One backward glance

On 30 August 2021 America's "leader of the free world" role appears to have dissipated with the vapor trail of the last plane leaving Afghanistan.  It may take decades of mea culpas to renew the trust of allies.  What America once was among nations may never be again.  What America will become remains to be seen.

In the dark days ahead, there will always be one shining candle that Americans can look to with pride.  America's frontline warriors are not at fault for the Afghanistan debacle.  History shows when let loose on the battlefield, our warriors bring hell and death with them.  In Afghanistan, it was feckless political leadership that betrayed those warriors, but their reputation and legacy as the world's best remain strong.

Let the world take note that our warriors' last great acts in Afghanistan were not ones of hell and death, but of compassion and hope.  For me, the Kabul embassy surrender photo will not be the thumbnail that bookmarks my memory of our last days in Afghanistan.  Two photos better capture those days: one of a Marine gently lifting an infant over razor wire into the safety of the airport and another of a Marine (one of thirteen who died during the mission) cradling an infant. 


Those infants go to a better life in America.  The thirteen dead warriors go to military funerals across America, where ghosts of warriors past will greet them, proclaiming: "You done us proud." 

In 1970 Vietnam, the site of our politicians' last great surrender, Major Michael Davis O'Donnell wrote this timeless poem in memory of friends who had recently died in battle.  Two months later, it became his epitaph when Major O'Donnell died piloting a helicopter attempting to rescue a special forces unit operating behind enemy lines.

Therein lies a battlefield truth that many fail to understand.  Sent by politicians to distant lands to kill an enemy, many front-line warrior deaths occur in attempts to save others.  It is these pure deeds in death that define them.  Their humanity, as depicted in the "Marine saving infant" photos, should dominate our memories of them.

The quest for justice for the Afghanistan fiasco can wait — for now, we bury our dead.  It is fitting that we remember them with this warrior's poem penned fifty years ago.  In your thoughts, strive to make every day Memorial Day, and give those who died at Kabul, and the many who died before them, one backward glance.

If you are able
save them a place
inside of you
and save one backward glance
when you are leaving
for the places they can
no longer go.
Be not ashamed to say
you loved them,
though you may
or may not have always.
Take what they have left
and what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it with your own.
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind.

Major Michael Davis O'Donnell

1 January 1970

Dak To, Vietnam

J. Michael is the pen name of an old soldier.

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