Dear America —
Did you hear the war in Afghanistan is over? You’re probably thinking that’s a tremendous relief for all of those military members who have been dealing with deployments for all these years and that constant, looming cloud of possible combat death.
Because, as you know, war is dangerous — and the war being over obviously means that the people are coming home and the danger is gone. Just like that — everyone is safe now. Right?
The U.S. and NATO announced at a ceremony Dec. 28 that the war in Afghanistan, as of Jan. 1, 2015, has formally ended. But instead of a wave of V-Day like celebrations sweeping military families, we felt a swell of betrayal.
Because when military leaders hold a ceremony marking the end of the war, what you, America, hear is that everything is over.
Phew. That war sure was long, wasn’t it?
But we, the military families, looked around and were confused. The war is over? Then why is our neighbor still there? And why is our own spouse slated to go back next month? Or why is the spot in the bed next to me still empty? Why do my kids ask me every five minutes when Daddy will be home? And why do I have to answer “he’s still on a long trip, guys?”
Forget the fact that the realities of war will never be over for families who already lost or for those who will deal with the mental and physical injuries from it for the rest of their lives. Let’s just focus on the end of the actual, physical war with bullets and bombs.
Military leaders don’t really mean the “war is over,” despite tagging that ceremony as the “formal ending.” What they actually mean is that formal combat operations are ending Jan.1 and that the vague drawdown we’ve been tinkering with for a couples years now actually means something. As President Obama said in a statement, “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”
They mean that, instead of sending our men and women out to what my own combat worn veteran (politely, he assures me) calls “waxing dudes,” we are supporting, training and advising Afghans. “Dudes” may still be “waxed,” but it won’t be as part of a U.S.-led mission. Because instead of doing our own missions, we are now going to be helping with someone else’s. And unlike when we did the job ourselves with up to 140,000 of our service members in country, we’ll have “only” 11,000 Americans over there by the end of 2015.
That’s 11,000 deployed brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. That’s 11,000 families who will still sit in their homes dreading The Knock from combat death or The Phone Call from injury. Those people are part of the larger military community who supports them and prepares for their own turns in the fire.
Troops will still deploy. Rounds will still be fired. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) will still be planted by the enemy. And service members will still die.
But it’s not formal war. So that makes it all OK. Right?
When our troops joined the military they agreed to do so with the knowledge that, while they would do their commanders’ bidding, their top-level commanders, to include the President, would be their representatives back home.
Yet, as this long but excellent piece in the Atlantic examined in great detail, Americans have never been further removed from the military. Not only, as the author James Fallows points out, have very few Americans ever served, but the military itself has successfully become its own insulated “tribe” with little communication to the outside world on what serving actually means beyond heroics and a vague sense of respect for the “sacrifice.”
From that article:
… However much Americans “support” and “respect” their troops, they are not involved with them, and that disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices. “My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military,” retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and whose mid-career academic stint was at Harvard Business School), told me recently. The military is “professional and capable,” he said, “but I would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”So that means we military families feel completely separate from the American community in both culture and burden. As Fallows writes:
People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America. Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost. Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.How did it get this way? Fallows goes into this in depth, so I don’t need to. But, in my view, proclaiming the war in Afghanistan “over” is both a symptom of the larger problem and the cause of it. To military families who will continue to take the brunt of the ongoing not-war, saying it’s over smells like a political stunt designed to make the American public feel better about our international involvement. But at the same time, it also perpetuates the myth that everything is A-OK in military land, furthering dividing you, the American public, from the realities of the military’s sacrifice.
Ignore what has happened in Iraq as a war technically over for years swallows more American military energy with no actual end in sight. Forget that Afghanistan may very well end with the same fate.
And remember just this: while you may have heard that the “war is over,” for the American military it is very much not.