by Britta Reque-Dragicevic
This first appeared in Britta’s blog, “Life After War” on August 15, 2021, and is republished with the author’s permission.
I burst into unexpected tears standing in the dry soil of my flower garden, watering the wilting zinnias. Afghanistan has fallen and suddenly all the sacrifice, all the pain, all the fight of the last two decades has been called into question. What was it all for?
I thought about a young sergeant, gaunt and quiet, who’d taken shrapnel to the stomach and cracked his spine and lived in constant pain, haunted by the inability to forgive himself for choosing the route on a forsaken Afghanistan road on a fateful day. Ambush. His men lost. A moment’s decision, one road vs another. Of all the warriors I’ve counseled, he was one of a handful that I have met in person, sat with, took his hand when he wiped back unashamed tears, fought hard to convince him why he should continue to live. I tried, for months, I tried so hard to convince him. He was gracious, polite, kind, always. Just disagreed with me. He fell off the radar. Four years later, he took his life.
What about him? And all the others like him, fighting with everything they’ve got, every single day for their lives, scarred by what they’d experienced in combat? In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And their families?
You know the pain I’m talking about. That Afghanistan would fall is no surprise. It’s cold of me, but I don’t care about the country of Afghanistan. Wars happen where they happen. You can set people free; you can’t embed in them a desire for independence and self-rule. I’m not going to say anything more about that. I’ve had enough of politics to last several lifetimes.
My heart is with my warriors. The ones who are hit hard by this, who like me, find themselves bursting into unexpected tears while watering their gardens because the last 20 years feel as if they are suddenly meaningless. The fight, the loss, the sacrifice, the scars, the grief, the guilt — suddenly feels pointless.
But was it?
When Iraq fell several years ago, I reminded my warriors that militaries have always gone where their governments have sent them. Warfighters do not choose the wars, the politics, the missions, the geography. They go where they are sent. They fight where they are ordered to fight. They serve.
Governments and regimes have always used the military for their own purposes, greed, gain, advancement. Warriors serve.
When a war ends in defeat, when a government pulls out, gives up, decides it has other priorities, what does it mean for the warrior? Does a war have to be won to justify the loss and sacrifice?
Or is it enough to have done one’s duty? In the moment it was required?
To have loved your brothers and sisters well?
The outcome of a war is never guaranteed. The costs of war are.
But it’s the love that remains.
It’s love that keeps their memories alive. Love that has you here now. Love that is your purpose in a world where you know destruction creates further destruction. Love is the bond that ties you to those lost and those who have yet to realize that life is as precious as it fragile. We choose the difference we make.
That choice is yours now. You can let the past be robbed of meaning or you can hold onto the love. And love those who are still here.
You can choose whether self-pity and anger and bitterness will turn you into a weapon towards those around you, or if you will soften and grieve and become hope and encouragement.
You can choose to seek healing for all you carry inside or to let your wounds define your identity.
You can choose to live the best life you can on behalf of those who don’t have the choice.
That may be the only true justice there is in all this. To live. Intentionally. To heal. To let yourself be happy.
To let yourself be love.