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They Held the Line
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They Held the Line

The sacrifice in Afghanistan was not in vain.

At this very moment, while most Americans watch the frantic evacuations from Kabul with a sense of distance and separation—with no personal connection to the tragedy unfolding before our eyes—hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens are suffering. Their numbers include many of the veterans of the war in Afghanistan, those who bled on Afghan battlefields, and the families of those who did not come home alive. 

Each of these individuals sacrificed; some paid the ultimate price. And yet Taliban flags fly. Al-Qaeda is resurgent. Women and girls are being sexually exploited and shoved back into medieval oppression. Yet another mass atrocity is unfolding before our eyes.

As I watch all this, I have flashbacks of my own, to the dreadful summer of 2014 when ISIS was rampaging through Iraq. As many readers know, I served in Iraq during the surge in 2007 and 2008. I was a squadron judge advocate for 2nd Squadron, Third Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Even though I was a JAG officer and thus outside the wire less than most of the cavalry troopers I served with, that deployment was easily the hardest year of my life. Separation from family was hard. The pace of operations was punishing. The stress was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Our deployment was difficult. But what made it most difficult was our losses. We experienced our first enemy contact in November 2007—just after we arrived at our base—and we faced some form of contact on an almost daily basis for months. I lost friends. I still think of them every day. And when Iraq began to crumble, and ISIS advanced, I felt sick to my stomach. Not so much for myself, but for the families of the fallen. 

I didn’t want them to think—not for a single moment—that their monumental sacrifice was in vain. It was not in vain in Iraq, and it has not been in vain in Afghanistan. The reasons relate to the purpose of sacrifice itself. 

A few months ago, my wife and son convinced me to watch the Terrence Malick movie A Hidden Life. It tells the true story of a young Austrian named Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic conscientious objector, husband, and father of four young girls who faced a guillotine rather than serve in the Wehrmacht. He served briefly in 1940 before being discharged to care for his farm, but when he was called up again in 1943, he refused. He’d experienced a religious awakening and declared that it was “impossible for him to be a Catholic and at the same time a National Socialist.”

He walked straight into death knowing that his sacrifice would not stop the Nazi war machine, knowing that he would leave behind a grieving wife and grieving children. Even worse, when he walked into death, he didn’t even experience the respect of his community or the admiration of his peers. In reality, his wife experienced “hostility and alienation” from her neighbors, and the government denied her a war widow’s pension. Yet will anyone at all say that his sacrifice was in vain? 

I could go on. Several years ago, the BBC published a story about the World War Two veterans that “France has forgotten.” It turns out that the story of France’s collapse in 1940 has long been incomplete. There were soldiers who fought like lions. Tens of thousands died, often in hopeless fights long after their lines were breached and Nazi tanks were streaming into the heart of France. In the middle of the piece this story touched my heart:

Philippe de Laubier, now in his 80s, has only vague memories of his father—an air force group commander called Dieudonne de Laubier. But the story of his death in May 1940 still inspires him.

“My father was flying these ancient bombers called Amiots. They were hopelessly old-fashioned.

“When the Germans put their pontoon over the river Meuse at Sedan, it was vital to throw everything at them. My father had just flown a mission and he was not supposed to go up again.

“But the thought of his squadron flying into such danger without him was unacceptable. So he stopped one of the Amiots as it was taxiing on the runway, and ordered one of the men off so he could take his place.

Philippe’s father died in one of the most notorious defeats in world history, flying an obsolete plane against a superior force. Yet no one should argue that he threw his life away. 

The purpose of sacrifice is not transactional. In other words, a sacrifice does not become “worth it” only if that sacrifice yields immediate, tangible returns—with greater returns necessary to justify a greater sacrifice. Instead, a virtuous sacrifice is transcendent. It’s an expression of duty and faith that has enduring power, and that power is often not fully perceived within our lifetimes. 

A person living in the first century could easily believe that Christ died in vain. His death utterly frustrated the political and military expectations of a messiah, of the “savior” that so many people longed for. Even his resurrection was but a rumor for many, completely unknown by most. 

By every single secular measure, the execution of Jesus by Roman authorities had a simple meaning—Rome had prevailed again. No one could foresee the arc of history. Yet we see now. And the arc of God’s providence, fueled by the sacrifice of saints, gives us enduring hope. The theologian Curtis Chang, put it well. “A hopeful stance towards sacrifice,” he said, “is embedded in the very fabric of our faith.” 

Taken together, our sacrifices tell a story. What and who we choose to die for defines a faith and defines a nation. The story of horrific sacrifice in the early church, of saints who were mocked, flogged, tortured, stoned, and even “sawn in two” demonstrated not just a commitment to an eternal truth and faith in eternal life, but also a commitment on this earth to an “upside-down” kingdom, where the last are first, where we bless those who persecute us, where we gain our lives by losing our lives.

The sacrifice in Afghanistan is different, of course, but it also tells a story. It tells the story of men and women who loved each other and died for each other. It tells the story of people who chose to leave hearth and home and place themselves in harm’s way to confront a terrible evil. It also tells the story, time and again, of American men and women who died to protect Afghan men and women. And if you think those sacrifices didn’t form bonds between people from very different cultures and very different faiths, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

Can you imagine a trust so complete that you would pass your small child into the arms of a soldier from a distant land? We can lament the mistakes and the failures that brought about that desperate moment while we also acknowledge the legacy of sacrifice that created that bond. 

As I watched that moment—and moments like it as desperate Afghans tried to reach the safety of American lines—I thought of former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s famous, impromptu “hold the line” speech to American troops in Afghanistan in 2017. 

“You’re a great example for our country right now,” Mattis said. “It’s got some problems. You know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, being friendly to one another; what Americans owe to one another.”

“You just hold the line” had a double meaning. Yes, it meant holding the line in the field of battle—something that American troops accomplished month by month and year by year for 20 long years since 9/11. But it also meant something else. “Hold the line” on honor. On duty. On demonstrating that there is an American institution that is not overcome by distrust and division. Hold the line on demonstrating that America is still a nation that possesses a deep reservoir of virtue and courage.

Our nation’s story is complicated. It always has been, and it always will be. Right alongside the valor and honor of the vast majority of the men and women who deployed to Afghanistan was a story of failure, corruption, and incompetence by all too many leaders in all too many institutions. But the story of American sacrifice endures. Its legacy remains. And the story it tells about the men and women who fought, who bled, and who died is one of profound importance. 

They did their duty. Their sacrifice has immense meaning. In their turn, and through their courage, they held the line. 

One last thing …

After last week’s essay, a reader sent along this song, by Porter’s Gate. It’s an expression of lament, longing, and hope. Christ will indeed drive out the darkness:

Author’s note: The original version misstated the method of Jägerstätter‘s execution. He was executed by guillotine, not firing squad. I apologize for the error.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.