Why We Died: Political Validation for Veterans

January 8, 2014

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There are questions that come at parties. Questions that I try and avoid, but I know in the end it’s impossible. Someone finds out about my time in the service, or maybe I tell them just to get it over with.

“Oh, Afghanistan?”

They put a finger to their lips, maybe stare at a wall, searching for the socially acceptable question that always hinges on the amount they’ve drank. No matter what they ask I have my script ready.

“How was it?”


“What’s Afghanistan like?”

“Think of the Bible and add a few ‘92 Toyota Corollas and some tractors.”

“Do you think you made a difference?”

This is by far my least favorite. “Sure,” I’ll answer, but because it is a question I’ve forbidden myself from indulging, I’ll wave it off.  I don’t have to think about it yet. Afghanistan’s chapter is ending, but it hasn’t completely closed, leaving a glimmer of hope that it might not devolve into a failed state. Maybe those collective sixteen months I spent there will be the bedrock that supports Karzai’s fledgling democracy in the years to come. Maybe, but probably not.

Yet my Iraq veteran counterparts no longer have the luxury of avoiding those tough introspective questions that ball your stomach in knots and makes you question God’s existence, for in these past few days they’ve been forced to watch cities like Fallujah and Ramadi fall to an enemy they thought they had driven out. With their war over, they’ve been relegated to the sidelines to watch another one begin.

I have tried to imagine what it must be like, steeling myself for when Afghanistan slips back into the inevitable pit of violence that it has been since antiquity; preparing to ask myself the hard questions, the questions I ignore at dinner parties.

Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die in Iraq?” Paul Szoldra asks in an essay of the same name, published just days ago in Business Insider.

Szoldra’s last lines are telling: “I’ll never know why they died…It sure wasn’t for freedom, democracy, apple pie, or mom and dad back home. The only reason they died was for the man or woman beside them. They died for their friends…I’m just not satisfied with that.”

Sadly, with our foreign policy failings of years past and no happy ending in sight for Afghanistan, it looks like my generation of veterans will have to find a way to be satisfied with the knowledge that our brothers and sisters in arms died for us and only us.

I guess in so many ways, we always wanted our own Nazi Germany to defeat, our own Atlantic Wall to breach, and our own Mount Suribachi to raise the flag atop. We wanted to think that our next patrol might “end the war by Christmas” but of course that wasn’t and never will be the case.

9/11, the American Way, freedom, and baseball gloves. Like Szoldra, I honestly can’t say my friends died for that. It’s cheap, it’s easy, but above all it’s not true.

Josh and Brandon, Jacob and Danny died for each other and they died for us—their comrades. And while we may not have our Just War, we have each other. We have those that made it home and the memories of those who didn’t, and if we don’t come to terms with the fact that political validation for our friends’ deaths is never coming and that each other is all we’ve got, then I don’t know how we, as a generation of returning veterans, will collectively be able to get out of bed in the morning.

Each other is why we’re here, why I’m writing this, and why I will never regret my time in the Marines. People ask if I’d do it all over again, and I never hesitate.

Of course I would.

Not because I love the Marines or because of patriotism, but because of the people I slept in the mud with, the people I never would have met if it hadn’t been for the uniform. They were the only reason I dragged myself off the ground in Afghanistan for every patrol and the only reason I drag myself out of bed today.

So as history marches on we will eventually be forced to ask ourselves the tough questions, the questions that Paul Szoldra asks in his essay and the questions I’m afraid to answer at dinner parties.

Why did our friends die? Did we actually make a difference?

There can only be one answer, one simple answer that we must cling to if we’re going to make it through this alive.

They died so we could make a difference.


Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and executive editor at The Hoya.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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25 thoughts on “Why We Died: Political Validation for Veterans

  1. Thank you for your service and thank you for writing this commentary. My son just retired from the Marines. .went Iraq and Afghanistan also. He NEVER talks about anything..but I know how he loved his fellow Marines. Thank you again.

  2. Thomas,
    I do not typically leave comments but as a US Grunt Corpsman who served with both 1/6 Charlie Co. and 3/6, I had to tell you that I respect and admire your thoughtful piece. I remember being in Marjah and having the old Muj fighters tell us “you may have all the watches, but we have the time.”

  3. Thomas,
    Excellent essay, you hit the nail on the head about how a lot of Veterans of these two wars feel about why we were there and what we fought for. Thanks.

    Major S.A. Grodack USMC

  4. My son died in Iraq. He died because evil men like George Bush lied to an entire nation, and the people who vote republican believed him. I hope there’s a Hell and he goes there. As for why my son died….he died for nothing.

    Paul Wessel
    Proud father of SPC Kevin Wessel
    KIA April 19, 2005

    1. Prayers of comfort for you. Painful as his loss is, you may hold your head up. I am pushing 70 years and then did two tours in Vietnam. It took a long time for me to reconcile my duty with the evil that exists among politicians. Your son did not die in vain. If Iraq rejects its chance for freedom (paid for by America), then Iraq will remain in the Dark Ages under its own guilt.

    2. Mr. Wessel, I served with your son in Baghdad. There is noting I can say that will ease your grief and, honestly, it is not my place to do so. I don’t disagree with anything you said, except for the last statement.

      Jake and Kevin died protecting their Brothers from and attack. Men walk this earth today because of what they did. Their actions that day are not insignificant, nor are they forgotten.

