By Thomas K. Kaulukukui Jr.
I saw in the media that President Joe Biden has announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Already there have been published reactions from veterans and currently serving soldiers about their feelings of disappointment and unhappiness that the U.S. is abandoning their allies to fight alone in an unwinnable war against the Taliban. Some commentators have likened this withdrawal to the American pull-out of troops in the Vietnam War in 1973.
I am a former paratrooper who fought in the Vietnam War, serving in the war in 1969-70 in the 173d Airborne Brigade. When the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam in 1973, I knew that our South Vietnamese ally would soon lose the war. By 1975 the North Vietnamese communist troops had overwhelmed our former South Vietnamese allies, who were hapless without U.S. military support and American money to fund the war.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973 and the subsequent fall of South Vietnam in 1975 invoked within me strong feelings of disappointment, anger, sorrow and guilt. I was disappointed and angry that the U.S. had halted its efforts to win the war, especially after so many sacrifices had been made. I was sad for the men and families of the soldiers who died or were wounded in the war. I was guilty that we had abandoned our allies to a foreseeable fate that doomed them to defeat.
In the five decades after I left the war, I have gained some perspective about this issue. I offer these short suggestions to veterans and soldiers and their families who may have feelings similar to mine, as the U.S. abandons its military commitment in Afghanistan.
Do not equate an American political mission with the commitment of an individual. Individuals can make commitments to others that are enduring and loyal, and not subject to situational whims. Countries like the U.S. base their foreign policies upon political and other complex considerations, which require fluid and ever-changing strategies. Both the U.S. and its allies knew this when the U.S. entered the war in Afghanistan. Thus, our leaders’ commitment to render military aid did not even rise to the level of commitment in marriage vows between two consenting adults. Political vows are only as permanent as they are politically expedient. The bottom line is: The U.S. was always destined to eventually pull out of Afghanistan.
Focus on the commitment and service of the soldiers, not of the country. It’s normal and common for those who have served in the war (or their families) to feel that their service is marginalized or minimized when the U.S. abandons the war in which they served. But the service of individual soldiers has intrinsic value apart from the country’s commitment to the war as a political activity. The patriotism of those who bear the brunt of war is a special gem of personal character that can or should never be devalued. Focusing upon this factor can help alleviate frustration.
Reaffirm the value of your commitment and service by uniting with comrades. The best support a veteran can have comes from his peers. They understand best what the soldier has experienced, and how a soldier feels about his or her service. One of the most effective and powerful forms of counseling is peer counseling. During this stressful time as the U.S. ends its participation in the war in Afghanistan, uniting with fellow veterans can provide emotional support and reaffirmation of the worth of soldiers’ service and sacrifice. Gather and raise a glass of your favorite beverage and declare, “God, we were good!,” or “We were winning when I left!”
I hope that these few suggestions help the veterans of this war cope with the powerful feelings that can arise in this situation.