To say the least, it is an eerily familiar feeling to witness our final exit from Afghanistan. At exactly one minute before midnight on Aug. 30, Army Major Gen. Christopher T. Donahue was the last man to board the last C-17 cargo plane that would lift him and the last group of troops up and away from our faraway home of the past 20 years.
Few can imagine what those last troops must have felt as they left behind Americans, at-risk Afghans and, especially, the memories of 13 fellow Marines, soldiers and Navy personnel who were killed by a terrorist bomb at the Kabul airport in the final days. The humiliation of defeat, the sense of loss, and, ultimately, the blood and treasure left behind, remind us of a not-distant past.
Baby boomers and older Americans remember too well our departure from Vietnam 46 years ago. They remember the war protests, the agonies both emotional and physical that continue to torment so many veterans of that war. My brother, a Marine who survived his 18th year in Vietnam, has attended the funerals of many of his comrades, several of whom died from Agent Orange-related cancers.
My semper-fi Marine correspondents, who’ve been with me for several decades, have relived the anguished days of their youth through images and news reports from Kabul. Therapy is back in session. My own brain is on a continuous loop, replaying the famous chorus sung by Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock in 1969:
And it’s 1,2,3
Whatever are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
And it’s 5,6,7
Open up the pearly gates
Ah, ain’t no time to wonder why
We’re all going to die.
As I’ve written before, the two wars are not the same. We weren’t attacked by terrorists hiding in Vietnam. We weren’t in pursuit of the most-hated and most-dangerous man of our time. But in both cases, we stayed too long, and we left with our tails tucked. If you measure success or defeat in body counts, Vietnam was the much bigger error. Vietnam ground up some 58,000 American boys and men. Yes, boys. Before 1971, when Congress lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, an 18-year-old was rightly considered a kid. The reasoning behind the change was partly that if the government could draft 18-year-olds for war, then the boys ought to be able to vote.
Afghanistan, though longer, was less bloody, claiming 2,352 American lives. The bomb blast, for which ISIS-K boasted credit, was the bloodiest day for the U.S. military in a decade. I see the faces of those young men and two women – all younger than my youngest – and tears follow. Killed by a suicide imbecile wearing a vest loaded with 25 pounds of high explosives and shrapnel, they were trying to help Afghans escape the country that we built and then donated to the Taliban.
Five of the 13 were just 20 years old. In interviews with CBS News, family and friends used similar language to describe them: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui was “just a good kid,” said his high school principal Robert Ibbetson. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, who had been in Afghanistan for just over a week and was due home in two weeks was, “One of the best kids ever,” said his mother Cheryl Merola. “Kind, loving ... he would give anything for anybody.”
That he did. They all did.
As we sort through our feelings and reactions to the Taliban takeover, Country Joe’s question remains. What were we fighting for? After 20 years, who really knows? It was never our mission or our job to create a country or establish a democracy. We couldn’t unravel all the factions, or cultural differences, but eradicating the terrorists was a big part of it. On that score, we clearly failed.
What follows next will surely haunt us, but here’s hoping our troops will be daily reminded by strangers that, no matter the mistakes of our commanders in chief, they will always be American heroes to us.