Like most of my fellow veterans, I watched on television in horror as the Taliban took over the country of Afghanistan, where I had deployed in 2012. The scenes were gut-wrenching, both in seeing extremists in charge of the nation and also in watching our allies die as they tried to escape. I’ve seen a lot of conversations among other veterans about whether we have been betrayed and our sacrifices wasted. Some ask, was it worth it? To this, I must answer a resounding, YES. It was worth it. I might answer the same way about all of my deployments, for service is always honorable and worthwhile.
First, we must ask why we deployed to Afghanistan, and why we deploy to other locations. Most people argue it is to help the people of the countries where we go. In the short run, however, the reason why service members go to other nations is because we are ordered. As members of the military, we serve the nation and execute the missions given to us. Sometimes these seem to missions make sense, and sometimes they don’t, but we do it for our own nation, not for the sake of others. At the beginning of this conflict, the mission made sense. Our purpose was to remove those who had orchestrated 9-11 and stop it from happening again. Politicians disagreed about whether this required nation-building or not, but there is little doubt that we fulfilled this mission at the time. For all practical purposes, this mission was over by 2014 when we started to draw down troops, though most recognized we would need to keep some numbers there for many years. While it may seem that this purpose is unraveling and the threat increasing, yet at least on my watch it was fulfilled. For more than twenty years, our enemies were on the run and unable to form an adequate defense, let alone mount an attack on U.S. soil. We completed the mission given to us and met the requirements of our nation.
Of course, as service members, we want to know that we are helping people, that we are more than a cog in the machine of war. We want to feel good about our service and believe that we helped make a difference in the world. For the same reason as above, I believe that we did. I remember while in Afghanistan visiting schools and marketplaces and seeing young girls and women freely walking the street. I watched engineers building roads and buildings, putting up utilities, and cities springing up. I saw the impact that capitalism made in the lives of ordinary people. It is true that many of these freedoms and benefits are quickly fading and that future generations will be made to suffer. At least while I was there, it was a far less dangerous place than it was before we came or will be after we leave. A whole generation of young girls grew to adulthood without knowing the oppression of the Taliban, and that is a good thing. Many young men were able to raise families without growing opium. The Afghanis were free to fight for their rights and carve out a safer future. Our suppression of violence had good results while it lasted. For this reason, also, I believe our sacrifices were worth it. Certainly, those who were able to live in peace for a while would think so.
This need not mean that we have to be happy about the way we have departed. For those who believe in honor and keeping your word, I understand feeling shame about betraying our allies and leaving them to die. It is unbecoming the charity and bravery of our people and certainly does not reflect our values. For those who believe in democracy, I have to wonder if we really gave it a chance. While people complain about the amount of time we’ve had troops in Afghanistan, we still have troops in Europe and Asia seventy years after World War II. We can establish nations in a matter of hours, but it takes many generations for the rule of law to take hold. For those who believe in fighting terrorism, keeping a small number of troops in Afghanistan seemed a small price to pay to ensure the Taliban were never able to return to power. At the same time, like many others, I also believe that our service members have been deployed in the Middle East far too long. The main question at this point is not whether we should have left but rather “when” and “how” this should have taken place. In the end, however, when told to leave, our military will salute and execute the mission given to it. We must always remember that U.S. policy is changed at the ballot box, not on the battlefield.
Whatever comes will come, but I continue to believe that our sacrifices were worth it. At least for a time, we protected the homeland and made the lives of some people better. Nothing material we do in this world is permanent, but we can say we held the line in our time. In fact, we can say the same about all our service. Whether you agree or disagree with national policy, we are the ones who protected and served the nation, and that is something worthwhile. It is still worth it.
© 2021 J.D. Manders