Harvard has a long and storied history of students’ wartime sacrifices for the United States — one that is honored inside the Memorial Hall transept and Memorial Church. However, notably fewer names will likely be inscribed from our more recent conflicts in the Middle East, in comparison to most major conflicts in American history. Many Harvard graduates in these historical wars have made the ultimate sacrifice — indeed, Harvard has graduated more Medal of Honor winners than any university besides the service academies — but fewer have in the most recent conflicts.
Next October, the war in Afghanistan will turn 18 years old. For almost every student in the College, the war has been a fixture of political discussion our entire life, and for most members of Harvard’s Class of 2023, it’ll be a war that has been going on for their entire life.
The war would be able to drive, buy cigarettes in most states, serve on a jury, and vote. Ironically, this is a war that no American voted for and a sizeable majority supports withdrawing from. Nonetheless, almost 9,000 soldiers remain deployed in Afghanistan — a number that excludes military contractors upon which the United States increasingly relies upon — and it is very likely that these soldiers will remain there into the future.
Our involvement overseas is not limited to Afghanistan. Despite no formal declarations of war since World War II, the United States currently has almost a quarter-million troops deployed abroad. Some of these troops are stationed at peacetime bases in allied countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan, but others come under fire daily.
The tranquility Americans enjoy at home is not extended to our troops engaged across the Middle East and in Northern Africa. Troops in these foreign conflicts put their lives at risk every day, and yet there is little accountability for where they are, when they will leave, and why they’re there: The location of almost 40,000 troops remains classified by the Pentagon, and as journalist and academic Steve Coll puts it in a New York Times op-ed, “President Bush, President Barack Obama and President Trump have all offered convoluted, incomplete or unconvincing answers to [an] essential question: Why are we in Afghanistan?”
Ultimately, the lack of clarity surrounding these deployments has real consequences and has cost many service members their lives. Over the course of the war on terror, almost 7,000 soldiers have lost their lives and more than 50,000 have come home wounded. As long as we continue to place our troops into conflicts, the casualties will continue to occur and their number is no longer decreasing. In fact, military casualties are on the rise this year for the first time since 2012.
Just this week, three American service members were killed by a roadside bomb. Those lives have become added to the ever-growing list of promising individuals sent overseas only to come back wounded, scarred, or not at all. Though these figures were reported on evening news broadcasts, they will fade from the news cycle almost as quickly as they came up.
However, the deployments will not fade out.
The war in Afghanistan and our greater engagements overseas are part of a new normal that those of us stateside are privileged enough to ignore. Technological advancement and changes in warfare have enabled us to fight on an increasing number of fronts with an ever-decreasing number of soldiers. While this has increased our readiness and ability to respond to threats, it has also enabled us to engage in more conflicts and deploy our troops more broadly across the globe.
When will we ask ourselves where these overseas engagements should end?
More importantly, how many American lives will be lost needlessly and thousands of miles away before we decide to withdraw from wars outside our dominion and before we become more deliberate about our use of force?
Rather than having a military-based foreign strategy, we should grow our diplomatic presence abroad: The face of the United States should not be a soldier with a gun but a diplomat with the promises of democracy and the support of U.S. aid.
It’s time for us to draw down our engagement around the world and bring our young service members home. The end of the war in Afghanistan and of our other needless military engagements is well overdue. If we have not declared war or committed troops as part of an international mission, our troops should not be placed in harm’s way.
We have the moral imperative to use our soldiers, many of whom are not much older than many of us at the College, in a judicious and responsible manner, because they’re more than just figures — they’re people, they have families, and they’re irreplaceable human lives.
Patrick C. Barham ‘21, a Crimson Editorial comper, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.