Afghanistan: What Was the Point?

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by Marie Hawthorne

Enough people in real life have asked my opinion about what’s going on in Afghanistan that I figured I’d write an article about it. You may wonder why people ask my opinion. After all, I’m just some mom. I’m not a vet.

Afghanistan has dominated my adult life.  

I was in college on September 11, 2001. Within the week, my brother, closest in age to me, had enlisted. Not long after, my best friend from high school enlisted. I started dating a National Guardsman in the fall of 2002. For the rest of 2003 and 2004, he kept getting called up to go to Afghanistan. Then the orders would get canceled-it was nerve-wracking. 

Even though we were kids and hadn’t known each other for more than a year and a half, we decided to get married. We figured we could use the BAH, and we could move in together whenever he got back.  

My husband never got sent overseas, but my brother and friend did. 

My husband just did training in the States for 15 months. It was disruptive but could have been worse. I had a good job working in oil and gas. We decided to start a family because the threat of going overseas was always hanging over our heads.  

My brother and best friend did get sent overseas multiple times. My best from high school did two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. I won’t say anything about the more recent ones. My brother did his first Afghanistan tour in 2006-2007. When he came back, I saw him at our parents’ for Easter. Then he came out to visit me right before his second deployment. We talked a lot about Afghanistan. 

I was the last family member to see my brother alive.

I am hesitant to go into much detail about what he did over there. My brother spoke Pashto and worked extensively with Afghan civilians and the Afghan military.  

He had Afghan friends, though he would qualify that with, “As much as you can be friends with people that are that different.” He was continually baffled by some of their cultural habits. He said a considerable percentage (maybe half) of the girls in many villages would be crippled. Not due to some congenital disability. It was because busting the arms of girls that seemed too motivated to read or work hard was normal.

Everyone’s heard of Malala, right? Shot in the head for encouraging girls to read. She is not atypical. As if making it difficult or impossible for a significant percentage of the population to be productive wasn’t enough.

Afghans had other cultural taboos against work.

My brother told me about a frustrating incident trying to hire a young man. He was quite familiar with the wages in the area. However, this young man wanted an exorbitant sum because he had twenty-seven people he needed to support. My brother knew he didn’t have that many children and said to tell him another one.

The young Afghan man explained that he needed to support his wife and kids, plus his parents, brothers, and their wives and children. He said that usually, only the youngest boy worked. My brother told him he was out of luck, and if his dad and brothers needed money, they could come and get jobs too.  

My brother would say their values were just completely different.  

Many of my friends have spent time over there, and they all say the same thing: Afghans don’t value comfort and security the same way Westerners do. My brother wasn’t entirely critical, nor am I. I do think Westerners are too hung up on our creature comforts. But a lot of what makes Western society function is the knowledge that most of us would still prefer safety and predictability over fighting about insults from generations ago. 

Afghan society isn’t like that.

Many of them don’t like the Taliban. But that doesn’t mean they all want to be a modern, democratic nation, either. I remember my brother saying that they were Stone Age people. That was how they wanted it. My brother found it absurd that politicians thought they could make the Afghan people change.  

My brother may have complained about working with the Afghans sometimes (well, a lot). However, he would have been appalled at the people left behind and thrown under the bus. I know I am.

And yet, I’m not sure how else it was going to end.

It’s becoming clear now what my brother talked about such a long time ago. The government we propped up, the Afghan soldiers we trained, were never going to stand independently. Was this going to become another permanent station, like Germany and South Korea? What was the plan? Most Americans, I think, understood getting bin Laden. I was happy when that happened. It felt like we had reached the end. But the apparent lack of an exit plan, or at least the lack of clarity about the long-term goals, I found unsettling.

At the end of July, Gen. Milley said the Afghan security forces have the capacity and capabilities needed to fight and defend their country. He added, “A Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is not a foregone conclusion.” 

Less than a month later, on August 18, he said, “There was nothing I saw that indicated a collapse of this army and this government in 11 days.” 

Either Milley is frighteningly incompetent or lying.

Neither would surprise me. Twenty years ago, I trusted military officers wholeheartedly. Since then, they have lost that trust. I met a lot of military brass after my brother died. Some of them I liked a lot, on a personal level. 

There was a one-star that sobbed throughout most of the ceremonies. He obviously cared. Even then, I remember hearing some of my relatives saying he would never get promoted again because he wasn’t enough of a politician.  

The higher ranks are all politicians. Even the lower-ranking officers, I wouldn’t believe about many things. I have seen them tell straight-faced lies about matters great and small. People have to understand, anything coming from the military is so scripted and vetted. They say what they think you should hear. Any relation to the truth is purely incidental. I like many officers and am incredibly grateful for them. But, I don’t believe most of what they say.

I was actually interviewed for a book after my brother died.

There was some military author that wanted to do a Lone Survivor-type story about my brother. I didn’t want to do the interview. My parents tricked me into it. They got my permission immediately after a 16-hour drive when I wasn’t thinking straight. I was pretty rude to the interviewer, and the book never happened. He had some narrative already in mind and seemed like he wanted anecdotes from my parents and me that fit into the story he wanted to tell. 

I didn’t play nice. I am not interested in turning the memory of my brother into someone’s make-believe character.

This whole Afghanistan ordeal has deeply unsettled me.

Partially because I miss my brother and wanted to see what he died for, a Taliban-free Afghanistan, become a reality. But the mess overseas is disturbing on a higher level too. If we abandon our allies so readily, what message does that send to Russia and China? (Countries far more powerful than these smaller terrorist groups.) What must be running through the minds of the Taiwanese?

If we are willing to dump hundreds of billions (probably trillions) of dollars, and thousands of lives, into a project and then cut and run, who would be willing to ally themselves with us in the future? 

