Thursday, October 7, 2010

The War Nobody Notices

Last night, journalist Doug Wissing presented a lecture entitled "Finding Truths in Afghanistan: An Indiana Writer Talks about War," during which he observed that the U.S. has been trying for years to be involved in a war that nobody notices—and seems to have achieved this with the war in Afghanistan.

Booking this lecture as part of the Writers’ Center of Indiana’s Clowes Craft Lecture Series, “Be a (Better) Writer” seemed like a no-brainer to me. What serious writer wouldn’t be interested in knowing about how your personal experience under fire finds its way into stories, what responsible American citizen wouldn’t find it interesting and necessary to hear, first-hand, from a person who’s been in the thick of it—from living with soldiers in the field to eavesdropping on policy wonks in Kabul?

But only about twenty people showed up at Central Library to listen to what Wissing learned while embedded one of the Army’s Agricultural Development Teams, unfortunately proving his point.

So, do I just do a rant about that? I mean, it’s a temptation. What’s wrong with people, anyway?

But been there, done that—and, mainly, it makes me weary and depressed.

Instead, I’ll just say—you guys missed a truly enlightening event.

Against a changing backdrop of slides portraying the ADT team, the Afghan villagers, and the harshly beautiful landscape of Afghanistan, Wissing introduced us to some of the ADT team and talked about their good work with respect and admiration, but also described the tangle of graft and corruption that results in all too much of the billions we’ve spent in Afghanistan falling into the hands of unscrupulous politicians and contractors—not to mention the Taliban.

He described the virtual training soldiers undergo—like living in a video game. He talked about the relationship between women soldiers and the Afghans, the complex negotiations that must occur for each baby step of progress that’s made there, what it’s like to wake up and find yourself under fire. He talked about the increasing concern about after-effects of mild brain damage in Afghanistan vets and the failure of the military to acknowledge and provide much-needed treatment.

“Remember Agent Orange?” he said.

Notice: the title of his talk was “Finding Truths in Afghanistan,” not “Finding the Truth in Afghanistan.” As he so brilliantly illustrated, there are countless truths in Afghanistan—many of which are contradictory.

There is no one simple answer to the questions we all should be asking, a few of which are:

Should we be there?
Can we win if we stay?
What is the cost in dollars and integrity and heartbreak?
Can we afford it?

The important questions we encounter in life—whether they are personal or political—never have simple answers. Some (maybe most) don’t even have answers. All you can do is face a problem honestly, seek reliable information to help you see it more clearly, and then form an opinion, staying open to adjusting that opinion as new truths emerge.

I learned a lot last night, some of my opinions about what’s happening in Afghanistan shifted based on the story Doug Wissing told about his experiences there. He raised many questions in my mind that I feel compelled to explore.

Too bad so few people were curious enough to come out and hear what he had to say.

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