Test Our Purposes in Afghanistan

For a slightly different versions, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “Thoughts on Afghanistan.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (August 11): 9A.

Last week the Press-Citizen reported that Company B of the 1/133rd Infantry is departing for training and then for combat service in Afghanistan. If I understand correctly, the unit has been deployed three times since September 11, 2001, with many of its members having served 2 to 5 rotations.

These are brave men and women who deserve our love and support, but this does not necessarily mean we should support the purposes for which they have been called upon to fight.

What are those purposes? As initially stated by President Bush nine years ago, they were to find and kill Osama Bin Laden, to eliminate the Taliban which supported and protected him, and thereby to reduce the terrorist threat manifested by the attacks on the World Trade Center. The Taliban were quickly defeated militarily, but Bin Laden was not found and President Bush deflected resources away from Afghanistan by embroiling us in Iraq. Over time the Taliban regained strength and the terrorist threat arguably grew worse. President Obama has responded by sending more and more of our troops to fight in obscure parts of a distant country most of us still know virtually nothing about.

My great-great-grandmother’s husband also found himself fighting in a country he knew virtually nothing about. A Cornish man, he had fought for the British army in the Crimean War ten years prior to marrying her in 1864. Nobody remembers that war anymore, or why it was fought, except perhaps for the heroic if totally unnecessary charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava near Sevastopol. Commanded by incompetents, the Light Brigade charged a mile and a half through a narrow valley, pummeled by opposing Russian fire. In just 25 minutes the brigade lost 107 men and 397 horses. The poet Alfred Tennyson soon immortalized these brave lads:

“Their’s not to make reply/Their’s not to reason why,/Their’s but to do and die;/Into the valley of Death/Rode the Six Hundred.”

Though remembered through Tennyson’s words, these men were but a tiny fraction of the 20,000 or more British soldiers who died in the Crimea. Many had been recruited to help defend Great Britain’s national honor as defined by its leaders, but many joined the Army simply to escape from other problems at home.

I too have been summoned by our nation’s leaders to prepare for combat duty. Forty-four years ago, having received a draft notice, I chose to enlist. Basic training followed, as did Advanced Individual Training and Officer Candidates School. Next thing I knew I was in Germany serving as a Scout Platoon Leader and then a company commander in the Third Armored Division. Our task was to protect the West against any possible attack by the Soviet Union by delaying invading forces moving through the Fulda Gap. Luckily for me, no incompetent leader ordered me to charge through that Gap.

Should we continue calling upon our youth to fight in Afghanistan?

I have waffled over the years in how to respond to this question, partly because I felt that the September 11 attacks demanded a response, but perhaps also because Afghanistan was so distant and combat there was so invisible.

But time has passed, circumstances have changed, and the time for waffling is over.

I believe it is profoundly unjust to ask a tiny fraction of our friends, neighbors, and fellow Americans to risk death, injury or long-term psychological distress so that the rest of us can go on with our normal lives.

If the purposes are insufficient, we should depart from that distant land as quickly as possible. If the purposes are good ones, we should support those purposes with all we’ve got.

Instead of recruiting a small number of volunteers or asking National Guard members to serve multiple rotations, let’s test the merits of our purposes by requiring all young adults to serve their country for two years and by requiring older men who have not previously served in the military to serve in other ways.

Maybe former Vice-President Cheney could be called upon to serve KP duty.

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