Afghanistan: The Cycle of War

I woke to dreams of the Afghan people fleeing.

I called my friend Xuan the other day. She’s a refugee of the Vietnam War. She began weeping as soon as I asked, “How are you?”

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for those who’ve lived the aftermath of war, for women like Xuan. She was just a child when the bombing began. She was a young mother by the time the bombing ended. But as she and I both often say: The pain of war doesn’t stop when the bombing ends.

Xuan has lived the horrors of war. She has seen loved ones die. She lost her own young husband, the father of her son, in the bloodshed of that civil war. She went on to marry again, to have others sons, yet, but the trauma of that war destroyed that marriage, too.

People like to say you don’t know how strong you are until you have to survive something hard. Those people usually say those things from the comfort of their homes, homes that are filled with food and water and warm beds and surrounded by loved ones.

It’s a different story altogether when surviving means making a choice about which loved one gets to eat the lone piece of bread. Or when surviving means selling yourself to whichever man is willing to pay for your child’s dinner. Or when surviving means the river is the only place you have to bathe after you’ve been raped. Or when surviving means hiding in the jungle from your own countrymen so that you won’t be slaughtered with a machete or gunned down in front of your grieving mother, and you are only a 7-year-old child.

I have friends who have lived through all of these sorts of traumas and more. Refugee friends. My friend David hasn’t seen his own parents since he was 14. He is now a grown man with 4 children, one of whom is almost the same age he was when he fled the Sudan. A refugee of civil war, his stories are so horrible he can’t even recount some of them.

My friend Peter is not a refugee. He tried three different times to flee Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. He endured untold hardships and persecution. He is the young boy who hid in the jungle to keep from being killed by rampaging North Vietnamese who would have slain the young boy simply because his dead father fought alongside the South Vietnamese.  I will never know the depths of despair Peter has endured, being left behind with his own Hero Mama, who was also persecuted. After his third attempt to flee failed, Peter was returned to the shores of Vietnam. Peter quit trying to escape. When we met in 2004, even then we had to worry about what the government might do if they found out he was talking with a journalist about his experiences. There were signs posted in the hotel warning against such meetings.

Peter, not his real name, was grown by the time we met. The war was behind us both in so many ways, and yet, its aftermath shaped our daily reality. Neither of us could escape the nightmares, like the one that woke me today. Neither of us will ever stop grieving the fathers we lost to war. Peter still has his Hero Mama with him. Mine died nine years ago. We both understood that our mothers would never recover from all that they had lost.

Survivors? Sure.

But forever brokenhearted.

My friend Cammie lost her dad to the Vietnam War when she was just a baby. Same with my friend Kelly. Unlike me they have no memories of their fathers. They can’t recall the timber in their daddies voices. They don’t know the safety of what it means to be held in the lap of a loving father.

“What was it all for?” Cammie cried out the day we stood on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Ia Drang Valley, where our fathers were slain. She clutched her father’s wallet, a talisman, to her chest as we three stood before that verdant valley weeping the tears of young girls grown.

“What was it all for?”

That’s a question on a lot of people’s minds right now. Generations have gone to war in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.  Good men and women have died there, both Afghans and Americans and Allies, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, children, even.

How does one count the cost of such bloodshed?

What’s it all for has been the white noise of my life.

There are the platitudes, of course, the things we tell each other to make the atrocities of war palatable. The industrial military complex  – those who make money from it – need Americans to believe in war in the worst way, so they encourage those platitudes with feel proud advertisements at football games and NASCAR events.


I am resigned to the reality of our family’s sacrifices: Vietnam was a wrongheaded war from the get-go. If God showed up at the front door in the next 30 minutes to try and explain to me why getting engaged in a civil war in Southeast Asia was necessary, I would think that he was working for Erik Prince or some other Defense contractor.

As I told a friend yesterday: We made mercenaries out of our military when we allowed private contractors to take on the jobs our military used to do. The problem with the wars of my lifetime is that they have all be money-making ventures.

