After more than 10 years of fighting, the news from Afghanistan continues to be tragic. Within the last several days, six more of our troops and a female State Department official were killed.
Nothing has significantly changed in the country since our 2001 invasion, announced as a counter-terrorist campaign. Afghanistan remains an Islamic tribal culture that’s defied foreign intervention for centuries. And for all practical purposes, the United States will effectively abandon the undertaking next year with no clear outcome or reasonable justifications for the gross expenditure of American blood and treasure.
The single most important aspect of military leadership, particularly for field commanders, is to have a clearly defined mission. Observing the dynamics of the war, one cannot ignore the history of mission-creep, muddled, obfuscated and confusing strategic and tactical concepts. This is not to demean or dishonor those who have sacrificed so much to follow the constantly changing orders of their superiors in a war that will ultimately be declared not worth the price and an exercise in futility.
More now than ever, my thoughts are with the soldiers who are still being deployed, knowing full well they might well end up as the last casualty as we withdraw. I found myself confronting that possibility some 60 years ago as the Korean War wound down.
North Korea’s current strident belligerent posturing reminds me of my enlistment in the Army paratroopers at age 18 in the spring of 1953. A cease fire in the three-year struggle between North Korea and South Korea precipitated a major commitment of U.S. forces to defend the South — and a massive Chinese Communist involvement in support of the North — was being negotiated in Pyongyang, North Korea. The prevailing mood seemed to indicate the prospects for an armistice agreement were at hand.
So, when I headed for basic training with the 10th Mountain Division at Ft. Riley, Kan., in the fall 1953, I had no expectations of being sent to Korea. I already signed up, received an enlistment commitment to undergo Ranger Airborne Training and an assignment to a paratrooper unit after basic. In early 1954, I was sent to Ft. Knox, Ky., for advance infantry training (AIT) with the 3rd Armored Division. When word went out that one could take the test for admission to Officer Candidate School (OCS). I signed up with nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, despite the so-called negotiated cease fire, there were frequent skirmishes and other provocative incidents along the 38th Parallel between patrols from the North and South. The Demilitarized Zone, as it is today, was a war zone and a flash point for renewal of the major conflict.
Early one morning in the spring of 1954, I was called into the orderly room. The first sergeant handed me orders accompanied by, “Ayers, pack your gear, draw a weapon from the arms room, you’re going to Korea.”
I was dumbfounded. Apparently there was big trouble on the DMZ and emergency replacements from various units were being assembled ad hoc to bolster the troops stationed there. Less than 24 hours later, I was wedged into a C-124 Globemaster packed with young soldiers, none of whom I knew, in full World War II combat gear, for the seemingly endless flight to Seoul. It was a flight from hell, with only cold C-rations for food, the toilets overflowing; full airsickness bags everywhere and nowhere to lie down no matter how bad one felt. We were allowed out of the plane for a smoke break and to stretch only once when we landed in Hawaii to refuel.
Groggy from the extended trans-Pacific flight, we assembled on the tarmac after landing in Seoul in the early dawn. I had lost track of time. The NOO in charge called roll. My name, ending in A, was one of the earliest called. With my response, “Here”, the NOO stopped. Pointing to a Quonset building across the tarmac, he barked, “Sgt. Ayers, report immediately to the operations office for orders.” What orders? Why me?
So, I slung my M-1 on one shoulder, heavy duffle bag on the other, broke ranks and started across the ramp. Exhausted from the flight, it seemed a mile away. As I half stumbled along lugging my gear, my thoughts returned to what had been on my mind since leaving Ft. Knox. I always prayed when going into the unknown. The surprise orders to Korea where just that. Despite the occasional incidents at the DMZ, I believed the war was ending and, while I had no reluctance to perform my duty, I did not want to be the last casualty as my country pulled out of the still divided Korea.
I inverted my rifle, dropped the duffel outside the door of the building, my heart thumping, and went in expecting the worst. A master sergeant was at a desk. I identified myself with my dog tags and told him I’d been told to report to his office. He shuffled through a stack of papers.
“Ayers, you’re going back to the Knox. There’s been a screw up. You’ve been accepted at Officer Candidate School at Benning to report in July,” he said, as he handed me the teletype order and added, “Gets some rest, get cleaned up in the transient barracks behind this building. Be back here for a commercial flight to the States by 0900 the day after tomorrow.”
At first, there was only disbelief, numbness and a silent prayer of thanks. Seventy-two hours later, after a relatively comfortalbe Pan Am charter flight, I was in my bunk at Ft. Knox, head spinning with the events of the past week, but ready and eager to press on.
When I checked in at the orderly room Ft. Knox the first sergeant said, “It’s best you don’t discuss this mix up with anyone.”
Following his instructions, I never learned what the emergency deployment was all about or what happened to the rest of the men.
The American people unanimously want our leaders to withdraw our forces in the coming months from an admittedly flawed counter insurgency, strategic and tactical foreign engagements. In earlier times, generals who would have advocated and been responsible for such colossal military blunders as Iraq and Afghanistan would have had their heads removed or been, at the least, asked to resign.
The question must be on the minds of all the troops in Afghanistan or those yet to be deployed there as the withdrawal is in progress, as it was in mine on the flight to Korea: Who will be the last casualty in this war of unresolved purpose. Lord, please don’t let it be me.
Brad Ayers, a Stillwater native, is a regular contributor on these pages. He is a former Army Ranger, special operations officer having served with the CIA and DEA in a variety of covert and paramilitary assignments. He is 78 years old, semi-retired and resides in a wilderness area near Frederic, Wis.