I know I wouldn’t.  

I don’t know how the powers that be expect to attract young soldiers.

My whole family is military, but I’d have difficulty encouraging my sons to sign up. Our soldiers deserve better than this. They deserve clear-cut missions that have the emotional backing of a majority of the American public. That way, when soldiers get injured or killed, they will not be treated as people suffering due to some personal choice. Instead, people will treat these soldiers as heroes that took one for the team.

Right now, most of the soldiers and family members I know feel used. Soldiers dumped their lives into the mission in Afghanistan. Family members had pieces of their hearts overseas for the sake of the mission. 

And for what? My brother’s dead. Most of the people he devoted his life to will probably be dead soon if they aren’t already. Why? 

What’s the point? What’s the f***ing point?

I’ve got a veteran friend in town who lives next door to another veteran, a helicopter pilot who lost many friends over there. The pilot has been drinking on his porch for days, saying, “What’s the point? What’s the fucking point?”

My brother got killed in 2008. I was seven months pregnant with my second child at the time. I also had a toddler. My then-husband was working full-time at a hospital and also in graduate school part-time. I had been working part-time from home but quit when my brother got killed. I was overwhelmed.  

“It’s NOT far away…”

I grew up in the suburbs and lived in the suburbs when my brother got killed. The suburban mom world is its own strange thing. After my brother died, I couldn’t talk about his death. But I remember going on about Afghanistan at some get-together. It might have been a birthday party or something, and hearing, “Who cares about Afghanistan? It’s so far away!”

At the time, I was just stunned. I’m the kind of person who thinks of the perfect thing to say five hours after it needs to be said. But what I thought later was, “My brother died in Afghanistan. It’s not far away; it’s in my house.”

I’ve met a few sensitive, supportive people over the years. But on the whole, the responses I got from people were primarily indifferent to negative. The overwhelming majority of people thought along the lines of, well, that’s what happens when you’re involved with the military. No gratitude, no sense of responsibility.  

Americans are incapable of dealing with grief, therefore incapable of dealing with reality. 

When we see something horrible, we (for the most part) want to sweep it under the rug. We don’t want to sit with people that are struggling. Many of us don’t want to ask ourselves, “Were there choices I could have made that would have changed this? Am I a part of this pain, this grief, in some way?”

Yes, most of us are. 

We’re part of a vast, interconnected global supply chain. When we want to do business globally, that means getting our hands dirty all over the world. I’ve known many people over the years that think being “anti-war” absolves them of all responsibility for what goes on in places like Afghanistan. Unless they live like the Amish, I don’t want to hear it. 

People wonder why I got into prepping and why I live the way I do.

There are a lot of different kinds of preppers out there. The most common stereotype is just the person who stocks up on all sorts of crazy gear. But some preppers try to have a simpler lifestyle, so they are not so dependent on the grid. More people than ever seem to want to step back from the craziness.

It’s not going “backward” to the pioneer days. It’s going forward to having a little more control over our own lives. An attempt to put some distance between ourselves and The Machine. If we are skilled enough, it’s making our corner of the world more beautiful and productive. That way, the soldiers that fight have something precious to come home to.

I do see many people trying to make real changes in their own lives. But I also know many people stuck in their ruts, self-absorbed, smug, and who see themselves at the top of the world.

Well, Rome was at the top of the world too. Rome lasted 1000 years before it fell. I don’t think we will.

After my brother died, I felt like I had to garden.

It felt like a subconscious command. Part of me knew the way I felt was kind of crazy. However, the other part, driven to get out of the suburbs and learn to be more self-sufficient, couldn’t stop. I felt torn in two until Covid brought all kinds of shortages. Now, after almost ten years of producing much of my own food and becoming vastly more capable around the farm, I have no regrets.

I almost wonder sometimes if my brother, after he died, was somehow trying to warn me. I know that sounds crazy.

So, what do I think about Afghanistan?

The people who know me know that Afghanistan took my brother and, by extension, my ability to “just be normal” for a while. That eventually cost me my marriage, which cost me my financial stability, as I had been an at-home mom. It also cost me my respectability. I had to leave the church in which I had been raised after my marriage ended.  

Afghanistan took my brother. 

It took a massive piece of my parents’ hearts. They had found a great deal of comfort in thinking he had died for a noble cause. Now his Afghan friends are getting killed, and again, what’s the point? If handing Afghanistan over to the Taliban was ever an acceptable option, why spend twenty years wasting the lives of Americans and Afghans?

Religion is the only way I can kind of make sense of some of this.

I believe that what matters for each soldier is how they made their own little choices each day. I hope the powers responsible for this mess of bloodshed and half-truths are held accountable, if not in this world, then in the next. The people on the ground, the men and women, getting wounded and killed, were not the drivers of this madness.  

Artyom Borovik’s The Hidden War is an excellent book about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the edition I have, Borovik added correspondence he’d received after writing about Afghanistan. One of the letters was from a doctor, T.I. Kuznetsova, who had treated many veterans.

The doctor wrote, “Artem, the war was indeed an evil gamble, but the lads died heroically, they were convinced that they were defending the Fatherland. . . We await your essays on the young men who loved their Homeland deeply, there, so far away.”

Sacrifices made…for what?

We Americans have good men and women that died over there too. I don’t doubt for a moment most of them loved the United States deeply. I have to believe that somehow, somewhere, there is Something that saw and appreciated their sacrifices and loved them back.

Otherwise, like the pilot says, what’s the point? What’s the fucking point?

About Marie

Marie Hawthorne is a native Midwesterner who has been quietly creating a simpler life with her family since 2008.
Afghanistan: What Was the Point?
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