Here is an American military officer’s first hand account of war, how it’s fought and how it ends.
Nick Willard is the pen name of a service member heading to Afghanistan on one of the final deployments in the closing days of America’s longest war. He will write what he sees in an ongoing feature for The Daily Beast that will appear as regularly as his schedule allows.
To speak openly and freely, to tell the American people and the world of readers on the web about the truth as he finds it, he has chosen not to use his real name.
I’m going to Afghanistan again. The long war is almost over and I’ll be part of how it ends.
This time I’ll write about it.
I know what the next few weeks are all about: run through my military train ups; pack boots and body armor in a duffel, books and iPod in the backpack at my side; set aside clothes for the arid heat and others for the mountain frost; spend fewer and fewer hours at home the closer I get to deployment day; feel the dull pain of leaving my family grow so bad I want to just be overseas already so I can stop worrying about missing them and start counting the days till I can see them again.
Soon, I’ll leave my family. They know it too. We’ve been through this before.
Right now, 13 years in to America’s longest war, with its end scheduled for Dec 31, 2014, Afghanistan barely registers in the background of the national conversation. It’s different for the 33,000 U.S. service members still there, trying to make sense of the mission, keep their buddies alive, and reckon with what we have accomplished and how we will leave things.
Most American forces are headed home, but thousands of others—including me—are headed back to war, against the flow of the drawdown.
In many ways, we’re the closers, the clean-up crew. As Dec. 31, 2014 approaches, we’ll witness the politics and posturing morph into policy as the U.S. presence either shifts to some residual force or goes to zero. We’ll breathe the ambiguity until the decision is made. We’ll listen to our commanders say the mission is clear. We may hear the messaging echo the final days of the Iraq war with the hollow talk of honoring the “blood and treasure” invested in Afghanistan, and how the last units will “turn out the lights.”
We’ll hear all of that in the background. But mostly, we’ll listen to the people standing next to us in the dirt telling us what they need in English, Dari, and Pashto, and go about the business of war. We’ll patrol alongside Afghan forces and fight off the Taliban ambushes. We’ll go to the warehouse-sized chow halls on the mega-bases and wonder what will happen after we leave to the thousands of Bangladeshis and other foreign nationals who have spent years cooking and cleaning, washing our clothes and earning their livelihood’s as the war's invisible service class.
We’ll Skype or write home and tell you what it’s really like, or not tell you much at all and hope that you’ll read between the lines. We’ll get blown up by IEDs trying to transport equipment out of country. We’ll decide what equipment to give away and how many billions worth of gear to leave behind. We’ll wonder what America is up to while we’re gone and what Afghanistan will look like after we’ve left, and in the years ahead.
Some of us may die there, even now, so close to it all being over.
Right now in Afghanistan, the military’s accountability system is starting to disassemble itself, following everything else that’s packing up to go home. Retrogrades and transitions aren’t as glamorous as invasions, they are logistically complex, politically delicate, and dangerous. This phase of war is especially murky. There’s a need to pay close attention as the drawdown’s pace quickens, but few are.
As of March 31, the Department of Defense reported 2,176 lost in Afghanistan and 19,522 wounded. It’s been more than month since an American died in combat: “Lance Cpl. Caleb L. Erickson, 20, of Waseca, Minn., died Feb. 28, while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.” It takes a lot more than that to make headlines in the U.S. now.
Thousands of troops left their families and risked their lives to serve their country. I suspect they don’t want sympathy, but they need support. They want people back home to know what they’re doing. They may even want people to care about what they’re doing.
I’ll tell you what I see in Afghanistan. More than ever, there are still stories to tell.
I’ll try to make some sense of this deployment, make sense of this place, make sense of that place, make sense of nothing, make pictures with words, take words from pictures, tell the rest of the story, tell a different story, tell the next story, tell a better story, feel, numb, connect, deconstruct, put together, be human, be humane, contextualize, process, look away, look at, look forward, look into, understand, leave something, take something, slow the clock down, speed the clock up, shine a light into the darkness, turn the light off, forget, remember.
I’ll write for my kids, for their kids, for my wife, for my parents, for my siblings, for my brothers, for strangers, for myself, for nobody. For you.
The best I can do is illuminate what it’s like to be part of a dying conflict. Here’s war through the lens of those who are living it, frontier Americans in the 21st century. It’s your war, too.
Nick Willard is a 34-year-old military officer deploying to Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.