On December 14, 2010, The Public Forum considered “Afghanistan After America, America After Afghanistan.” Hosted by Alec Baldwin, the evening featured a tribute to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who had died the night before, by David Rohde, the journalist whose release from Serbian captivity he had negotiated, and who was later kidnapped by the Taliban; a roundtable of development experts on the future of Afghan society; and a conversation among young veterans of the Afghan war about the future of the U.S. military.
The Forum recently caught up with two of these veterans to talk about the last year in America’s wars: the death of Osama Bin Laden, the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and their own efforts to readjust to civilian life.
Matthew Hoh served as a Marine Corps captain in Iraq, then joined the State Department in Afghanistan, resigning his post to protest U.S. policy there. He is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. Matt Pottinger left a journalism career after 9/11 to join the Marines, serving a combat tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, and receiving the Bronze Star. He is now the CEO of the advisory firm China Six LLC. Their conversation was moderated by Jeremy McCarter, the director of The Public Forum. An edited transcript follows.
JEREMY McCARTER: Seven months ago, Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden. Matt Pottinger, you were supposed to have breakfast at Windows on the World [at the top of the World Trade Center] on the morning of 9/11. How did you react to the news that he was killed?
MATT POTTINGER: I got a text that night saying that he was dead, so I immediately walked down to the World Trade Center site, because I’d heard that people were congregating there. It was surreal: I ended up bumping into David Rohde.
JM: No way.
MP: It was bizarre. He’s there reporting, he’s taking notes, and I remember saying to him, “You know, out of this huge crowd of people here” -- of young people especially, there were a lot of college kids there who were little kids when 9/11 happened – “you and I are probably two of the people whose lives were most affected by 9/11”. It sent both of our lives in completely different trajectories from the direction we would’ve gone in.
I was glad Bin Laden was dead. His would-be followers have to ask the question, “What did Bin Laden achieve?” He killed thousands and thousands of people, most of them Muslims, but what strategic goals did he achieve? He didn’t turn over any governments. People who demonstrated in Tahrir Square and other Arab Spring states accomplished more through relatively peaceful protests than through his idea of terrorism.
So it was surreal to be there, but the jubilation I saw around us, I didn’t share in that. I had a real sense of how much was sacrificed over the previous ten years in trying to stop and kill him.
JM: The way that we’ve conducted that war has shifted lately. You famously quit the Foreign Service, Matt Hoh, because you objected to our strategy in Afghanistan. Have we gotten any smarter about what we’re doing there in the last year?
MATTHEW HOH: Well, I think collectively we have, because we’re recognizing that it makes more sense to go after terrorist organizations as they exist. Understanding them as groups that share an ideology, but that operate as individuals and small cells – I think we’ve seen that shift collectively. I think everyone points to the Bin Laden raid as the right way to do it.
But in terms of the big picture, Afghanistan is worse off now than it was a year ago -- in terms of the fracturing of the country, in terms of how far we are from a political process to end the war. Our relationship with Pakistan has been continuously deteriorating over the past year. We had that terrible incident a week or two ago where we killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. So now we’ve gotten to the point where the Pakistani troops on the border have missiles that can shoot down an aircraft, our aircraft, that are patrolling over an unmarked border, and miscommunications happen, etc., etc. So now we’re in this situation where, my God, the Pakistanis may shoot down one of our aircraft. And what level will that take us to next in our relationship with the Pakistanis?
MP: The way that I’ve been talking about this with friends is that the best-case scenario now is what we termed the Soviet defeat in the war. That was the Soviet Union pulling out of Afghanistan but leaving in place a government that was able to survive for a few years.
JM: Let’s talk about the other war: Iraq. U.S. military involvement is supposed to end in a couple of weeks. You both saw combat there – what does it mean to you that we’re leaving?
MP: It’s amazing to me that we’re going to be completely gone. What was the grand strategy for going into Iraq? As it was explained to us, it was to transform the Middle East. Now that transformation has happened, but I don’t think it had anything to do with our going into Iraq.
