13 May 2010

Funeral for a Soldier

Last week, a soldier killed in Afghanistan was laid to rest in a small town near where I live. By coincidence, my son goes to elementary school in the same town and met the soldier a few years ago when he stopped by to visit the children. By all accounts the soldier was an all American type of kid- well liked by his neighbors, a good athlete and respected throughout the community. I picked up my son at school the day his body was brought back to town and the children had lined the streets waving small American flags as the hearse passed by. The light poles were adorned with yellow ribbons and the town had turned out in a show of unified sympathy you only see in small town America.

For a 10 year old, my son asks some pretty tough questions. "Why did he die ?" he asked, followed by "Are we winning the war ?" The local news had covered the story in print and on television and it led the six o'clock news for a couple of nights so it became a running discussion between the two of us. I struggled to explain the war in Afghanistan to my son, the nuances of counter insurgency, the difficulty in defeating a group of guerrillas vs. a standing army. During my time in the Army I had been an intelligence analyst while serving in the Ranger Regiment. My job was reading intelligence reports regarding the Soviets and their invasion of Afghanistan- how they operated, their tactics and techniques and then condensing them for dissemination to the three Ranger battalions for what we thought was an inevitable hot war in Europe. Back then I gained a grudging respect for the Mujahedin and their ability to bloody the Russian bear. Little did I know that the seeds that would eventually lead to Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and 9/11 had been planted.

So why did he die ? The interviews with local citizens on television mostly addressed that question with the answer that he died "defending our freedoms" and "protecting us." I'm not so sure about that. I'm pretty sure that he died first and foremost, as soldiers have for generations, for his comrades and his unit. Grand geopolitical strategy was probably not going through his head in his final battle- he was probably looking out for his buddies and doing the best he could to stay alive. Although I tried to make the case in my head that he died protecting us here in America, I just couldn't make the mental jump that would connect the Taliban and scattered Al Qaeda forces to a direct threat against me and my family. Thinking that through made me feel horrible- he didn't need to die for me and my family, we would have gladly taken the remote chance of a Taliban-Al Qaeda attack on Pittsburgh if it mean't he was safe and sound.

Did he, and over 1,700 other coalition soldiers, die to bring freedom to Afghanistan ? I'm not too convinced on that score either. This wasn't like U.S. troops rolling into Paris or Holland during World War 2. Afghanistan was never really a country in the traditional sense, even during the best of times. Tribalism, war lords financing private armies through the drug trade and various religious factions just don't fit the profile of a country begging for liberation. The U.S. and its allies have suppressed the Taliban to a large extent in many areas of the country but its likely that once the U.S. pulls out the result will be an immediate slide back into its quasi feudalistic former self. (Side note- for a little more on the barbaric nature of this country read this article from Canada's Ottawa Citizen about how Canadian forces witnessed the systematic rape of young boys by the Afghan police and were powerless to stop it.)

I'm still struggling with the answer. The U.S. invasion after 9/11 made sense- root out and destroy Al Qaeda and those responsible for harboring them. On that count, it is widely agreed that the operation was a success. Al Qaeda, which some reports show as having no more than a couple of hundred members in the country, has been dispersed and generally hunted down. I highly doubt that they have constructed some super secret underground facility in the mountains and are working on a nuclear bomb that will soon go off in the U.S. It is more likely that they are living like moles, reluctant to venture outside and risk being vaporized by a drone attack. If they no longer pose a direct strategic threat to the U.S., why is the Department of Defense adding thousands of new troops into the mix and billions more in funding ? Forget the money for a minute- most importantly, why is our most priceless asset (our troops lives) being spent on this hell hole ?

My guess is that it comes down to money. Billions of dollars for procurement of new weapons, logistical support contracts, beans, bullets and everything else that a modern army consumes. Congressional districts that rely on defense plant spending, corrupt leaders more worried about their own political skins versus those of the troops in the field. Al Qaeda and the Taliban, no larger than a German infantry division in World War 2 (at best) are on the receiving end of the full economic and military might of the U.S. I'm sure that some accounting geek at the Pentagon has examined the grim calculus of death and figured out that every dead Taliban was killed at the cost of about $ 1.5 million to the U.S. taxpayer. An elephant stepping on a gnat isn't even an appropriate analogy to the imbalance between the amount of military and economic horsepower being thrown at the situation.

So, why did he die ? I still don't know, maybe somebody out there can help me figure it out.

1 comment:

  1. This has to be one of the most powerful pieces I've read on the war. I am at a loss for words right now. I served in the Navy and was a recruiter in 2002-2004. One of the guys on recruiting duty was a Corpsman. He was killed in Iraq in 2007 trying to save the life of a Marine. The sad thing is he had been there only a month and the day before he left his wife gave birth to a baby girl. I too ask "Why did he die?" I'm not sure I know, but then again, in the deepest darkest parts of my mind, I think I do and I'm just afraid to accept that answer.