National Security & Defense

Afghanistan — Was It Worth It? A Veteran’s Perspective

U.S. Army soldiers patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2011. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Whatever you think of the war, those of us who answered our nation’s call deserved a better ending.

Was it worth it?

This question echoes from the lips of the thousands of veterans of Afghanistan’s generational war. The men and women who served are a select fraternity. A brother and sisterhood of the few. In a nation that numbers more than 300 million, approximately 800,000 Americans saw combat in Afghanistan. That’s less than a quarter of a percent of the population. For 20 years, a fraction of America’s citizens have voluntarily shouldered the nation’s wartime obligations, often completing multiple combat tours of duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This sobering thought imbues new meaning to the oft-quoted stanza from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “we few, we happy few . . .”

Was it worth it?

Like many veterans, I spent the last several days watching the events unfolding in Afghanistan with a clenched stomach. The sight of Taliban flags flying over familiar landmarks was devastating, as was the sight of broken bodies littering the streets, and crowds surging toward overflowing aircraft. I was a junior Army captain on the day passenger planes flew into buildings, changing the world forever. This weekend’s heartbreaking video of Afghans plummeting from departing C-17s was eerily reminiscent of New Yorkers plunging from burning buildings to the backdrop of a beautifully blue sky. But what I’ve seen is not the worst. What I’ve read is: a social-media post from a fellow veteran asking for prayers for his child. A child who’s deploying to Afghanistan to provide stability for the ongoing evacuation. A child who very could well have been born after September 11, 2001. Responsibility for this war has now passed from the first generation to the second. How can this be?

Was it worth it?

If I were king, the war would have ended ten years ago. Perhaps earlier. Before entropy, or generals without plans, or politicians without convictions, before our nation simply stopped paying attention to those serving overseas on her behalf and allowed our elected leaders to continue sending troops to the land that time forgot in wave after wave. Democracy cannot be imposed nor exported. If a nation’s citizens are not willing to fight, and potentially die, for the right to be free, we cannot and should not bear this burden for them. If the Afghans could not govern themselves after eight years or ten, they certainly couldn’t after 15 or 20. American men and women should not be fighting for Afghanistan’s freedom if Afghans cannot or will not rise up en masse to join them.

Was it worth it?

Ultimately, this is a question answered in thousands of different ways, or perhaps not at all. Like the war itself, the answer is deeply personal and culled from each service member’s experience. Of battles won and comrades lost. Of years passed and memorials constructed to those who will never have the chance to grow old. Of frozen images and cached feelings. Of spikes of adrenaline and moments of pure terror. Of triumphs and heart-rending losses.

Was it worth it?

I don’t know anymore. I want to believe that our initial foray into Afghanistan was just. That destroying al-Qaeda and giving the Afghan people the chance to live free was noble and worthy of our highest ideals. But the shadow of the years that followed is impossible to ignore. Years of squandered blood and treasure. Those years drive doubt into the hearts of men.

Which brings us back to the fall of Kabul. While I don’t know if the two decades in Afghanistan were worth the terrible price, I do know this — those of us who answered our nation’s call deserved a better ending. We deserved a resolution without mass executions and bodies falling from planes to the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. To my fellow veterans, to the quarter of a percent who willingly bore this crushing weight without fanfare or complaint, you are the very best of us. Your sacrifice will not be forgotten.

PHOTOS: The Fall of Afghanistan

Don Bentley deployed to Afghanistan as an Army Air Cavalry Troop Commander where he was awarded the Air Medal with “V” device for Valor, the Combat Action Badge, and the Bronze Star Medal. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of Tom Clancy Target Acquired and The Outside Man.


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