In the spring of 2011, I was embedded with a platoon of Marines at Patrol Base Dakota, an abandoned mud-walled farming compound in northern Marjah, in southern Afghanistan. I slept in the courtyard, on a cot under a canopy of camouflage netting, and had just woken up one morning in early May when Sergeant Tom Whorl, the platoon sergeant, stepped from his room and walked toward a row of wooden outhouses. “Hey,” he called to me, “bin Laden’s dead.”
The Marines discussed this for two or three minutes and made a few jokes.
“There should be birds here to take us home,” Sgt. Jake Powell said.
“Yeah,” Cpl. Helmut Eggl said. “War’s over.”
And that was it. Conversation shifted to maps and radio frequencies as the Marines readied for the day’s first patrol into the surrounding farmland and villages, where they had been battling the Taliban since arriving at Patrol Base Dakota four months earlier.
Maybe Osama bin Laden’s death would hasten the end of combat in Afghanistan. But, in the meantime, their workday didn’t change; their little corner of the war was the same. They had been tasked with driving the Taliban from northern Marjah and facilitating the rise of a local government and a security force able to protect the people. That work would continue until their higher ups told them their mission was over.
Perhaps they would die trying to complete that mission. Two of them had already been killed, blown up by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which the Taliban had sewn in the roads, fields, and canals. One of the dead, Staff Sgt. James Malachowski, had been the platoon sergeant and Whorl’s close friend. So while he struggled privately with his own grief, he stepped into his dead friend’s role and the fight continued.
But that was the nature of their jobs. They were foot soldiers, following orders, and putting their lives in the hands of those who had given these orders, from their company commander all the way up to the general in charge of Afghanistan, General David Petraeus at the time.
Tom Whorl and his Marines had been inculcated with a culture of rules and regulations, with codes of conduct for living and fighting with honor, and the understanding that everyone up that chain of command sought to embody and live by those same principles.
Having watched Whorl lead his platoon in Afghanistan, and seeing his struggles once he returned home from the deployment, I recently asked him what he thought of Petraeus’s affair with his biographer, and the apparently inappropriate email communications of Marine General John Allen, Petraeus’s replacement overseeing the Afghanistan war.
“It’s a piss-poor breakdown of leadership,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a team leader or a four-star general. Your actions and directives and your personal life even are going to affect your men.”
“As a leader,” he said, “you’re held to a higher standard.”
Infidelity or stupid personal choices are hardly new to the military. But this is an issue of perceptions. Particularly in complicated fights like Afghanistan, when individual actions can have outsized effects with far-reaching repercussions, when protecting civilians is as important as killing the enemy, young soldiers need to know that the leaders preaching this need for discipline and integrity practice it themselves.
Will American troops die, or be less safe in Afghanistan and elsewhere because of the actions of Petraeus and Allen? Or Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, accused of affairs, sexual harassment, and sexual assault while in Afghanistan? Highly unlikely. But they owe more to the men and women fighting under them.
By playing around—even if just through flirty emails, in General Allen’s case—and knowing what would likely happen if their activities were ever dragged into public view, they did a disservice to the men and women under their command—both military service members and, for Petraeus, CIA operatives—many of whom were out risking their lives to implement the strategies these men had put in place.
Two men from Whorl’s platoon died during the deployment and a dozen were wounded. And many still battle with nightmares, strained family relations, and gnawing feelings of guilt over their friends’ deaths. But they accomplished their mission. Northern Marjah was much safer when they left, with far fewer attacks, a growing local security force, and several new schools—for boys and girls.
Now, as he waits to be medically retired from the Marine Corps after 13 years of service, Whorl wonders if the scandals might put those and other units’ gains in jeopardy, with investigations and wagon-circling pulling attention from the war. “Now, instead of dealing with major matters like our 2014 withdraw, the government has to backpedal,” he said. “We made so much progress. My Marines spilled so much blood to fix that place. For all the work we did, it’s frustrating that some of that could be lost because of our hypocritical leadership.”
“For that to be affected by a lack of morals and lack of ethics, it gets to me,” he said. “If they cared that much about the troops they were leading and handing down orders to, they wouldn’t have done it.”
Petraeus stepped down as head of the CIA the Friday before Veterans’ Day, which meant that attention over the next several days was (and still is) on him, not on those who better deserve it, those who have done the bleeding and the dying across this decade of war, who have watched dear friends die and come home to a citizenry so unaware of—if not disinterested in—where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing.
And yet, while we’ve been captivated with the unfolding mess, and the steady drip, drip, drip of tawdry details, American men and women are still dying in Afghanistan.
Like Captain James Nehl, killed by small-arms fire in Ghazni province on the day Petraeus resigned.
Or Staff Sgt. Kenneth Bennett, Sgt. Matthew Stiltz, Staff Sgt. Rayvon Battle, Specialist Joseph Richardson, and Sgt. Channing Hicks, all killed the following week by bombs and bullets as we collectively giggled and marveled over the bizarre linkages between a vapid Tampa socialite and two men carrying such huge responsibility for executing America’s War on Terror.
The Onion perfectly captured the absurdity and the shame of it with this headline last week: Nation Horrified to Learn About War in Afghanistan While Reading up on Petraeus Sex Scandal.
The mother of a Marine killed in Afghanistan last year told me she received a mountain of condolences after her son died, but also learned something about just how removed most Americans were from her reality. “I didn’t know,” one woman told her, “that we were still over there.”