Ann Jones

A trail of tears: How veterans return from America’s wars

Best of TomDispatch: Ann Jones, War Wounds

America’s Father’s Day was first celebrated on June 19, 1910, in Washington State. That was only a few years before Ann Jones’s father went to war. His was the Great War which turned out — with its trenches of frozen mud, rats and lice, poison gas, and machine-gun death — to be not so great. It was supposed to be the War to End all Wars, but all it did was bequeath to humanity a more terrible war that would be even more worldly.

Jones’s father returned from the trenches with a passel of medals, a lifelong disability, and a book of horrors that she was never allowed to see as a child. I don’t know if he was part of the reason that she felt compelled to report on such horrors herself, but I’m glad she did. The result is some of the finest journalism about this country’s ongoing, never-ending era of Forever Wars.

In 2013, Dispatch Books published Jones’s modern masterpiece, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story and TomDispatch published the excerpt that we offer again today, almost a decade later, for your Father’s Day reading.

I’m still in awe of her reporting for that book. At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war in Afghanistan, so you didn’t have to. She watched the sort of meatball surgery that would have left you doubled over and retching. She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could. And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity. They Were Soldiers offers a still-unprecedented look at the carnage Americans never saw and the toll no one talked about.

The scenes Jones narrated couldn’t have been more vivid or jarring, but the dialogue was on another level. She has a way with people. She found America’s soldiers where they were, put in the time, and they opened up, offering quotes that blossomed like wildflowers in the spring, even if it was a spring in hell.

In the piece that follows, a longtime Army officer, heading home for “psych reasons,” reveals the “con” to which he devoted his life. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.” His sons, he said, were in college and would not follow their father’s path to war. “They won’t have to serve,” he told Jones. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.” Happy Father’s Day. Nick Turse

A Trail of Tears: How Veterans Return From America’s Wars

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones’s book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized. Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home. This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard. They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War. They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

Two rows of double bunks flank an aisle down the center of the C-17, all occupied by men tucked under homemade patchwork quilts emblazoned with flags and eagles, the handiwork of patriotic American women. Along the walls of the fuselage, on straight-backed seats of nylon mesh, sit the ambulatory casualities from the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF), the holding ward for noncritical patients just off the flight line at Ramstein.

At the back of the plane, slung between stanchions, are four litters with critical care patients, and there among them is the same three-man CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team I accompanied on the flight from Afghanistan. They’ve been back and forth to Bagram again since then, but here they are in fresh brown insulated coveralls, clean shaven, calm, cordial, the doctor busy making notes on a clipboard, the nurse and the respiratory therapist checking the monitors and machines on the SMEEDs. (A SMEED, or Special Medical Emergency Evacuation Device, is a raised aluminum table affixed to a patient’s gurney.) Designed to bridge the patient’s lower legs, a SMEED is now often used in the evacuation of soldiers who don’t have any.

Here again is Marine Sergeant Wilkins, just as he was on the flight from Afghanistan: unconscious, sedated, intubated, and encased in a vacuum spine board. The doctor tells me that the staff at LRMC removed Wilkins’s breathing tube, but they had to put it back. He remains in cold storage, like some pod-person in a sci-fi film. You can hardly see him in there, inside the black plastic pod. You can’t determine if he is alive or dead without looking at the little needles on the dials of the machines on the SMEED. Are they wavering? Hard to tell.

Flight Risk

The CCAT team has three other critical patients to think about. They are covered with white sheets and blankets, but it’s easy to see that the second patient is missing both legs. His right hand is swathed in thick bandages, almost as fat as a football. His face is ripped and torn so that his features appear to be not quite where they belong, but pushed up and to one side — his nose split and turned askew. He’s sedated and on a ventilator meant to assist his breathing, but his chest convulses as he struggles with the job.

The respiratory therapist hovers, checking monitors, adjusting a breathing tube, and the man quiets. But not for long. The IED blast that took off both his legs above the knee bypassed his pelvis to slam into his chest. He must have been doubled over, crouching, when he walked onto the bomb. The impact damaged his lungs in ways not yet fully understood, so that now when he breathes on his own, every breath costs him more than he has to give.

