In Afghanistan: a US soldier's emotional landscape

Patriotic abstraction, flag-draped coffins, Saturday-night lobster, and creeping doubt

The infantry soldiers start their missions directly in front of our medical aid tent. They assemble in full "battle-rattle" - armored vests, Kevlar helmets with night-vision goggles, and a combat load of assault weapons, rockets, and explosives. In the past year as a flight surgeon here, I've become accustomed to the air of bravado, determination, courage, and fear as they head out to fight. As the Quick Reaction Force, they respond to local security threats or news of high-value enemy targets. They climb aboard Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters while assault Apaches provide cover overhead. On most nights, the soldiers return unharmed, and it makes me proud to hear their muffled footsteps on the gravel as they shuffle back to their hooches.

A couple of weeks ago, we sent two of those soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. One was shot in the head during a firefight, the other had bled to death from a leg wound. I'd never met them, but standing there saluting while the coffins were loaded onto a C-17 transport plane, I was struck by sadness and loss. The tragedy and solemnity of such a scene can hit you just as strongly whether you support the war on terror or not - and I suspect that there are plenty of American soldiers here on both sides of the issue.

There was once an appealing logic to why we came to Afghanistan. As soldiers, we wrap ourselves in abstractions like patriotism, duty, and serving on the "frontiers of freedom." Sept. 11 moved us deeply so - despite the sacrifices and privations we accepted, and imposed on our families - we came to fight an enemy that wished us ill. We chased the "bad guys" into the mountains. We distributed medicines and foods to villagers who've suffered constant war. We raised our flag proudly, confident of the justice and wisdom of our cause.

But after almost a year here - the third of Operation Enduring Freedom - I see the world differently. The abstractions that once vividly inspired us now seem camouflaged in the emotional landscape of Kandahar. Surprisingly, there is little heroism or drama in the routine of life in a combat zone. Sometimes we engage an enemy in a firefight or, in my case, help treat battle injuries and illnesses. Occasionally, we engage in local projects that would, in a noncombat environment, be termed humanitarian assistance. There continue to be constant rocket attacks and an occasional improvised explosive device that threaten our lives. But what, in our initial weeks here, made us run toward sandbagged bunkers now barely makes us flinch. We continue our routine - we grill burgers, watch movies on portable DVD players, head to the dining tent every Saturday for T-bone steaks and lobster tails. Instead of fighting an enemy that threatens America, it's often tedium and isolation we fight here instead.

Unlike in wars past, in which we knew the enemy - the Nazi, the Viet Cong - we don't really know our enemy, or even those we are "helping," for that matter. We're supposed to hate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But these enemies are so remote that our troops haven't worked up a fierce hatred of them - and this, initially, was suprising to me. But I haven't dredged up any hatred of the enemy either - nor have I developed any kinship with the average Afghan, despite multiple missions "outside the wire" to provide medical care to locals.

I continue to serve in the Army without much complaint - even as the vigor and sense of commitment begin to fade. When you can't take hold of the greater events around yourself, you must rely on the abstract promises you've made. I promised to serve my country, and I'll do so no matter what. Refusing to fight or publicly protesting our campaign in Afghanistan seems like moral cowardice. And it isn't merely because we chose to be soldiers; it's because we don't know what the proper course of action should be. Soldiers have few options but to trust the wisdom of their government - but doubts sometimes arise.

It isn't easy to question our nation's campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq among fellow soldiers - it makes few friends and elicits suspicious looks. Yet, all of us privately reflect on the same things: Will the world be safer because of our fight? If we prop up a transitional government, will our nation's long-term interests be served? If we achieve our military objectives, will the people here be given greater dignity and peace?Haven't we made great strides with the new Afghan constitution and planned elections?

Americans asked and answered those same questions in Vietnam. Americans assumed they were injecting democratic virtue into the political system - that South Vietnam's 1966 elections led to a fairly representative constituent assembly that, in turn, led to a Constitution with a bill of rights, land reform, and labor union provisions.

Despite American optimism that we were making real progress, we failed to understand the nature of the Vietnamese people and the historical, cultural, and social context that made our familiar institutions less relevant for them. In the end, we learned that social and political revolution is slow work, and we learned that largely unilateralist intervention often lacks staying power.

Different times, different places - I know. But the arguments sound so familiar as I watch the C-17 fly away with our dead into the windblown desert sky.

Even if US objectives have mainly to do with global security, as opposed to nation building, are we likely to succeed in our military goals? We tend to fight in Afghanistan with a strategic mind-set based on firepower and attrition and, occasionally, maneuver based on speed and surprise. But, in a conflict where cultures - not just states - clash, it's imperative to take the nonlinear battlefield a few steps further - to win over the people. But, how exactly do we do that?

Force protection compels us to keep soldiers separate from the local populace - except with Special Operations Forces and isolated civic projects. Most soldiers who venture out of the safety of our airfield go to find and destroy an enemy. Even the medical personnel who provide humanitarian care carry weapons. On my combat medical operations to villages, I scan the corners of the mud huts for potential threats while listening with a stethoscope to the heartbeat of a young child. Without trust in the populace, can we win their hearts and minds?

By destroying the Taliban and removing the state apparatus, we have in many ways created more dangerous enemies and a breeding ground for terrorist and nonstate fighting forces. Lack of stability and security and order breed further discontent and make the network of angry people amorphous and difficult to track.

Will we invest enough human and financial capital to do the job? Do we care enough to get to the core of the problem and transform a culture of hatred?

Most American soldiers, in fact, have little knowledge about and concern for the culture or people of this land. Ask a soldier about March Madness, and he or she can name the Final Four. Ask a soldier the difference between a Pashtun and a Tajik or between a Hazara and a Uzbek, and you're likely to get a blank stare.

There are practical challenges as well. How will we separate the enemies from innocent civilians? When an aviator in an Apache helicopter sees an Afghan man walking away from an explosion site with two sheep in tow, is he observing a sheepherder or an Al Qaeda attacker? We've dropped bombs on Taliban targets whose cellular phones direct our hit and, consequently, we've had to deal with unintended civilian deaths. We have Afghan civilians building our volleyball courts and hauling our trash, knowing that many relay critical operational information to our enemies (some were caught using mirrors to guide in rocket attacks).

How long can our strategy be considered effective? Have the Vietnam war and other guerrilla wars not taught us a better way?

Losing the passion for the cause or lacking a belief in the wisdom of current strategies, a soldier wants at least to know that his or her efforts aren't wasted - that someone is safer, suffering has been alleviated, opportunities for dignity and happiness have been created.

Each day I tell myself that my efforts here are not wasted, that there is a reason I've missed my four children's birthdays again, missed another anniversary with my wife, watched from afar as my parents have suffered major illnesses alone. There is a reason I continue to serve without complaint.

Watching those flag-draped coffins, however, made me uneasy. I can still justify the sacrifices that I have made my family bear in the name of this war on terrorism. I can still see the nobility of this profession - a soldier's calling to serve in time of war in defense of his country. Despite some doubts, I still have faith that our leaders are wise and strong and worthy of our support. I can even still see patriotic families proud of the ultimate sacrifices made by their sons and daughters on the fields of battle.

Increasingly, however, what I cannot see is moral clarity in my position here. Death and sacrifice can be honorable things. But death can often highlight the moral ambiguities and political uncertainties inherent in our military campaigns. Appeals to my sense of patriotism, professionalism, and love of country do not seem sufficient to quell the discomfort of it all.

Ryung Suh, a US Army flight surgeon, is a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations and a graduate of West Point.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In Afghanistan: a US soldier's emotional landscape
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today