lay their head on and other soldiers. So many people in America are concerned about their stock portfolios or frivolous bullshit that doesn’t matter. They fret about what people think of them and wonder when they’ll get their 15 seconds of fame whereas I miss the simplicity of survival, of not dying each day.

I suppose that’s the other layer to all this. When you’re honest about war and your feelings, people judge you, so veterans become their own club — a silent family. It’s the greatest oxymoron in the armed forces and among combat veterans. We’re desperate to talk about war but feel we can only share about it with those who served in the killing fields. Given the recent state of affairs in the world and so-called cancel culture, my god, why would we? Why on Earth would we open up about such conflicted emotions and the humanity and barbarity of war?

Still, I believe there’s an authentic beauty in talking about war’s ugly truths. That’s also how you know a war story is real and you’re not getting catfished. It’s ugly and grotesque, and if the veteran is laughing and you’re horrified, it’s real. Anything else is fluff.

So what does all this mean for Afghanistan?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. War is war is war. It’s an inevitable part of human nature no matter who’s in charge. There will never be a utopian society despite the best technological and human achievements. We could remove every weapon on Earth, but we cannot remove a human being’s capacity for violence and selfishness. Human flourishing has resulted in advanced weaponry with absolute destructive results, yet as a species, we can’t explain why we’ve done this. We could destroy the Earth tomorrow with our stockpiled nuclear weapons, but we’ve never stopped to ask why.

So Afghanistan is just another war.

And it won’t be the last.

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic: https://benjaminsledge.com

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