As cities in Afghanistan fell to the Taliban like so many dominoes, many military veterans in Illinois and beyond who served in that war-torn country called up their compatriots.
They were looking for help in processing their evolving feelings about their mission.
On social media, many veterans of the conflict described their state of mind as various shades of complicated.
Some expressed fury at the rout of the corrupt, weak, U.S.-backed Afghan government, wondering why their friends were among the 2,000 members of the U.S. military who died in that country as part of an attempt to build a Westernstyle democracy there.
Many parents of fallen servicemen and women felt the same way.
There was no shortage of instant analyses of the stunning pictures of chaos Americans saw over the weekend.
“The failure to anticipate the rapid fall of Afghan cities is a huge intelligence failure,” wrote NBC News correspondent Richard Engel on Twitter, arguing that military commanders knew what was about to happen yet were ignored.
In The Washington Post, writer Gillian Brockell evoked the fall of Saigon in 1975. “History is repeating itself,” she wrote. And she hardly was alone in the expression of that sentiment.
Not just Vietnam came back into view, either, but also the Anglo-Afghan wars of 170 years ago, resulting in humiliation for the British in an eerily similar ending to what transpired this weekend.
In a Saturday statement, President Joe Biden justified his decision to pull forces out of the country by blaming the failure of the Afghan military: “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” he said.
“And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
Some historians and political analysts saw the cataclysmic weekend as evidence of the folly of nation building in areas long misunderstood by the U.S. and its allies and the rise of the Taliban as both relentless and inevitable.
Others argued that the human price likely to be paid now by the Afghan people, especially women and girls, especially those who had aided the U.S. and its allies in the conflict with the demonstrably brutal Taliban, was far too great to justify so brutally and rapidly calamitous an abandonment.
Biden and his sympathizers blamed prior presidents from Donald J. Trump to Barack Obama to George W. Bush.
Biden’s opponents argued that history will judge this past weekend as a signature failure of his young administration with severe implications for what will be possible in the future.
Some on the left argued that this was a crushing and defining defeat for the abiding Western colonialist mindset and, they said, about time, too.
Many on the right worried that the apparent defeat would weaken American moral standing around the world and motivate other authoritarian governments to attack disputed territory in the near future, believing a wounded America now would decline to become involved.
All of that is grist for the mill of argument, analysis, recrimination and learning.
But the first thoughts of this page are with those of our fellow Illinoisans who gave their time, their energy, their hearts and in some cases their lives for the multiyear U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Military service is demanding even when the outcome is victorious.
But when the mission ends in a finger-pointing muddle, veterans looking back on sacrifices in a theater of engagement are understandably filled with complicated memories.
America thankfully has overcome the demonization of those who served in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam; that is one of this nation’s signature nonpartisan accomplishments of the last decades.
But, especially given the images of evacuation by helicopter, the comparison of the impact on those who served in the two missions is inevitable.
Nonetheless, service means serving your nation at the time of its asking to the best of your ability.
Nobody can read the future, and Monday morning quarterbacks don’t win great victories for democracy and freedom.
Those in uniform are trained to obey their commanders and the elected politicians whose job it is to define America’s role in the world to the best of their ability in that moment.
Sometimes history vindicates their decision-making. Sometimes it does not.
Even though some have made the ultimate sacrifice. They cannot be brought back.
So not only do the pictures from Afghanistan not diminish those who served and lost their lives there, they should remind us of just how much they are owed by those of us who remained at home, safely out of this impossibly difficult mission.
It’s always a good idea to thank fellow Americans for their service.
But at this moment, when so much attention is elsewhere, when so much criticism is being attached to goals they were asked to reach, it’s especially important to thank those who served (and just left to serve) in Afghanistan.
They were there for us, and they need to know they are taken care of at home and appreciated. Given what just happened, more than ever.-Chicago Tribune