I’m sitting here in southern Alabama in my travel trailer as Tropical Storm Fred makes its way from the Gulf Coast north through Alabama. Living in a lightweight trailer, there’s a lot of uncertainty as the rains and winds increase, challenging gravity’s hold on my shelter.
While I sit wondering about my future, whether my life will literally be turned upside down or not, I’m reading the news coming from Afghanistan where the Taliban is taking control of a country that for twenty years has tried to distance itself from the stringent and archaic rules of the Taliban’s flavor of strict Muslim government. For many Afghans, the only life they have known is about to be only a memory. For older Afghans who remember life before the American-led coalition forces dispersed the Taliban, I imagine the dread of an oppressive life is returning. For Soldiers like myself who served there, answering our nation’s call to duty, questions about our sacrifice -and the sacrifice of our comrades whose lives were lost there- swirl through our minds.
For me, not being a combat Soldier but one who tries to bring God’s peace to places of anti-peace, my memories revolve around the lives of the Soldiers I served with, the memory of those who died there, and the faces of the women and children who thought they found hope in the gifts we shared with them when we visited their villages or when they came to our bases for medical care.
In the village elders and the children who gathered around them, I saw a glimpse of a future that the old men and women only dreamed of and the young boys and girls had never known but hoped for. In the women whose faces sheepishly peaked out from behind their coverings, still afraid of who may challenge their new-found freedom, I saw a desire to be who they were created to be, to share a smile or an encouraging expression.
But now, with the Taliban returning to power, the natural question is “where did we go wrong?” Were we wrong to enter Afghanistan in the first place? Were we wrong trying to set up a central government in a country governed for so long by regional elders? Were we wrong to try to train an Afghan Army to defend its people? Were we wrong to try to negotiate with the Taliban, knowing they would return to power when we left? Were we wrong to stay so long? Were we wrong to leave so soon?
I don’t have an answer to any of the questions, though I do have my opinions. But my opinions, like yours, are meaningless to the countless Afghans who now face a future so bleak that most Americans can’t even imagine it.
One question question I do want to answer is: was it worth it? I wouldn’t presume to justify the death of any American Soldier based on my experience in Afghanistan so will only speak to what I know…or think I know. The time I spent in that poor country was mainly occupied with compassion. I, with other American Service Members, would regularly go to the Egyptian and Korean Hospitals at Bagram Air Base and distribute clothing, shoes, school supplies and candy to the mothers and children who came there for care. I, with members of my Signal Battalion stationed at Bagram, would visit villages near Bagram to share with the elders donations for them to distribute to their villagers.
During these humanitarian efforts, I saw in the faces of young and old a smile that seemed deeper than a passing good feeling, but filled with hope for a better future, hope for a better life. Yes, that hope may have been dashed as the Taliban rolled in and took over, but was it completely? Could it be that having felt a bit of hope, that it will remain within them, longing to spring forth again? Could it be that the hope that they were given during our presence there, will give them the strength to endure and maybe even overcome the oppression that is ahead for them? Could it be that the brief years of hope -though a fleeting time in the long history of the Afghan people- brought enough happiness and joy that their memories might be filled more with what can someday be rather than what once was and is lost? Can the little bit of hope that our presence and help gave them while we were there be a glowing light to sustain them through the darkness that is now overtaking them?
I don’t know, I can only hope so.