This week marks the greatest number of American casualties in the shortest amount of time since we first invaded Afghanistan eight long and increasingly bloody years ago. Notably, it also marks the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a Marine, Iraq combat veteran and the first high-level Foreign Service diplomat to quit his job over American policy in Afghanistan.
As a member of the generation that grew up during the Vietnam War, the endless dispute back then was over who was a patriot and what actions were, or were not, patriotic. Protesting the Vietnam War was, by and large, not considered a patriotic act, and those who linked arms, carried the signs and got tear-gassed and clubbed by the cops or National Guard were not considered patriots. But in the end, a patriot must be compelled to do what he or she believes is best for the future of their country, whether or not it comports with what the generals, the politicians or the vested interests of the day believe.
Without those patriots who took to the streets, it's unknown how much longer that sad war would have continued, how many more deaths would have been added to the more than 58,000 American soldiers who died there. The future of the nation, beyond debate, was better off because the patriotic protesters eventually forced the politicians and generals to admit the folly of continued involvement in what was essentially a civil war in which America had no legitimate part.
Now, nearly a half-century later, Hoh has taken a brave and similarly patriotic stand, to tell the generals and politicians the same message—America has no legitimate role in what he believes, from extensive first-hand knowledge, to be Afghanistan's civil war. He didn't, however, do it in the same way.
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh told reporters for the Washington Post recently. And indeed, a review of his life reflects the truth of his words. Referring to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Hoh added: "There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed. I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
As a Marine captain, Hoh didn't just debate the war in Iraq, he fought it. And, from all reports, he did a good job there. But like so many warriors, in so many wars, Hoh also suffered the loss of good friends who will never go back to their wives, children, families or friends. In fact, he carries the scars of those losses and lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD, because of it.
Cited for "uncommon bravery," Hoh was in a helicopter with fellow Marines when it crashed into an Iraqi river in 2006. While he was able to swim to shore, he jumped back into the river to attempt to save his brothers-in-arms who were calling for help, but was unable to pull them to safety. Like so many other soldiers who have survived while their friends have perished, the incident drove Hoh into a fit of depression and, in his own words, "the only thing I did was drink myself blind."
Unlike so many others, however, Hoh pulled out of his depression, rejected alcoholism and went on to a promising career in the Foreign Service, where he became the top official in Zabul Province in Afghanistan. And it was there that Hoh's views of what was possible, what was impossible, and what was worth dying for took root.
As he told the Washington Post, the reality of Afghanistan is what he termed "valleyism," where the tribal people in one valley, even a neighboring valley, fight against any and all intruders on their traditional territories. It doesn't matter if it's foreigners or other Afghanis, this battle for control by countless tribal entities is at the heart of the resistance to the American and NATO presence there and ultimately dooms American involvement in Afghanistan.
In his resignation letter, which immediately came to the attention of the highest level of diplomats and politicians, including the White House, Hoh wrote plainly: "I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."
Simply put, Hoh, a brave and exemplary soldier and outstanding diplomat, decided, at age 36, to put his bright Foreign Service career on the line by telling his superiors that America's involvement in Afghanistan "wasn't worth the fight." Despite the best efforts of his bosses to lure him back to higher positions—and perhaps to keep him from going public with his undeniably credible assessment—Hoh made the personal decision to stick with his resignation.
For the last eight years Americans have been subjected once again to the Vietnam War-era definition of patriotism, where "my country right or wrong" and "love it or leave it" were hurled at those who challenged the legitimacy of the Iraq War or questioned the chances for any measure of success—besides endless killing of fellow human beings—in Afghanistan. Those whose concept of patriotism meant sometimes standing up to the generals, the politicians and the occasional frenzy of the masses were chided as Taliban lovers, supporters of terrorism or in the most base of insults, cowards.
On the eve of a momentous and historic decision on American involvement in Afghanistan by President Obama, a true patriot now arises to say it isn't worth the fight. While some may hurl insults at Hoh, we should all be grateful for his brave and principled stand. And while considering his decision, President Obama would do well to take his words to heart.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.