The wife of a Special Forces soldier, who deployed umpteen times to Afghanistan, reiterated that somebody was making a whole lot of money for us to have remained in Afghanistan for 20 years. Defense contractors and corporate America made a shitload of money in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.


Speaking of which what we are watching unfold daily out of Afghanistan is a shitshow. When Matt Zeller goes on MSNBC, CNN or FOX, and declares it didn’t have to be this way, I just roll my eyes.  It was always going to be a shitshow. I don’t care how Matt says he had the ONE PLAN that would have worked had Biden only listened to him in February. Whatever.

Look, I respect anyone trying to help Afghans and our allies right now, including Matt Zeller. I encourage you to donate to Zeller’s refugee program. I have donated myself to his program in the past week. He and others like Hillary Clinton are paying for charter flights to get Afghans out.

I have it on good authority that all sorts of atrocities are already underway in Afghanistan. I have heard that it is private contractors who are going into homes and rescuing people, getting them to the airport, putting them on planes out. I won’t be surprised to learn in a year that Erik Prince and his contractors made money rescuing people.

I have also heard that women and children are being slaughtered. I can’t confirm this but that’s part of the rumor mill of the military complex. You should keep in mind that there is no better rumor mill than the military. You want to talk about a business that operates on fearmongering.

Whatever the case maybe, I am pretty sober-minded about this withdrawal from Afghanistan. I never ever expected it to be like packing a kid off to college. I always knew it would be wrought with panic and tension and deal-making and yes, loss of life.

Matt Zeller says that this administration will be judged by those left behind, not those who make it out. On this issue, Matt Zeller is delusional.  If Biden had put Zeller himself in charge of getting everyone out who wants out, Zeller would have failed to meet his own standard of success. Perhaps I’m a cynic hardened by the aftermath of war, but it was just never going to happen the way Zeller insists it could have, if only somebody had listened to him.

See that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Our strength is our greatest weakness.

Americans always think we can take care of the world. If only people would listen to us. If only they would embrace Democratic principles. If only they would embrace Capitalism. If only they would do it our way.

Our desire to help others;  our desire to want freedom for all; our desire to stop the inhumane mistreatment of others leads us to inflicting inhumane mistreatment on others.

Undergirding all of that is the desire to make more and more money.

Perhaps that helps you understand how it is three fatherless girls end up on the edge of a verdant valley crying out: What was it all for? 

That’s a question all those who survive Afghanistan – the veterans, their families, our allies, their families, the Afghans, their families, and the nation at large – will be wrestling with this question for decades to come.

That’s the price of being a survivor.

You are left to make all that sacrifice count for something besides more money for the corporates and the industrial military complex, and the Congressional leaders who invest in war.

But unlike many, I am not despairing.

I only have to look to Xuan, or Peter, or David, or any number of veterans and Gold Star family members I call friends, to know that it is possible to redeem the bloodshed.

I could write a book about the good works Xuan has done since taking refugee in America: The school she built in Vietnam to help young girls, or how she raised up her own boys to be men of good character, how she kept them fed and clothed and well-loved. How she has helped veterans in this country and in Vietnam, and her own loved ones who didn’t leave. How she helped make the film – Regret to Inform – and how that film helped change my life and the lives of so many of us Gold Star families and veterans. How her friendship has been a source of comfort and solace to me over the years.

I could tell you the stories of how David picked America as the country he wanted to come to because it was a name inscribed on the tent he lived in for a year as a refugee in Kenya. I could tell you how stupid it was to take a refugee teen escaping a civil war, and put him to work in a meat-packing plant, full of blood and guts. If you are looking for a way to terrorize a child of war, that would certainly do it. Yet, somehow, David pressed on and became president of the student body at the Utah college where he earned one of his degrees. I could tell you how he has been an invaluable asset to the military because he speaks five languages fluently. I could brag about the way he’s risen through the ranks of the military and could, if he wanted, assume a position at the Pentagon. How he has earned the respect of seasoned generals and journalists I know because he is a man of good character who works hard everyday to redeem that which was lost to him as a young boy of the Sudan.

