We sat amid a field of dead poppies where I attempted to understand the burly and bearded village elder who communicated through our interpreter, Viktor. I struggled for patience as I waited for the translation. There was a sinister quality about the elder, and what I had initially mistaken for indifference was actually hatred and it was directed at me. He slowly fingered his religious beads and whispered prayers while he half listened to Viktor.
The day before this exchange, one of our Marines was killed in an ambush and a Corpsman was seriously injured. That was the reason for this mission. We were angry and were there to collect information. It was necessary to ascertain what the villagers may have known about the attack. It was a lawless stretch of Afghanistan, part of the Helmand province, which up until recently had been controlled by the heroin trade and the Taliban. This man was either sympathetic to the Taliban, a member of the Taliban, or fearful of the Taliban. Either way, I sensed that we were wasting our time trying to exact information from him.
The elder had no desire to share any information and was more interested in challenging me. The tribal leader, in a malevolently playful way, engaged in an unsettling inquiry with no interest in my response, for he had already had his answer. His overarching question to me was how long did I think it would take before America would retreat in defeat. He proudly rattled off all those who had come before us: Alexander the Great, Babur the first emperor of the Mughal empire, the British empire, the Russian Soviet Communists. The elder saw no difference between America and all those who eventually entered into the proverbial “graveyard of empires.” He smugly suggested with an air of dismissive satisfaction that the Taliban would simply wait for America to abandon its mission. Just as all the others had. This was not a question of if, but rather a question of when and a simple matter of time.
It was June 2011 and I was 29 in the middle of a lost cause. And in that moment, for a split second, I was overwhelmed by intense sadness and regret. I had allowed myself to give credence to the elder’s thoughts, and for the first time in the five months since I had been in Afghanistan, I wondered, what is it all for? The doubt and despair literally took my breath away and then, thankfully it passed. America was different. I understood my history and while I may not have been able to provide a thorough historical analysis for those other conflicts, I knew exactly why Operation Enduring Freedom was launched.
Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 was a painfully beautiful day. Pilots and other aviation workers described the sky as being “severe clear.” There is a melancholy poetry to be found in the beauty of this day. On that morning, I was a college student in Manhattan, sitting in class learning about the ancient Mesopotamian empire, the cradle of civilization, and modern day Iraq. A half hour into the lecture, a faculty member burst into the class, “Two planes have flown into the World Trade Center, America is under attack…” The rest of that day is a terrible blur except for two moments that have remained with me.
The first occurred while I was walking from the upper east side to Penn Station in midtown (all the subways had been shut down for fear of additional attacks). There was a chaotic silence, an unsettlingly strange and foreign phenomenon in New York City. The only noises one could hear were the fire trucks racing downtown, radios on every other street corner with people desperately clinging to one another as they listened helplessly to try and understand what was happening, and the fighter jets flying overhead. Amid this insanity, an elderly woman grabbed my arms. Her face was tear-streaked and wrinkled, and I imagine she must have been old enough to have remembered Pearl Harbor. This woman just stared at me and after an awkward moment I asked her if she was okay and if she needed assistance. She remained silent and so I asked again. Finally, she looked at me and cried, “We are at war...I feel sorry for you, it is your generation that will inherit this…” At that moment, her meaning was lost on me and I simply asked again if she needed assistance. She shook her head sadly, released my arms from her grip, and disappeared into the growing crowd of bodies moving uptown.
The second moment occurred about an hour later. I found myself on a crowded train that rocked back and forth as it made its way from the city. As the darkened train traveled through a familiar tunnel, I remember feeling a sudden and deep sense of dread. Were we safe here? As quickly as the thought came, it vanished as the train car moved from the blackness of the tunnel into the bright blue of the late morning. There was that beautiful day again. The few people who had cell phones started to make phone calls to loved ones assuring them that they were okay. There was crying. I sat there completely drained and exhausted in a fog of shock and disbelief as the world passed by outside the train window. And then the second moment happened. As I stared out into the heartbreaking beauty of that day, my eyes were drawn to a sign on a gray Korean church. A scripture quote written in gold from the book of Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all those who pass by.” In vain, I made a weak attempt to fight back a flood of tears.
I believe with every fiber of my being that those two moments: that elderly woman who I have come to believe was an angel, and a passage from scripture, which I have come to believe was God speaking to me, led ten years later to Afghanistan where I sat face-to-face with the village elder. For a fleeting moment this man made me doubt my faith, my purpose, and my country. But when I reflected on those moments that occurred on 9/11, my commitment to my country and my commitment to humanity were renewed by a profound sense of hope. I truly believed that good could come from the horrors of 9/11 and I believed the work we would do in Afghanistan, in time, would be irrefutable evidence for that.
Almost ten years later, the words of the village elder haunt me. Once again I find myself questioning my faith, my purpose, and my country. If I am truly honest, I don’t know if the decision to leave Afghanistan was right or wrong. Who am I to answer such a question? Still, I refuse to give in to the cynicism, despair, and darkness that says it was all for nothing. Or that it was motivated purely by militarism and war profiteering. Or that it was the exclusive imperial ambition of empire building. I recognize for many, particularly Americans, it is easy to succumb to that kind of thinking, especially with the passing of time and the advantage of distance from such tragedy. It is fair to say that social media has also helped shape a rather myopic view of this conflict and its ostensible ending. Yet, I sincerely and humbly ask if there are individuals who have what they believe to be a serious opinion on this question, have they given the time, energy, thought, and attention that Afghanistan deserves?
I would ask that everyone reflect on these numbers. According to U.S.A.I.D., when the Taliban were defeated, there were approximately 900,000 children in school, all of them boys and very likely attending radical madrasas. By 2012 (one year after my deployment in 2011) the number of students was nearly 8 million, and about 37 percent were girls. Ambassador to Afghanistan under Bush and Obama, Ryan C. Crocker points out that it should be noted this was not exclusively due to American aid and support, this was also the result of many courageous and brave Afghani people who made tremendous sacrifices. This helps me to see there was good and it was not for nothing.
Putting aside what we may think and how we may feel about recent events, it is important for us to take a moment as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and reflect on the meaning of that day and how it relates to Afghanistan currently. What does it mean to us as Americans, as human beings, and what does it mean to you, as an individual? 9/11 and Afghanistan are inextricably linked. The lessons I have learned from that period shape the man I am today and certainly the man I aspire to be. Each day we are given is a new gift to help someone make the world a better place. For our children, the events of 9/11 have become history. The challenge before us is to ensure that younger generations understand the magnitude of this tragic and momentous day in our nation’s history. On Friday, September 10th at 7pm, there will be a remembrance gathering at Northport High School. I hope you can join us as we stand together in unity, remembering those we lost and rededicating ourselves to living lives of purpose in honor of their memory.
Darryl St. George
Northport High School