Someday, America's Afghan Wars -- the first was against the Soviet Union, 1979-1989; the second began with the post-9/11 invasion of that country and has never ended -- may be seen as follies of an unprecedented sort. Certainly, the wars that invasion set off across the Greater Middle East and Africa helped ensure that a Pentagon incapable of winning anything abroad would nonetheless win the peace at home, big time, taking funds from everything that would end up mattering to Americans. Almost 19 years after that second Afghan War began, another of those infamous "corners" has been turned there, amid yet more Afghan suffering. A recent random coronavirus test of 500 people in Kabul, that country's capital, produced more than 150 positive results. Multiply that across a land where hundreds of thousands of people have, under the worst possible conditions, only recently returned from Iran, a country in the gruesome grip of Covid-19, and you know that the forevermost American conflict of this century is now also a pandemic war.
What a nightmare, as the Taliban continues its attacks in that country and thousands of U.S. troops remain there! And yet the disaster of it all should have been so obvious, as former infantry officer and Army Ranger Erik Edstrom, author of the new book Un-American: A Soldier's Reckoning of Our Longest War, suggests today while locked in an apartment in Boston in a country now at war with itself. In isolation, he's had time to reconsider his own time fighting in Afghanistan and the military he came to turn his back on. In doing so, he suggests to us all that, in a country and world besieged by the coronavirus, perhaps it's truly time to come up with a new definition of patriotism. Tom
Celebrated to Death
Memorial Day Is Killing Us
By Erik Edstrom
"Every day is a copy of a copy of a copy." That meme, from the moment when Edward Norton's character in Fight Club offers a 1,000-yard stare at an office copy machine, captures this moment perfectly -- at least for those of us removed from the front lines of the Covid-19 crisis. Isolated inside a Boston apartment, I typically sought new ways to shake the snow globe, to see the same bubble -- the same stuff -- differently.
Quarantine has entered a new season. The month of May has brought daffodils and barbeque grills. Memorial Day is just around the corner. And every Friday at 7:00 PM, residents in my neighborhood hang out of their windows to bang pots and cheer until they get tired (usually, about two minutes later). It's a nice gesture to healthcare workers, a contemporary doff of the cap, but does it change anything? Perhaps it's just another permutation of that old American truism: if you're getting thanked for your service, you're in a job where you're getting shafted.
The war against President Trump's "invisible enemy" spasms on and we're regularly reminded that healthcare workers, dangerously ill-equipped, must beg for personal protective equipment. But this Memorial Day, the 18th during America's War on Terror, our national focus is likely to shift, even if only momentarily, to the soldiers who are still fighting and dying in a self-perpetuating war, now under pandemic conditions.
Reflecting on my own time as a soldier deployed to combat in Afghanistan, I hope that Covid-19 causes us to redefine what "patriotism" and "national security" really should mean. My suggestion: If you want to honor soldiers this Memorial Day, start by questioning the U.S. military.
With this on my mind, and all alone in that apartment, I knew exactly where to look for inspiration.
Just before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May, 2009, I bought a journal. It was brown, faux-leather, and fit in the hip pocket of Army combat trousers. It wasn't particularly nice -- just something you might pick up at Office Max.
Nonetheless, my soldiers ribbed me for it. "Dear diary," they snickered.
"No, no, this is a war journal," I would reply, imagining such a distinction as sufficiently manly to overcome whatever stigma they had when it came to this self-appointed diarist.
At first, journaling was a distraction. I captured images of my platoon, a lovable assemblage of misfits and Marlboro men. But soon, that journal acquired a more macabre tone, its lines filling with stories of roadside bombs, shootouts, amputated limbs, and funerals playing out in a page-by-page street fight of scribbles and scratch-outs.
On a humdrum route-clearance patrol on our fourth day in-country, before the unit of soldiers we were replacing even had a chance to depart, my squad leader's vehicle was catastrophically destroyed by a roadside bomb. We loaded four broken, bloody, ketamine'd soldiers onto an Air MEDEVAC helicopter en route to urgent care at Kandahar Airfield. (At this rate, I realized, my platoon of 28 would be wiped out within a month.)
I reassured the soldier who was most coherent that he was "going to be okay." Truth was: I didn't know. And what did "okay" in battlefield injury-speak even mean? A quadruple amputee with a pulse? Years of horrific facial reconstruction surgeries? Or maybe, with luck, merely a traumatic brain injury or a single leg amputation below the knee, which my wounded friends from Walter Reed Hospital called "a paper cut."
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