The CCAT team confers. To stop the convulsive effort to breathe, the doctor can paralyze him and let the ventilator do the work of respiration, but that means removing from his intestine the feeding tube pumping in the calories he needs to heal these catastrophic wounds. It’s a fine line, and the team walks it for the next hour until it’s clear the man needs rest more than nourishment. Then the doctor administers a drug, the body grows still as stone, and the soldier inside sleeps softly while the ventilator steadily breathes in and breathes out.

Patient number three is breathing on his own and fast asleep, a saline drip feeding into his arm. He looks okay, but for the flattening of the blanket under the SMEED. He’s lost both legs, but both below the knee. He has his hands. He has his junk. Of these four patients, he’s the one the military and the media will call “lucky.” But the doctor doesn’t call him that. He says, “You can’t assess his injuries in comparison to those of other soldiers who happen to be on the same plane. You have to assess them in comparison to who he was before.” He is a boy who used to have legs and now he doesn’t.

The fourth CCAT patient is a darkly handsome kid who lost both legs to an IED. His right arm ends in a bulbous bandage, but something about its shape suggests the hand might still be all there. He’s conscious and breathing on his own, vaguely gazing at a thin woman in blond boots and a light jacket who stands next to his litter and clutches at the rail as if to hold herself upright.

She was called to LRMC because her son was close to death, but she is now taking him home, what’s left of him, alive. In the dim light, she looks dazed, but she leans over him and speaks into his ear and soon he sleeps. The doctor tells me that the boy, a Marine, lost one leg below the knee, and the other very high up — too high for him to wear a prosthetic leg.

“He’ll be in a wheel chair,” the doctor says. “It’s doubtful he’ll ever walk. His right arm is all there, but the hand is blasted. He’ll probably lose his fingers at least, but he may have enough of a hand left to power a wheel chair on his own. It’s hard to say. He lost one testicle, too, and part of the penis and urethra. But he could still be fertile. There’s a chance.”

The cavernous plane is very cold. There’s a blanket on each of the seats along the wall. I wrap myself up and sit down next to my military minder Sergeant Julian, mainly to stay out of the way of the CASF nurses who are busy checking on their patients, getting those on the bunks well settled for the long flight. The mother of the handsome kid has also sunk into a seat next to her son’s litter, but she leans forward, still clutching the bedrail as if to hang on to her boy. She has thrown a blanket around her like a cape, but even at a distance I can see that she’s cold. I pick up a spare blanket and take it to her. She looks up as I hold it out to her wordlessly in the deafening plane. “I’m fine,” she says, loudly enough for me to hear.

“Your son?”

“He’s fine.” She looks at him and changes tense. “He’s going to be fine.”

“That’s good,” I say.

“He’s alive. He almost wasn’t, but he’s alive. He’s fine.”

I offer the blanket again. “Take it. Keep warm.”

Later I notice that she has made a cocoon of the blankets and slumped over the adjacent seat to sleep. Only toward the end of the flight, when she must be feeling some relief that her son is going to survive it, does she begin to tell me about him. She got word of his injury when he was still in the field hospital in Helmand Province, and she arrived at LRMC from southern California the same day he was brought in from Bagram. Three days later, miraculously, she is bringing him home. Well, not home really, but to the States anyway, to the Naval hospital at Bethesda, Maryland.

Her son has an older brother who deployed once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and now is safe at home in California. But this boy, a Marine, had a training accident that left him with a head injury requiring brain surgery. He was medically discharged, but reenlisted and was deployed to Afghanistan. He had been there two months when his unit was assigned to clean up an area another unit had officially cleared of Taliban. You remember the policy: clear, hold, and build. They were doing the hold part when he stepped on the IED. The other Marine, the one who can’t breathe, was hit by the same blast, or maybe another one at the same time. “They told me how it happened,” she says, “but I don’t think I heard.”

Months later, I will call her in California to see how her son is getting along. He’s still in the hospital. They’re still working on his wounds. He’s not doing any rehab yet. But the military moved him to San Diego so she and her husband can visit him often. She says he’s doing “fine,” though it will still be many months before he can come home.

In the meantime, her contractor husband has enlisted his friends to help widen doorways, lower light switches, build ramps, and reconstruct a bathroom on the ground floor for a boy in a wheelchair. It’s a weekend and I can hear them hammering as we talk on the phone. “They say he’ll always be in a wheelchair,” she says, her voice shaking. “I was in our pool this morning, and I realized that he’ll never be able to get into it by himself. He loves the pool.” I stay on the line, listening to her cry. She says, “He’s a beautiful swimmer.”

