Combat Trauma [Excerpt]

Nadia Abu El-Haj


The following is excerpted with permission from Combat Trauma: Imaginaries of War and Citizenship in post-9/11 America, by Nadia Abu El-Haj. Now available from Verso Books.


On Sunday, August 15th, 2021, on the heels of rapid military victories throughout Afghanistan, the Taliban walked into Kabul. Afghan soldiers put down their arms. The president, Ashraf Ghani, fled. Helicopters lifted American diplomats off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone, invoking an iconic image of the final chaotic and desperate evacuation of Saigon as it fell to the Viet Cong nearly five decades earlier. U.S. soldiers retreated to the airport where, over the next two weeks, they would oversee the largest evacuation in U.S. history.

The U.S. defeat in its longest war was dramatic and undeniable, a defeat that should have come as no surprise. In February 2020, the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban, effectively conceding that America had lost the war. After Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, he agreed to abide by that treaty, even as he delayed the draw-down of U.S. troops by four months, moving it from May 1st, 2021, to September in order, according to the administration, to facilitate a more orderly withdrawal. As the summer of 2021 progressed, however, the Taliban took city after city at a speed that few in the U.S. intelligence community had predicted. In the end, the American retreat was anything but orderly.

For the next two weeks, the American press paid rapt attention to Afghanistan, at long last. The war itself, that is—what was unfolding on the ground—was in the headlines. Many Americans, if newspaper and social media coverage and comments were any indication, seemed to take notice that Afghan lives, and not just those of American troops, were at stake in this long and brutal war, perhaps even that the U.S. might owe something to those who had worked for its military and other American government or affiliated institutions over the past two decades. The pandemonium that unfolded as thousands of civilians fled to the Kabul International airport seemed to hold much of the public transfixed. Images of desperation were broadcast around the clock on U.S. television and shared on Twitter and other social media: Crowds pushing frantically to enter the airport; Marines standing on a wall over a gutter, reaching down to snatch babies and young children out of parents’ arms and lift them to safety.

Images of desperate Afghans and valiant American soldiers at the airport were supplemented by other stories of heroism and other figures of suffering, many of which are far more typical of how the war has appeared over the past two decades on the home-front. There was account after account of American veterans working selflessly around the clock, using every contact they had, to get their former colleagues into the airport and onto planes. There were stories upon stories about how, as they watched city after city fall to the Taliban, many veterans were re-experiencing the trauma of war, mourning sacrifices that now seemed in vain. What’s more, watching their Afghan brothers-in-arms abandoned to their own fates, many a veteran suffered moral injury anew.

Over the next few weeks, the American public was exposed to an excruciating display of American failure and the myriad costs of war. As recounted in one NBC news report on that first fateful day, “within hours of the Taliban takeover, chaos erupted at Kabul’s international airport as desperate Afghans raced to flee their country. A harrowing video … showed Afghans storming the military side of the airport and clinging to a U.S. Air Force plane as it attempted to move down the tarmac.” The reporter lamented, “some people appear to fall to their death as the aircraft takes off.” It was hard not to be reminded of “Falling Man,” the Associated Press photograph of a man falling to his death from the burning Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001, as the American war in Afghanistan, launched as a response to that horrifying day nearly two decades ago, came to an official end.

On August 16th, President Biden took to the White House podium to address the American retreat from Kabul and to reframe American defeat. The military had invaded Afghanistan twenty years ago with a very clear goal, he said: to “get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure Al-Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again.” That war was not lost; it was accomplished a decade ago, and yet, administration after administration failed to withdraw American troops. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”

Embracing the formal end to American military presence in Afghanistan, Biden then shifted responsibility onto Afghans: its political leaders “gave up;” its military folded without a fight. The story of sacrifices made by Afghan military personnel —not to mention those made by Afghans who joined the war effort by working for the American military, the U.S. government, or NGOs—is far more complex than Biden’s dismissal suggests. Approximately 66,000 Afghan military and police died in the war (compared to 2,448 American military personnel and 3,486 American contractors), to say nothing of the approximately 46,319 civilians who died, a number that is a likely a serious underestimate given the difficulty of counting the dead.

Nevertheless, Biden’s message was clear: This is not an American failure. At worst, it was American folly to believe one could build a modern, democratic nation-state with a well-trained and professional military “in a place like” Afghanistan. And so, he asked his audience, rhetorically, “How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth, how many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?” The imperial nation emerges as selfless here—a nation fighting someone else’s war; it can no longer choose to be a victim of its own largesse.

More American soldiers and Marines were to die before the final boots on the ground were officially withdrawn from Afghanistan on August 30th, 2021. Four days earlier, suicide bombers detonated explosives near the gates of Kabul’s airport, killing thirteen American troops and an estimated sixty Afghans. “For American forces,” The New York Times reported, “the attacks were a gruesome coda to almost twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan—one of their heaviest losses, just days before they are set to leave the country.” Had the final image of the war been that of soldiers and Marines blown up while standing on a wall literally lifting children to safety, the figure of the American soldier as selfless victim might have been easier to hold onto.

