By Dan Berschinski
Best Defense columnist for Veterans’ Day
I am neither old and wise, nor am I an impressively decorated combat veteran. My time in combat was somewhat brief, and as you may be able to tell by my two prosthetic legs, on at least one day in Afghanistan it would appear that my enemy was better at his job than I was at mine. I don’t want to give you the rah-rah, full of patriotism sort of message that we are all so accustomed to getting on Veterans’ Day.
I was born and raised in Georgia. After graduating from high school in 2002, I entered a year of prep school and then four years of college at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When I graduated in 2007 I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry and about a year and a half after that I had the honor of serving as an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan. I was in command of 35 soldiers — most of whom had already been on at least one deployment if not two, to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
On August 18th of 2009, while leading my platoon on a patrol in Afghanistan I stepped on the trigger of a hidden IED. Following the explosion, I was still conscious — but just barely. I don’t have any visual memories of that moment but I remember some of my thoughts and some of what was said to me. Lying there on the ground I knew that both of my legs were gone and I knew that in all likelihood I was going to die, right there in the Afghan dirt, and pretty quickly. But I also knew that just hours earlier in the day, my soldier, Pfc. Jonathan Yanney, 20 years old and from Litchfield, Minnesota, had been killed right next to me. He too had stepped on a hidden IED and he had been killed instantly. Similarly, about one kilometer away, a sister platoon had also been patrolling and they had lost one of their soldiers, Sgt. Troy Tom, 21 years old and from Shiprock, New Mexico.
So laying there in the dirt, with my legs gone and both femoral arteries bleeding away, I knew that my life, if it continued, would never be the same, and that whether I lived or died, my men would continue on with 11 months of their 12-month tour to go, having just lost three brothers in the span of about 6 hours. By the end of our tour, my battalion would go on to lose 25 men. Our nation now has lost 2,405 of its best and bravest in a country that is 7,410 miles away.
I was a high school senior when our nation was attacked on 9/11. By 2009, I was a U.S. army platoon leader deployed to Afghanistan. This was eight years after small teams of green berets and CIA personnel first invaded Afghanistan, routed the Taliban, and largely destroyed the al Qaeda forces that had taken refuge in that country.
Eight long years after 9/11, I was one of 70,000 American troops working to bring security and governance to the country. Today, it is another eight long years since I was in Afghanistan, and now our nation is about to embark on its seventeenth year of war there. We currently have more than 10,000 troops in the country, our military has lost more than 2,400 lives there and estimates of the war’s cost range in excess of 1 trillion dollars.
This year the commander of the war, Gen. John Nicholson, the 17th commander of the war no less, testified before Congress and described the war’s status as, “a stalemate.” On October 19th of this year an Afghan army unit, the type of army unit that we have been attempting to create and train for over a decade now, was virtually wiped out by a Taliban assault.
So why is America still fighting this endless war?
There are a couple reasons. One is because no one wants to be the president or the general that loses the war. None of Nicholson’s sixteen predecessors has won the war or offered any alternative. All of them, following their “successful” tenures, have gone on to further prestigious assignments. We have rewarded failure with promotion. As the journalist Tom Ricks wrote in 2012, “a private who loses his rifle is now punished more severely than a general who loses his part of a war.”
Another reason is the false premise that a weak, ungoverned Afghanistan will be a safe haven for terrorists who will then assemble and attack us like al-Qaeda did on 9/11. Our country has been spared another major terrorist attack not because we have invaded and occupied countries like Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade and a half, but because our intelligence services, our police agencies, and our military’s special operations forces have been working tirelessly to keep the terrorist threat at bay.
September 11th occurred because international terrorism was not a primary focus for our intelligence apparatus. That certainly is not the case today. It’s time that we acknowledge terrorism for what it is — international organized crime. These criminal organizations are best countered not by large-scale deployment of troops, but by close cooperation with our international partners, focused diplomacy, and shared intelligence.
Let me be clear: the war in Afghanistan is unnecessary, unwinnable, and wasteful. For sixteen years we have thrown lives and money into a quagmire. While Americans here at home struggle to afford healthcare and our infrastructure crumbles, our government has spent trillions of dollars trying to turn Afghanistan into a western style democracy — something it never has been and never will be.
I was traveling recently, and one day I was in a hotel elevator and a girls’ youth soccer team piled in. Before the door was closed the girl closest to me asked, “Are you a veteran?” She was only about 10 or 11 years old, but my legs were off and I was sitting in my wheelchair so we were about the same height. I looked at her and I answered, “Yes, I was an army officer in Afghanistan.”