“Everything Still Hurts…”

On the plane I talk to some of the ambulatory patients sitting along the walls, wrapped in blankets like so many Pashtuns. Most are hurt just enough to have to be out of action for a while. One boy got a boot caught in the door of an armored vehicle, an MRAP, that wasn’t moving at the time. It’s a long way down from the passenger seat. He broke his arm. He blurts this out, then tells me he worries about what he’s going to say back at his home base. “I can’t tell them I just fell out.”

Another kid dropped a barbell in the gym and broke some bones in his foot. Two others hadn’t recovered from chronic back pain and muscle spasms induced by carrying too much weight. Doctors sent them back downrange to their units two or three times and each time they broke down again. The painkillers had only left them dazed. One says, “Everything still hurts, and you can’t remember what you’re doing, so it makes you nervous. So now they’re sending me home because I guess maybe the pain doesn’t make you so nervous in the U.S. of A.”

One young man collapsed while jogging at a base in the Persian Gulf. “I need a new valve in my heart,” he says, “so they’re sending me home to get it done there. I’m really lucky they found it. The Army saved my life.” His wife sits beside him, wearing a brand new Frankfurt sweatshirt and a bracelet dripping with gnomes. While the doctors at LRMC assessed her husband’s cardiac function, she went shopping. She tells me confidentially, “I for sure didn’t want to sit around any old hospital.”

An older Army officer calls me over and gestures toward the empty seat by his side. He sits ramrod straight, wrapped in his blanket, and speaks through tight lips as if he fears what might come out of his mouth. “I’ve been in the Army twenty-six years,” he says, “and I can tell you it’s a con.”

He has been an adviser to the chief counterterrorism officer in Iraq. It’s hard even to imagine what’s involved in work like that, but his version of his job description evidently failed to match the official checklist of his boss. He doesn’t think much of military bosses or politicians or Americans in general who send the lowliest 1% to fight wars that make the other 1%, on the high end, “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.”

He says he’s going home for “psych reasons” caused by “life,” and he is never going to deploy again. He has two sons, 21 and 23, in college, “They won’t have to serve,” he says. “Before that happens, I’ll shoot them myself.”

I ask if he has any particular reason to dislike the military so intensely. “War is absurd,” he says. “Boys don’t know any better. But for a grown man to be trapped in stupid wars — it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating, it’s absurd.”

The media quickly moved on from the Afghanistan story. This is the reality we left behind

I know, I know. It's the last thing you want to hear about. Twenty years of American carnage in Afghanistan was plenty for you, I'm sure, and there are so many other things to worry about in an America at the edge of… well, who knows what? But for me, it's different. I went to Afghanistan in 2002, already angry about this country's misbegotten war on that poor land, to offer what help I could to Afghan women. And little as I may have been able to do in those years, Afghanistan left a deep and lasting impression on me.

So, while this country has fled its shameful Afghan War, I, in some sense, am still there. That's partly because I've kept in touch with Afghan women friends and colleagues, some living through the nightmare of the Taliban back again and others improbably here in America, confined in military barracks to await resettlement in the very country that so thoroughly wrecked their own. And after all these years, I'd at least like to offer some thoughts on the subject, starting with a little history that most Americans know nothing about.

So be patient with me. War is never over when it's over. And it would be wrong to simply leave Afghanistan and its people in the dust of our disastrous departure. For me, at least, some thoughts are in order.

A Little History

News about America's chaotic exit from Afghanistan was swift, ugly, and then all over and largely forgotten. The news cycle moved on to the next sensation. But consider me behind the times. I'm still lost in remembrance of the years I spent in Afghanistan and the tales I was told of earlier days in a proud and peaceful land. Afghan history is so much longer and more complex than we know. But let me take you back for a moment to what may still prove to have been the last best days of Afghanistan.

Muhammad Zahir Shah, the final king of that country, ascended to the throne in 1933. He was only 19, but already planning Afghanistan's future. He didn't want the country to be communist — or capitalist. He didn't want Afghanistan to become a servant of the Soviet Union or of any of the other large, overbearing countries in its vicinity. He wanted it to take its place in the world as a modern social democracy and so proposed a new constitution, an elected parliament, egalitarian civil rights for men and women alike, and universal suffrage to sustain just such a democratic state. He even enrolled Afghanistan in the international League of Nations.

