By Joe Quinn
Oct. 1, 2018
Mr. Quinn is a United States Army
In “The Real Lesson of Sept. 11,” an Op-Ed
published on the 17th anniversary of the attacks, an Army veteran, Joe Quinn,
demanded the end of the United States involvement in Afghanistan. He wrote
about enlisting in order to avenge his brother’s death in the World Trade
Centre and about the many lessons he learned about war, the most profound of
which was that “the people who killed my brother died the same day he did.”
Hundreds of readers commented with great
emotion on Mr. Quinn’s essay, so we asked him to address some of the ideas and
questions there. A selection of comments and Mr. Quinn’s responses follow. They
have been edited for length and clarity. — Rachel L. Harris and Lisa
Tarchak, senior editorial assistants
When I was a young child during the Vietnam
War era, I could not comprehend how a country could send its young men off to
be killed. Why not solve conflicts in a more civilized way? I had this
extremely naïve view that two leaders could fight over a chess match to decide
who would win. But the reasons for and against war are more complex than I can
comprehend, even now. — HN, Philadelphia
Q: What was
your understanding of the complexities of war when you joined the service? Do
you think those complexities register with civilians and lawmakers?
I’d like to first clarify that because of our current civilian-military divide,
I don’t think our senior military leaders are set up for success. There’s a
reason that in the United States there is supposed to be civilian control of
the military. The military is designed to take orders and meet objectives given
by civilian policymakers. In my essay, I made the sports analogy to Tom Brady
only wanting to play football on Sunday, because to a certain extent you want
military leaders to want to fight and meet military objectives.
The problem is that our civilian leaders,
and most of our population, have no skin in the game, and there’s an
ever-growing deference to the opinion of senior military leaders (many now wearing
suits instead of fatigues) when it comes to foreign policy.
My hope is that our leaders don’t act like
a 21-year-old from Brooklyn who wants to avenge his brother’s death, but that
they will be the adults in the room, develop a grand strategy to protect the
U.S., our allies and our interests and not fall for the sunk-cost fallacy,
where we are continuing to invest in Afghanistan because of costs already
I am a veteran, though I never faced
combat. I did see my friends and fellow soldiers go to Vietnam to fight. Many
died there. Of those who came home safely, I don’t think there was a single one
who wasn’t changed in some way by the experience, and not for the better. That
war accomplished nothing, other than destroy American families and blow a huge
hole in our economy. — KenF, Staten Island, N.Y.
Q: How did
your time in service change you?
war has certainly changed me — in some ways for the worse, and some ways for
the better. It’s surrounded me with persistent death and loss. At a young age,
that’s hard to shake. I remember in Afghanistan being really frustrated with
some of the attitudes of younger soldiers. Then it finally hit me: I’m an old,
tired veteran. I was 30 years old.
On the other side of the coin, which can be
harder to admit, war has also changed me for the better. In a word, it probably
comes down to perspective. The problems we face as Americans may seem
difficult. They are not. When you witness Afghans struggle with food, shelter
and security, it's difficult to get upset about the Wi-Fi not working on a
JetBlue flight that was delayed two hours.
It also taught me that our relationships
are the most important things in life. The family and friends I lost to war
make me cherish every moment I get to spend with the people I love. It also
made me braver and bolder. Before, I would never have had the guts to submit an
Op-Ed to The New York Times.
Having said all that, I'd trade it all in
to be with my brother and friends again.
Yesterday, I went with my husband, a
Vietnam veteran, to the V.A. hospital in Madison, Wis. I urge people to go to a
V.A. hospital sometime. You see firsthand young and old soldiers who have given
their lives in one way or another, and still pay a price, physically or
“Thank you for your service” — five words,
but pages and pages of thoughts behind that sentence. And where are we going
today with that service, as you point out? — MIMA, heartsny
Q: What kind
of challenges have you faced as a veteran, with regard to your recovery and
general, I believe that veterans of this generation are appreciative of the
treatment we receive, especially in comparison to the Vietnam generation, whom
we venerate and for whom we have the utmost respect. “Thank you for your
service” comes from a good place, but it’s meaningless if it’s not followed up
by serious interest in a veteran’s life and story and, more important, followed
up with actions for veterans’ care.
I carry a deep-seated sense of shame and
guilt that so many veterans have been killed or injured following 9/11. Many
are dealing with trauma and the invisible wounds of war. This is why I dedicate
my life to serving veterans through the Headstrong Project, which provides free
mental health treatment. We need to thank our veterans, learn their stories and
give them every asset imaginable to heal, recover and be a better version of
themselves that they never could have thought possible.
I see that in some bizarre iterations,
Vietnam now counts among our “victories.” Let’s not forget that in many wars,
the United States owned the skies and still couldn’t manage a victory. The
brilliant new plan for Afghanistan, announced during the 2016 election, doesn’t
seem to be much better than any of the previous plans, or much different. Nor
will the outcome, I dare to predict.
Give peace a chance. — Jurassic knockabout,
Q: Can any
side be truly victorious in a war? Are there any sacrifices, including your
own, that could be justified by a victory?
would first point you to the Powell doctrine, which is based on the Weinberger
doctrine, but ultimately asks the same questions. As policy, Colin Powell asks
eight questions before committing to military action (a doctrine he may have
forgot about in the run-up to the Iraq war, but it’s useful nonetheless). You
can read them yourself, but two questions are as follows: Do we have a clear,
attainable objective? Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless
entanglement? In Afghanistan, the answers to those questions are clearly no.
I will not address my sacrifices, as they
pale in comparison to the sacrifices of friends who have given life, limb and
mind to the cause, but we shouldn’t use the word victory. Instead, use words
like “strategy” and “attainable objectives.” Over the course of 17 years and
three administrations, our senior leaders have failed to give our troops a
sound strategy with attainable objectives and a clear exit plan.
I, too, feel the senselessness of the war
in Afghanistan. But what, then? Let the Taliban retake control, which is
inevitable if we leave? Won’t they do what they did before — let the country
become a factory for terrorism all over the world? Protected by a friendly
regime, ISIS and Al Qaeda would not be fighting for their lives but doing what
they say is their mission: killing infidels all over the world. Is that what we
must accept? — Horace, Detroit
Q: If we
pull out of the war in Afghanistan, are we accepting defeat? How do you see the
U.S. stepping out of the conflict? Is there a peaceful way forward?
Quinn: As I
said in answering the previous question, we shouldn’t speak in terms of victory
or defeat, but of attainable objectives. In the lead-up to your question, you
said, “Let the Taliban retake control, which is inevitable if we leave?” First
of all, I’d say it wouldn’t be inevitable, especially around city centres of
Afghanistan, but the fact that many feel it’s inevitable speaks volumes to the
lack of confidence in Afghan forces. And what good does it do for the International
Security Assistance Force to prop up these forces in perpetuity?
You also mentioned that if we left, ISIS
would take safe haven under a friendly Taliban regime, but the truth is that
the Taliban hate ISIS more than we do. Additionally, we continue to fear a safe
haven for Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda has had a safe haven in the Federally
Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for the
last 17 years. Osama bin Laden lived comfortably in a suburban town of Pakistan
called Abbottabad, where his home was a stone’s throw away from the Pakistan
Military Academy. Let’s be clear that Al Qaeda was the terrorist organization
with the international ambition to strike the U.S. with 15 of its hijackers
coming from Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t the Taliban.
Although not ideal (war never is), there
will be a continuing clash between the Taliban and the current Afghan
government, and it’s up to the Afghan people to decide their destiny, without a
kid from Brooklyn being in the middle of it.