• T. Kearny Vertner, III

Reflections on Afghanistan

Afghanistan defined my entire military experience by either lingering in the background or thrust violently into my foreground. What's next?

As twenty years of conflict in Afghanistan draw to a close for the United States, I'm driven to reflect on the wins and the losses. I struggle with mixed emotions on this. On the one hand, I've always been frustrated with a seeming lack of objectives compared to the volume of blood and treasure spent there. On the other hand, I'm proud of everything that my teammates and I have managed to accomplish, and I firmly believe that Afghanistan is in a better place than it was twenty years ago. No matter what they do, I don't think the Taliban can reverse all of the economic and social gains we've made together. I dare to dream that the Taliban of today is a more mature organization ready to govern with more justice than it was twenty years ago. I hope that my sisters and brothers in arms - and the Afghan people - can find some measure of closure and peace. Despite those hopes, doubt plagues me and will likely continue for some time.


Hopes and Fears


The same hope that informs today's dream for a brighter future for the Afghans is exactly what kept me moving forward every time I loaded up on a C-130 Hercules bound for Bagram Air Base and beyond. Even during my first deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden, I found myself wondering what the end game was and pondering my role in it. While I poured myself into my duties to both my teammates and our mission, the doubt constantly itched in the back of my mind. "Why are we here?", "what are we trying to do?", or "what's next now that bin Laden is dead?" were questions I quietly asked myself. I naively desired to be wrong and clung to the fantasy that it would all turn out better and history would vindicate - or herald - our efforts. I imagined that there was someone behind the curtain who knew better and was guiding our best work, purposefully leaving us in ignorance until the perfect moment. I'm still reminded of how many older veterans would describe the sense of detachment that comes from repeatedly fighting an ill-defined conflict; "you do it for your teammates and little more."


Vertner, Extortion 17, 2012, digital
Vertner, Extortion 17, 2012, digital

My time in Afghanistan was relatively short, making up only three of my deployments spread out across a mere seven months. Despite my brief experience there, my time was packed with violent intensity, hard emotions, and long hours spiked with terror, grief, and a strong sense of familial camaraderie. My memories are a storm of incongruous moments ranging from the joy of my teammates and I piling into a couple of barely-drivable vehicles to make our way to a small chow hall across base with the promise of a well-seasoned breakfast with eggs over easy, to the horror of watching a mortar whistle a few hundred feet over my head as I tried to capture some post-mission peace in the curling smoke of my cigar. I proudly remember the triumph of developing creative new tactics across multiple aircraft while I'm plagued by the nightmares of the teammates we lost.


Even when Afghanistan would fade into the background and I would deploy to other hotspots around the world, our mission there was always in my mind. We were always training and preparing to go there, even when we went somewhere else. I've not deployed to Afghanistan due to last-minute changes almost as many times as I've deployed there. It was such a constant that the going assumption for many of my teammates for a certain period was that you would deploy there first to get seasoned before moving on to other locations. I would even darkly joke that Afghanistan was the most expensive live-fire exercise we could ever imagine, and even now, I suspect some are scratching their heads trying to figure out how we'll build the combat experience our teammates could earn there.


The Hero's Journey


I think one of the challenges that make this so hard to reconcile is how many of us joined implicitly seeking a hero's journey. A concept familiar to students of both psychology and literary analysis, the hero's journey is one where a hero ventures forth from one world into another, passing numerous trials and conquering a great evil, to emerge back into their own world stronger and ready to bestow their hard-earned gifts upon their friends and family. Successful military training doesn't just prepare you for war; it makes you desire it, convincing you of the myth of the hero's journey and exciting you to embark on your own. As a result, I remember returning from my first deployment to Iraq in 2010 confused and frustrated. Some evils were conquered, but the work was unfinished and my return felt bizarrely anticlimactic. I was stronger, yet I hardly felt a sense of closure. I sometimes wonder if that need for closure, cleansing, and redemption is what kept me stepping forward into more deployments in the coming years. I wonder if veterans of World War II ever felt the same even though their evil was far more pronounced and their victory decisive.


Whatever hope I clung to of my own clear victory and a rebuttal of my doubts was washed away in the last few weeks. The Taliban swept through and completely retook control of Afghanistan before our withdrawal was even complete. Since then, my mind has been preoccupied with all of the doubts I was able to suppress with hope. I can no longer bind myself to the dream of a hero's journey realized.


Looking Toward Tomorrow


Without a hero's journey, what's next? First and foremost, I owe my Airmen a more grounded and mature approach to warfare than I think I had. When I tell my war stories, I enjoy talking about the awesome moments that few get to experience, but I also try to punctuate them with some of the somber bits. More importantly, I make it clear that I still bear significant emotional and moral wounds that I cope with every day. I was fortunate and grateful to have had supportive leadership who gave me the space I needed to rebuild myself at various points in my service, though I've also come to appreciate that like physical injuries, I will always bear some scars and walk with a (metaphorical) limp.


More importantly, I've tried to pivot away from the language of the hero's journey. While there was a time where a military fought and won wars against other states, the conflicts of today bear little resemblance. As I've discussed at length before, I believe that it's the grave responsibility of a new generation of military and political leaders to get away from the blustering jingoism surrounding the term "victory." Instead, I think we need to mirror our partners in other government agencies, like the State Department, USAID, and CIA, and focus on process. In the conflicts to come, we must organize, train, and equip our forces to sustainably run an effective process against our strategic competitors, rogue states, and dangerous non-state actors to maintain a favorable balance of power. We cannot simply win, because our goal is to never fight in the first place. The lesson we forgot from the Cold War is that the cost of open conflict is nearly intolerable; especially when the foe is well-armed, unresponsive to hard deterrence, and offers little direct existential threat to the U.S. This is no simple hero's journey, but something more complex and nuanced that requires a more scholarly, diplomatic, and longer-term approach. While my hopes have shifted as a result of my experience in Afghanistan, I've still learned important lessons and have the deepest hope that my teammates and I can use those lessons to tackle the unique challenges of tomorrow. The world is watching.