Two days after graduating from West Point in 2007, I marched with my grandfather, a World War II veteran, in the Memorial Day parade of the small town in New Hampshire where I grew up. Marching alongside my grandfather is where I first felt my sense of place in uniform. I stepped into his footsteps and felt bound not just as family, but as soldiers in a common cause.
My generation went to war after terrorists attacked America on 9/11, much like his did after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. And in 2007, I still felt we were fighting for the same type of righteous cause that my grandfather fought; we were the “New Greatest Generation.”
That belief grew stronger at the start of my deployment to Afghanistan as part of the surge in 2010. In President Obama’s speech announcing it, he said, “the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan,” harkening back to the sacrifices the World War II generation made for the common good. Over the course of my tour, however, those similarities grew more vague as the murkiness and intractability of the war stripped away any notions I had of a straightforward conflict of good vs. evil.
Fifteen years after I marched alongside my grandfather, it’s clear a World War II-style narrative does not fit the Afghanistan War. Yet the news this month that an American drone strike killed Ayman al-Zawahri, one of the masterminds of 9/11, reminds us of why we first turned to the stories of Normandy and Iwo Jima. As news of the strike broke, there was a brief window in time when we were brought back to the days after 9/11, when “never forget,” a term previously applied to the Holocaust, gained new meaning for Americans.
At the same time, August also marks the one-year anniversary of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, a chaotic evacuation, the execution of which felt for many like a betrayal of our Afghan partners and of the sacrifices US service members made in the war. The images of the deadly pullout from the Kabul airport are still vivid and prompt many Americans to see the war through the lens of another conflict: Vietnam. Though comparisons between the two wars had been made many times, the images of the Taliban sweeping through Kabul and of helicopters evacuating people from rooftops in August 2021 gave them more weight.
New research by my organization, More in Common, underscores the degree to which Americans now see Afghanistan through a Vietnam lens. Forty-eight percent of Americans say that “the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops to fight” in Afghanistan and 57 percent feel the same way about Vietnam. Similarly, only 27 percent of Americans feel like Afghanistan was a “righteous” cause and only 20 percent feel that way about Vietnam. In contrast, 62 percent of Americans feel that way about World War II.
That Americans now see Afghanistan as “another Vietnam” should ring alarm bells for policymakers, the military, and citizens alike. It reinforces simplistic narratives of Vietnam that haunted Americans for decades after our exit from that war. More broadly, however, explaining away Afghanistan as another Vietnam all but guarantees we will learn nothing from the past 20 years of war.
As historian Dr. Alice Kelly notes, “the way we remember war tells us about what our society values.” America’s war memories shape how civilians, veterans, and the military see one another and influence how we prepare for and respond to future conflicts. To really heal and learn from Afghanistan, we must pull the war out from the shadows of former conflicts.
While there is no set formula for recasting narratives of war, the process has to start with dialogue. False analogies to earlier wars take hold where our collective memories of Afghanistan lack depth and intimacy. We forge new narratives by challenging what we think we know about the war, not with facts, dates, and figures, but with stories: of hardship and lost friends; of triumphs small and profound; and of pride, confusion, anger, and alienation. We can begin by holding town halls where veterans and nonveterans share their stories and memories. The initiative Vets Town Hall has templates for how to run such community conversations that are easily adapted for use across the country this fall, with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and Veterans Day providing fitting moments for dialogue.
Shortly after 9/11, President Bush said, “All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world.” Many nights have passed since then, and neither the narratives of World War II nor Vietnam can fully explain Afghanistan and how it shaped the world we are in today. If we want to understand this war, we need to do the hard work of grappling with what we lost, what we gained, and how Afghanistan changed all of us.
Dan Vallone, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, co-leads the Veterans and Citizens Initiative and is US director of More in Common.