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OPINION

Our service was wasted

I do appreciate that more civilians now consciously separate the value of our service from the value of the war. But the greater honor, by far, is the opportunity to be part of something that was good and worthwhile.

US Army veteran Andrew Brennan, 36, poses with servicemen bracelets he displays in his home in Baltimore, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. The former Army captain who flew combat missions in Afghanistan lost one of his closest friends, pilot Bryan Nichols, who was killed along with the entire crew when their Chinook helicopter was shot down in 2011, killing 30 Americans, seven Afghan soldiers, and one interpreter.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

US soldiers don’t pick their wars. We sign on the dotted line when we join up and that’s really the end of our say in the matter. There is no illusion that we have any control over how our service will be used or what might happen during it. Unspoken in that is a trust, a hope perhaps, that the country will value the service and sacrifice we freely offer.

The news this week of the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan makes clear that our service was wasted. This is not a criticism of any specific president or party. There is plenty of blame to go around. Taken in full, the wars after Sept. 11 have been a generational error of vast proportions and consequences.

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I am a veteran of the war in Iraq. I was in the US Army in the earliest days as a part of the ill-fated hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

In the national failure that these wars represent, we all bear the blame. It’s fashionable these days to accept responsibility for things that happened long ago, but blame others for what’s happening today. That doesn’t work here. We all make up America, and this is what America did. We started these wars in open view, with the broad support of the American people and leaders from both parties. They lasted over decades through Democratic and Republican administrations, with congress changing hands many times.

Our national shame is in contrast to the close up heroism of so many individual soldiers. The dead lie in judgment of our failure. The living carry the burden of our participation in something that turns out to have been pointless.

Individual soldiers can’t really change the trajectory of a war. The policies that national leaders pursue in war are far too big to apply to everyday choices soldiers make. But we can choose to serve with honor and follow the mission with bravery and commitment. And millions of us did.

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Bravery and sacrifice extend across conflicts and across centuries, no matter how worthy or unworthy the cause. Soldiers risk everything for one another. We push through danger. Work past exhaustion. Defend civilians. Act with compassion and restraint even when violence would be easier. We spend months and years in faraway places instead of at home.

But despite all of this, we won’t be remembered as heroes. That honor is reserved for those who fought in the good wars and on the right side. We weren’t given that opportunity. So we’ll carry the burden of our service alone. Nobody builds monuments to the dishonored.

This isn’t something that can be papered over with gratitude. “Thank you for your service” is appreciated, but can’t replace the value of service well spent. I do appreciate that more civilians now consciously separate the value of our service from the value of the war. That’s a lesson America did learn from the shameful treatment of Vietnam veterans when they came home. But the greater honor, by far, is the opportunity to be part of something that is good and worthwhile rather than a dark chapter we’ll have to explain away for the rest of our lives.

You know which wars people like remembering. Americans want to go to where freedom grew and remember the soldiers who fought for it. We want to remember where America was founded and the soldiers who died for it. We want to visit Civil War battlefields where we fought to take a step closer to the promise of America. We want to walk the beaches of Normandy, where our soldiers started their journey across Europe to turn back the forces of darkness.

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But nobody will go to Iraq and Afghanistan and retrace our steps. Our steps aren’t worth retracing.

Steve Koczela is an Iraq war veteran and the president of The MassINC Polling Group.