January 12th, 2013
09:13 AM ET

Letters to the President #1454: 'Our troops in Afghanistan'

Reporter's Note: The president continues to push for bringing most if not all of our troops out of Afghanistan in the not distant future. I continue writing letters to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

You appeared a tad uncomfortable as you stood next to the Afghan president yesterday. Is everything ok? I assume it was just the subject matter that had you ill-at-ease, and well it might. It seems so very, very long ago that we stormed into that distant land following the attacks of 9/11, and I don’t think many citizens had any idea back then that we’d still have boots on the ground there now.

It has been a long, tough, and at times confusing struggle.

To say, as you did, that we’ve accomplished what we initially set out to do…meaning, I presume to strike at the heart of Al Qaeda and disrupt the Taliban government for harboring those terrorists…is true. What you added to that is also true: “Have we achieved everything that some might have imagined us achieving in the best of scenarios? Probably not.”

For all of your soaring speeches, that statement struck me as truly presidential. I admire any leader, any time that he or she can admit that life does not work out the way most of us wish, much of the time. Well placed plans can fall by the wayside. The battlefield devours strategies and disrupts marches to victory all the time. Great leaders know it, accept it, and adjust…and always remember that it is the struggle that matters most, not their generalship.

Afghanistan still faces so many difficulties and its future remains so murky, I suspect, it will forever be something of a question mark for America. In fifty years, I expect school kids will puzzle over not why we went, but why we stayed so long, and what we thought we would accomplish in all those years. Nation building? Yeah, I guess. Long term stability? Hmmm. Not betting on that.

Oddly enough, the on-again/off-again public and political confusion over what we are doing there has increased my admiration for our troops. After all, fighting is always hard, but it is arguably even harder when one has no idea what one is fighting for. And yet thousands of our smart, talented, brave young Americans have walked the hills of Afghanistan for years now doing their duty. Like Tennyson’s poem: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”

This afternoon, as I wrote this, I read up briefly on the actual Charge of the Light Brigade that inspired the poem. Online I found a link to an 1890 recording of one of the old troops blowing the command to charge on the very bugle he used in that battle. It was recorded in London at one of Edison’s studios. More than a century later and a continent away, I listened and wondered at the amazing bravery of troops who fulfill their duty against sometimes impossible odds, in terrible circumstances, and with unstoppable courage.

I hope our fellow countrymen, in all the years that come, even though they may not understand what this war in Afghanistan was all about, still appreciate that our troops did a heroic thing for a very long time. They made sacrifices that deserve to be remembered. They kept the faith much longer than many of us even kept watch for their return.