Afghanistan Post-Mortem: The End of War

Well, that’s it.

Having arrived safely in America a few days ago, my deployment to Afghanistan is officially over.

I didn’t really spend much time or energy writing about Afghanistan or the experience of leading a platoon through the end of war for a bunch of reasons I’ll get to in a minute. Still, coming home from war is significant and it feels appropriate to try to try to wrap it up here with some kind of reflection.

For all the fun I had throwing around the ‘end of war’ adage in the lead up to the deployment, the war has not ended and goes on (and on). I suppose I had a slight expectation of learning something unique or new in the same way that I did through participating in the actual physical invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is, learning something about War or the nature of war.

Well, so far, I’ve got nothing.

Without question I learned plenty – being at work for nine months straight has its advantages. I learned about leadership, discipline, morale, personnel management, training, and mission command. I’ve also exponentially increased my technical skills at things like battle tracking, reporting, and building PowerPoint slides – not joking, I’ve gotten pretty good.

I was also fortunate to see how the way we fight has changed, especially when compared to how we did it just ten years ago. For a time, I led a fleet of MRAPs, the final evolutionary form of the doorless humvees we used to zoom around Baghdad in 2003. Getting out the gate in 2014/2015 requires a whole lot more than just sending a head count to the CP before SP.

Seeing things from an officer’s perspective gave me a deeper appreciation for the planning process, and the pressures that come from higher. What would have made me grumble and grunt as a young sergeant was now more fully understood as a lieutenant. I was able to see myself in both sets of shoes, as the leader with the information and the soldier without. I tried my best to close the distance between the two, with mixed results.

I was able to observe the absolute infestation of technology in the way we do work. Afghanistan is often derided as being backwards or “in the stone age,” but one of the first things new leaders do in country is get a cell phone. If so inclined, you can pop a local SIM card into your smartphone and sign up for a data plan, with pretty reliable 3G coverage. Not a day needs to go by without checking Facebook from your mobile device.

And the absurdity of war, in all of its colors, was still there.

This was quite possibly my longest stretch of time in the military where I’ve gone without eating a single MRE out of necessity. As best as I can remember, I ate only one MRE during the entire deployment, and it was for the novelty of it (it was a cold-weather MRE).

Yes, I learned a lot. And I came out of the experience better for it.

But to say that I’ve learned something deeper, some universal truth, would be a lie. It was war, as it was before.

This was my first deployment to Afghanistan, and having only deployed to Iraq before, this felt something akin to adopting a teenager just before he graduates high school. I cared, and wanted to help, but my individual contribution to the overall effort felt mostly insignificant – the hard work was done by others before me.

Some of the NCOs in my unit who had been to Afghanistan before commented on how much quieter the FOBs seemed. Where they were once bustling micro-cities, today they seemed more like ghost towns, Walmart parking lots on an early Sunday morning.

Frustratingly, success at the platoon level was extremely hard to measure. I’m remiss to say that it was a success because everyone came back safely, as many do, because while that’s a good thing, if going to war only to protect yourself is the goal, then maybe we need a better reason to go in the first place.

So far, the best I’ve come up with in describing success is through the metaphor of a relay race: we ran for nine months without ever really knowing if we should be sprinting or pacing ourselves, and then handed off the baton to the next guy before jogging off the track, panting. We have no idea how long the race is or if we’re winning, but we hope that it will eventually end, and at a minimum, we hope that our single lap around the track will not be looked back on as the lap that cost us the race.

As to why I didn’t write more about the deployment – I’ve never really used this blog as a journal or a kind of record of what I’m doing, with the exception of the occasional significant update. Honestly, it would probably have been a lot more interesting if I did keep a day-by-day blog. I know I would have enjoyed reading about what the end of the Afghanistan war looked like from the point of view of a small unit leader on the ground.

That kind of writng contains too many pitfalls, though. As other young lieutenant’s have learned, beyond OPSEC concerns, there are challenges to writing about the current goings-on in your unit, and those challenges are heightened when deployed, as a friend of mine learned when he was chided by his command for writing a gentle piece for the New York Times’ At War blog while still deployed.

I posted a couple of cryptic pieces through the deployment to try to cast a shade as to what was going on, but they went mostly unnoticed. I did keep a log of things that I thought would be interesting to write about eventually, and now that I’m home, I’ll get to them.

Having done this before, and being very aware of the way that war doesn’t end neatly or conveniently at the very point that the soldier returns home, I’m mindful that in time, some greater meaning or idea may come to me. I’m still very much in the honeymoon phase of redeployment, teetering between the joy of reliable hot water and plentiful alcohol and the bitter understanding that the strangers around me don’t know or care about what I have just done.

Walking into a coffee shop I frequent over the weekend, the owner greeted me by name and took my order, indifferent to the fact that he had not seen me for nine months and this was the first time I had stepped into his shop since last summer. He acted normal, and in kind, I acted normal. I bought my coffee and left like I had dozens of times before. Nothing changed. No excited “welcome home” or probing questions.

Honestly, it was refreshing, in a way. I just wanted my coffee, and I didn’t really want to stand around and try to wrap up “what it was like” in a sentence or two.

I drove home, confused. Did he not realize I had been gone? He knew I was deploying – I even had my wife send me coffee beans from that very shop. Maybe, I thought as I pulled into my driveway, he was doing me a favor, helping me along to get “back to normal.”

The episode reminded of the ending of American Psycho (the movie), where Patrick Bateman, having just admitted his crimes to his lawyer who dismisses them as a joke, sits in front of a sign that reads “This Is Not An Exit” and stares blankly, understanding that his confession has meant nothing, he has achieved no catharsis from his crimes.

It has been a long and short nine months. In a strange way, the whole thing kind of feels like I just stepped through a portal at the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones and came out at the other end just in time for season 5.

I’m looking forward to leave.

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