A Missive & Reply about “Leaving Leatherneck”

The below email from a USMC officer and my response are in reference to my article, Leaving Leatherneck, an abridged version of which was published in The American Prospect.

I am writing you in response to your article titled “Left for Scrap at Camp Leatherneck”. BLUF: I think your article tarnishes the efforts of many American men and women. Our nation has expended enormous treasures and altered precious lives throughout this conflict. I ask you a simple question, what more could our country do for Afghanistan? We BUILT the ANDSF (with NATO help), however flawed they may be. We CONSTRUCTED their governmental and military infrastructure (Shorabak, BAF, KAF). We LOST precious American men and women on the field of battle in support of our nation’s ideals and Afghan security. You seem to lose sight of those sacrifices, because we did not leave them behind a few computers at one base. We constructed and maintained(still do) their communications infrastructure. Innocent Afghan lives have been lost, no question, and the consequences of war reach far and wide. However, to tarnish the efforts our country has made is a gross miscalculation.

Furthermore, your assessment on “America’s business of war” based off your six months on a cushy base in the middle of the desert is naive and ill informed. However, you seem to write like you saw American troops in actions across Afghanistan. Had you seen that, or even a fraction of it, you might have more credibility to speak about the problems that have plagued the American effort in Afghanistan. Until then, it is inappropriate to address strategic and operational issues about how the war has been run.

In general, I think open and honest discourse about the war in Afghanistan is valuable and needed. That being said, to spew vitriol towards the American military and our efforts in Afghanistan is misaligned. I also recognize the fraud, waste, and abuse that has accompanied our efforts in Afghanistan. Sadly, and not mentioned in your article, is a large portion of that waste can be traced to gross corruption and misuse by the ANDSF and Afghan governmental entities. We can give them the keys to the Ferrari but they choose whether to use it or not.

Lastly, as a fellow Marine Officer, I am disheartened by the manner you have chosen to address these issues. Your discernment is characterized by bitterness and vitriol. Pride and humility are not mutually exclusive. It is acceptable to be proud of your nation’s service and understanding of its deep flaws. When approached with that type of mindset, and with the ability to observe actions objectively only then can you begin to understand an issue.

I hope you will have pride in your military service in the future and in the service of those around you. I also hope you will have pride in your nation and seek to make it a better place in the right manner, not one that creates division and bitterness.

Camp Leatherneck in April 2011. (Satellite photo by DigitalGlobe Inc./ Released by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) via Washington Post

Hello John,
Thank you for reading my article and reaching out-I was happy to see an email leading with a “BLUF.” You may not have gotten to the last few paragraphs, though, where I talk about the Americans who died and question, given the Washington Post’s recent reporting on the dishonesty of the US government’s reporting of the war’s progress, what their deaths were in service of. Questioning the leadership that sent them to their deaths under false pretenses does not denigrate the servicemembers following their orders, and I am disappointed you did not detect that in my writing about the risk of outside the wire controlled detonations. While I do feel servicemembers are both complicit in and victims of the US “business of war” (more on that in a minute), one of the motivations for writing this was because 2.4k Americans and 1k of our allies will not be celebrating Christmas with their families. 20k alone were injured (unlikely this figure includes mental injuries). 

I do not disagree with your points regarding the Afghan government’s corruption and complicity-you are absolutely right, but (to use your words) my deployment to a “cushy base in the middle of the desert” did not expose me to that-I wrote only my direct observations about logistical stupidities. Regardless of whether you read this in The American Prospect or the much longer version on my site, I am curious where you feel I’m misleading readers that I “saw American troops in action across Afghanistan,” as I clarify I was a true POG who never fired my weapon and stayed on base. Either way, Leatherneck was so clearly a microcosm of what was going on throughout the country, if not other theaters (I’ve read a few reports about blowing up our own equipment in Iraq, as well). I’m not sure why you think that because I had not toured all of Afghanistan my observations are obsolete. Leatherneck was not an anomaly to the enormous contracts enriching defense contractors to do work we already have the organic capability to do, maintaining equipment the US government legally cannot fix itself, and building unnecessary stuff. One of the reasons Leatherneck was a cushy base in the middle of the desert was because we hired tens of thousands of civilians to do lots of things we didn’t need, or things we could do ourselves.

Although we constructed the government and military infrastructure (without computers!), the ANA was poorly trained and disciplined. It was widely understood amongst the Marines on Leatherneck (this is particularly informed by my time as an LNO at 1/2) that trying to make an army styled after the US out of young Afghan men was ridiculous, and the ANA would not be able to continue the US mission of fighting the Taliban. Drawing from a population traumatized by the previous years of military action (and not just since 2001) with drug problems, limited education, questionable loyalty to the government it was supposed to be serving, and cultural differences was not a recipe for success. This is evidenced by the 60k+ Afghan security forces who have been killed, but the construction of the governmental and military infrastructure certainly enriched the private contractors paid to build it. We gave them keys to a Ferrari, yes, but they didn’t know how to drive. We knew the ANA could not manage these infrastructures or their mission-but they were built anyway to give the illusion of progress.

I am disheartened you think my writing this was not rooted in a desire to improve the US and to rectify the deep flaws of the American military. I am glad that you also believe open discussion about the war in Afghanistan is imperative. This was my attempt at shedding a small amount of light on the amount of grift and waste, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of total deaths in this war, which I am unapologetically bitter and furious over. How could anyone with a brain and a heart leave anger out of a discussion regarding a $2 trillion futile endeavor pushing into its 3rd decade with hundreds of thousands of lives lost? Accusing a critic of the military of not caring about her country and “being divisive” is an substance-less dismissal of the arguments of a citizen who would like to see her tax dollars (and the tax dollars of these enormous contractors, if they barely pay any) better invested in education, infrastructure, healthcare, protecting the environment, and building opportunities for everyone rather than destroying far-away lands Americans neither know nor care about. You are obviously informed about the fraud, waste, abuse, corruption, and scale of human life destroyed-the far and wide-reaching consequences of war-but seem to accept them as inevitable collateral damage. I think we can do better. What should happen next and how to fix this crisis is beyond me and above my paygrade, but what’s going on now is not the answer.

Thanks again for reading and contacting me. In the spirit of open discussion, I plan to add your email and my response on my site. I can identify or leave you anonymous, and post an accompanying photo if you have one in mind. Let me know what you prefer, and if you’d like a 1-2 sentence bio to introduce yourself to readers.

Christine Hannigan