by Peyton Knippel
A lot of people have reached out to me over the past few days regarding the one-year anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan. This is the same as it was a year ago when it happened. And when I say a lot (the least quantitative word possible), I mean friends and family. Invariably those two groups ascribe too much importance to my experience and/or my knowledge.
Considering nine deployments as a Tactical Air Control Party Specialist (TACP) / Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), going back to Operation Anaconda in 2002–I’d like to think I have remained relatively calm as I observe all of this as objectively as possible.
Like others, I see many parallels between Afghanistan and Vietnam. I am confident at some point, I said this is “Our Saigon.” It is not an inaccurate statement. We the willing have suffered the decisions made by the few. Most of those few have no experience of or even a true taste for war.
A taste for war: To anthropomorphize the cruelest and most beautiful thing a human can experience. There is a line from a poem I wrote: “We marched off to war and we became her…” In my mind, even in her most vicious, the anthropomorphic War is aptly, a her. Beautiful and Terrifying.
Sign me up!
But, to bring this back to people asking me how I feel. I think there are two answers here and I hope either can help veterans of our war sort out how they might be feeling. I don’t tout any of this as the exclusive viewpoint. But it’s possible it is a viewpoint that bears examination.
First: I am wholly unsurprised that Afghanistan fell. If you look at history, it is in essence what Afghanistan does. Conversely, you might say Afghanistan survives in spite of itself. I vividly remember a night bivouac in 2004 when we realized the ruins we slept next to were most likely the remnants of an outpost occupied by the forces of Alexander the Great. Perhaps we simply wanted to romanticize our experience in light of the abject misery of that frozen December night. What rings true is that this place had been “occupied” for centuries, if not millennia. Our feeling of abandonment by our government is perhaps universal for all “occupants” of that country throughout history. A thought that bears consideration.
The second part of the answer: I do not care that it “fell.” That is not a statement founded on bravado or machismo. It is simply a statement of fact for me. I personally never went there to stand Afghanistan up. I did not go there to nation build. I was 19 when 9/11 happened. I was a JTAC. I went there to do a job I loved, against an enemy I believed deserved the outcomes of my expertise. I have no regrets about that statement. In my hubris, I suppose I am viciously proud of that statement. I am grateful for My War. I do not expect others to adopt that last statement, it is simply an acknowledgment of where I am coming from.
Perhaps what we lament is the seemingly careless disposal of our effort. The apparent thoughtless disregard for the toll it took on us after two-plus decades of conflict. The human and emotional capital it took from us, from families, from our friends. Perhaps, and I mean this sincerely, some of us are exaggerating our feelings about this situation to realize or claim relevance to our service not realized while on duty. If the previous statement challenges you, perhaps there is some deeper, individual introspection worth exploring.
Therefore, let us get to the meat of this position. While we can be justified in our disappointment, grief, sadness, and sense of betrayal by the alleged leadership across the decades of this conflict… is that why any of us fought?
I will speak specifically for myself in this final statement regarding Our War and I hope it brings solace if that is what is needed. Or at least I hope it resonates with what some might be thinking or feeling, but may not have spoken or organized it in such a way.
I never once went to war with the name of a political party, leader, or agenda on my lips. I rushed to her because at heart, at the core of my soul, I am a patriot and I wanted to learn something about myself that can only be found in the embrace of combat; actual, real War. Our War.
I am grateful for what I experienced there. I am grateful for what I achieved. I love what I lost. I am plagued by guilt and shame. I am grateful that I have a deeper understanding of myself and who I am because of it. I am grateful that I can now share with my one-year-old son the truth of war and the price of patriotism. Both the romantic and the ugly. Lived experience is the truest teacher. This is despite the loss of friends and the cost it has exacted from my own life. Our War was good, it was righteous, and it still is a Just war. That statement stands alone, agnostic of any decisions based on policy, derived from those who never had to live the outcomes of those policy decisions
Therefore, hold your head up with pride! This is not an anniversary that should mar Your service to this nation. Whether you were a finance clerk in the cages on KAF (Kandahar Air Field) or a green-eyed monster in the night, seek to extract from the failed policy (those things you cannot control) from your SERVICE to this nation and her citizens. Two truths can exist at the same time. For me, and the only truth I am concerned with is Service to this nation. And I for one, will not allow those who are too scared to fight yet too willing to send others to do so, to color Our War experience in any other shade than honorable.
I will leave you with a portion of a quote from John Stuart Mill, a man more capable of succinctly capturing the theme of this position versus any number of pages I could ever write:
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war is much worse.”
So count yourselves among those few, those lucky few, and do not mourn your service in Afghanistan. You are a hero. You are a warrior. And a grateful nation (whether they realize they should or not) thanks you.
Peyton Knippel is a retired Tactical Air Control Party Specialist (TACP). He spent time as a conventional TACP, TACP Instructor, and 17th Special Tactics Squadron TACP, supporting 2/75 Ranger Regiment. Peyton has eight deployments to Afghanistan going back to Dec 2001 w/ 10th Mountain Division and one deployment to Iraq during the surge. Peyton retired in May of 2020 and lives in Utah with his wife and son. He is involved with veteran transition groups like The Honor Foundation and Elite Meet. One of his primary focus areas in retirement is helping other veterans retire / transition successfully.