  5. Welcome to the brotherhood of combat vets. As a VietNam vet we have suffered throught exactly what you, our brothers, are going through, but only for many more years. You come to grips, but NEVER forget, with the fact that you made it home but some of your brothers and sisters didn’t. It has not been and will never be easy to live with but as time goes by you learn to adapt as we did during our time of service. God bless you and all our brothers and sisters in, and out, of uniform.
    VietNam 68-69

  6. Take it from this Vietnam Veteran, you can not help people that refuse to help themselves. When Vietnam started turning toward a capitalist economy, it started getting better there. You did it right and your cause was just in Iraq. If Iraq wants to live like Iraq, then it’s on Iraq’s head. HOLD YOUR HEADS UP IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS. …and don’t expect politicians to be anything but politicians, unreliable and self serving reptiles

  7. Great write. I try to answer those questions each day also. Wondering why I made it back and others didn’t. Why did we put so much effort into something to watch it turn upside down again. It seems to me that for may years we played the “Devil you know” game with states like Iraq/Afgan/Lybia etc. and in the war against Terrorism we started to go looking to stop those “we know” only to find that the replacements are, in some cases, far worse. For me the answer says I went and fought was a home came back to make a difference every day I am alive. So that we don’t wake up and start living with IED’s on I-10. You can know they political way we do things all day long…in all my travels it is still the best thing going and I would still lay my life down for the Flag of this country.

  8. Sorry auto correct got the better of me. You can knock the political way we do things all day long…in all my travels it is still the best thing going and I would still lay my life down for the Flag of this country.

  9. Desert Storm vet, VII Corps Artillery Support, 1990 – 1991. In retrospect, it seemed like GHW Bush and his National Security Council were right to avoid a three-way civil war in Iraq, a la Lebanon of the 1980’s. The return to Iraq in 2003 made little sense to me. Being part of the nasty math of stabilizing the Mideast while reducing Iraq from 5000 armored fighting vehicles (AFVs) to 1200, leaving Israel with 2700 AFVs clearly reminded me that “War is the continuation of politics through other means.” -Clausewitz Am hoping my son and other American sons & daughters never have to go fight in the Biblical lands again. Recommend the Clooney movie, “Three Kings.”

  10. Mr. Gibbons-Neff,
    Thank you again for your service to the nation and for engaging the public on the difficult topic of the realities of war.
    When we volunteer to serve, we never know where or if we will be called to fight, whether the objectives will be worthy of our sacrifice or if the operation will be competently executed. But we do know that we will have shouldered our share of the load in defense of the nation and will have contributed to the deterrence of those who would come to our shores to do us and our families harm. Our service tells the world that some Americans value this nation enough to voluntarily fight for it, in spite of the fact that our service may be squandered by our national leadership.
    It may have been hubris to think that we could change thousands of years of culture with our weapons and money. However, we lead Afghanistan and Iraq to water, it is up to them now if they will recognize the opportunity they have been handed.
    The fact is that those who served stood up to a lot of bad people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and helped a lot of people who would not have otherwise known healthcare, education, or any degree of security. That has to count for something.

  11. Vietnam VET…2 combat tours…recon and infantry. Whether you win our lost is for you to decide. but you need to look at the real event, not the revisionist history. Vietnam accomplished many things, perhaps not in Vietnam proper, but throughout the Pacific Rim. The U.S.did not lose the war in Vietnam on any level. WE NEVER A MAJOR BATTLE….The war was lost by the S Vietnamese, two full years after the last U.S.troops left country. As to the war of attrition, we left approximately 2.2 million PLN & NVA troops KIA. The real problem with war is that now the politicians try to run them instead of letting the military do it’s job.

    1. Well said, Ken. Truly sage perspective. I just posted this to LinkedIn… I should have read your comment first: “Beautifully written and expressed. I believe these feelings have been grappled also by Vietnam Veterans and perhaps Korea. It would be nice if we, the public, will try to understand for this generation and the Service members before them who never gave full voice to the feelings: probably because we never let them. Thoughts?”

  12. Great writing and Great Comments. As the father of SGT Daniel Lee Galvan, fallen in Salerno Afghanistan, 12 Aug 2004, and a veteran of Vietnam, you can rest assured that I and many of our brothers know why you served and know it was worth it. To borrow from a comment above you can lead them to water but you can’t make them drink, nor does it do any good to drink for them. I Salute you all for your service and I will never forget your service and sacrifice.

  13. As a combat Nam vet 66-68, 26th marines,
    Machine gunner, I have for over forty years died
    A little but more each day for my comrades in
    Arms that I served with. And now today I die a
    Little each day for all that have given the ultimate
    Sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan. That bond shall
    Forever live with me. A person asked me two days ago
    When was I in Nam, ( I have worn my dog tags since
    I came home and have never taken them off along
    With my fathers who served 5 campIgns during
    World War II. ). My answer was last night. Yes I
    return to Nam many nights with nightmares. But
    It’s a much less prices to pay tgen the many friends
    Who never came home. I have blood on my hands, their
    Blood and I see it all the time no matter how many
    Times I wash my hands, it’s still there. I fought for my
    Brothers in arms and nothing else. I say if any country
    Truly wants freedom then let them fight it for themselves as we did in 1776…to all Iraq and afghan vets, stand
    Proud..you did your duty…to protect and fight for
    Your foxhole buddies. I salute you…

  14. As a former grunt,I am not satisfied that my buddies had to die for me. The military relies on us dying for each other. That way they can do these unnescessary wars and count on us to die for each other, and those of us who survive have to live a life of PTSD and with a moral wound for allowing ourselves to be used to such a horrible degree.

  15. Thank you. I love your description of the country,

    “Think of the Bible and add a few ‘92 Toyota Corollas and some tractors.”

    I grew up in Iran, and that’s about right – except the car was a “PeykAn”.

    Your thoughts give me the courage to continue asking awkward questions. Most recently, questioning the fear of nuclear terrorism that we take for granted and that we use to rationalize a lot of ill considered invasions. Have you read “Atomic Obsession”? A real eye opener.

    Thanks again for your service and conviction. Warm regards,