‘How Does One Process Defeat?’

A letter to a civilian who deployed to Afghanistan

Pink smoke in a field
Pink smoke marking the landing zone, an Army medevac helicopter touches down in Kandahar in 2011 to pick up several wounded soldiers. (Ben Brody)

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

A few days ago I heard from a former student of mine, whom I will refer to as Scott. He began by assuring me that he, his wife, and their three children were all well, and filled me in on his career since a period of extended service in Afghanistan as a civilian. He wrote the following:

You might have seen the news earlier this week that Spin Boldak, the Afghan border town in Kandahar, is now under Taliban occupation. After spending a bit of time in the Arghandab River Valley (which still induces nightmares) I spent a year in Spin Boldak (which induces slightly fewer nightmares).

I got home from a thirteen month deployment almost a full decade ago … but ten years later the place I spent a year on patrol with the three different cav squadrons, and on the back of Afghan Border Police pickup trucks, now has the Taliban flag flying at the border crossing.

However I feel conflicted on how to feel. Part of me is sad, part of me is enraged, and part of me just doesn’t care any more—and it is a weird way to feel. How can I be mad while also shrugging it off? Or trying to shrug it off?

So I thought I would drop you a line because I always appreciate your perspective. Do you have any good books to recommend? I’m sure someone has written something intelligent (fiction or nonfiction) that would help one understand the injured psyche of individuals who spent a not insignificant amount of time supporting what ends up being a futile or losing side of a violent conflict … How does one process defeat in a healthy way? Is it possible?

Since Scott specifically asked me to write an article on this subject (for The Atlantic, in fact), I thought I would share my response, which would normally be private.


Dear Scott,

Thank you for writing, and for a confidence in my perspective that, like any teacher with a conscience, I fear may be misplaced. For much of my career, I have found myself counseling and attempting to console veterans of multiple wars. The first came to me more than 30 years ago, a tightly wound young Marine officer who had lost men to what is cruelly misnamed “friendly fire.” This is, I suppose, to say that the experience of war can torment even the winners, and veterans of a conflict that (by historical standards) entailed very few losses on our side.

Your questions call, it seems to me, for multiple answers, at different levels, and with different degrees of detachment. You asked for a good book to read. Carter Malkasian’s new work, The American War in Afghanistan, looks to be the best account of that war. He teaches, like I do, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, but more to the point was a senior adviser to General Joe Dunford, and even more to the point learned Pashto and spent a year in an Afghan village. His view of the entire war, including from the vantage point of the other side, may help.

As for the psychological and emotional issues of veterans—and you may be a civilian, but a veteran you most definitely are—I can suggest to you only Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and, even more so, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. A psychiatrist and a classicist, Shay captures like no one else what it means to come home from war—even a war that has been won, which, if you think about it, is the story of Odysseus.

The truth is, of course, that very few wars are ever clearly “won” or indeed “lost.” We talked about that in the first course you ever took with me, “Strategy and Policy.” Wars simply bring consequences, and these invariably include political and social transformations, lives lost, bodies and souls maimed, courage and nobility displayed, horrors perpetrated and witnessed, and comradeship transformed into a kind of love that those of us who are not veterans of war will never experience.

On a colder, more political level, one is always impelled to ask: Was it worth it? But surely that is an unanswerable question. Even in victory, many doubt the cause for which they fought. That is one of the themes of Michael Shaara’s great novel about Gettysburg, Killer Angels. From the individual point of view, it gets harder yet. Surely no American war was more just or more completely won than World War II. Yet in the 1960s, could any of us have dared look into the eyes of Alleta and Thomas Sullivan, who lost their five sons in the sinking of the USS Juneau in 1942, and said to them, “It was worth it”?

This is not to say that all wars are pointless and thereby make a case for a thoroughgoing pacifism. There are things that are worse than war. And there are achievements of which those like you who have borne the burden should be proud. The American effort in Afghanistan improved life immeasurably for many people whom we once cruelly abandoned. Girls and women, in particular, found freedoms unimaginable under the tyranny they had endured and, alas, will almost certainly endure once again.

Those achievements have their own value in their own time. If I could urge one thing upon you, it would be to take pride in what you did and what you and your comrades, civilian and military, achieved during your time on the line. That is all any of us can do, because it is not given to us to see very far ahead, and when we attempt to do so we are usually wrong. Afghanistan’s future looks dark. But it is not the same country that the United States entered two decades ago, and we do not know what it will be two decades hence.

a soldier and a boy look at each other on a deserted road
Sgt. Oscar Cuellar and an Afghan boy consider each other for a moment on the outskirts of Qalat, the capital of Zabul province. (Ben Brody)

As for our withdrawal from Afghanistan now, like you, I am torn. For the past 12 years, we had presidents who kept sending soldiers and civilians to a conflict in which they did not believe. One could argue that Joe Biden simply has a courage that they did not, to act on a conviction identical to their own. One could further argue that although Afghanistan has not seen American losses in some time, and although the actual troop footprint is small, it is a losing game that takes up disproportionate time and energy from the country’s senior leadership, when the United States has other, more important troubles on its hands.

And yet I would feel less disturbed if America’s leaders owned the decision. That, it seems to me, is a test of all leadership, in every domain and in any kind of organization—owning it, accepting responsibility, and looking truth in the eye. To suggest, as the administration has, that the catastrophe that impends in Afghanistan is not our responsibility is factually and morally false. We have made a brutal choice, an understandable choice, but not a morally neutral choice. All involved should lose some sleep over it, and I hope they will.

The last paragraph but one of your letter is the toughest to respond to:

For the first time, I brought my older daughter to Arlington on Memorial Day this year, and didn’t want her to see me cry and I kept my sunglasses on as we walked through section 60 and I tried not to bawl too much in front of her. Seeing markers of kids—and they were kids—who were closer in age to her than me now, are buried in the rows and rows, it tore me up.

For that, Scott, your former teacher has no perspective to offer, only tears, and a wish that I could put my arm around your shoulders.