Hello again, fellow veterans! I hope all is well and you are staying healthy, both physically and mentally. With all the recent news on withdrawing from Afghanistan, many soldiers and veterans have been experiencing various emotions about the departure. Many questions are being asked! We could get into many different perspectives like politics, tactics, religion, personal reasons, etc.; however, one of the common topics that keep coming up is “what did we fight for?” These are the topics that I think we will discuss this month to help put things into perspective and show that no matter what war or conflict you fight in, that is always the purpose.
Was it worth it?
Like many veterans, I have watched events unfold in Afghanistan with a clenched stomach and an array of emotions in the last several days. Seeing the Taliban flags flying over familiar landmarks was disturbing, as was the sight of bodies littering the streets and crowds rushing toward overflowing aircraft to evacuate the country. Then the bombing occurred, and we lost more American soldiers. I was an Army enlisted noncommission officer when passenger planes flew into buildings, which changed the world forever. This weekend’s heartbreaking video of Afghans dropping from departing C-17s was weirdly reminiscent of New Yorkers plunging from burning buildings. But what I have seen is not the worst. I have read a social-media post from a fellow veteran asking for prayers for his child. A child who is deploying to Afghanistan to provide stability for the ongoing evacuation. A child who was most likely born after September 11, 2001. Responsibilities of this war have now passed from one generation to the next. How does this happen?
If I were the person in charge, the war would have ended ten years ago, even earlier if I had my way! Before politicians without convictions, or entropy, or generals without plans, our nation simply stopped paying attention to those serving overseas on her behalf. This allowed our elected leaders to continuously send troops to a land that time forgot year after year. Democracy cannot be imposed nor exported outside our borders. If a nation’s people are not willing to fight and die for their right to be free, we should not bear this burden for them! If the Afghan people could not govern themselves after eight years or ten, they most certainly will not after 15 or 20! American soldiers should not be fighting for Afghanistan’s people’s freedom if they cannot or will take responsibility for their own nation.
Ultimately, this question can be answered in a thousand different ways, or perhaps not at all. Like the war itself, the answer is profoundly personal and culled from each service member’s experience. Of battles won and comrades lost. Years have passed, and memorials have been constructed for those who will never get the chance to grow old. These images are frozen images, and the feelings are cached. Some spikes of adrenaline and moments of pure terror.
Other triumphs and heart-rending losses.
I do not know anymore. I want to believe that our initial assault into Afghanistan was justified. The highest ideals of destroying al-Qaeda and giving the Afghan people the chance to live free were noble and worthy. But the numerous years that followed are also impossible to ignore. Years of wasted blood and treasure. Those years drive doubt into the hearts and minds of many.
This brings us back to the fall of Kabul. While I am not sure that two decades in Afghanistan were worth the terrible price, I do know that those of us who answered our nation’s call do deserve a better ending. We deserve a resolution without mass executions and bodies falling from planes. To my fellow veterans, who willingly bore this crushing weight without complaint, you are the very best! You did not sacrifice or fight for nothing. You fought for your brothers and sister to your left and right, which is ultimately what we fight for. We also fought and survived to tell the stories of the brave heroics of those heroes, crazy battles, journeys, and experiences that 99 percent of the population are not privileged to encounter. You are amazing, and your sacrifice will never be forgotten.
Combat: The Emotions of War
So, where do we go from here? Everyone is different. There are so many different ways of coping and dealing with emotions and feelings. Before you can deal with them, you must understand them. So here is a start on how to understand the emotions of war.
Duality of War. War is the most destructive and pitiless act of all human activities. The experience of war has an intense and strangely convincing effect on those who fight. Combat will kill, maim, and terrify those in its wake, but it also will reveal a selfless sense of purpose and the power of brotherhood. It is an experience that changes soldiers, which can last a lifetime.
Most people who join the military and go to war are very young, and for many, they have never been away from home. They have little world experience, let alone war, death, and killing. For these soldiers, combat is a complex mix of emotions that define the experience of war and shape the experience of coming home.
Fear and Exhilaration. War is many things, and it is unrealistic to pretend that exciting is not one of them. War offers soldiers raw life: energetic, terrifying, and a total rush! According to Sebastian Junger, “It is incredibly exciting and scary! As well as the worst thing in the world, causing both physical and emotional injuries, however people who have experienced it often miss it terribly.” This excitement is related to the brain’s physiological response to trauma—the fight, flight, or freeze part of the brain. This triggers adrenaline flow, raising the pulse and blood pressure dramatically to flood the heart, brain, and major muscle groups to respond. There is no other experience like it in the world! “If it is negative 20 degrees outside, you’re sweating. If it is 120, you are ice cold. It is an adrenaline rush like you cannot imagine.”
Brotherhood and Purpose. The capacity of self-sacrifice between human beings is nowhere more evident than in the bond between soldiers during the war. Sebastian Junger defines this brotherhood as the “core experience of combat. The pure willingness to die for another person as a form of love that is a profound and essential part of the experience.”
Many combat veterans had felt that their lives had never had more meaning than when they were in combat. This sense of meaning and purpose grows through the act of protecting and being protected by their fellow soldiers, a shared commitment to safeguard each other’s lives that is non-negotiable and only grows over time. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay explains that “The terror and privation of combat bondsmen in a way that the word ‘brother’ only partly captures. Men become pseudo mothers to one another in combat.”
Killing. Young soldiers in combat certainly confront killing. They take life which breaches one of the most fundamental moral values in society, often resulting in long-term consequences. When fighting for survival in Vietnam, Karl Marlantes initially felt satisfaction when his unit killed the enemy. Later in life, he was haunted by those deaths, as many combat veterans experience.
The origins of human warfare display that conflict is deeply related to protecting home and loved ones and not to killing for its own sake. However, compelling the reason, killing is a tough act with complicated consequences. Prof. Dave Grossman explains that killing can bring “survivor euphoria,” which entails the happiness of the survivor at being alive, separating them from the death of the other person. But the soldier might then ask an additionally troubling question: “I just killed, and I am happy about it. Does that mean I like killing?”
Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., believes young soldiers should be better prepared emotionally for the realities of war, even though no one can ever fully be prepared for the experience of combat. While killing an enemy combatant might be unavoidable, the act of killing is understandably troubling and potentially psychologically destructive. Additionally, losing fellow soldiers is also just emotionally alarming. Understanding this reality can help warriors heal emotionally from the psychological consequences of war.
So hopefully this gives you a better understanding of the emotions and feelings of war. Everyone goes through these emotions differently and has their own way of dealing with them. Some exercise, some talk, some write them down in a journal, some have hobbies. The worst thing you can do is keep them held inside. Make sure you get them out of your head in one way or another. There is always a Veteran who is willing to listen. I know I will! Just let me know. So, until next time, be safe and take care of yourself! I will see you next time.
Dr. John Heintzelman
Pham, D. & Pham, M. (2018) Combat: The Emotions of War. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/tpt/going-to-war/themes/combat-experience/
Image provided by Council on Foreign Relations (2021). The U.S. War in Afghanistan Timeline. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-war-afghanistan