So says Thomas Gibbons-Neff in this piece in today's Washington Post. WHy should we care that he says that? 13 at the time of the September 11 attacks that justified our going into Afghanistan, he served two tours there as a Marine rifleman. His family home is a few blocks from the blast site in Boston. As he writes,
When a relative told me, his voice brimming with anger, that he wanted to kill those responsible, I couldn’t help feeling that I had somehow failed. My family sounded like any of the Marines I’d met after a comrade stepped on an improvised explosive device: angry, confused, spiteful. War had seeped through my front door, and now my five-foot-tall flower child of a mother wanted revenge served cold.Let's back up a bit. Because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev supposedly told investigators that the US Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the reason he and his brother did the bombing, Gibbons-Neff had asked himself
Had my war brought the horrors of battle home?Gibbons-Neff is now a student at Georgetown, where he had the occasion to ask Hamid Karzai a question for which he did not get a satisfactory answer.
He has offered us a remarkable piece. Someone who served, who experienced the horrors of war to supposedly make us safer at home, now raises questions about his own participation.
The horrors of war. Read this sentence:
In Afghanistan, I shoved my knee into wounded Marines’ pressure points, smelled the cordite of gunfights and explosions, and said goodbye to dear friends.He writes that the images of Boston reminds him of "mangled flesh, shocked faces, splattered blood" he saw in his combat service, not of streets where he used to shop for Christmas. Then he tells us
Except the runners and spectators in Boston weren’t wearing body armor and helmets. No helicopter swooped in through a cloud of purple smoke to rescue them. They weren’t combatants. Rather, they were strangers, family members, co-workers and friends in Nikes and New Balances, turning sweat-drenched T-shirts and belts into tourniquets..
I've already told you about his mom, whom he tells us used to feel safe eating outdoors.
He notes the Tsarnaev brothers will be neither first nor the last who will cite US military action as justification for targeting civilians, then writes this:
Despite our best efforts and valor, I wonder, have America’s wars made the homeland less safe? Sure, we’ve killed and captured thousands of radicals who wanted to harm Americans. But in doing so, have we created more?There is much more in this powerful piece.
Perhaps it struck me because I am of the brotherhood of Marines although my own service was only stateside. I was discharged before the horrors of Tet in 1968, but there were those I knew who served and died in the battle for Hue, and at Khe Sanh. Even before then, I knew those who were coming home somewhat traumatized by what they had experience.
From what I knew then, from what I have seen since, it is clear that first and foremost those who fight do so for those immediately around them, their buddies. It is the loss of those buddies that cuts most deeply, and you will experience that in this piece.
Btt there is more. One wants to believe the horror one has experienced, to which one's actions may well have contributed, was justified. That is why those who fought in World War II are so fierce in considering it as a "good war," one justified because we were attacked by Japan and Germany declared war on us. In retrospect learning the horrors of the Holocaust reinforced that belief that the sacrifice was justified.
But what if there were doubts? We saw that after Vietnam, when the Viet Cong eventually took over the country. What about the rationalization used by many that we were fighting to stop the spread of communism? How much did that influence American attitudes towards the military? How much did it impact those who served there, raising questions about their own service, the sacrifice of their friends' lives, the broken bodies and souls they and others carried forward?
We have for some time seen some of this in those who served in Iraq, particularly as that country spiraled downward, and as it became clear that the weapons caches used as a major justification for our entering that benighted place did not exist.
Still, sometimes even those who criticized Iraq clung to the legitimacy of our not only going into Afghanistan but remaining there for a decade. Even as it became clear that we had not crushed the Taliban, that we had not made the people of Afghanistan safe from violence, many clung to our continued participation in the nation, including during the timse the author of this piece served there. As Gibbons-Neff writes near the end of this piece,
I’d like to believe that my war prevented an attack such as Boston’s for some years. If the 16 months I spent in Afghanistan delayed the bombing for just a day, then it would have been worth it.IF one begins to question the worth of one's effort, there has to be a sense of betrayal - personal and national.
Keeping that in mind, read the final two sentences of this remarkable piece, then stop and sit still and let them sink in:
But my war failed to help those people at the finish line. As those bombs exploded, my war came home.my war came home
Some wish to ramp up our response. Gibbons-Neff cites a neighbor, his mother with their anger. We hear the bloviations of some politicians about how we should act towards immigrants, towards all Muslims.
We use drones because they do less "collateral damage" then did the wide swaths of bombing done by B-52s. We do drones because we can kill perceived enemies without exposing our troops to the IEDs that are the weapons of choice against us, or have them trapped in ambush.
But what if our continued military activities adds to the resentment that breeds violence against us?
What if our violence is seen in a context of our use of torture, and - do NOT ignore this - the disrespect for the religion and the culture of the nations where we apply that violence?
We have seen again from many of the usual suspect the Islamiphobia, the tarring of all Muslims with the actions of a few who happen to be of the same faith.
Might that not also be part of the context, even if unsaid the by the surviving bomber?
Those are my thoughts, not those of Gibbons-Neff.
He was, even before Boston, questioning his service:
Some of my best friends came home in flag-draped coffins, and no one ever convincingly explained to me why and what for.Once we failed to apply the necessary force to capture Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, it is arguable that our continued military endeavor in Afghanistan was unwarranted.
When we again propped up a non-functioning, corrupt and unpopular central government, we did little to make ourselves safer at home, or protect American interests abroad.
Going in to Afghanistan was justifiable. Remaining there for more than a decade was not.
That those who served and sacrificed there now raise the kinds of questions seen in this piece by Gibbons-Neff is something we all should consider as we go forward.
Ignore if you wish my commentary.
BUt please, if nothing else, if you have not already done so, click here and read the entire piece by Gibbons-Neff.