British India, France, and Germany had already built and staffed modern-language high schools in Kabul, including one established in 1921 for girls. King Zahir Shah then built a modern university with faculties of medicine, law, science, and letters. After 1960, when the entire university became coeducational, American universities helped it establish yet more fields of study, including agriculture, education, and engineering. Photographs exist of its young students, women and men alike, clad in modern European garb, seated together on the campus lawn.

During the 1960s, Afghanistan became the most popular stop for European and American students traveling east along the world famous Hippie Trail. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. engineers and their families settled in to conduct an American aid project. Working with Afghans, they built dams and irrigation systems to bring the arid land of the South to life. Such developments were filmed in black and white and clipped into newsreels shown in American movie theaters, so that moviegoers could feel good about what their country was doing around the world.

Then, in 1973, while King Zahir Shah was on a trip to Italy, his cousin, brother-in-law, and former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, suddenly declared a new Republic of Afghanistan and named himself president, prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of defense. And so ended the Afghan monarchy and a 40-year-long peace in a remarkably progressive Afghanistan.

One coup begets another. Five years later, Daoud himself was shot and killed to launch the Saur (April) Revolution. He would be replaced by a newly minted communist leader, Noor Mohammad Taraki, the founder of the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Some of the party's modern ideas, especially education for girls and women, had already been well established in the capital, but in the countryside they were met with violent opposition that split the party in two. A more conservative communist party, Parcham, arose to battle the revolutionary PDPA. Thousands of Afghans would be killed in the struggle. Exiled King Zahir Shah said sadly that his decision to send some outstanding young Afghan men to be educated in Moscow had been "a great mistake."

But it was Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, who, as Chalmers Johnson revealed long ago, provoked the Soviet Union to send the Red Army in to clean up the mess. That was the first misstep in the USSR's 10-year-long unwinnable war in Afghanistan against mujahideen guerillas, both local and foreign. By then, Washington had shifted its attention from irrigation to espionage, sabotage, and what was euphemistically termed "special interest."

When an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Afghans had been killed and it appeared that the Russians were going to fight until the last Afghan was dead, CIA Director Stansfield Turner questioned America's incitement of what had clearly become an apocalyptic war. He asked whether it was right to "use other peoples for the geopolitical interests of the United States?"

By the time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a peace treaty with the Afghans in 1988 and the last Soviet soldiers fled the country in February 1989, some two million Afghans had been killed. And even then, the U.S. didn't stop meddling in that country's affairs, prompting yet more conflict among factions of the Afghan mujahideen. By the time the U.S. abandoned the country in 1992 after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.N. reported that nearly two million more Afghans had been killed and another 600,000 to two million maimed.

In that period, more than six million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran, becoming the world's largest population of refugees from a single country. Another two million sought refuge in other countries, while two million more became internal refugees. The Afghan casualties of that period of seamless wars added up to about half the population of prewar Afghanistan, a country that, by the way, is about the size of Texas.

Only four years later, the Taliban ("students") rose up from the south and, propelled by Pakistan, captured the capital, Kabul, proclaiming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A new, more primitive Afghanistan steeped in the Taliban's hard-boiled brand of Deobandi Islamic fundamentalism would then be created.

Women were confined to their homes, girls kept from school. Zahir Shah, still in exile in Italy, must have regretted his second truly bad mistake as king: he had sent another group of young Afghan men to Egypt to study fundamentalist Islam. The graduates, hiding out in Pakistan during the Afghan war against the Soviets, had formed seven radical groups, seven militias, all supported by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and — because America chose godliness over democracy — the U.S.A. It was then (and still remains) past time to raise Stansfield Turner's question again: Was it ever right for Washington to "use other peoples for the geopolitical interests of the United States?"

A Personal Story

I opposed the American war in Afghanistan.

The assault upon America's military-industrial-congressional complex that smashed the Pentagon, brought down New York's twin towers, and aimed (via a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania) for the Capitol had not been launched by Afghans, but by suicidal Saudi Arabian hijackers carrying out the plan of their Saudi mastermind Osama bin Laden, who happened to be living in Afghanistan then. The Taliban government tried to negotiate with George W. Bush's administration to bargain for time — perhaps to hand over bin Laden, or even to surrender themselves.