But then came August 29th. Anxious about another attack on the airport, the U.S. military made (yet another) fatal mistake. It tracked a car and its driver over the course of the day, convincing itself he was an ISIS bomber en route to the airport. As the car pulled into the driveway of a home, a drone strike was launched: In the minutes between the bomb’s release and when it hit the ground, children ran out of the house and gathered around the car. Ten members of one family, seven of them children, were killed. The driver turned out to be Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime worker for a California-based non-governmental organization. Earlier in the day, at a house that turned out to be the home of the American NGO’s country director and not an ISIS safe house as military intelligence had concluded, he loaded water canisters, not bombs, into the trunk of his car. Yet another gruesome coda to America’s war.

The New York Times was the first to report that the killing of Ahmadi and so many members of his family was not a “righteous strike,” as previously described by Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Mark Miley. The first in a series of articles over the next several months, this newspaper of record documented multiple American intelligence and military failures over the past two decades of war. In the words of Times reporter Azmat Khan, “The promise was a war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs. [And yet] The [Pentagon] documents show flawed intelligence, faulty targeting, years of civilian deaths—and scant responsibility.”

Syria, 2016: a strike believed to target a “staging area” for ISIS fighters actually flattened “houses far from the front line, where farmers, their families and other local people sought nighttime sanctuary from bombing and gunfire. More than 120 villagers were killed.” Iraq, 2017: A strike in western Mosul killed a father, mother, and child stopped in a car at an intersection; assuming the vehicle was carrying a bomb, they were murdered. The family was fleeing fighting nearby.

Such “errors” are ubiquitous, Khan reports, ever more so since the “air campaign” was launched by the Obama administration. For its part, the Washington Post published articles critical of the war in Afghanistan: ill-defined goals; a neglect of the war once the invasion of Iraq was launched; bad intelligence. The American military and political leadership knew for decades the fight was not going well, and yet, it proceeded to lie to the public, continuously declaring that the U.S. was “making progress” in this seemingly never-ending war.

It would be easy to identify in such reportage—as well as in the turn against the war in Iraq a decade earlier—the birth of a critical, anti-war movement. But that would be a mistake. Talk of failures, mistakes, and mismanagement can just as easily be repurposed and read in the interests of militarism and empire: How might the U.S. fight a more “humane” war? What lessons might be learned for the future? None of this talk, not even the recognition of outright lies, has fostered a widespread and fundamental political critique of American militarism, one that demands political and perhaps even legal accountability for the wars, let alone considers what might be owed in the form of reparations to those whose countries and lives have been destroyed.

Indeed, by the mid-aughts there was a growing consensus that the war in Iraq was started on a lie. As the military lost more and more personnel to the Iraqi insurgency, the American public became increasingly disillusioned with the war, wanting an exit to the morass of “sectarian” violence that few recognized was in large part of America’s own making. The crucial political judgment, however, is not that Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction or that his connections to Al-Qaeda were lies. If the war was begun on false pretenses, then, following jus ad bellum, the war was a crime. And one disastrous outcome of that crime, it is worth emphasizing, is the rise of ISIS and the brutal, if short-lived, Islamic State. The ongoing “war” against ISIS—including ISIS-K, responsible for the attack on the Kabul airport in August 2021—is a war of America’s own making.

Questions about the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 have taken far longer to appear and they rarely seem to consider whether the war, even at its start, was legitimate, or at least, whether it was the only available and most reasonable choice. Does one destroy an entire country for the sins of a stateless group of radical militants who have built their base of operations in one corner of the state? Were there other choices that could have been made, other ways to hold Al-Qaeda’s leadership to account? Should the U.S. have negotiated with the Taliban and accepted their request for amnesty in return for ceding power all the way back in November 2001?

For all the criticism that has emerged over the past several years, such questions remain shockingly rare. More common is the argument that while the war began as a righteous fight, it was badly managed, neglected by a Bush administration distracted by Iraq, and that it spun out of control. In the words of Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, “Unlike the war in Vietnam, or the one that would erupt in Iraq in 2003, the decision to take military action against Afghanistan was grounded in near-unanimous public support.” A “just cause” when it commenced, it “deteriorated into a losing one.”

If, however, as Whitlock himself documents, from the very outset, neither the “enemy” (al-Qaeda? the Taliban?) nor the war’s goals (taking out al Qaeda’s base of operations? Attacking “the military capability” of the Taliban regime? Regime change?) were clearly identified, can one still say the war began as a just cause? What, precisely, was the cause? As Phil Klay, a veteran of the war in Iraq, wrote after the fall of Kabul, in the days and months that followed September 11th, 2001, the “national mood” was marked not only by “grief mixed with fear and rage… there was something else. Something dangerously seductive. America had found moral purpose again.”

