During a Navy Reserve assignment in August 2001, I toured Winston Churchill’s London wartime bunker and thought: “Americans have no memory of life under attack.” Just weeks later, I found myself in an Augusta bunker along with the rest of Gov. Angus King’s staff as the horror of Sept. 11 unfolded.
The 9/11 attacks left me deeply saddened but also angry. I tried, without success, to secure an active-duty assignment to Afghanistan. Though I’m a public affairs officer — and not a warrior — I felt a profound desire to contribute what I could, although I admit that part of that longing was simply and purely about revenge. Almost exactly 12 years later, assignment in hand, my plane landed in Kabul, Afghanistan, so I could begin an eight-month tour as a member of the International Security Assistance Force public affairs team.
The environment in Afghanistan is challenging — even from a public affairs perspective — but I returned with, I believe, some lifelong lessons.
For one, the Taliban are absolutely ruthless and think nothing of murdering women, children and civilian men. Their weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device, is the cause of most civilian casualties in Afghanistan. In the communications war, the Taliban are burdened by neither rules of engagement nor truth. As someone wearing his nation’s uniform, I considered myself a legitimate wartime target. But children in a restaurant? A civilian truck driver? Peaceful Afghans praying in their local mosque?
Despite Taliban efforts to keep Afghanistan in the Stone Age, there have been genuine successes by the coalition forces and their Afghan partners. For example, in 2011 there were 5 million to 8 million children in school, compared with only 1 million a decade prior; thousands of roads and bridges have been built, which foster trade; some 70 percent of Afghans have mobile phones, connecting them to the rest of the world. And, on Election Day, an estimated 7 million Afghans — many of them women — voted despite Taliban attempts to disrupt the process with violence.
To be sure, questions remain: Were these gains worth the coalition lives and injuries, the majority of which were American? Is Afghanistan still geopolitically significant? Is America safer? Will Afghanistan continue to prosper after combat operations end on Dec. 31 and the allies begin a new decade of investing in a mission to train, advise and assist the Afghans?
At ISAF headquarters, one of our colleagues was a young Afghan who worked as a translator and media analyst. In a previous life, he had fought alongside the allies in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Earlier this year, he left a local Lebanese restaurant minutes before it was attacked by insurgents who methodically slaughtered everyone inside.
And yet this man would greet us all each day with hugs, smiles and a quiet “salaam,” which means “peace.” During my eight months in Kabul, I never heard a negative word, never saw anything from him that didn’t resonate only love, patience and hope.
For me, this young man personifies the true story of Afghanistan: Despite generations that have grown up under numbing uncertainty, in towns and cities of bombed-out buildings and walls pockmarked by bullets, they have hope. Hope for themselves, hope for their children.
Conversely, upon returning home, my check-in at a Navy base was delayed because customers bombarded the front desk with complaints about their air conditioning not working. Despite the wildfire of the Internet, it seems we’ve grown more closeted, cynical, selfish and provincial. We complain about our elected officials, and yet more than 40 percent of us will stay home during a presidential election. Further, political discourse continues to disintegrate into an incoherent language of its own.
I love America and would, without hesitation, die for the liberties that form the foundation of our Republic. However, we have grown to be a spoiled lot, demanding those liberties and “rights” often without any sacrifice of our own. When did we decide that simple manners were no longer a national standard? When did we begin to ignore our neighbor? When did it become impolitic to say, “I respectfully disagree?” And when did we lose sight of our responsibility to our global partners?
For me, it took going to war to discover the true definition of peace: a stubborn devotion to hope and simple civility. For me, I hope that this personal lesson carries over in my return to civilian life, and I believe it’s a message that perhaps more of us can use.
A former Bangor Daily News reporter and senior aide to U.S. Rep. John Baldacci and Gov. Angus S. King, John Ripley is a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve, where he serves as a public affairs officer.