In economics, there is a principle known as “the sunk cost.” The idea behind this principle is that resources invested into a project which are not recoverable should not be considered when making future and ongoing decisions surrounding that endeavor. For economists, speaking purely in financial terms, this makes sense: sunk costs shouldn’t be considerations in decision making, because no decision’s outcome can change them. In short, they aren’t a factor, so they don’t get factored in.
The Biden administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan, and the nation’s chaotic fall back into Taliban hands, can only be explained or justified if we assume that this has to have been how our policymakers weighed the circumstances surrounding their decision to abruptly renounce our role there. “This war is unwinnable.” “It’s time for the Afghan people to fight for themselves.” “The American public is tired of expending blood and treasure on an endless war.”
In short: to Washington, everything we had done in Afghanistan was a sunk cost. There was no justifiable reason left to stay.
20 years out from 9/11, we have a voting public populated with millions of Americans who were in diapers when those planes hit the World Trade Center. They have no connection to that gut-punch the rest of us felt that day, and the visceral sense of fear that followed us in the aftermath knowing that the moment terror hit our shores, the innocence we had been blessed with growing up in our homeland had forever been shaken.
We can only conjecture that our administration’s decision to abandon the Afghan people was a move to appease those voters for whom the Afghans’ welfare is a low priority—if it is even an issue that registers for them at all.
Looking compassionately at these Americans, we can see a failure somewhere in the educational system—and I use that term broadly to refer to any means by which information is disseminated to the voting public. Besides the usual subjects of the partisan news networks of both the left and right, where does the civilian public get their news? It takes effort to dig for the truth these days. “Truth” being as subjective as it is, anyway, the best thing to do is sniff out subject matter experts whose expertise circles the field where you’re digging, and then take into account the totality of their experiences. The failure, in the case of the folks who haven’t done this work for themselves, is that they consume news from politically motivated TV pundits at best, and TikTok at worst.
I’m not going off on a tangent. The reason that this matters is because right now, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. Much of our country has no idea what the hell is going on, and they’re running to play catch up. Just yesterday, CNN ran the headline: “Who are the Taliban and how did they take control of Afghanistan so swiftly?” The fact that this doesn’t go without saying is extraordinarily problematic. Anyone—this includes all civilians—without their head buried in the sand for the past 20 years should be able to answer this question (and I can say this because I’m a civilian myself). It’s tremendously concerning that any American citizen—whose vote counts just as much as yours does—should wield that responsibility without being able to answer this question. As an American citizen with the power to vote, and elect leaders who carry both the power and responsibility to make generationally life-altering decisions regarding the welfare of disadvantaged people across the globe, each and every one of us bears the solemn responsibility to be able to answer this question. If and when we can’t—which some of us clearly can’t, based on the mere existence of this headline—it signals a breakdown in the flow of information that doesn’t just have theoretical implications. Afghan people are dying. Former interpreters, allies, commandos, their wives, and children. These people’s lives are being devastated and will never be the same—all because we are too uninformed on current events to know how to ask our leadership to make good choices and do right by them.
I had a call earlier this week with former Army Ranger Tony Brooks. I wanted to talk to him about his book, “Leave No Man Behind: The Untold Story of the Rangers’ Unrelenting Search for Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL Lone Survivor in Afghanistan,” which just launched. It’s a side of the aftermath of Operation Red Wings that hasn’t yet been told. We all know what happened to SEALs Matthew Axelson, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Marcus Luttrell after their 2005 mission in the Afghan mountains was compromised. Murphy, Dietz, and Axelson were killed while Luttrell went missing; then the QRF Chinook was shot down, killing an additional 8 SEALs and 8 Army Special Operations aviators. It was a massive loss of life, and Brooks’ story details the weeks which followed—the recovery of the fallen US servicemembers’ remains, and Luttrell’s rescue.
What Brooks’ story really shares, and what it fully illustrates, is the extent to which Americans are willing to go in order to rescue our own. 16 men lost their lives attempting to rescue Luttrell’s team before the Rangers were able to come in and secure their remains.
Here’s what nobody did.
Nobody said, “Axelson, Dietz, and Murphy are a sunk cost. Leave them.”
Nobody saw the helo shot down and said, “Patton, Healy, Suh, Fontan, Kristensen, Lucas, McGreevy, Taylor, Goare, Goodnature, Jacoby, Muralles, Reich, Russell, Scherkenbach, and Ponder are a sunk cost—leave them.”
Nobody said, “No use looking for Luttrell. He’s a sunk cost. Leave him.”
Operation Red Wings isn’t the only example. I had a long talk this week with Michelle Black, Gold Star spouse of Green Beret Bryan Black, who was killed in the Niger ambush of 2017. Her newly released book, “Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth,” tells the story of her husband’s final hours, recounted by the surviving members of ODA 3212. The extent to which those men went to recover their brothers, overwhelmingly overrun and outgunned, is staggering—and they paid a significant price including giving their own lives in order to do so. They are tremendous human beings, and unsung heroes.
I also think of my friend Ryan Hendrickson, a Green Beret and author of “Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle.” After stepping on an IED, Ryan was declared a battlefield amputee—but saved his leg, rehabbed it, made it back out to deploy again, and was ultimately awarded a Silver Star in battle fighting alongside his team of Afghan Commandos when he displayed “gallantry” and “exceptionally valorous” conduct under fire for his heroic efforts to recover the remains of two of his team’s Afghan counterparts. He said, “They weren’t ‘just Afghans’ to me,” says Ryan today; “They were brothers in arms.”
