Today is the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan and I’m wondering, How many of us actually care?
I have been struggling for several weeks to write about this subject, mostly because I don’t know what, to say nothing about how, to think or feel about this subject. Much like our other conflict in Iraq, this war is so functionally distant from my life that it’s nearly become an abstraction.
This is scary to me on two fronts. First, because it’s a real war in which real people are really dying. Second, how can this war have gone on for over a decade and I still don’t really know what I think about it?? What’s even scarier than either is that I believe there are probably lots of others who feel this way.
It has taken me a long time to understand why I, and potentially others feel so little about the war in Afghanistan. After thinking on it for some time it seems to me that the most significant challenge we as a nation face is that we’re lacking a cohesive, believable and comprehensive narrative through which to understand this conflict.
The war in Afghanistan is now the longest running war in the history of the United States
Unlike earlier generations facing war we have no national narrative of success, no meta-systems functioning on the level of cohesive story about victory or sacrifice or progress. There is no storyline for us to follow, nothing to guide and garner either our support or our opposition. ((Over the years the official narratives have been shifting and less-than satisfying. Bush told us to go shopping and act as if everything were normal. Obama told us he’ll lead us out, but only after he leads more troops in. Other politicians, most noticeably those presently jockeying for control of the Republican Party, frequently behave like such delinquent rubes that it’s nearly impossible to believe they could provide any useful explanations.))
Years pass and our people keep dying and their people keep dying and there’s no structure by which to understand any of it, and after a while it becomes easier simply to look away. And slowly so many of us become numb.
At present, the financial cost of the war in Afghanistan totals over $462-trillion dollars
In the weeks after 9/11 it made sense, or at least some sort of sense, to retaliate against those who attacked us. We’d been struck on our soil and were angry. But it didn’t take long for things to get murky in the mountains of Afghanistan, and a decade on there is no longer any sense of what’s sensible.
Things have deteriorated so badly that it’s hard not to feel that we’re fighting now because we can’t think of what else to do. Opponents of staying argue, To what end?, while opponents of leaving argue, What will be left in our wake? Both have validities; neither makes good-enough sense.
In the absence of a national narrative many of us have attempted to create our own stories, and I’m yet to meet anyone willing to talk about actually winning this war. By this I mean that our country cannot, like Charlie Sheen, stretch the term “winning” far enough to encompass any deeply positive outcome.
And so, in the absence of a guiding narrative that we can embrace or reject, who knows how to engage this beast? Who knows what to think or feel or believe about an outcome which will likely never be positive while all the time inexorably is-becoming the outcome? And if that’s the case, is it any wonder that people are having a hard time caring?
Over 14,000 American soldiers have been wounded while serving in Afghanistan
An unfortunate reality is that so many of us have, like me, very limited personal connection to this war. We are a nation of over 300-million people, but our armed forces are made up of less-than 1% of our population. I live within a 50-mile radius of each an Air Force, Army and Navy base. Despite this fact, I have known only a handful of people who have served in the military. I don’t know anyone presently serving in Afghanistan, and I don’t know any Afghanis with family or friends living there.
Because I have so little connection to real people, and because the conflict has now been going on for over a decade, I have a difficult time remembering that the soldiers serving in this war are real people.
Read news reports and you’re inundated with numbers—ratios and comparisons and percentages—and because there’s no narrative to help make sense of these numbers (an absence that must also impact journalists, for surely it must be easier to report verifiable stats than attempt to fit stories into a non-existent narrative) it’s all too easy to let your mind slip until the entire conflict becomes a series of the collate-able:
How many soldiers have died this month?
What number of deaths are attributable to IED’s?
What percentage of Afghan children are in school?
How much support do the Taliban have in rural areas?
If you’re still paying attention it’s all too easy to start thinking that this is the war.
Conservative estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan range anywhere from 17,000 – 35,000
The most personal link I’ve felt to either war occurred in 2007-2008. During this time I had The Times delivered to my house. Every morning, as I sipped my coffee and flipped through the A-Section, the paper would run a list of soldiers who had recently died. The information would include their name, their rank, their age and hometown. The most noticeable fact to me was how young they were. So very, very young.
As an act of something I’ve never been able to describe I would read these names aloud, my eyes watering and my tongue slipping, hoping that if there’s a god who listensÂ he hears.
1,785 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan in the past decade
While writing this I tried talking to several of my friends about their perspectives on the war. Most of my friends are white, educated, financially successful, politically aware Seattle liberals. Based on the conversations I had it seems that most of them know far less about the war than I do (a scary assessment), and, more tellingly, they clearly had little interest in discussing it. The shitty bottom-line is that nobody really cared to talk about it.
Instead, most of us out here will spend more time concerned about the provenance of the free-range, sustainably-farmed, hormone-free chicken we’ll eat for dinner than with anything associated with any war.
Mineral reserves in excess of $1-trillion have recently been identified in Afghanistan
I’ve scanned a lot of newspapers today. To my eye there has been more coverage about Steve Jobs’ death than there is about the war in Afghanistan. I wondered, Who has been more significant in my life—Steve Jobs or Hamid Karzai? The iPhone or Osama bin Laden?
The reality for me, and it’s awkward and embarrassing to acknowledge, is that the iPod has probably had more of an impact on the past 10-years of my life than the war in Afghanistan.
As of today there are more than 130,000 NATO-coordinated troops serving in Afghanistan
As I’ve written this I’ve realized that in the absence of a national narrative about this war, if I’m to stay engaged I must create my own story. And so my thoughts wander to wondering if it’s good, and I know that’s a squirmy term to insert here but I don’t know what other language makes sense, Is it good for me to go through my life paying people-I-don’t know to to kill other people-I-don’t know but am told by other people-I-don’t know that I’m supposed to want killed?
I certainly don’t need a state-certified story to make sense of this war. But by failing to provide me with one, or at least one that’s convincing, I’m left floating, and after a decade it’s really difficult to care. At my most engaged I find myself wondering, As a nation what the hell are we doing, and why? As a person, what am I participating in without knowing what I’m participating in?
Is there a story that would make me care more?