by Travis Switalski, Sr.
The places where we fought are more than names on a paper map. They are more than colored areas between black lines on a globe. They are real places where we struggled and poured sweat in the blazing heat. They are places that we loved to hate but fought for anyway. Day in and day out we went out on foot in these places, surrounded by danger and far from the comforts of home. We were told that we were doing it for freedom, for the people, for America – to avenge her honor. Despite the rhetoric of our noble cause, people in these places on a map fought us to the death. We were doing the most important thing that we would ever do in our lives. But after a while, it went unnoticed by many, save for the ticker across the bottom of the screen and thirty second sound bites. The wars lasted longer than the American attention span.
September 11th, 2001 was the day that America bought stock in the Global War on Terrorism. Flags were unfurled, speeches were delivered, and promises of justice were made. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lined up to join the military. We were all in. We were united as a country, out for blood and revenge. When the President said that we would go after terrorists and those who harbor them, everyone cheered him on. We were in this together, as a nation.
We invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq. The American public and media were still very much a part of the “we” who invaded those far-away lands. We watched the bombing of Tora Bora and the tunnel searches of “Operation Anaconda.” America held its breath waiting for Osama Bin Laden to be killed or captured. The war had top billing on every news channel all of the time. Then waited while Sadaam Hussein let the clock run out and “Shock and Awe” began. Vast columns of tanks and trucks crossed the desert and wiped out Iraq’s Republican Guard. America “liberated” Iraq. We had accomplished the mission. Soon after, the glamorous spectacles were over. The wars were not.
An insurgency began in Iraq. They were faceless, borne of a complicated political situation. People without uniforms, generals, or regard for their fellow Iraqis attacked us. Roadside bombs caused horrific wounds. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen came home in flag draped metal coffins in a relentless, steady march. It got uncomfortable.
America had been told that the mission had been accomplished, that it had won. An insurgency is not what they’d bargained for. Gradually, flags were put back in closets and bright yellow car magnets that said “Support Our Troops” faded to white. Rather than try to understand, many who had the option tuned out like it was a television show that had lost its luster. They had the luxury of choice.
But the military kept paying its dues. We were subjected to multiple tours of duty in combat. Back-to-back without breaks we flew to the desert to fight. America thanked us for our service but let us and our families carry the burden of war alone. Top billing went to celebrity dance shows and singing contests as our fights and our losses went unnoticed. The nation that had come together had become indifferent. America was war weary. America was tired.
America has lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The political and social steam that launched the wars ran out quickly. The Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen who fought the wars won the battles, but ultimately the sacrifice and the fighting was for not. America’s unwillingness to finish what it started, to make payments on its investment, has given rise to new threats. They are the spectacles on the news today. They are born from the threats we didn’t have the stomach to fight yesterday.
The enemies we engaged have occupied the places on the map where we fought and died. The people there suffer still. They, the veterans who fought there, and the families they came home to (or didn’t) can’t change the channel. They can’t cash out so easily. They’re still paying. The burden of that investment has, until recently, rested solely upon them. The chaos of the Middle East won’t go away because we tune it out. Eventually, everyone will pay. Maybe it will be in the form of another, nastier war, fought in those same real places.
Soldiers will always fight when asked. Likely, they’ll fight another enemy that’s little understood, in a place most can’t point to on those colored maps.
History repeats itself. And these wars, like others, have an impact that’s felt long after the beat of the war drums fades away. The dividends of war are terrible. Far from an abstract idea, far from a segment of the news that grows wearisome over time, wars are fought in real places. Real people suffer. If we want to learn from history, this is the time. The real evil that’s been unleashed in those real places represents the steep price we pay for not having paid attention to history.