I think of another close friend, Kevin Flike, a Green Beret who wouldn’t be here today as a husband to Kim and father of two beautiful girls if it weren’t for the Afghan commando who saw him shot down by the Taliban and ran into harm’s way to pull Kevin to safety before that Taliban shooter could finish the job.
This is what Americans do: we bring home our own, no exceptions, no matter what it costs us.
And as Kevin learned, after months of training and fighting alongside the Afghan Commandos, many of our loyal partners are willing to do the same for us.
But what are the people of Afghanistan learning about us now?
Regardless of the anti-American sentiment that seems to plague institutions of “higher education,” like the one where I earned my highest academic credentials, America is not actually viewed by the rest of the world as some global devil and bastion of greed. I was taught that coming up; I was told when studying in Europe to put a Canadian flag pin on my backpack so that people wouldn’t think I was an ugly American (and that was pre- GWOT).
Not. A. Fucking. Chance.
My ambition while working and learning abroad was always, rather, to welcome that opportunity to show others what a not-so-ugly American looks like. I think I did alright at it.
Some media pundits like to make us think that the rest of the world can’t stand us. Like we see ourselves as world police and some global occupying force. Those of us indoctrinated into the educational system wanting us to believe this do tend to fall for it.
Here’s what I think.
The millions of people willing to pay the Cartels’ piso tax and send their kids across the Rio Grande are willing to die for a shot at the American dream.
The Afghan citizens literally hanging from the last American aircraft to leave the country—the Afghans plummeting to their deaths from the air after takeoff—how did they feel about the American dream?
Worse, what fate did they know awaited them if they remained in Afghanistan?
You’d have to be numb inside to not feel the connection between what we saw on that Afghan runway and the images of people jumping from the Twin Towers. People who woke up that morning just to go to work and a couple of hours later found themselves jumping to their deaths because that terrifying but swift demise was the lesser of the two evils they faced in that moment.
I remember the words of one SEAL who carried an image of one of those World Trade Center jumpers with him on all his missions. It was a woman, trying to hold down her skirt as she fell in a final act of trying to hold onto whatever dignity she had left. That image fueled him through every horrific encounter that war threw his way.
I wonder, will anyone in Washington carry with them the images of the Afghans falling from the plane?
My objective here is not to politicize, but rather to appeal to this readership with a call to action. Publishing this piece for a military audience is preaching to the choir; you know better than I do that we don’t leave our own behind.
However, the civilian public—whose votes count just as much as yours and mine—need to know and understand these same things. I contend that most of our fellow Americans are decent people. Most of our fellow Americans, when provided with accurate information born of your own firsthand experience, will feel an inner groundswell of compassion. They will connect the dots themselves, but they need to understand. And the media right now is not going to give them what they need in order to truly understand—that has to come from you.
Many civilians don’t know what a partner force is. They don’t understand how we equip and train Commandos. They may not even know that we use Afghan interpreters. They don’t understand the bond that develops between the American troops and many of those Commandos. They don’t understand the contact you’ve had with the women and children in that country, and the relationships that you’ve built. They don’t understand what those people risked and sacrificed to help you.
They don’t understand what those people have at stake now that the American military presence in their country has pulled out.
They don’t know about your friends whose families are now at risk, because the Taliban knows who they are, and you’re not there to protect them.
As a civilian storyteller working with the military community, I know that I am in a position of unique privilege to be privy to these details of your lives. I honor them with the sacredness that I believe they deserve.
But this is a time for the military community to open up to the civilians in their lives and share things with them that you never thought you’d share. They need to understand—which many of the more moderate and open-minded among them will, I believe—once they have the raw firsthand information from you. Storytelling is more powerful than rational argumentation and rhetoric because it speaks deeply to our emotions. Storytelling doesn’t have to be rational; it just has to be real.
So, this is me imploring the military community to please open up to the people you’d least like to talk to, at a time when you would least like to talk to them. I know that you’re furious in a way that I can’t comprehend, and that this is a tremendously difficult thing to ask of you right now.
But our fellow American citizens and voters need to understand that we don’t leave people behind.
Human lives are not, and can never be sunk costs.
Don’t tell a Gold Star spouse that their loss is a sunk cost. Bullshit.
The girls and women in Afghanistan are being enslaved and raped by the Taliban.
The American sympathizers in Afghanistan now being decimated by the Taliban.
Not sunk costs.
Not economic-style lesser-of-two-evils considerations for suits in Washington to weigh.
We don’t leave people behind. And we need to turn outwards at this very moment, passionately and vehemently, to make that point crystal fucking clear. The future of this nation and the people across the globe who still believe in the American dream depend on it.
I will leave you with this. I spoke today to a former Iraqi interpreter who worked with the SEAL teams. He and his family are in America now. He didn’t want to go on the record with our conversation; he was too devastated by what is going on, and rightfully so.
He is crushed that America’s actions right now. Us pulling our troops out of Afghanistan and abandoning the Afghan people doesn’t align with what he believed us to be. More than anything, he wants to see us acting like the America he once believed we were; the America he put his faith in, and entrusted his family’s future to. He calls America his home, and that’s what it is now—he can never go back to Iraq again.
“One of the things I know for sure inside my heart,” he told me, “I will never give up, and I will fight for my home.”
May we all now do the same.