There’s a photo that circulates on social media around the holidays of an American soldier in Afghanistan standing watch at an outpost. In the frame, you see his rifle, binoculars, and thermal scope resting atop the sandbags at his position, adjacent to an uneaten plate of holiday dinner. The photo was taken on Thanksgiving Day in 2009 in the northwest corner of Paktika province, but when flattened into a shareable image for social-media prayers and hectoring, it might as well be a Christmas dinner, too. If you don’t know which details to scrutinize, you might think it had happened recently.
I know the facts behind this image because I was in that same unit and on that same deployment nearly 10 years ago. And, in the intervening decade since that photo was taken, there hasn’t been a holiday season in which the United States was not at war. This is a fact so utterly banal that it barely warrants mention anymore. When that photo was taken, we’d been at war in Afghanistan for almost as long as the Soviet Union was.
If you’re in the military, holidays don’t matter. And it really doesn’t matter if your mission is feasible or sensible or justifiable, if you are serving under a Democrat or a Republican, you are equally hostage to symbolism and the expendability of bodies and lives in service thereof.
On the U.S.-Mexico border, about 6,000 active-duty troops just missed Thanksgiving with their families. President Donald Trump plans to extend their mission to aid in "crowd control, temporary detention and cursory search" into January, so it’s safe to expect similar media coverage when these service members are once again separated from their families on Christmas. The troops’ mission at the border is clearly futile; their primary task seems to be laying concertina wire and pushing stakes into the ground in the Rio Grande Valley, hundreds of miles from Tijuana, where the so-called “migrant caravan” waits at the border. These troops are, to use a doctrinal term from military parlance, playing fuck-fuck games, much like their compatriots abroad.
If you’re in the military, holidays don’t matter. And it really doesn’t matter if your mission is feasible or sensible or justifiable.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a show of force, and that doesn’t mean it’s not achieving its intended purpose. Trump deployed these soldiers because he wanted to play to reactionary fearmongering about a column of Central American refugees, all of whom have a legal right to apply for asylum. He’s sent the military because nothing could be a more potent symbol to his Conservative supporters — he’ll continue the American tradition of using the people they profess to venerate as a means of threatening the people they want most to see harmed.
This isn’t the first time that the U.S. has deployed the military for border guard — in 1997, under President Bill Clinton, this exact same sort of mission led to a team of Marines to stalking and killing a teenage American boy, in what they claimed was an act of self-defense after he fired two shots in their direction. They were never charged with a crime. If that barely concealed suggestion of violence isn’t concrete enough for you, consider that Trump also said, “If they have to, they're going to use lethal force. I've given the OK.” It means little that the units deployed are primarily military police and engineers, either. To the average civilian, that distinction means little and the message is clear: their presence is meant to signal force. The message became clearer still when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers fired tear gas canisters at asylum seekers near the California-Mexico border last month.
I’m struck by how everyone from policymakers to pundits — liberal and conservative — see a violent, militarized border as unstoppably natural — the same way they view America’s endless war abroad. We regret that they’re forcing us to tear gas children and build military fortifications around bridges in Texas. We wish we didn’t have to send Americans to fight and die in a 17-year quagmire that we’re absolutely going to lose. We just can’t do anything about it. Hey, we tear-gas our soldiers, it can’t be that bad, right?
A young friend of mine just deployed to Afghanistan, a junior soldier on his first enlistment. He’s 22 — he was in middle school when I was in combat — and he’s currently at a base where I spent time a few weeks after President Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. He sends me messages more or less every day, mostly cracking jokes about nightly mortar and rocket attacks (most of which land far away and are just an annoyance, but some of which come dangerously close). Sometimes they’re fulminating against the things that he’s seeing for the first time: racist graffiti in the latrines, creepy “Dear Soldier” letters from Christian grade schoolers, formations of overpaid civilian contractors lumbering around the bases. But, more than anything else, they’re just messages that ask, in a thousand different ways, “What the hell are we still doing here?”
Recent news in Afghanistan seems to indicate that the Taliban have the momentum. There will not be an end to U.S. involvement that excludes them. The longer we are there, the more Afghan civilians will die in the crossfire. This was the case in 2010, when I left Afghanistan. It was certainly the case after the much-vaunted troop surge failed to turn the tide of the war. We can’t win the war, but we keep sending people to fight it — in smaller numbers, with lower death tolls — so that we can stave off the inevitable photos of the Taliban recapturing Kabul. They eventually will, of course, but we’d rather the war drag on and claim more lives rather than admit it.
In this way, my friend’s deployment uncomfortably mirrors the experience of troops on the border. They are missing the holidays so that racists can have the privilege of letting Central American refugees know just how much they want to murder them; he’s there so that we can cling to an increasingly implausible sense of victory.
My friend will spend the holidays away from home. And when he returns to another familiar image — the deployment homecoming ceremony that’s played out endlessly across decades — he’ll simply trade one fortress for another, another wire to live behind, another guard tower facing out to promise violence and fear.