“These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, more glorious the triumph.”
- Thomas Payne, ‘The American Crisis’ #1, 19 December 1776
Veterans Day in Kabul
By Colonel Rick Waddell, U.S. Army Reserve
When I come out of my hootch complex every morning, I pass through the armored vehicles of the Macedonian contingent that guards the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. Forty-seven nations have troops here on the frontiers of civilization as we enter the 10th year of war. Of the six regional commands in Afghanistan, the Italians command the West, the Germans command the North, the Turks command the Capitol Region around Kabul. The British just gave up command of the South. The British have 9500 troops here; the French, Italians, and Germans each have between 3000 and 5000; the Canadians and Poles have 2800 and 2600 respectively. Some of the nations - the British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealand - have been fighting here since almost the beginning in October 2001.
Twenty nations of the total were once dominated by the Soviets or their clients. The Polish admiral that works in the office is quite open about the harsh conditions of his youth, when basic food was rationed, and the only candy they had was made out of the precious, meager rations of milk and sugar. These nations remember what it was like not being free, and they remember the role that NATO and the US in particular had in their freedom.
Most of the forty-seven nations also maintained troops in Iraq until the Iraqis took charge of their own security in early 2009.
As we approach Veterans Day, we should remember that the Commonwealth nations - the members of the former British Empire - observe this date as Remembrance Day in memory of the millions of their citizens that died on the battlefields of World War I. For the Poles, their nation was re-born when the Western Allies won World War I, and 11 November is their Independence Day. Here in ISAF HQ, the Commonwealth soldiers walk around with red poppies pinned to their uniform in the week prior to the day, as do their citizens back home. The tradition is said to come from a 1915 poem written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae upon witnessing the death of a friend:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
War is always the supreme human folly, and our world has seen much war in the past 100 years.
Yet, the militarists, fascists, and communists were defeated. The victories were costly, but free nations were born and liberty spread. In the darkest days of the four-decade-long Cold War, who could have predicted the eventual stunning victory? Accommodation with and acquiescence to the totalitarians were often the counsel of the faint of heart; perseverance was hard and unpopular. The current war is no easier and certainly no more popular, and it would be easy to believe that defeat out here on the frontier would be manageable because we could hold the line somewhere else, closer to our homes.
A year ago, a friend of mine, a colonel closing in on 30 years of service, wrote from Afghanistan about the death of a sergeant who was the son of another colonel, noting that more than 130 general officers have children in uniform, as do many more senior officers and noncommissioned officers. As my friend put it, "We give all we have to give. Then we send our kids." His own son is here now. As fate would have it, I am serving alongside the lost sergeant's father, whose pain can only be understandable by those suffering a similar loss, but he continues to hold high the torch thrown from the failing hands of his son, a dedication that surpasses common understanding.
Poppies blow in the fields of Helmand and Kandahar, too, but more importantly they adorn the uniforms of those in Afghanistan who remember the sacrifices of their forebears. They keep the faith by serving in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the America that did so much in generations past to help their countries.
On Remembrance Day, let us remember these allies, even as we honor our own veterans that "lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow" and did so much in so many places to make a better world.