I could tell you about my friend Peter, who didn’t not make it out of Vietnam. How he grew up to become the father of beautiful children himself. How he has worked in the tourism industry of his own country, and how he is far removed from the days where he had to hide in the jungle from his fellow countrymen, or how he so lovingly cares for his wife, who has endured cancer, or his aging mother, his very own Hero Mama. I could tell you about how kind and gracious he is, and how he wishes he could have made it to America, but even now if given the chance he would not leave because Vietnam is his home, and because he could never leave his mother who sacrificed so much for him and his siblings. He’s built a good life for his family. The very same sort of life he may have built here in America as a refugee, had he escaped.

I do not despair for Afghanistan or Afghans because of how I’ve seen how David, Xuan and Peter redeemed what they lost.

Yesterday, I spoke with the wife of a veteran. Her husband died last week. Her husband was a 19-year old gunner in 1966 when my father was killed. His name was Doug Johnson. He came looking for me in 2004 and found me easily because by then I had been writing for years about what the war in Vietnam did to our family. He came looking for me because as a young boy from Nebraska he knew that Sgt. Spears had a family. He’d met us when were all stationed in Hawaii. He couldn’t get us out of his mind. Whatever happened to Sgt. Spears’s kids, he wondered.  Did we turn out alright?

As a matter of fact, we did.

We survived. It was rough at times. Sometimes it still is. That’s the cost of being a survivor; you are resigned to living the aftermath every single day.

But, as I told Doug’s widow, we made it to the other side.

We made it! We made it! my granddaughter often shouts whenever we reach the end of a long hike or even just a walk around the neighborhood.

We made it! We made it! 

Of course, not everyone will make it.  Too many have died already. More will surely die.

The reality of that haunts our dreams and fuels our fears as we watch the drama unfold out of Afghanistan.

As it should.

But in the midst of that, let’s not lose hope.

Thousands have already made it out. Thousands more will. They are the Xuans, the Davids and the Dougs of tomorrow.

And let’s remember that for those like Peter, those who don’t make it out, there is still hope for a better tomorrow.

I believe in the Afghan people.  I believe in 20 more years we will see that the Taliban, like the North Vietnamese before them, have embraced our capitalistic principles if not our democratic ones. I believe girls will continue to have access to school, and women will have access to jobs. I believe there will be tens of thousands of Afghans who will go on to build better lives for themselves and their families.

I believe it not because I am a forever optimist. I believe it because I’ve borne witness to it.

This is the cycle of war – the killing, the maiming, the pillaging. Then the healing, the reconciliation, the deal-making, the mythmaking, and the storytelling. Followed by the rebuilding of nations, and relationships between people once at war with one another.

We can’t see it right now, certainly not on the headline news, but the healing process is already underway.

Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and the author of After the Flag has been Folded (Wm. Morrow). 








Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

1 Comment

AF Roger

about 3 years ago

Thank you for digging deep to write this and for the courage to hope. You wrote: "Americans always think we can take care of the world." I think it's more accurate that we think we can remake the world in our image. We're coming up on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. A few years after that event we were deeply mired in the mess we made in Iraq. I sat with a group of young Evangelical Christians as we discussed what had led up to things at the time. I reflected, "Suppose that when President Bush made that speech after 9/11 he had not divided the world into us and them. Suppose instead of talking about an axis of evil he had read the Beatitudes. What would the reaction have been?" The young woman sitting next to me blurted out one word: OUTRAGE. We wanted revenge. And look at how much better off the world is today... Meanwhile, listen to this 15-minute interview that aired today. I first met the speaker, Salah Ansary, shortly after we moved to Oregon in 1978. I served on the Board of Directors of his agency for five years. He's been at our church several times. Given all that's gone wrong, what can we do? Listen and consider his answer at the end. Then think about how welcoming or non-welcoming America might be to these poor souls who have nowhere else on earth to go. "Lord, when did we see you in the faces of the Afghans fleeing for their lives?"


Leave a Comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that.
Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.