December 21, 2016:- At this time of year I honor the memory of Sergeant Steven Checo of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose name I first read in the newspaper around Christmas 2002. I was 36, which is about the age he would have been now had he lived.
But Sgt. Checo lost his life on December 21, 2002, after a firefight in southeastern Afghanistan, the sixteenth US serviceman to die in combat in that war. As I sat in New Hampshire, safe, warm, comfortable, and surrounded by my loved ones, I wrote his name in a notebook and promised not to forget him. At that point, Christmastime 2002, America was committed to defeating the enemy that had attacked us on 9/11.
Fourteen years on, we hardly dare refer to the enemy as the enemy, still less give it its name. It has a name, and it is not “violent extremism.” Our enemy is the armed doctrine of Islamic supremacism, whose practitioners are burning, butchering, and blasting their way across West Asia, North Africa, Europe, and North America. In Afghanistan, we started to fight back. That is why Sgt. Steven Checo was there.
But in December 2009 President Obama announced that in 2011 we would start “transitioning” (i.e. pulling out) of Afghanistan. Addressing those who questioned the wisdom of telling the enemy exactly when we would be leaving he said that his questioning opponents “would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests.” Understandably, our enemies took that to mean that the United States considered one decade too long a commitment.
Whatever President Obama meant by the words “goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests,” there can be no doubt as to how the other side construed them: America is leaving the field of battle before victory, which equals surrender. And rather than sitting and waiting for our troops to leave, they got busy. More American servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan in the seven years since the President’s announcement (approximately 1,900) than in the eight years before it (approximately 1,500).
On June 22, 2011, two years after announcing when our withdrawal would begin, President Obama announced when it would end. He declared that the pullout from Afghanistan would be complete by 2014. Then, referring to both Afghanistan and Iraq, he added, “We take comfort that the tide of war is receding.”
Is it receding in Iraq, which – according to the President in 2011 – we left in a “stable, sovereign, self-reliant” condition? The question seems too macabre to pose, even rhetorically. But, for the sake of clarity, the answer is no. Nor is the tide of war receding in Afghanistan. It is not even starting to ebb. During the course of 2011 approximately 3,000 Afghan civilians died in the war. The figure for 2015 was closer to 3,500, the overwhelming majority at the hands of the adherents of Islamic supremacism.
In Europe too, the war flows on. That is why the words Bataclan, Nice, Saint Étienne-de-Rouvray, Nantes, Brussels, and now Breitscheidplatz bring to mind the carnage of a battlefield.
A similar word association affects us over here: Boston Marathon, Chattanooga, San Bernardino, Orlando, Ohio State. When we hear or read those place names nowadays we remember them as the sites of Islamist attacks. In 2013 bombers murdered four people at the Boston Marathon, including 8-year old Martin William Richard; in July 2015, a jihadist murdered four U.S. Marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, among them Gunnery Sergeant Thomas K. Sullivan of Springfield, Massachusetts; five months later, two jihadists slaughtered 14 people in San Bernardino, California; and in June 2016 a jihadist ended 49 lives, turning the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, into a charnel house. The only reason the life of the crash-and-slash attacker at Ohio State University in November 2016 ended before he managed to take anyone else’s was the serendipitous presence of an armed campus police officer who happened to be nearby responding to reports of a gas leak.
Obviously the tide of war is not receding, nor can it. War cannot “recede.” The tidal metaphor is fundamentally inapt. War is not – nor does it resemble – a force of nature dependent on the gravities and movements of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. It is a uniquely human activity, and it goes on and on until one side succumbs or surrenders.
Fourteen years ago, Sgt. Steven Checo gave his life for this country and for the cause of freedom, fighting an enemy that despises both, at the outset of a war that continues to this day. As President Obama said in 2013, “This war, like all wars, must end.” True enough. But as another leader put it in 1940, “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
It is time to end the war against Islamic supremacism. Not by evacuations, but by winning.