I used to command soldiers. Over the years, lots of them actually. In Iraq, Colorado, Afghanistan, and Kansas. And I’m still fixated on a few of them like this one private first class (PFC) in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011. All of 18, he was short, scrawny, and popular. Nine months after graduating from high school, he’d found himself chasing the Taliban with the rest of our gang. At five foot nothing, I once saw him step into an irrigation canal and disappear from sight—all but the two-foot antenna on his radio. In my daydreams, I always see the same scene, the moment his filthy, grizzled baby face reappeared above that ditch, a cigarette still dangling loosely from his lips. His name was Anderson and I can remember thinking at that moment: What will I tell his mother if he gets killed out here?
And then… poof… it’s 2017 again and I’m here in Kansas, pushing papers at Fort Leavenworth, those days in the field long gone. Anderson himself survived his tour of duty in Afghanistan, though I’ve no idea where he is today. A better commander might. Several of his buddies were less fortunate. They died, or found themselves short a limb or two, or emotionally and morally scarred for life.
From time to time I can’t help thinking of Anderson, and others like him, alive and dead. In fact, I wear two bracelets on my wrist engraved with the names of the young men who died under my command in Afghanistan and Iraq, six names in all. When I find a moment, I need to add another. It wasn’t too long ago that one of my soldiers took his own life. Sometimes the war doesn’t kill you until years later.
And of this much I’m certain: The moment our nation puts any PFC Anderson in harm’s way, thousands of miles and light years from Kansas, there had better be a damn good reason for it, a vital, tangible national interest at stake. At the very least, this country better be on the right side in the conflicts we’re fighting.
The Wrong Side
It’s long been an article of faith here: The United States is the greatest force for good in the world, the planet’s “indispensable nation.” But what if we’re wrong? After all, as far as I can tell, the view from the Arab or African “street” tells a different story altogether. Americans tend to loathe the judgments of foreigners, but sober strategy demands that once in a while we walk the proverbial mile in the global shoes of others. After all, almost 16 years into the war on terror it should be apparent that something isn’t working. Perhaps it’s time to ask whether the United States is really playing the role of the positive protagonist in a great global drama.
I know what you’re thinking: ISIS, the Islamic State, is a truly awful outfit. And so it is and the United States is indeed combatting it, though various allies and even adversaries (think: Iran) are doing most of the fighting. Still, with the broader war for the Greater Middle East in mind, wouldn’t it be appropriate to stop for a moment and ask: Just whose side is America really on?