As we exited Afghanistan one of our final acts was what General Milley called a “ righteous strike “ against a presumed ISIS-K terrorist. The strike was in response to a suicide bomb attack a few days earlier outside the gates of the former Hamid Karsai International Airport, resulting in the deaths of 13 American service members and more than 100 Afghan civilians who were trying to flee the country. 

The catharsis following the strike was nearly universal among Americans as we presumably had demonstrated our ability to quickly punish evil doers with our smart military technology and superior intelligence assets. Now, three weeks later the Pentagon admits that the strike, in fact, killed 10 innocent civilians including 7 children. No terrorist was taken out. Initially, the military had admitted that in killing an ISIS-K terrorist, his vehicle loaded with explosives, there had been others killed as well. Presumably this was the regrettable price paid by innocent non-combatants as America righteously pursued its national interests. Merely collateral damage, if you will. Now we know that all of the damage was collateral and not in any way righteous.

Merriam-Webster defines collateral damage as: “Injury inflicted on something other than an intended target” and “specifically: civilian casualties of a military operation.”

It’s really a grotesque euphemism for civilian casualties (deaths, amputations, disfigurements, broken lives and psychological horrors) that came into usage during the Vietnam War and over several decades became entrenched in U.S. armed forces jargon. Along with the terms body count and friendly fire, collateral damage was our disingenuous military and civilian leaders’ attempt to hide behind a sanitized version of the war that played more positively to an increasingly skeptical public. The terms were intended to prop up our sinking good guy image.

The Watson Institute at Brown University estimates there have been 70,000 collateral deaths in Afghanistan and between 180,000 and 200.000 in Iraq during our military engagements. In Vietnam the estimate is over 600,000. Of course, not all of these collateral deaths were the direct result of our military operations. However, we voluntarily elected to enter into these conflicts, stayed longer than we should have and we own the majority of this indefensible reality. We can not hide from the fact that we are the undisputed worldwide leader in collateral deaths and destruction over the last 50 years. No other country is close. It’s now part of who we are. And for what?

To be clear, it’s our leadership and conflicted failed decision making processes not those in the rank and file that are responsible for these atrocities. Apparently, our leaders and a large portion of the public want desperately to recapture our truly righteous reputation that was earned during World War ll. Since then we have had wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan which have tarnished (Korea an exception) our international reputation badly. We try to do the right thing and our motives are debatably defensible but once the bullets fly and our losses mount and “victory” eludes us we cease looking for honest answers and simply double down with surges, new military theater leadership, more Congressional hearings, more money, more dissembling, more calls for revenge and more caskets.  

Following World War ll Mao defeated the Chinese Nationalists in 1949 and China declared independence, an event known as “the loss of China” – in the U.S., with bitter recriminations and conflict over who was responsible for that loss. The terminology is revealing. Our leaders assumed that the U.S. owned China, by right, due to our righteous victory in the war. The “loss of China” debate became a cause celebre and a major factor in our decline as a moral force in the world. We do not own the world either. We have a long military overseas presence in Europe, Korea and 70 other countries and territories comprising over 800 installations compared to a combined 30 for England, France and Russia. I believe China has only one. Let’s stop all the hysteria about losing and pick only the right fights.

Now, the finger pointing and recriminations abound following our ignominious non-victory in Afghanistan. Rather than learn from our long history of recent military failures the militarists, uber nationalists, neo-cons and apologists of all stripes will start the process of identifying why we “lost” Afghanistan and blaming everyone but themselves. Instead of decrying the decisions of four Presidents and their cabinets ,their advisors and enablers, these dead-enders should ask themselves not why we are losing but rather why we engage in mostly self-destructive wars and do so for decades without realizing the true costs. We did not lose Afghanistan. It was not and never will be ours.

I believe that the collateral damage from our recent vainglorious wars has extended to another vulnerable civilian population, the American public. Nearly a million collateral deaths in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan can only be ignored at the cost of one’s soul. Our leaders do not talk about it but it is real, corrosive and dispiriting. If we wish to inspire a better world, attention must be paid to our reality or the next failure will be cataclysmic but also righteous.

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