Last week, many Americans were shocked and appalled at the contents of the Afghanistan Papers, a series of shocking assessments on our continued involvement in a long, costly war collected by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR).
The documents were mostly comprised of a series of interviews with top officials that many never thought would go public and were obtained by the Washington Post after a lengthy court battle that ultimately found the documents subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Although less discussed than the overall lack of honesty regarding our ongoing war in Afghanistan is the impact of involvement in this type of conflict on the Veterans who served there.
According to Jason Dempsey, a retired Army officer who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, “overall, it's largely been a failure. And that applies to almost every dimension of our effort in Afghanistan.”
He elaborated: “realizing that we were essentially on a treadmill, that very little progress [was] being made and that every single rotation was repeating the efforts of the rotation before that . . . without considering whether or not what they did added up to anything that was sustainable or contributed to a meaningful long-term goal for the sustainability of Afghanistan.”
Unfortunately for our nation, this sentiment is not new. Still, it deserves more considerable attention in that it can inform our treatment of the Veterans who served there, particularly those who struggle with mental health conditions and thoughts of suicide. Both Congress and the VA have declared suicide prevention to be a top national priority, yet thus far, both have been unable to make significant progress.
To this end, a brief history of our nation’s collective response to the Vietnam War and the impact this collective response had on the Veterans who served there, proves instructive.
In July 1978, Jeffrey A. Jay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Family Research at George Washington University, wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled “After Vietnam: In Pursuit of Scapegoats.”
In discussing some of the challenges he faced in treating Vietnam Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Jay observed:
“My talks with Veterans convince me that their problems are not so simple, nor so easily addressed. The Veteran's conflicts are not his alone but are bound to the trauma and guilt of the nation. And our failure to deal with our guilt renders the Veteran the symptom-carrier for society and increases his moral and emotional burden. This burden isolates the Veteran and will freeze him in an attitude of perpetual combat until the issues of the war are confronted in the national conscience.”
Many historians and academics who have studied the Vietnam War, including Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam Veteran, sociologist and author of "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam" (and who this author had the honor of learning from while a student at the College of the Holy Cross), agree that, collectively, society did an abysmal job dealing with the guilt and emotional burdens associated with the Vietnam War, the longest and costliest war the United States was involved in before Afghanistan.
To paraphrase Lembcke, as the Vietnam War became increasingly hopeless, the service members and Veterans put through the revolving door of deployments required to maintain our presence there came to represent something that many American civilians did not want to accept: defeat.
The acceptance of defeat has been hard for our current national conscience to accept in Afghanistan as well. If this were not the case, then indeed, the senior Department of Defense officials interviewed in the Afghanistan Papers would not have had any incentive to lie to the American people about the status of our progress there. Emphasis was repeatedly placed on winning rather than transparency.
Nowhere are the detrimental effects of this dishonesty more apparent than in the Veterans' suicide epidemic that continues to sweep the nation. Just as those returning from Vietnam struggled with feelings of social isolation concerning their inability to justify their war experiences in society, those returning from Afghanistan are suffering the same fate.
Lawmakers have made some progress toward addressing this issue. They recently approved the use of the three-digit number 988 as a suicide prevention number to assist those in crisis. They also introduced legislation to study the link between Veteran suicide deaths and other factors such as prescription drugs and traumatic brain injury (TBI), for example, they are missing the more significant issue of dealing with the collective impact of the Afghan War.
In other words, healing the nation may go a long way toward improving our Veterans.
The first step for government leaders is to accept and acknowledge that our efforts in Afghanistan have failed and that America is no longer brave in military conflicts abroad. As the Alcoholics Anonymous adage goes — admitting that there is a problem is the first step to recovery, and “only be admitting defeat are we able to take our first steps toward liberation and strength.”
As Jay concluded in 1978, “it may well be that isolation, the burden of conflicted feelings, and not being heard makes people crazy” — not just the horrors of war. We must all do our part to deal with the unease of defeat in the Afghanistan conflict, most notably by listening more to the Veterans who served there, and acknowledging that they are not individually responsible for two decades of failed foreign policy. Doing so may very well save numerous lives and prevent entanglement in unwinnable future conflicts as well.