“Let’s admit it,” he says, “those days felt good.” “9/11 unified America,” Klay continues. “It overcame partisan divides, bound us together, and gave us the sense of common purpose so lacking in today’s poisonous politics. And nothing that we have done as a nation since has been so catastrophically destructive as what we did when we were enraptured by the warm glow of victimization and felt like we could do anything, together.”

Following the fall of Kabul, perhaps there was an opening— however slight—for an American political reckoning with the reckless nationalism and destructive militarism that has wrought so much damage over the past two decades, and that continues to wreak havoc by deploying special operations forces and drone warfare in many places around the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps there was an opening for a political conversation that, rather than casting the wars as victims of bad intelligence, poor management, lazy national armies, and impossible (cultural) conditions, would call U.S. militarism and empire to account and demand, at the very least, an end to this temporally unlimited and territorially unbounded military campaign.

In September 2021 the House of Representatives finally passed a bill repealing the Authorization of Use of Military Force of 2001 (AUMF), a law that had effectively given carte blanche to every president since 9/11 to conduct and expand the war on terror as each saw fit. The bill, introduced by Barbara Lee, the sole congressperson to have voted against going to war in the aftermath of 9/11, has since stalled in the Senate’s Committee of Foreign Relations.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. On Thursday, February 24th, 2022, Putin launched a brazen attack on a sovereign nation. A military not invested in the liberal way of war, cities are being flattened, civilians killed summarily. President Putin’s ultranationalist and expansionist agenda is on full display. No doubt inadvertently, he has handed the U.S. a renewed “moral purpose.” Even though the Biden administration has declared that the U.S. will not be sending troops to fight the war, it has embraced the defense of Ukraine as a noble cause and positioned itself as the global leader in this latest just war.

The very post-war (European) order is at stake, as is the future of liberal democracy and the principle of national sovereignty, U.S. officials explain. Veterans of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone off and joined the “foreign legions” fighting in Ukraine, in search of a just war they thought they would find in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, alas, did not. Others are training Ukrainians to defend their own nation, not wanting to squander the skills and expertise they developed at war, this time for what they see as a morally unambiguous war. The U.S. military claims the moral high ground once again. This is not how “we” fight. And America’s humanitarian largesse is on full display: after decades of cruel indifference to the suffering of displaced Afghans and Iraqis, and to the dangers faced by those who worked with the U.S. military, Biden declared that America would open its borders to Ukrainian refugees.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that Ukrainians do not have the right to fight the Russian invasion. Nor am I arguing that Russia’s war is legitimate. The Russian invasion is a war crime. But just as history did not begin on that fateful day on September 11th, 2001, neither did it begin on February 24th, 2022: There is no American innocence here. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, when Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history”—the victory of western liberal democracy—NATO did not put down its arms.18 It continued to expand eastward, ever closer to Russia’s borders. As the only remaining superpower, the U.S. extended its global power and imperial reach, manifested in many a military venture of its own, seeding the ground for the Russian regime’s own turn to renewed authoritarianism and the intensifying of its political imaginary of a Russian (victim) nation under existential threat. But as was the case after 9/11, according to many a pundit, politician, and media report, there is no backstory we need to know here.

The war in Ukraine is engendering yet another “sense of common purpose,” to return to Phil Klay’s words, even if one not nearly as deeply felt as was September 11th. This is the good fight. If after two decades of war and the fear of a nuclear confrontation with Russia, the U.S. does not seem to be ready to commit American troops to the fight, it nevertheless positions itself as the moral arbiter, the global leader, in this latest fight of freedom against tyranny. Clearly a tragedy for its own citizens and a grave danger to the stability of Europe, from another perspective the war in Ukraine may be a godsend for the U.S. Russia’s aggression is enabling America to reconstruct its global role as a moral leader of the western world, and to do so without involving American troops in any of the messy and injurious work of violence.

It took well over a decade and a lot of hard work among conservative pundits and politicians to reconstruct U.S. militarism—and to regenerate an American commitment to and belief in its moral, global mission—in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. The war in Ukraine may make that project a far shorter and simpler endeavor today. A serious political reckoning with the ongoing, if reconfigured forever war, and, more fundamentally, with the depths and dangers of American militarism, may become ever more difficult to mount and sustain.

All the while, as the war on terror fades ever more into the background, with fewer and fewer boots on the ground, the figure of the traumatized soldier, hero and victim at one and the same time, remains present—as a ubiquitous figure in popular culture, as the subject of news reports, journal articles, and think tank studies. In American politics and culture, the trauma hero—his virtue, his sacrifices, his pain, and his suffering—might turn out to be the most powerful legacy and the one enduring memory of the post 9/11 wars.

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