2020 in Focus: May We See Old Patterns in New Ways


Photo by Debra Hennelly

Sergeant Michael Goble, 33, of Westwood, died from wounds he suffered in Afghanistan only two days before Christmas Day, just weeks from when he was scheduled to return home. He leaves behind a 6-year-old daughter.

Mr. Goble’s combat death is the second for the Pascack Valley community. In 2010 Marine Sgt. Christopher Hrbek was also killed in combat in Afghanistan.

Every death is a world ending.

Since 9/11, at least 130 Garden State families have lost a loved one to post 9-11 combat in America’s further notice war on terrorism. Unlike our past wars, where we had a draft and conscripted Americans from every walk of life, in our 21st century ‘brave new world’ of ‘voluntary’ enlistment warfighting is relegated to just another lifestyle choice.

After the news of Goble’s death, elected officials expressed their remorse and honored Goble’s patriotic service. Acting Governor Shelia Oliver ordered the state’s flags to fly at half-mast.

For years that’s how it’s gone to the point where it has become rote, even robotic.

Post 9/11, for our local elected officials to offer any criticism of America’s further notice war on terrorism would be to run the risk of being considered unpatriotic and disrespectful of the memory of the close to 3,000 Americans who died on September 11th and the thousands who have died from WTC related illnesses since.

While our leaders said they had ‘learned the lesson’ from Vietnam about engaging in wars we did not plan to win, the reality is that 18 years after we started our post 9/11 operation both Iraq and Afghanistan remain war torn, strife ridden, unstable geo-political disasters.

As of this writing, the U.S. Embassy, in the heart of the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, was the target of massive violent protests.

In 2018, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction reported that in Afghanistan the U.S. backed government was increasingly losing its control of the country to the Taliban, dropping from 72 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2018.

Meanwhile Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, the close to 7,000 American soldiers and 7,800 U.S. contractors that have died in the 18 years since the Sept. 11 attack are just a fraction of the close to half-million lives lost, including that of 250,000 civilians including women and children caught in the crossfire.

“In addition to those killed by direct acts violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions,” reported the Intercept.

What started as a ‘laser’ like focus on Afghanistan, has now devolved into a global operation that has extended to include 76 countries, or 40 percent of the planet’s nations.

No doubt, local and state officials believe they need to ‘stay in their lane’ and that it’s up to our Federal elected officials to keep a critical eye on the nation’s longest overseas combat deployment.

Unlike the Vietnam War, where local draft boards and the broader population were compelled by mandatory conscription to have real skin in the game, there’s a major disconnect between the sacrifice of military families and the broader civilian population.

We are blithely unaware of the impact of repeated combat deployments on our military families and so when the Pentagon reports that last year it recorded the highest suicide rate among active duty personnel in six years, it’s just another data point without context.

I saw evidence of this kind of disconnect between our military families and the broader American experience back in 2004 when I covered a National Guard pancake breakfast at their Armory in Westfield, New Jersey for WNYC.

A big crowd had converged on the National Guard Armory to flip, serve and eat pancakes all to raise money for the families of National Guard members bound for Iraq. At that point 65 percent of the total Army National Guard was mobilized in the biggest deployment since World War II.

At $6 a plate the pancake breakfast cleared $17,000 dollars. And all of it was needed to keep the lights on and the mortgage current in the homes of some weekend warriors turned full-time combat soldiers.

Then New Jersey National Guard General Glenn Reith told me at the time for one in five Guard families’ activation meant real economic hardship. “Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that if you are on active duty you have a Federal installation where all your needs and cares are taken care of,” he said. “Our families are out in all the communities and because of that they don’t have the same structure to support them on a day-to-day basis.”

At that point in 2004, New Jersey had lost 32 residents in combat.

A wife of a long time National Guardsmen ready for deployment told me her household was already subsidizing a war effort she thought was misguided and poorly planned. She did not want me to use her name.

“I know that my husband has needed many things and has had to purchase them himself meaning binoculars that they were told they should have and he called me up and asked me to look them up on the internet,” she said. “They were $700 binoculars that he had to purchase himself. He called me up another day and said I need you to look up a site on the internet. I pulled it up and it was a site for scopes for machine guns. I said, ‘you got to be kidding me.’ I said this is something you need and we have to purchase it. It was an item between $1,000 and $2,000, that’s a lot of pancakes.”

Over the 14 years since that breakfast, our forward deployment has greatly widened and reached an unprecedented scale to the point that it now involves seventy-six countries, or forty percent of the planet’s nations.

As we saw in October of 2017, when four American soldiers were killed in combat in Niger, even U.S. Senators admitted they were clueless as to the fact that we even had soldiers in that country.

Senator Bob Casey admitted on CNN he did not know about the deployment. “I think there’s a lot of work that both parties and both branches of government need to do,” he said. “Not only to stay more informed but to focus on why we’re there and what happened to get to the bottom of this.”

As the Washington Post recently reported, this lack of meaningful Congressional oversight, was accompanied by a massive campaign of official deception by the Pentagon itself about just what our country was accomplishing on the ground in Afghanistan.

With the Dec. 9 publication of the “Afghanistan Papers”, that came after a three-year legal battle with the government, the Washington Post has made public hundreds of interviews with the key people directly involved with shaping our policy in that country that were conducted by the  US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.

“With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed, and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation,” the Washington Post reported. “The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.”

To this day, the U.S. government has not done a comprehensive  accounting of how much money was spent on the war in Afghanistan, but estimates by the Costs of War Project at Brown University put it at close to a trillion dollars excluding money spent by the CIA or the long term costs related to the medical care for our veterans.

John Sopko, who led the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction that conducted the “Lessons Learned” interviews told the Washington Post the interviews documented “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

This is the same national government that justified the expansion of the ‘war on terror’ into Iraq by falsely linking the country to the 9-11 attack and because of the presence of weapons of mass destruction, that were never found.

Our open-ended campaign sold to us as “nation building,” has actually helped spawn the most serious refugee crisis since the Second World War with tens of millions of families uprooted from their homes seeking a safe haven from the insecurity of never ending armed conflict.

And our current administration remedy is to seal our borders.

Our drone warfare continues on autopilot.

“We live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost,” argues Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate who spent  23 years in the military. “But then you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we become very cost conscious.”

In 2016, during the Presidential debates between Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Afghanistan wasn’t even mentioned.

As we turn the page on 2019 into 2020, may we have the clarity to see the toll our never-ending war has taken, not just on our military families, but on the places where we send them.

We can’t afford to keep leaving it up to Washington.

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