In that context, the hasty, knee-jerk vote of Congress, supposedly a "deliberative body," to "authorize" military force seemed to me a reckless display of mindless, macho muscle-flexing by men who knew they would not be required to fight in the war they were about to bring upon this country and the innocent people of Afghanistan. Only Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California had the courage to vote against the mob. For her principled stand, she was reviled and threatened by Americans who did not hesitate to offer opportunities for heroism to other people's children.

Initially, a trigger-happy administration in Washington didn't even bomb bin Laden's compound in rural Afghanistan. Instead, it bombed Kabul, among other places, until there was truly nothing left to bomb. President Bush proclaimed victory. Laura Bush delivered a radio address, declaring that America had liberated the women of Afghanistan almost as if they had thrown off their burqas and become "free." For his part, Bush paid off a posse of Afghan strongmen to search for bin Laden — predictably they didn't find him — while he himself, along with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warmed up for yet another prefabricated war, this time against Iraq.

I arrived in Kabul in early 2002 after the bombing had stopped, as a volunteer with a small NGO run by and for women. From my frigid room on the second floor of what had once been a house, I looked down upon a bungalow next door: the windows still painted white to prevent people from staring at the women confined there and to prevent the women from looking out. It seemed, whatever Laura Bush might have imagined, that they had not been set free by America's bombs.

In fact, it took both time and courage for women in the capital and other Afghan urban centers to find one another and begin to make common cause. From 2002, I worked with some of those women for years, not so much teaching or leading them, as merely answering questions, offering friendship and assistance as they worked together to make their own way out of those confining burqas and into a new world of greater confidence.

They chose their own projects, their own strategies, their own compatriots. Then they entered public life, denouncing violence against women, backing women candidates for the new legislature, and publicizing their work. They developed ways to help widows, child brides, new mothers, rape victims, battered women, incarcerated women, and the raft of girls who had tried and failed to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire.

"Night Letters," as they were known, were nailed to the gates of our office compound, threatening us with death and worse. But the women, many of them very young, tore those letters up and just kept on working. They worked in hospitals, courts, jails, schools, and government ministries. They supported women and girls who were becoming athletes, musicians, and singers, as well as reporters for newspapers, radio stations, and TV. With the support of fathers, brothers, and husbands, women and girls, in the cities at least, were making the world anew. At the same time, the so-called International Community, led by the United States, carried its war, and its bombs and Hellfire missiles, into the heartland of the country and the strongholds of the Taliban.

Among an older generation of urban women were the well-educated former teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, judges, and others from that older, better time, capable of helping rebuild a peaceful and improved society. With the support of international NGOs, urban Afghan women, young and old, set out to do just that, although many would be murdered along the way. Still, the success of their work could be seen — until last August — in a new post-Taliban generation: the young women and girls who walked fearlessly to work or school dressed in clothes of their own devising, long loose shirts, pants, and bright headscarves, the uniform of a brave new world.

But that new world had not reached the 70% of the country that remained "rural." As Anand Gopal recently reported movingly in the New Yorker magazine, Afghanistan's "other women" living in the countryside had not been visited by progress or peace. They had instead been plagued by the assaults of foreign forces, of American-trained Afghan soldiers, and of murderous American "air support." If the lives of rural women as the chattel of the Taliban were grim, they were made much worse by American forces carrying out their own ill-conceived sense of duty.

And now, the Taliban has predictably come again for the women of the cities. None who survived Taliban rule had forgotten what life was like then. Not after spending five years confined to the house, venturing out only with a male keeper, half-blinded by a wretched burqa, fearful of the punitive squads of men from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who patrolled the streets, bearing their corrective whips.

Those were the same sorts of whips today's Taliban were seen using again in August on the women of Kabul. That's when they changed the name of Afghanistan's Ministry for Women's Affairs back to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Suddenly, we were once again back in the previous century.


In mid-August, women activists in Kabul fortunate enough to have passports checked their documents, packed essentials, and made their way carefully to that city's airport. They came with colleagues, husbands, children, babies, and parents, with families large and small. Some — the lucky ones — waited at the airport for hours. Many more waited for days. Many were turned away for lack of "papers." One of my friends and her family passed the documents test, waited two or three days inside the airport, and then boarded a plane already inexplicably crowded with Pakistanis.