She replied with the now customary, “Thank you for your service.” The rest of the girls immediately chimed in with the same. I responded to their kind words, but as the elevator door opened and we went our separate ways, I realized that these children weren’t even born when America first invaded Afghanistan. Our nation has been at war for longer than they’ve been alive.
My experience with the young girls in the elevator is, in my opinion, emblematic of an overall trend in our society. It seems to me that we, as in America’s citizens in general, are very supportive of our military. We do support the troops, both in sentiment and in some actions, but it also seems to me, that our effort more or less stops at the individual level.
When was the last time any of you in the room here today discussed the merits of the Afghanistan war? When was the last time you heard one of our elected officials do a good job of explaining why it is that we’re still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, and why we might soon be fighting in Iran, Ukraine, or North Korea?
We’re a nation that loves to go to war, but we aren’t much for debating it, are we?
We don’t debate these wars because for the most part, none of us fight these wars. Our military currently consists of just about one half of one percent of our population. If an American has never served in the military, and if they don’t have a friend or a loved one that has served, then they, very likely, haven’t been impacted by this 16 year long war in any way. Congress hasn’t even asked us to pay a tax to fund this war. The burden for our wars is quite literally, borne by just .5 percent of our country.
This imbalance in burden is having a remarkable effect on the relationship between our civilian citizens and our military citizens. Civilians, again the vast majority of our population, aren’t asked to contribute to the fight in any way — but, it seems to be a nation-wide standard that we all “support the troops.” We honor the military at sporting events and on holidays. We might donate to a veteran-focused non-profit. And we might, when we come across a service member, say, “Thank you for your service.” We might do any or all of those things and then we get to feel like our contribution has been made. Our job is done.
But this is a two-way street. 99.5 percent of the population knows that it doesn’t actually have anything to do with these current wars, but of course that means that .5 percent — our military — also knows that their civilian counterparts don’t have anything to do with our wars. And that results in resentment. America’s military feels like it has been fighting alone: They are the sheepdogs and everyone else are the sheep.
Pentagon data show that 80 percent of modern troops come from a family where at least one parent, grandparent, or other family member has also worn the nation’s uniform. Military service is getting passed down from generation to generation within military families. This only further solidifies the growing chasm between our military and our civilian population. Some of our citizens are “team military” the rest are not.
As long as the burden of warfare is borne by a small portion of our citizenry we will be susceptible to fighting unnecessary wars. As long as our civilians feel that their only duty toward a war is to say, “Thank you for your service” and not to critically analyze the merits of that war, we will be susceptible to fighting unnecessary wars. As long as our military views itself as separate from, and better than the rest of our society, it will be willing to fight unnecessary wars.
So what is the solution? Certainly, we shouldn’t expect all of our citizens to join the military. And certainly, we shouldn’t seek to get rid of our military.
We already have the answer: What we need is for our elected officials to be held responsible. As citizens, we need to be informed about what our military is being ordered to do. We need to hold opinions on what military action is worthwhile and what is not. As citizens, we all have an opinion and we all have a vote. My opinion, as a combat veteran, is no more valuable than that of my fellow non-veteran citizen.
Indeed, as the constitution outlines, our military is subservient to the civilian chain of command. Our generals do not decide national policy, rather they implement the policy decisions of our national leaders — and that’s the way it should be. Similarly, our citizens should be deciding what it is that our military is tasked to do. It is not acceptable for our citizenry to sit back, be disengaged, be uninformed, and watch as the military draws its own conclusions.
I am a veteran. This Veterans Day I don’t want you to buy me a beer. I don’t care if you stand or if you kneel for the national anthem. I don’t want you to shake my hand. I don’t want you to thank me for my service. What I want is for you to get involved. I want my fellow Americans to talk to each other and discuss the pros and cons of our military’s actions around the world. I want us all to engage with our elected representatives and let them know that we expect them to debate the merits of our wars.
There is no doubt that modern America supports its troops. The type of interaction that I had with the girls in the elevator is a common occurrence for many veterans. At the individual level and on a day-to-day basis I do feel that my service is appreciated and valued, but when I reflect on the war I can’t help but feel used. It’s as though saying, “Thank you for your service,” absolves America’s politicians from having to make tough, honest, or realistic decisions.
America’s troops don’t need to be thanked; They need to know that they are being used wisely and judiciously. Sixteen straight years of war is anything but wise.
Dan Berschinski is an alumnus of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Stanford University’s graduate school of business. He served as an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan. He is now a small business owner in Atlanta, Georgia.
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