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.
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