On the 20th anniversary of the 911 atrocities wrought by terrorists on U.S. soil, Newark South Ward Councilman John Sharpe James – a veteran of the war – considered the extraction of American troops from Afghanistan this summer and the meaning of the war for him, his comrades, and the United States.
The South Ward Newark Councilman since 2014, James as part of his two decades-plus military career served a one year tour of combat duty in Afghanistan from September 2007 through September 2008 as an Infantry Ground Commander against the Taliban and Anti-Coalition Forces. He received the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in an IED attack.
“The 911 attacks prompted us to go over there,” said James, reflecting on the United States’ military pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, the al-Qaeda mastermind of the September 11th, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 American citizens outright.
“We went over there and [the mission] got away from us over the years,” said James, who described the American effort of 20 years in country to change the cultural fabric of Afghanistan as “noble,” but one ultimately unsustainable.
“There is a different culture there in Afghanistan, different religion, different tribes,” he said. Going after the terrorists who wrought 911 was one thing. “But somehow along the way the effort became nation building. We had the goal of democratic government, but nation-building does not work with different tribes and villages.
“I lost close friends over there,” said James. “Some did not make it home. Some who made it home are not 100% of what they were. We spent too much money there. Some of that money could be spent here. We have schools in our country that did not have enough money, and yet we’re spending billions of dollars over there.
“I’m lucky to be here,” the councilman added. “I was a casualty of a roadside bomb that went off. We could have pulled out ten years ago, 15 years ago, or five years ago; everything we saw happen would have happened. We would leave the country whenever, and it was just a matter of time before the Taliban takes over.”
James grieves for the 13 servicemembers lost in the 2021 exit of Afghanistan, and the total 2,500 U.S. servicemembers killed over the course of two decades. But he unequivocally supports the withdrawal.
“I’m glad no more servicemen died over there,” he said. “Nation-building is not successful. Let’s focus on the United States. Let’s focus on our veterans, who make up 25% of the homeless population.”
On the eve of the attacks that prompted the war on terror, James said we must never forgot those lives lost.
He also cautioned Americans to remain grounded, with a jaundiced eye concerning the costs of endless war.
“The military industrial complex makes money off of war,” said the combat veteran. “There contractors – most of them – were not from the U.S. Employees were not from the U.S. The items manufactured were not from the United States. War hawks want to get into a war.”
Getting out takes some guts unto itself, given the built-in establishment pressures to remain, and an exit at this time gives the United States a chance to truly honor our dead, said James, by focusing on the nearly insurmountable work here, including infrastructure desperately in need of repair, and our own self-government, which requires soldierly attention and almost unprecedented vigilance.