20 Years Hence
Saturday, September 11, 2021 5:30 pm Daniel J. Summers
The events of the last month have been difficult to watch as they unfolded. Pages and pages have been written about our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its hasty collapse that occurred before our own withdrawal was complete. There is a discussion to be had regarding military withdrawal strategies, whether it was even necessary, etc. (especially when I've seen no one espouse how I would have handled it) However, that is not what is occupying the majority of my thoughts when I reflect over the past 20 years; rather, it's the people.
I've been thinking about Louis Neil Mariani (“Neil”). I profiled him back in 2009, and his story is heartbreaking. When I searched his name again, I found that his wife Ellen was one of the last victim families to sue vs. taking the compensation fund payouts. Losing her husband wasn't enough; she spent years raising funds and bouncing through some questionable legal representation, just to be told that she could not have her day in court. I have no idea what either of their politics are - it doesn't matter, and that's the point. I mourn for Neil, Ellen, and the entire Mariani family - and I wonder if we, as a nation, have learned anything from their involuntary sacrifice.
I've also been thinking about the time I spent deployed back in 2006. It got me thinking even then, but it's come to mind more frequently, particularly with the Afghanistan collapse. One of the aspects of that job was to open, inspect, and repair packages that were found to be damaged when they passed through our facility. In doing this, I would see glimpses of what was being sent to the military members downrange; quite frequently, it was pictures of children, love notes from spouses, and food items that weren't easily available in a combat zone. We also, on occasion, had to inspect mail headed home from the war zone. In these, too, I would see family memorabilia, often wrinkled and dirty; they had accompanied their owner through some very difficult times.
These difficult times didn't always have a happy ending. There were marriages strained, many broken; even among my paltry crew of thirteen co-workers, there were families dissolved because of those four months. This toll, too, is something I mourn; each party usually bears some of the blame when a marriage ends, but the circumstances that led to that dissolution were brought on by the stresses of war.
I realize that some of these marital partnerships may not have made it; if it wasn't the war, it would have been something else. Maybe Neil would still be alive and well, preparing for his 80th birthday soon - but maybe not. The “maybe” questions belie what is behind much of the mourning, which is the loss of potential - unrealized potential, unjustly snatched from its owner well before it should have been.
One of the hardest questions I've fielded over the past month or so is “How are you?” I try to say the requisite “fine” in return, but sometimes the question just hits differently. My… uh, eyes sweat… way more than they used too. I mourn that we lost thirteen Americans, and untold Afghans who had been “on our team” as we ham-handedly exited that nation. I mourn the “falling man” picture of 9/11, and the very similar images of people falling off the landing gear 20 years later, so desperate to escape. A younger version of me would have been angered by this; now, though, my main emotion is sorrow.
It is important, though, to not let the sorrow and long-term futility of the heroic efforts of so many - so great a price for so quick a loss - give rise to despair. One of the most encouraging things I have read over the past month was a Sunday French Press entitled “They Held the Line”; I would encourage you to read it as well, especially since this post is not going to end with some uplifting, inspiring hope for the future.
“Never Forget” became the rallying cry after 9/11 (even though it had previously been used regarding the Holocaust; I guess we did, in fact, forget). But, for those of us who prosecuted the War on Terror, forgetting will never be an issue. My prayer is that future generations will not have such an agonizing event, and a 20-year struggle to defeat a difficult enemy, where the hard fought gains are lost before our boots have even left the soil.