Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a New York Times Pentagon correspondent, served with the Marines for four years and was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, then back in early 2009 to President Barack Obama's troop surge.
I do not think we ever thought we would win or lose. We just wanted to unfold, get into the war, fight. We thought we would understand everything when we got home. When we come home. We did not think about that either.
It was February 13, 2010, when we landed in the dark in Marja, a Taliban sanctuary in southern Afghanistan. I enrolled a few years earlier at the end of my senior year; now I was a corporal leading six other Marines and a Navy Corpsman.
The war has returned to political discourse. President Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David and canceled the invitation for an attack that killed an American soldier. The peace talks are over, but the pressure to bring American troops home seems to be on the rise, even without a deal. Mr. Trump and his aides and Democratic presidential candidates seem to claim that the war was only about expelling Al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda being protected by the Taliban who were on the territory have been fighting soil ever since.
[ASoldieroftheAmericanSpecialForceswaskilled on Monday in eastern Afghanistan . The soldier is the 17th American soldier to die during a combat mission this year.]
In the first few hours in Marja, we felt we had won a kind of lottery, as if we were referring to a version of … shot Falluja, the brutal naval battle in Iraq or Hue in Vietnam. We would invade the city, raise the flag and establish a local government. "Pages of History," said our battalion commander.
But Marja was not really a city. It was a collection of poppy-seed hamlets on an American agricultural project decades earlier, a failure of earlier national security thinking. And now it was the culmination of American Rioters' acceptance of the doctrine of capturing the locals by clearing militants, building schools, and laying roads. We fought the Taliban to build a democracy for Afghanistan. Or something similar. So they presented it to us when they sent us in.
As I got out of the helicopter, my rifle caught the chief of staff standing on the ramp. We both fell into the muddy field. We were still wading through the cold rubbery dirt as the next helicopter flight almost landed on us. My team moved north to the roof of an abandoned pump house.
I was scared when we flew west across the Helmand Desert to our battle, but when the sun rose over the pump house, the morning was calm. One of the younger marines asked if the entire mission was so uneventful.
Thirty minutes later we were shot at from three directions. There were thousands of us in Marja at this sunrise, but in this small bazaar and village it felt like we were fighting the whole country alone.
In the following days and months we would stop at shootouts on patrol. Sometimes bombs exploded on the side of the road. Sometimes we found them first. Charlie Company shot a rocket into the wrong house and killed a family of four. We gave the remaining relatives money.
We tried to stop the poppy harvest. We have built wells. We cleaned up a park around the mosque and even built a bank of fresh paint, though the Imam was Pro-Taliban.
We did not understand the Afghans. They hated us by destroying their houses, accidentally killing them, showing them up in helicopters and asking them to respect a government in Kabul that meant little to them. The Afghan army was almost useless at the time. When the Afghan troops did not have hashish, we were afraid that they would shoot us. They were in no way like the trusted ally our generals spoke to in public.
But it was not all bad. My friend Brett has patched up a little girl who has fallen off a motorcycle, which her parents greatly appreciated. A few years earlier, on our previous assignment, he helped save a man's camel from drowning in a canal.
In March, Brett was blown up by a roadside bomb. He was my first roommate at the Marines. When he first introduced himself at the door of our barracks in 2007, he was drunk, wearing a foam hat and playing Guitar Hero. I heard the explosion and then screaming Brett on the radio.
When we came to him, he lay stretched out on a canal. Steel had broken through his face and legs. Lance Cpl. Willis had taken some metal in his back, but he found out about it only five minutes later. There was a lot of blood. We gave Brett morphine. He wanted his picture taken. I remember picking up his sunglasses from the floor and putting them on my chest. I do not want to lose these – they are expensive, I said.
When we called for a Medevac helicopter, he could not land because the armed helicopters that had to protect him protected someone important enough to be protected by armed soldiers. A general? A diplomat? We wondered if it was somebody who visited Marja to let us know what a great job we have done to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Eventually the pilots landed anyway. By then the medications had penetrated and Brett was silent. For some reason, I gave him a thumbs up. Brett lived. There is a picture of him in People magazine.
Josh and Brandon were not so lucky. They quickly died in the fields of opium poppies that surrounded us. Brandon was my first platoon commander, and we maxed him out and asked if we could hear the war drums when we received our deployment orders in 2008. He was a good officer. Unlike some others, he seemed to take care of us. And Josh? His voice mail used to be the sound of waves on the beach. "Hey, that's Josh. I'm not surfing right now. leave a message. "In my dreams he is always 23 when we meet at the airport. He is excited to go home.
Our war lasted until July and then we left. The people got medals. Our battalion even had a Marja Challenge coin. There was an HBO documentation. You can watch it on YouTube.
My father was a Swift boat officer in Vietnam. My two grandfathers fought in World War II, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic. I was in eighth grade on September 11, 2001, and then knew that I would follow them all to the military.
I can say with certainty that we lost Marja, our little part of the war. The rest of us are just waiting for the end of everything to write in our journals: The War in Afghanistan 2001-2020 ??. To make a coherent story out of the confusion of our teens before our children can read.
Even if we want everything to end, we know on one level that this is not the case. After a peace agreement we will now, later, in another decade, still wage war in one place.