Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of the American war in Afghanistan. Yesterday the Department of Defense announced the 2,285th American death since the beginning of the war. LCpl Jeremiah M. Collins, Jr. was from Milwaukee, He was only nineteen. If, when I deployed to Iraq in 2004, I had been told that kids who were merely in elementary school would one day die fighting in Afghanistan, I wonder if I would have believed it.
My feelings on the war in Afghanistan are mixed. Even this late, I have trouble resolving my belief that seeking out Osama bin Laden and those who aided him was a just cause with the years of neglect and mismanagement of operations in what became a second-tier front in the Global War on Terror. I also struggle with what might seem an odd wish – that I were an Afghanistan veteran, and not an Iraq veteran. Or that I had joined the Marines earlier, and was both.
A desire to double one's exposure to danger, particularly a desire felt in retrospect, ought to seem suspicious. I distrust this desire, even while understanding it. As an Iraq veteran, I know full well that the war I was a part of will forever be an unjust, ill-reasoned, senseless waste. I essentially went to war for less than nothing, a war that got a lot of good-intentioned young Americans killed. Many of those kids, like me, joined up after 9/11, wanting to do their part. Those of us who served in Iraq were misdirected by our leaders, sent on a snipe hunt that too often proved lethal. Sending us to Iraq and frustrating our intentions to do good by our fellow citizens was and is an atrocity in its own right. I sometimes think that, had I served in Afghanistan, I could at least have a little pride in my service overseas. I would have played a small role in a just war instead of a bit part in an unjust one. I have no pride in my service in Iraq; I simply did my job as I promised I would, and now I continue to deal with the anger and shame I feel as a result of what our country did there. It might seem like a small thing, but when you're searching for meaning without finding any, the emptiness is corrosive to your soul.
Of course, I could have died in Afghanistan. The counterfactual allows for it. I was nineteen when I enlisted in the Marines, and twenty-one when I went to Iraq. Had I died in Afghanistan in 2003 or 2004, as I well could have in the cosmic scheme of things, my family might have the insufficient comfort of knowing I died as part of a broader effort to catch Osama bin Laden. I left the Marines in 2006. Had I reenlisted, I still could have been dead or out of the Marines before Bin Laden was killed in 2011. As it was I narrowly missed a second deployment to Iraq.
If, when I deployed to Iraq in 2004, I had been told that kids who were merely in elementary school would one day die fighting in Afghanistan, I wonder if I would have believed it.
Between Bin Laden's death and the Pentagon's announcement of LCpl Collins' death, 890 days elapsed. I wonder how the families who lost loved ones in Afghanistan over those 890 days think about what that loss means. I wonder if they feel it has any connection to that just mission to catch Bin Laden, or if, in these waning days of the war, they feel more connection to a pointless cause like Iraq (or post-Tet Vietnam), or to something altogether different or in between. It's a question some journalist with enough tact and humanity might want to ask a family: "Apart from it standing as a eternal testament to his faithful service to his country, what meaning do you find in your son's death in Afghanistan over two-and-a-half years after Bin Laden was killed?" Print the family's answer.
It's a question that has an easy military or political answer. Retrograde movements – a dignified euphemism for "retreats" – take time, much more time than we might care to contemplate, and certainly more than we feel reasonable or tolerable. Casualties will be taken before the retreat is completed. But the easy answer is a cold comfort to those left behind to grieve. At some point between one day elapsed after Bin Laden's death and 890, some hard-boiled journalist might want to ask the President or Secretary of Defense: "Apart from it standing as a eternal testament to his faithful service to his country, what meaning do you find in a young Marine's death in Afghanistan over two-and-a-half years after Bin Laden was killed?"
Lance Corporal Jeremiah M. Collins, Jr. probably won't be the last American killed in Afghanistan. He probably won't even be the last Marine. Each time another young American dies in Afghanistan, I wish somebody out there would ask that question of someone in a position to take responsibility for the answer.