Memorial Day

Downtown Khowst viewed from Taktabeg Castle, a ruined fortress used by the Soviets during their occupation. A second fortress, Matune Hill, is on the hill behind the blue mosque.

The two most famous deaths associated with our decade long endeavor in Iraq and Afghanistan gave and give shape to my year’s experience in Khowst province. Pat Tillman, in all his morally confusing blend of celebrity and sacrifice, lost his life in a remote valley of Khowst’s Spera district. The facts of his death and its miserable aftermath of misinformation, accusation, and acrimony imbue my personal understanding of what we are achieving in Afghanistan, and maybe our nation’s, with a spirit of gloom and even futility. Best not to dwell on it too long, frankly.

More heartening—odd as it is to put it that way—is the death of Osama Bin Laden. While there, I was well aware that Bin Laden had established his credentials as a mujahidin by his prowess fighting the Soviets in Khowst. I spoke to many ex-muj, but unfortunately none could render first-hand reminisces of him, and could only speak vaguely of his participation in an attack on a Soviet garrison.  I assume they meant either Matune Hill or Taktabeg Castle, two thick-walled fortresses built (according to whom you asked) either during the days of British rule or by the turn-of-the-century Afghan monarchy and used by the Soviets during their occupation.  History, like facts, like truth, was an elusive commodity in Khowst.

The inner courtyard of Matune Hill.

Me, standing in front of a Soviet armored vehicle abandoned at Taktabeg Castle.

Bullets were real.  Bombs were real.  So was death.  So were emotions.  Bin Laden’s death exhilarated me, more so than I would have anticipated the death of anyone ever would or could. To say it gave closure is a cliché, and not even true. But I certainly felt “finally” and I certainly felt pride and I certainly felt that at some level justice had been done for the enormous pain and confusion the 9/11 attacks inflicted on our country.  Maybe we were all just hungry for a tangible victory in the long slog to fight terrorism, resist Islamic fundamentalism, and bring democratic regimes to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of all the media commentary on Bin Laden’s death, the piece I like best is by Matt Gallagher, who served in Iraq as a platoon leader in a cavalry regiment.  In this essay published in the New York Times, Gallagher explains how Bin Laden had insinuated himself into his emotional and psychological life in ways that were probably juvenile, maybe pernicious, but oh so strong.


RIP five American soldiers with whom I served at Camp Clark who gave all:  Rough Rider ETT SFC Kevin Dupont; Georgia National Guard members 1SG John Blair and SSG Alex French; 101st Airborne Division soldiers CPL Peter Courcy and PFC Jason Watson.  RIP friends and colleagues and all the service members who haven’t come home alive from Iraq, Afghanistan and our other wars.


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