U.S. Marines from 1st Battalion, 6th regiment, Charlie company pay tribute to Sergeant Daniel Angus and Lance Corporal Zachary Smith who were killed on in battle in the outskirts of Marjah in central Helmand on January 30, 2010. (Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images)

Did My Fellow Soldiers Die in Vain?

In a normal time, our leaders would tell us what it was all for. We don’t live in that time. So it's left to us to remember why we served…

You know how angry and saddened and outraged you feel looking at the images out of Afghanistan? How flabbergasted you are that our Secretary of Defense is not saying, of the 10,000 Americans trapped in a country now run by the Taliban, that we will not stop until we get every single one, but rather: we’ll evacuate them “until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

Now imagine that you served in Afghanistan. That you lost friends there. That you gave years of your life to a project that has not just failed, but has been disavowed by our current commander-in-chief.

For military veterans, this week has been brutal in ways most civilians might not fully grasp. 

Jordan Blashek spent five years as a Marine infantry officer, deploying twice overseas and once to Afghanistan. During an eight-month tour in Helmand Province in 2013, he served as a combat advisor to the 215 Corps of the Afghan National Army, working with thousands of Afghan soldiers and dozens of interpreters.

He is also the co-author of a very thoughtful book called “Union: A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground.” — BW

The other night, a friend texted to see how I was doing. We don’t know each other that well, but we had both served overseas in Afghanistan. We were sad — sad in a way that makes it hard to move. We felt the same way in 2014 when Fallujah fell to ISIS. That was painful too, but it taught us how to move forward. We learned that it’s just a matter of time before the stunned feeling washes away.

But then my friend sent another message. His first cousin Mike, a Marine lieutenant, had been killed in Afghanistan in 2009, and now Mike’s mother was devastated all over again. The past 72 hours had raised all those painful questions: What was it for? Did he die for nothing?

I broke down. I went into the shower and sobbed.

I’m not here to offer any political opinions or policy recommendations. There are enough of those flying around in the wake of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, and they won’t change the conditions on the ground. They won’t help the tens of thousands of Americans and Afghan allies trapped there, hiding with their families or begging to be let into the airport.

But I do want to write to Mike’s mom, a Gold Star Mother watching all of this and wondering if her child died in vain. I want her to know what her son’s life meant to me. I want her to know what it was all for. 

I joined the Marines in 2009, the same year Mike deployed to Afghanistan for his first tour. Mike had made the decision to join four years earlier, after his sophomore year of college. That was during some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq. There was no doubt that he would be going into harm’s way. That’s exactly why men and women like Mike joined — because our country needed someone to bear that responsibility.

Mike was just 20 years old when he decided to dedicate his life to defending our country. A few years later he married his college sweetheart. And still Mike chose to go. To bring the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to lead young Marines, and to protect the most vulnerable Afghans. He believed that there are things more important than his own life, and he chose to live by them.      

Choices like his inspired me and thousands more to follow him into combat. 

The author with his interpreter and several Afghan National Army soldiers in 2013.

We don’t talk much about virtue today in American public life. It seems like many of the people in positions of power have given up on ideas like honor, duty, courage and integrity. 

But these things still matter. They matter to those of us who served. We went to Afghanistan because we were willing to die for them. 

I still believe in them. I also believe it matters that we eliminated thousands of terrorists over there who wanted to hurt Americans here. It matters that women and children were able to experience freedom and a better life, even if only for a short time. It matters that a generation of Afghans saw our courage and commitment to that freedom.

In a different time, our national leaders would tell us what it was all for. They would find the words to bring meaning to sacrifices like Mike’s. We don’t live in that time. But their failure doesn’t make those sacrifices any less real.

For over a decade, our political leaders have failed to give a reason — any reason — why this mission was worth our sacrifice. The commander-in-chief owes that to our military and their families. That is their job. And they have failed.

Each year, they should have made the argument for sending new troops into the theater. Instead, they only talked about how they wanted to pull us out, even as they sent us in. 

President Biden failed, too. He blamed everyone but himself for the failed implementation of his withdrawal. He called the Afghan soldiers cowards — the same soldiers who bled on the battlefield with us. He set up a straw-man choice between pulling out everyone or scaling up combat operations for a country that would not fight for itself. 

But that was never the choice we faced. By 2020, this had become a peacekeeping mission. Our small presence of a couple thousand troops was keeping the Taliban at bay. That was something all of us would have signed up for again and again.

The country needed President Biden to say that. We needed him to explain why the last decade of our service, why keeping the Taliban from taking Kabul, was worth the sacrifice. If he had done that, perhaps Mike’s mother, and others like her, would not be in so much pain.

Anyone with eyes to see is witness to the reality that we are going through a crisis of confidence as a country. Too many people want to tear down our founding ideals and everything else that we should be proud of in our history. Too many want to insist that we are a force more for bad than good. Others are looking desperately for signs that we are still a great nation, and they’re not sure where to find them. They certainly couldn’t find them in President Biden’s speech of surrender.

I know where to find that sign. It’s in Marines like Mike. It’s in every man and woman I served alongside. I hope the rest of us can remember and recover the virtues that drove them to Afghanistan.

I had the chance to ask one of the many men who helped shape the war, Gen. H.R. McMaster, about the betrayal Jordan so many other veterans have been expressing.

Was the mission doomed from the start? Was it political incompetence? Or was it the fault of, well, the generals who weren’t honest about what it would take to win?

Trump’s National Security Advisor lays a good part of the blame on Trump’s Secretary of State. “Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” the three-star general says of Mike Pompeo. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn't defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”

It’s a frank and wide-ranging conversation. We talk about Biden, of course. We also talk about the corruption and incompetence of our elites, rising isolationism on the right and the left, and why he’s still bullish about America.

I hope you’ll give it a listen:

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