I first read “The Iliad” in high school. The translation my teacher handed out had a single photograph on the cover: American G.I.s on D-Day storming out of a landing craft onto Omaha Beach.
The subtext of this pairing wasn’t obvious to me, as a teenager. The rage of Achilles, the death of Hector and all those Greeks in their “black-hulled ships” seemed to have little to do with the Second World War.
Many years later, after having fought in two wars of my own, that image has come to resonate in a new way. If “The Iliad” served as an ur-text for the shape the ancient Greeks assumed their wars to take (Alexander the Great, for example, is said to have slept with a copy beneath his pillow when on campaign), then World War II has served a similar function in our society, framing our expectations of war, becoming our American Iliad. We still expect to be the good guys; we expect there to be a beginning, a middle and an end; and we expect that the war is over when the troops come home.
But that final expectation — that a war is only over when all the troops come home — has never really held true, not in World War II, and not today.
Among the myriad challenges inherited by the incoming Biden administration will be not only ending our nation’s longest ever war, in Afghanistan, but also clearly defining what ending a war actually means. The new president will be handed a less than durable peace negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban, as well as recent significant troop reductions.
And one of the greatest trials Joe Biden will face is a public not only expecting our soldiers back, but also conditioned to believe that wars are over only when the troops all return. If the goal is reducing all troop levels in Afghanistan to zero, we’re ensuring that the war will drag on for years to come, enshrining its status not only as America’s longest war but truly as America’s forever war.
Which returns us to “The Iliad,” to the importance of the narratives we apply to our wars, and to our long-held misconceptions about homecomings.
There are nearly 40,000 troops garrisoned in Western Europe; their presence has secured a generations-old peace in the countries where World War II was fought. We also station nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea in a decades-long effort to ensure stability in the region. Despite episodic violence and metaphorical saber rattling, no one would argue that these wars are ongoing, and most would concede that our presence has proved a much-valued source of regional stability that has made both the world and America safer and more prosperous.
Obviously, the situation in Afghanistan today is more volatile than Western Europe or East Asia. But U.S. troops stationed in-country have remained relatively safe in recent years. Four men died in Afghanistan this year. But in 2020, many more service members died in training accidents at Camp Pendleton alone. Indeed, since 2015, Defense Department training accidents have exceeded combat deaths worldwide. I raise this point not to sound callous about combat deaths, but rather to put them in a context that allows us to create sound policy.
Afghanistan in 2009 is not Afghanistan in 2020. Where once we were fighting to win a war, today we are fighting to sustain a tenuous peace. This is a distinction Mr. Biden should make to the entire country. That means, assuming conditions on the ground remain stable, decoupling the phrases “U.S. troops in Afghanistan” from “the U.S. war in Afghanistan.”
He should emphasize how our presence in Afghanistan stabilizes the region and assures U.S. interests abroad. He should also then explain that conditions for our forces in Afghanistan have changed over the years, that the work these troops are doing is different than the aggressive combat operations that characterized their presence a decade ago, thus announcing what so many already know: For us the war has all but ended.
The Bidens are a military family. Beau Biden’s military service, and his deployment to Iraq, has been a fundamental part of the family’s story. The president-elect likely understands that the psychology of a forever war is a fraught one, particularly for veterans and their families who’ve struggled for closure with a conflict that always simmers on a low boil in the background not only of their lives, but in American life writ large.
Unlike World War II, when veterans were welcomed home with ticker-tape parades, or even the Vietnam War, when stomach-churning images of Saigon’s evacuation at least gave veterans a moment to pause and declare the nightmare over, veterans of our generation’s wars have had no such closure. Mr. Biden ran on a platform of unity, asserting that this was “a time to heal” our country. Perhaps in the opening days of his administration he might pause and focus on the healing of veterans as a first step to a broader national healing.
Part of that healing will be reframing the war in Afghanistan. That means welcoming our veterans home from what, for some, has been a decades-long odyssey, not only of service in our forever wars but as veterans of wars that simply refuse to end.
It’s time to tell veterans that it’s over, that they (and we) no longer need to live in a state of perpetual war; for service members still deploying to Afghanistan, it is time to clarify that they are no longer prosecuting a war but advancing a peace. And who knows, if handled correctly, it might be the first step in ending our perpetual wars at home, too.
Elliot Ackerman, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of the novel Red Dress in Black and White and the forthcoming 2034. He is a former Marine and intelligence officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.