MH: This isn’t a period that we should just walk quietly away from and try to forget, as much as I would like to forget it, and I know Matt would, and lots of other guys would, and lots of families. I mean, this is a war that, when you stretch out the consequences to Americans, it’s pretty astounding, you know? 4,500 dead, over 30,000 physically wounded, a rate of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] somewhere in the range of 200,000, and that’ll only get worse with time. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the suffering that the Iraqi people sustained.
This week you had that terrible suicide bombing in Afghanistan, and The New York Times ran a very vivid, very stunning photo of a child standing amidst the carnage. It shocked a lot of people in the U.S. And I was shocked by it too, even having seen that stuff in person. But the fact that it was shocking ten years into this war shows the level of shielding that Americans have had from the conflict. The fact that most Americans don’t know anybody who has served, the fact that less than 1% of the country has served in the military during this time, that the war just doesn’t really come through on our television sets that much -- that’s another thing we should look at: how involved and how connected we as a public, as a community, as a nation are to these wars that are being waged overseas in our names.
MP: My proposal for that would be to get more veterans in the government. I’d like to see way, way more vets of these wars in Congress, in the White House as advisors, just trickling up through the executive branch and the legislature. I’m disturbed by the disconnect between the country’s military and the people that it is protecting.
JM: All right, so which – or both – of you guys is going to run?
MP: I would support Matt!
MH: Same thing– I will go door-to-door for Matt Pottinger any day.
JM: So if you feel like talking about it – okay if you don’t – but you were both in some hairy situations over there, as we discussed last year. How are you guys feeling now, just personally, about what you went through?
MH: I’m certainly a different person. I was overseas 7 out of 10 years, and when I was “home”, it didn’t really count. By the time I came back from Afghanistan the third time, I knew what it was like to come back. A friend invited me to go to a U2 concert, but I’d only been home for about 10 days, and I knew I couldn’t handle being in a building with that many people in it. A couple months later I was fine.
You know, I struggle with PTSD. It comes back every now and again. The best way I can describe what PTSD is like is it’s this wave that comes over you that puts you in a place of despair and depression that you’ve never dealt with before, and that’s very difficult to work through. But what I find is that those waves come far less frequently. It happened for me, over the last year, maybe once or twice. But I also know it’s going to continue to happen for the rest of my life.
I don’t like opening up what’s happening inside of me. That’s not a normal thing for me, or for most guys who joined the Marine Corps, but if it helps some guy or gal who’s reading this. . . . And I do think talking about it does help me. It still sucks, there are still things that hurt. Mine is all guilt-based.
MP: The PTSD that people feel, more often than not, is related to feelings of guilt.
JM: Survivor guilt?
MP: That’s definitely part of it. And other forms of guilt, about things that would’ve seemed inconsequential when the stakes weren’t really high. But whatever emotions you feel when your brain is bathed in adrenalin and stress hormones get hard-wired into you, and it becomes much harder to deal with what should, in hindsight, seem like minor incidents. Those cling and haunt you for a long time as well, the feeling that you failed at something.
MH: That’s exactly it. In my case, it’s a feeling of guilt based on my perception that I failed. Men are dead now because of that, in one specific instance, and every once in a while that comes up. You’re a guy, you’re a captain in the Marines, you don’t think you’d ever let people down, and then you find out that you do. And whether or not that was actually the case, that’s how I perceive it. I look at it objectively, and know I did everything that I could, but emotionally, that’s what I’m tied to.
It’s a whole gamut of different reasons why men and women suffer from it. But regardless, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a wound from going to war that warriors have experienced forever. You can get past it, you can make yourself whole, and you can continue the mission -- whether it’s still in the military or outside of it.
THE PUBLIC FORUM is a high-profile series of lectures, debates, and conversations, now in its second season. Curated by Jeremy McCarter, the Forum features leading voices in politics, media, and the arts. Alec Baldwin, Anne Hathaway, Cynthia Nixon, Sam Waterston, and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman have hosted its programs, which have featured the insights of Kurt Andersen, Carl Bernstein, David Brooks, Arianna Huffington, Bill Irwin, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Francine Prose, Stephen Sondheim, and young veterans of the war in Afghanistan -- plus performances by Anne Hathaway and Michael Cerveris, among others.