Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
— John F. Kennedy, 1961
Over the weekend the results of a new poll were released, showing that three in four Americans think that history will judge the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as either a “complete failure” or “more of a failure than success,” and want to move on. More than 70% of those polled said they were glad for the military pullouts to happen, and nearly 60% think the situations in both Afghanistan and Iraq will only get worse in the future. The media says America wants to “move on.” Depressing? Only when one considers that a majority of Americans already “moved on” from these wars a long time ago.
Back in November 2001, 80% of Americans supported ground war in Afghanistan. In March 2003, 72% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. But of course the word “support” is to be taken fairly loosely: during these years of war, about 2.5 million Americans–less than one percent of Americans, that is–actually stepped up to serve in these wars, and many of them for multiple tours of duty. It’s also worth noting that this included a handful of years where service members were “stop lossed” to serve extended or recall tours, while the rest of Americans went about their business here at home, largely unaffected. All together, more than 6,800 service members have lost their lives in combat, and more than 52,000 have been wounded and will require ongoing care for the rest of their lives.
These wars have also been breathtakingly expensive. The final tally for both wars is expected to be in the range of $4 to $6 trillion, and this, plus the overwhelmingly popular (albeit historically unprecedented) tax cuts that were made as war spending skyrocketed, have been by far the largest and most enduring impacts on the nation’s debt. Which is to say that while a majority of Americans wanted two wars, that same majority wanted neither to fight in them nor to pay for them.
Add to this the fact that U.S. policy has consistently favored finding easy answers amid the vast complexity of politics, history, and culture in these faraway places–resulting too often in disaster. I could write a long, angry rant here on how much of American spending in Afghanistan and Iraq has gone toward the bloated, wasteful, and poorly managed contracts that have profited the few at great expense to many. Or how wars “fought on the cheap” have not yielded ideal outcomes. Or how Americans have largely ignored the positive gains made, often despite our shortcomings, in Afghanistan (and others could speak to Iraq as well). Meanwhile, U.S. troops, our allies, and our many Afghan and Iraqi partners have made tremendous efforts toward succeeding and winning against our enemies, they’ve made profound sacrifices, and their lives have been forever changed–all amid the American public’s swelling sea of apathy.
This isn’t a policy paper; it’s a moral response. America has been checked out on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq almost since they began. Perhaps the original polling of “support” for the wars was in error–did “support” mean an understanding that these wars would cost America dearly in lives and tax dollars? Did “support” mean a commitment to shared sacrifice? Did “support” mean dedication to the hard, complicated, and costly work of truly partnering with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq to achieve stable, sustainable, and peaceful outcomes? Did “support” mean going beyond blindly “supporting the troops” to actually wanting us to win?
I, for one, wanted to win. War is a complicated thing, and I saw firsthand that success in Afghanistan relied on far more than just overwhelming firepower–although too many times our troops didn’t even have that on their side. But I’ve found myself saying over and over through the years: we could’ve done better. Iraq now appears to be collapsing alongside its neighbor Syria. Afghanistan yet struggles, and the future remains uncertain. Yet we only seem able to talk about this in broad brushstrokes–and less in the specifics that continue to haunt so many of us.
Here are just a couple of specifics that I’ve personally been involved with over the last week:
Lack of Concern/Interest/Humanity for Afghan Kids. AFCECO, a highly successful, highly effective, and Afghan-led orphanage program, has had to shutter some of its facilities and downsize because interest in funding it has decreased as the war has become less and less popular/interesting to Americans. This is a tangible way to invest in Afghanistan’s future leaders, yet it’s profoundly difficult to get anyone to care–not even people who know me well, and who have known about my support of this program since 2006. Even USAID, which provided some funding to AFCECO for a year, is no longer funding educational programs like this in Afghanistan. The overall message seems to be that we want Afghanistan to do well and overcome the last 40 years of war–we just aren’t interested in supporting the actual people who will be doing this. Meanwhile we’ve been happy to throw millions at speedboats and other boondoggle purchases and contracts in Afghanistan.
Total Hypocrisy On Interpreter Visas. Early on we promised visas for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives to work with U.S. troops who could meet fairly basic requirements. Yet for countless interpreters who applied and met those requirements, those visas were never delivered. Haven’t heard about this? Listen to this heart wrenching radio program about it. Or read up on Matt Zeller’s herculean efforts to bring in an Afghan interpreter who saved his life in combat. The interpreter visa program has been basically crap. I hear from my interpreters who did amazing things for me and my colleagues in Afghanistan, and they tell me their lives are at risk because of how much worse things have gotten, and they’d like to know if the visa program works. It mostly does not. These are real people. And America has not only failed in its wars, it has failed in its promises. You be the one to tell this to the people you relied on in a combat zone and see how it feels. Or, worse yet, try to imagine how it feels to have risked your life to help U.S. troops, only to be left stranded and with yourself and your family in danger because you did that critical work.
These are just two of the many issues that linger, and will not simply go away because America wants to “move on.”
It seems to me that what we lack as a nation is rigor. Rigor in evaluating options and consequences. Rigor in commitment and follow-through. Rigor in seeking the right way to do things, and not simply the easiest way. Rigor in sorting through the partisan propaganda that both political parties try to sell us. Rigor in understanding how government policies and institutions work. Rigor in holding our public officials accountable. And, perhaps more than anything–rigor in taking individual responsibility for what we say we “support.” When it comes to what we’ve done in Afghanistan or Iraq, how many of us can even point out solid, substantive, and lasting expressions of what our nation values anymore?
If America truly wants to move on from its wars–it needs to at least understand and take responsibility for what it is moving on from.