“The Lives We Save May Be Our Own”: Afghanistan, Syria, and How We Can Help

Me being wrangled by local boys (to include the child photographer who had my camera) near Gardez, Afghanistan, in 2010

Me being wrangled by local boys (to include the child photographer who had my camera) near Gardez, Afghanistan, in 2010

What should be done about the crisis in Syria? What can we as regular citizens do? And what should we do?

Earlier this month I was invited on WNYC’s nationally-syndicated public radio program “The Takeaway” to talk with host John Hockenberry about how my experience as a veteran informs what I’m thinking about possible intervention in Syria’s civil war. Chemical weapons have been deployed by the Syrian government, in violation of international treaties. Washington appeared to be weighing military strikes as an option. What insight could I possibly add to this?

The producers at “The Takeaway” are always sharp, thoughtful, and ask open-ended questions in the phone pre-interview that really get me thinking about what I can uniquely offer a segment like this. I’m not exaggerating here. They’re really that good, and what they do is, in my mind, a stark contrast with another media outlet I spoke with recently. Every interaction I’ve had with “The Takeaway” has been a positive one, and everyone–from the story producers to the studio staff, the interns, and even John himself–have all made me feel respected and valued over these last few years. They reach out to veterans frequently and allow their authentic voices and opinions to be heard. I love “The Takeaway” and I encourage you to tune in whenever you can for quality journalism and thoughtful discussion.

As I thought about the Syria segment, I found myself reflecting on my deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, and the stories I heard from my colleagues in the Afghan National Army about their experiences in the Afghan civil war that began shortly after the Soviet pullout in 1989, and lasted until the U.S. invasion in 2001. My knowledge of events in Syria only goes as far as what I can read online, but I know firsthand what it’s like to sit face to face with people who survived a simply atrocious civil war. And what it feels like to be from a country that might’ve been able to do something to prevent some of that horrendous suffering. That is what I chose to talk about in the Syria segment. You can listen to the audio segment here:

Veterans Weigh In on Intervention in Syria

But talking about this was like simply turning on the faucet. I thought about a specific story (among many) that truly floored me, which came from my friend Captain Mirwais. The night following the WNYC segment, I stayed up late to write out Mirwais’s story, and fully develop what it is I had to say on the Syria debate. My bottom line: real people are suffering, and easing that suffering today may  prevent the wars of tomorrow. Or, to borrow a line from Flannery O’Connor: the lives we save may very well be our own.

I submitted what I wrote to James Dao, a top military correspondent for the New York Times and the selfless manager of the Times‘s “At War” blog. James has done simply stunning work, to include heading up the amazing multimedia coverage of “A Year at War,” which chronicled the true experiences of 10th Mountain Division’s 1-87th Infantry in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. James was out on the ground with infantrymen, whispering in the dark to a camera as they conducted night operations within shouting distance of the Taliban. He gets soldiers, he’s lived what it’s like for them in Afghanistan, and he covers military and veteran issues with the sensitivity and realism that only comes from lived experience. Keep up with James Dao’s vital work whenever you can.

James accepted my writing for “At War,” and I sincerely appreciate this because this places my writing among that of so many thoughtful and articulate veteran writers. You can read my post here:

Lessons from Post-Soviet Afghanistan Haunt Debate on Syria

But the lesson here isn’t just to talk and write about tragedy. The lesson here, I hope, is to do whatever we can from where we are at the moment.  More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, including men, women, and children. More than two million Syrians have fled to other countries to live in desperate conditions. If you share my belief that reducing suffering today may prevent violence tomorrow, then please do something:

1) You can contact your elected representatives in Washington. Phone calls are great, but emails matter, too.  Find links to find and contact your representatives HERE.

2) I hope you might also consider giving a few dollars to support the work of proven, effective charities on the ground in Syria and its bordering countries who are saving lives, helping children and families to have hope, and to one day recover when the war recedes. Two efforts that I personally support:

International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Syria – The IRC is a proven, highly effective, and highly efficient nonprofit that is providing real help to real Syrian people. Even a few dollars will reach people in need.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – These are the front-line folks providing the vast majority of sheltering and care for Syrian refugees, and they need our help.

Imagine if everyone who could gave just $5 or $10–how amazing that help would be for people in need. Please feel free to comment below or make your own suggestions for ways to help.

4 thoughts on ““The Lives We Save May Be Our Own”: Afghanistan, Syria, and How We Can Help

  1. I just read your op-ed in the New York Times and found it remarkable with humanity. I agree with you, we (meaning the West, I’m French) need to help the people of Syria by intervening, although it already seems already very late with the radicalization of many rebel groups.


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