Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, served four years in the Marines and first deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, then again in 2009 at the beginning of the troop increase ordered by President Barack Obama.
I don’t think there was ever a time when we thought we were winning or losing. We just wanted to deploy, to get into the war, to fight. We figured we’d make sense of it all when we got home. If we got home. But we didn’t think of that much either.
It was Feb. 13, 2010, when we landed in the dark in Marja, a Taliban sanctuary in southern Afghanistan. I had enlisted at the end of my senior year of high school a few years earlier; now I was a corporal leading six other Marines and a Navy corpsman.
The engineers left the helicopter first, hauling explosives. One of them would be dead by noon.
The war has again found its way back into the political discourse. President Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David, then canceled the invitation after an attack that killed an American soldier. The peace talks are off, but the pressure to bring American troops home seems to be building, even without a deal. Mr. Trump and his aides, and the Democratic presidential candidates, seem to be saying that the war was only about routing Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks, though Al Qaeda was protected then by the Taliban, who have been fighting us on the ground ever since.
[An American Special Forces soldier was killed in eastern Afghanistan on Monday. The soldier is the 17th American service member to die during combat operations this year.]
Those first few hours in Marja, we felt like we’d won some sort of lottery, like we’d get our shot at a version of Falluja, the brutal Marine battle in Iraq, or Hue in Vietnam. We’d invade the city, raise the flag and install a local government. “Pages of history,” our battalion commander said.
But Marja wasn’t really a city. It was a bunch of hamlets within opium-poppy fields atop an American agricultural project from decades before, a failure of previous national security thinking. And now it was the high-water mark of the American military’s acceptance of counterinsurgency, the doctrine of trying to win over the locals by clearing away militants, building schools, laying roads. We were fighting the Taliban to let Afghanistan build a democracy. Or something like that. That’s how they presented it to us as they sent us in.
As I got off the helicopter, my rifle caught the crew chief standing on the ramp. We both fell into the muddy field. We were still wading through the cold, gummy muck when the next flight of helicopters almost landed on top of us. My team moved north, to the roof of an abandoned pump house.
I had been afraid as we flew west over the Helmand desert toward our battle, but as the sun rose over the pump house, the morning was quiet. One of the younger Marines asked if the whole deployment would be so uneventful.
Thirty minutes later, we were getting shot at from three directions. There were thousands of us in Marja that sunrise, but in that little bazaar and village, it felt as if we were fighting the entire country alone.
In the days and months that followed, we’d go on patrols when the shooting stopped. Sometimes roadside bombs would explode. Sometimes we found them first. Charlie Company shot a rocket into the wrong house and killed a family of four. We gave cash to the relatives who remained.
We tried to stop the poppy harvest. We built wells. We cleaned up a park around the mosque, and even built a bench with fresh paint even though the imam was pro-Taliban.
We didn’t understand the Afghans. They mostly hated us for destroying their homes, accidentally killing them and showing up in helicopters and telling them to respect a government in Kabul that they cared little about. The Afghan Army was near useless then. When the Afghan troops weren’t high on hashish, we were worried they were going to shoot us. They resembled nothing like the reliable allies our generals spoke of in public.
But it wasn’t all bad. My friend Brett patched up a little girl who fell off the back of a motorcycle, something her parents appreciated. A couple of years earlier, on our previous deployment, he helped save a man’s camel from drowning in a canal.
In March, Brett got blown up by a roadside bomb. He was my first roommate in the Marines. When he first introduced himself at the door to our barracks in 2007, he was drunk, wearing a foam hat and playing Guitar Hero. I heard the explosion and then Brett screaming on the radio.
When we got to him, he was sprawled on the side of a canal. Steel had torn through his face and legs. Lance Cpl. Willis had taken some metal in his back, but he didn’t figure that out until five minutes later. There was a lot of blood. We gave Brett morphine. He wanted his picture taken. I remember I picked up his sunglasses off the ground and put them on my chest. Don’t want to lose these — they’re expensive, I said.
When we called for a medevac helicopter, it couldn’t land because the armed helicopters needed to protect it were protecting someone important enough to be protected by armed helicopters. A general? A diplomat? We wondered if it was someone visiting Marja to tell us what a great job we were doing bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Eventually, the pilots landed anyway. By then the drugs had soaked in and Brett was quiet. For some reason, I flashed him a thumbs up. Brett lived. There’s a picture of him in People magazine.
Josh and Brandon weren’t as lucky. They died quickly in the fields of opium poppy that surrounded us. Brandon was my first platoon commander and we used to rag him for once asking if “we could hear the war drums” when we got our deployment orders in 2008. He was a good officer. Unlike some of the others, he seemed to care for us. And Josh? His voice mail used to be the sound of waves crashing on the beach. “Hey, this is Josh. I’m off surfing right now; leave a message.” In my dreams, he is always 23 when we run into each other at the airport. He is excited to be going home.
Our war went on until July and then we left. People got medals. Our battalion even had a Marja challenge coin. There was an HBO documentary. You can watch it on YouTube.
My father was a Swift boat officer in Vietnam. Both my grandfathers fought in World War II, one in the Pacific and the other in the Atlantic. I was in eighth grade on Sept. 11, 2001, and I knew then that I was going to follow them all into the military.
I think it’s safe to say we lost Marja, our little part of the war. The rest of us are just waiting for all of it to end, to write in our journals: the war in Afghanistan 2001-20??. To start making some cohesive narrative out of the whole mess of our youths before our children can read.
Even as we want it all to stop, we know on one level that it won’t. After any peace deal, now, later, in another decade, we’ll still be fighting the war in one place.