Friends who made it onto flights to the U.S. now speak of grief, terror, exhaustion, impatience, fear, chaos, hope, gratitude, and sorrow. All hearts are broken. One is a lawyer I met almost 20 years ago when, as a teenager, she came to work at a German-sponsored women's organization. She rose over the years to lead the office, then left it for law school and a new role as an advocate for women in the courts. Now, she's confined with her husband and sons, along with 13,000 other Afghans, at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Another friend, a founder of the Afghan Women's Network, once summoned to Washington to meet Hillary Clinton, among others, is now detained at Fort McCoy with nine members of her family, including a brother and a sister confined to wheelchairs by debilitating afflictions that seem to have no English name.

Both of these friends, as English speakers and leaders, have been called upon to attend management meetings at Fort McCoy to help with tough questions like: "What do Afghan people eat?" Meanwhile, thousands of "rescued" Afghans, half of them children, are daily standing in very long lines, waiting for food they hope they might recognize.

My two friends are exhausted, but they don't complain. They say that the officers there do listen, that the food does look a little more familiar, and that the long lines move a little faster. They also speak of other colleagues left behind: women and their families who couldn't get inside Kabul airport, as well as others who did get in but were never able to board a plane, or made it onto a plane only to be thrown off again. My friends say sadly, "We are the lucky ones." But no one knows when they will be released from Fort McCoy or where they will be sent.

In the meantime, the phone is their lifeline (and mine, too). It's also a lifeline to Afghanistan where, for instance, I often talk to my wonderful friend Mahbouba Seraj, about whom I've written for TomDispatch before. She has long been an American citizen. Her prominent family fled the murderous Communist regime when she was a girl, but she's lived and worked in both countries all her life. Now, she's chosen to remain in Kabul. A founder of the Afghan Women's Network, she now cares for about 40 women who have sought refuge in its Women's Shelter.

Mahbouba Seraj is passionate about her homeland and scornful of the Big Men, past and present, foreign and domestic, who choose to inflict their second-hand ideas by force. This time around, the Taliban first stole her vehicles, then came late at night demanding to see the women in the shelter. She spoke to them firmly about the importance of good Afghan manners, such as respect for the privacy of women and warned that, if they carried on as they were doing, no one in Kabul would have any respect for them. Then she invited them to call at her office in the morning to discuss their business, as is the Afghan custom, over a cup of tea. They left and some days later, miraculously enough, they returned her vehicles.

Outspoken and brave as she is, Mahbouba Seraj is sought after by visiting journalists. Frontlinebroadcast a riveting account in mid-October of the abrupt American exodus from Afghanistan. It included two interviews with Seraj, identified correctly as "one of the most influential women in Afghanistan." She surprises the reporter — himself an Afghan-American — by saying that she wants to "really talk" with some Taliban leaders. A second interview is interrupted by a woman seeking Seraj's help. She fears the Taliban may have taken her daughter. Seraj sends her gently home, saying there's nothing she can do. The reporter asks: "Can't you protect her?"

"No," Seraj says, "I cannot protect any woman." The stunned reporter persists: Can't she call someone? She replies that, of course, she used to be able to call influential people, mentioning men in the offices of past Afghan presidents, but "now there is no one to call." At the moment, though the Taliban have indeed taken control of Kabul, there simply is no real government. There is, in fact, no indication that the Taliban will be able to construct such a thing as a government, and certainly not a government that represents the people.

No one is in charge of anything really. There's no hierarchy among the Taliban, and the American habit of naming certain Talibs as Number 1 and Number 2 doesn't make it so. Any member of the Taliban or the rival Haqqani Network seen one day as Number 1 may never be seen again. And yet here they are, after 20 years of America's Afghanistan, already not one but two rival hyper-religious and violent factions, the Haqqani Network aligned with Pakistan and the Taliban with their god.

Who actually won the war is already a matter of dispute.

The Frontline reporter seemed baffled by the vehemence of Mahbouba Seraj. Then, referring to her inability to save the lost daughter, he asked, "Does this make you sad?" She took a breath, as I know she does when she finds an interlocutor is missing her point. Then she replied fiercely, "No, it makes me angry. This is no time to be sad. Now is the time to be angry."

