The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan last month has spurred discussions around the purpose of a war many Americans had hadn't talked out since it began 20 years ago. Since August of this year, cable news has dedicated more time to covering the region than in the prior 5 years combined.
Almost as unheard in the din of armchair military strategists and performative outrage are the stories of the men and women who served there.
In the first of a four-part series on America's longest war, I spoke with Benari Poulten, an old friend of mine from Boston's stand-up comedy scene. In addition to being an Emmy-nominated writer and producer, Benari is a Master Sergeant in the US Army Reserve and served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanomo Bay.
In this episode we discuss his experience in Afghanistan, his general frustrations with the way his fellow countrymen have reacted to the winding down of a war they forgot was going on, and open up two larger themes that will come up in subsequent episodes.
You can listen to the full episode via the player below, or via your favorite podcast player here.
Benari arrived in Kandahar shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, a point when many of America's coalition partners felt the mission had been achieved and began winding down operations. During his tour, he watched the mission change from one focused on fighting Al Qaeda to one focused on building economic and political stability.
This mission, of course, turned into a 10 year game of "wait and see", with the American military continuing to send people and resources to the country and the American people continuing to let the war drift further out of the public consciousness.
This was one of the greatest frustrations Benari expressed during our conversation. While the vets returning from Afghanistan received far better treatment than those returning from Vietnam, they also returned home to a population that didn't know the war was going on. There were no tax hikes, no supply shortages, and no one's friends or loved ones were being drafted to serve.
The lack of shared sacrifice was only worsened by people who chose to remember the war to express outrage over the withdrawal.
During our conversation, two things became clear that will continue to be topics of discussion in upcoming episodes:
The first is the use of the US military as an extension of, and sometimes a replacement for, foreign policy. Americans are naturally optimistic, and since World War 2 that optimism has been channeled into a philosophy that there's no problem that can't be fixed by sending troops, planes, and other things designed to break stuff. With a 20-year military engagement resulting in a transfer of power to the same people who held the region prior, this philosophy may have finally met its end.
The second is the concept of living with purpose. For Benari, enlisting in the military was a way to give back to society and help build a shared experience in a country that sorely lacked it. He found himself serving three tours of duty in a War on Terror started by people who sought purpose in violence.
As we look at America post-War on Terror, we see the same lack of purpose in other instances of political violence such as the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th. While poverty, disenfranchisement, and political repression are all cited as reasons for terrorism and political violence, the people who commit these acts are almost entirely unaffected by these problems.
After having a chance to reflect on what made Benari and others who served different from those mentioned above, the one factor that comes to mind is humility.
Those involved in the January 6th attack on the Capitol and 9/11 felt their one act of civil disobedience would trigger the change they desired. Benari, on the other hand, is part of a group of people who serve silently with the understanding the problem they're looking to fix may never be solved, but the cause is worthy enough to make a small contribution in the hope it helps.
As we'll explore in the next episode, the end of World War 2 made America high on its own supply, in a way. We'd just emerged as the most powerful nation in history with immense political, economic, and military power. We expressed this with a fairly muscular approach to foreign policy that's now left us indebted with fractured international alliances. The end of the war in Afghanistan may mark an end to this era, and give America an opportunity to find a more humble purpose.
Until then, here are two ways you can humbly give back: