The Harlem Community Choir, through a Google Home speaker, repeatedly sang their hymn, “war is over, if you want it,” as my three-year-old daughter handed out Christmas stockings in the living room. Once her grandparents had in hand their oversized socks, I knew she’d ask. Together, two stockings hung lonely over the fireplace.
“Who are those for?” she asked.
They were for her uncles.
They’re not with us anymore. One died by suicide. The other was killed by an improvised explosive device during the war. Measuring in years, their deaths were so long ago, but in moments, such as this one, the memories of their harrowing ends are sharply present. In this moment, words couldn’t find their way to my mouth, but gratefully, my father-in-law found the right phrasing for my precocious daughter as my mind wandered to how I’m failing to keep other family’s stockings from hanging so lonely.
In a quixotic attempt to prevent more uncles being killed, I wrote an editorial for the New York Times last year, calling for the end of the war in Afghanistan.
Perhaps I did not go far enough.
Since then, the release of the Afghanistan Papers revealed two realities about the conflict: The continuous, dishonest assessments from our leaders concerning the status of the war, and how the United States can’t simply win through the limitless, unchecked spending on nation building or through the limitless, unchecked killing of people and sometimes children – honorifically known as war, militarily known as targeted killing.
For 18 years, our leaders have given us promising assessments of the war, with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld saying in 2002 that he couldn’t tell the American public if the war would last “5 days, or five weeks or five months. But it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”
The generals, officials, and presidents in charge of leading the greater war over the last 18 years, at best, provided false optimism year after year, claiming no choice but to willfully turn a blind eye to the known reality of an unwinnable war in order to serve the mission, strategy – orders. At worst, they lied, while thousands continued to die. Most likely it was somewhere in the middle – equivocation, which is the concealment of truth –something that can get you kicked out of West Point, but not the White House.
Second, although seemingly every general, official, and president has opined some variation of, “We can’t kill our way to victory,” 18 years on, administration after administration continues to try and kill our way to victory. After President Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki, he then droned to death al-Awlaki’s 16 year-old Denver-born son. Six years later, President Trump authorized a raid in Yemen that ended up killing two Americans - one decorated Navy SEAL and al-Awlaki’s 8 year-old daughter, Nora.
Closing my eyes to see the faces of the dead, I shudder, feeling the grief inside the thousands of homes across America whose heroes gave the last full measure to the war, and then open my eyes to vacantly stare at our hero’s stockings hanging under an idyllic, pastoral painting by Thomas Kinkade. My gaze is snapped to attention by my daughter disproportionately dancing with aggression to the slow, swaying canticle of the Harlem Community Choir.
My reflection turns to indignation with the very thought of being told that the loss of my daughter was “not on purpose,” it was, as they say, collateral damage, and now I feel the weight of the tens of thousands of civilians, to include children, killed in the war — a majority of whom were killed during the terms of two presidents promising to end it.
President Obama promised to end the war, but increased drone strikes tenfold.
President Trump promised to end the war, but has sent more troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, and is escalating war with Iran. On the precipice of a politically beneficial “peace” deal with the Taliban, do not be duped into thinking that the Taliban hold sway over all violence in the region, with twenty (or so) disparate criminal groups operating within Afghanistan, or that we, under the wildly outdated AUMF, currently hold any sway over the violence the president will wield, on a whim, back into Afghanistan or across the globe – spending billions of dollars on violence, instead of spending billions of dollars on healing, through improving the VA for service members or through community-based mental health programs like the Headstrong Project.
The mistake I made from the beginning was only calling to end the war in Afghanistan, where the real call is to end the entirety of the forever war, and generals, officials and presidents won’t be the ones to do it, the same way it won’t be scientists, CEOs and prime ministers to end the war on our planet. It will be a 17 year-old girl from Sweden.
As I watch my daughter belligerently dance, I brood over her legacy and future – a proud legacy of a Gulf War grandfather and an Operation Iraqi Freedom uncle, with cousins upon cousins serving somewhere overseas. With nearly 80 percent of Army recruits reporting a family member who served and 30 percent a parent, I can’t help but think if she will be inspired to fight a war – perhaps the same war as her grandfather, uncle and father.
Alternatively, perhaps my daughter will be inspired by the plurality of the American people rallying and voting around the simple idea that the end of the war is just about will, about most Americans, on both sides of the aisle, wanting it to end badly enough, the same way, after Christmas in 1965, a group of persistent students in Des Moines wore black armbands to school to mourn the dead in Vietnam because they wanted the war to be over.
Generals won’t give honest assessments to end the war. Elected officials won’t willingly cast a vote to end the war. Presidents won’t give up the power to drone strike to end the war. The only person to end the war is you. War is over, if you want it.
Joe Quinn is a U.S. Army veteran.