I'm thousands of miles away in a kind of safety Mahbouba Seraj has repudiated. But I'm angry, too. Especially because, for decades, now, I've seen, sometimes first-hand, the damage done by America's toxic militarism — not only to the Afghan people but to our own misguided soldiers as well. The only "winners" in the long Afghan war are the members of America's military-industrial-congressional complex, who continue to be funded as if they were the ultimate winners of everything. PolitiFact reports that the Pentagon has handed more than $100 billion to military contractors alone, while the generals who ran our losing wars join corporate boards of military industries, give remarkably well-paid speeches, and "consult." So many thousands of Afghan civilians and American and allied soldiers died for that.

Copyright 2021 Ann Jones

Featured image: Afghan Women in Literacy Class by United Nations Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is a non-resident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. She is at work on a book about social democracy in Norway (and its absence in the United States). She is the author of several books, including Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original.

Norway kept me safe from COVID-19 — and Trump's America nearly killed me

Donald Trump is not a president. He can’t even play one on TV. He’s a corrupt and dangerous braggart with ill-concealed aspirations for a Crown and, with an election coming up, he’s been monopolizing prime time every day, spouting self-congratulation and misinformation. (No, don’t inject that Lysol!) His never-ending absurd performances play out as farce against the tragic background of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the nation. If we had a real president, which is to say, almost anybody else, things would be different. We would have seen the pandemic coming. It would not have attacked me in my old age. And most of the dead might still be alive.

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The man who saw Trump coming a century ago

Distracted daily by the bloviating POTUS? Here, then, is a small suggestion. Focus your mind for a moment on one simple (yet deeply complex) truth: we are living in a Veblen Moment.

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American Capitalism has failed us: We're overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

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Why Trump Simply Can't Love Norway as Much as He Professes To

In the past couple of weeks, thanks to the president’s racist comments about Haiti and African countries he can’t even name -- remember “Nambia”? -- as well as the stamp of approval he awarded future immigrants from Norway, we’ve seen a surprising amount of commentary about that fortunate country. Let me just say: those Norwegians he’s so eager to invite over are my ancestral people and, thanks to years I’ve spent in that country, my friends. Donald Trump should understand one thing: if he and his Republican backers really knew the truth about life in Norway, they would be clamoring to build a second “big, fat, beautiful” wall, this time right along our Eastern seaboard.

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The Fempire Strikes Back with #MeToo

First, for the record, let me tell you my story about another of those perversely creepy Hollywood predators, a sort of cut-rate Harvey Weinstein: the screenwriter and film director James Toback. As I read now of women he preyed upon year after year, I feel the rage that’s bubbled in the back of my brain for decades reaching the boiling point. I should be elated that Toback has been exposed again as the loathsome predator he’s been for half a century. But I’m stuck on the fact of elapsed time, all these decades that male predators roamed at large, efficiently sidelining and silencing women.

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America Can't Quit Its Afghan War Addiction

Here we go again! Years after most Americans forgot about the longest warthis country ever fought, American soldiers are again being deployed to Afghanistan. For almost 16 years now, at the command of three presidents and a sadly forgettable succession of generals, they have gone round and round like so many motorists trapped on a rotary with no exit. This time their numbers are officially secret, although variously reported to be 3,500 or 4,000, with another 6,000-plus to follow, and unknown numbers after that. But who can trust such figures?  After all, we just found out that the U.S. troops left behind in Afghanistan after President Obama tried to end the war there in 2014, repeatedly reported to number 8,400, actually have been “closer to 12,000” all this time.

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How States Across the Country Are Making Universal Health Care Happen in the Face of Rabid GOP Opposition

You may have noticed that quite a few of the formerly united states of America have been choosing to go their own way. My own state, Massachusetts, now blooms with sanctuary cities sworn to protect residents from federal intrusion.  Its attorney general, Maura Healey, was among the first to raise the legal challenge to President Trump’s Muslim bans. She also sued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education for abandoning rules meant to protect students from exploitation by private for-profit schools. (Think Trump University, for instance.) Even my state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, announced well before the presidential election that he wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump.

