Abstracting War, from Afghanistan to Syria


I was at dinner a few months back when they brought up the little dead Afghan girl. A girl I had watched die, but had forgotten about. Buried, repressed, pushed into the same compartments in my mind that hold images of my father riddled with lung cancer and the wounded seagull I killed with a rock when I was twelve.

She was no older than six and she had drowned. The spittle of vomit on the side of her mouth was the only evidence that she had struggled.

As the Syria talks in Geneva fizzle, and the hope for some semblance of peace or ceasefire in the thousand day-old conflict dies accordingly, I can’t help but think of that little Afghan girl. Now she stares back when I see Syria’s wounded and dying on television, a repressed memory once again a raw wound, soaking through the pressure dressings of time I thought I had correctly applied.

Watching the videos from Homs and Aleppo and all the other cities racked with artillery shells and the pop-pop-pop of Kalashnikovs, I’ve stopped asking if I’m looking at the good guys, the good-bad guys, or the bad guys. I’ve stopped wondering if the videos are staged to elicit a response from the West or the East, North or South.

All I look for now are the little things. The cringe when a shell whistles overhead, the glazed-over eyes of someone who has seen too much in too little a time. The way smoke catches the sun as it billows up from the burning carcass of a destroyed home. I look for what’s real, what can’t be used in think-pieces or news segments to further our notion of Syria’s predestined destruction.

Back here we’re so concerned about the geopolitics and the ramifications the war has on the region and our influence in the Middle East and what Russia is doing and how the Iranians have us all played for fools that we forget what’s really happening.  We’ve abstracted Syria to the point that it’s no longer a war, but a giant Risk board we get to watch on CNN. And this isn’t the first time we’ve done it, either. Look at Iraq. American service member’s sacrifices have been reduced to the phrase: “foreign policy failure.” And Afghanistan is next as we anxiously await America’s longest war to receive the rubber stamp labeled “Zero Option”.

As a country we’ve done a fantastic part of ignoring war in its simple, yet brutal form. We ignore the mangled limbs and blood-soaked Black Hawks and instead we add layers of whatever narrative we want. Budweiser gives us the homecoming; the single soldier, a hero worthy of nation’s praise and the President gives us Corey Remsburg, a decorated Ranger whose sacrifice is so foreign that it can be the butt of a political joke. We have become so distal to our wars that we have the ability to look at their byproducts and give them whatever backstory we want.

We cling to “war is hell” and throw that around wherever it fits, as if it’s blatantly obvious to everyone who has never been.

And so we’re all resigned to the fact that war in Syria is horrible, and we use words and phrases like ‘casualties’ and ‘civilian deaths’ and ‘destroyed neighborhoods’ to pad narratives that will one day prove that we were right all along about those good-bad guys and how they were all in league with the real bad guys all along.

We’ve forgotten that this war is disgusting and that the people surrounded by it are dying terrible deaths, regardless of whether they’re being gassed or being blown in half from a steel drum dropped out of the back of helicopter. And we forget that even in the middle of all this, heroic deeds are happening as men and women die for one another, because we all know true altruism is born under fire.

It’s too late though, the damage is done. America has forgotten. Syria’s place has been reduced to headlines and tickers, inexorably linked to think-tanks and talking heads while the human element has been marginalized to spastic deaths we can watch on YouTube and blossoming refugee camp populations we can tweet about. The same could almost be said for Iraq and Afghanistan; the only reason we haven’t been able to marginalize our own wars is because our veterans walk among us, their sacrifices brandished through speeches and writing, their trials serving as monuments to the reality of our own conflicts.

Our veterans serve as a levee to those who try so hard to make us, as a country, turn our wars into single-sentence summaries, and chart new paths without taking into account the routes we have just tread. Routes mired in mistakes and heroism, lessons learned and lessons forgotten.

So maybe this is a grandiose ramble that should be written off as naïve and in the end won’t do anything anyway because you and I both know that the Syrian civil war, and Iraq and Afghanistan will probably get a lot worse before they get even a fraction better.

But I think it’s worth writing because I can’t stop thinking about that little Afghan girl, who could have been a little Syrian girl or hell, maybe even my daughter one day. Because she was real, just like the death and destruction on the TV and the Syrian civil war and all the wars we’re fighting and have fought.

So as the years pass and we try to put all the nasty stuff in the neat little boxes us Americans are famous for, we need to remember that over there isn’t some abstraction, some Peter Berg movie with heart-pounding performances. That how terrible Syria is or how regrettable Afghanistan has become aren’t just comments everyone can agree on at a happy hour. They’re real, and they’re covered in blood.


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.  Follow him on twitter: @Tmgneff.


Photo credit: Freedom House (adapted by War on the Rocks)