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Trump Has Been an Abuser for Decades, and Yet Demands That the Public Feel Sorry for Him

Donald Trump grabbed a new lifeline. Speaking at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on October 15th, he raised a hand as if to take an oath and declared: “I am a victim!” The great business tycoon, the one and only man who could fix America and make the place great again (trust me, folks), was laying claim to martyrdom—and spinning another news cycle. “I am a victim,” he declared, “of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country. They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”

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Vets Lose When Big Pharma and Defense Corporations Rake in the Big War Bucks

A friend of mine, a Vietnam vet, told me about a veteran of the Iraq War who, when some civilian said, “Thank you for your service,” replied: “I didn’t serve, I was used.” That got me thinking about the many ways today’s veterans are used, conned, and exploited by big gamers right here at home.

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Most Women Are Crystal Clear About Trump: He Is Their Worst Nightmare

Last fall, when presidential wannabe Donald Trump famously boasted on CNN that he would “be the best thing that ever happened to women,” some may have fallen for it. Millions of women, however, reacted with laughter, irritation, disgust, and no little nausea.  For while the media generate a daily fog of Trumpisms, speculating upon the meaning and implications of the man’s every incoherent utterance, a great many women, schooled by experience, can see right through the petty tyrant and his nasty bag of tricks.

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U.S. Tragic Hospital Bombing is But the Latest Disaster in Our Never-Ending War

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Could the Brutal Murder of an Afghan Woman Be the Catalyst For Change?

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Is the U.S. Crazy?

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Thirteen Years After the Invasion, It's Still the Rule of Men in Afghanistan

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Air Conditioning, Farting Contests and Other Snapshots from the US War in Afghanistan

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America's Child Soldiers: JROTC and the Militarizing of America

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Wounded Soldiers: They Didn't Know What They Were Getting Into

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We Sent Them to Brutal Wars: Now, the Untold Story Of What Happens When Soldiers Come Home

The following is an excerpt from Ann Jones' new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars—The Untold Story (Haymarket Books / Dispatch Books, 2013). Jones' new book takes us on a powerful journey from the devastating moment an American soldier is first wounded in rural Afghanistan to his return home for recovery. This excerpt picks up at Ann Jones' visit to Craig Hospital, a Level III Trauma Center at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan. Craig Hospital is often the first serious medical stop on the "medevac pathway" that sends critically wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and the US for further extensive treatment. 

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Rape is Rape, and Domestic Violence is ... Plain Old Violence

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There Are Three Options for Afghanistan and They're All Bad

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Why Spending Billions on the Afghan National Army Could Seriously Backfire

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What Happened When Overzealous Terrorist Hunters Took Off With My Money

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Why We're Bound to Fail in Afghanistan: What Happened When I Spent 2 Weeks at a U.S. Military Base

In the eight years I’ve reported on Afghanistan, I’ve “embedded” regularly with Afghan civilians, especially women.  Recently, however, with American troops “surging” and journalists getting into the swing of the military’s counterinsurgency “strategy” (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to get with the program as well.  Last June, I filed a request to embed with the U.S. Army. 

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4 Easy Ways to See How Obama's Strategy in Afghanistan Isn't Working

President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy isn’t working.  So said a parade of Afghanistan watchers during the flap over war commander General Stanley McChrystal’s firing.  But what does that phrase, so often in the media these days, really mean?  And if the strategy really isn’t working,

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There's No Hope for Afghanistan If Women Aren't Involved

Women are made for homes or graves.   -- Afghan saying

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There's Virtually Zero Percent Chance of There Ever Being a Real Afghan Army -- So What's the Pentagon Talking About?

In Washington, calls are increasing, especially among anxious Democrats, for the president to commit to training ever more Afghan troops and police rather than sending in more American troops. Huge numbers for imagined future Afghan army and police forces are now bandied about in Congress and the media -- though no one stops to wonder what Afghanistan, the fourth poorest country on the planet, might actually be like with a combined security force of 400,000. Not a "democracy," you can put your top dollar on that. And with a gross national product of only $23 billion (a striking percentage of which comes from the drug trade) and an annual government budget of only about $600 million, it's not one that could faintly maintain such a force either. Put bluntly, if U.S. officials were capable of building such a force, a version of Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule for Iraq would kick in and we, the American taxpayers, would own it for all eternity.

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Everything That Happens in Afghanistan Is Based on Lies or Illusions

Kabul, July 2009 -- I've come back to the Afghan capital again, after an absence of two years, to find it ruined in a new way. Not by bombs this time, but by security.

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