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Freedom's Sacrifices

Freedom's Sacrifices

On the complicated nature of serving and sacrificing for your beliefs.

Steve Deal

A stand for freedom of belief can occur in the most unexpected places. Recently, I found myself engaged in the ritual of visiting my eighty-six year-old father at his retirement home. He lives modestly there; looking down upon us were wedding day pictures of my late mother and him from a bygone era, set off by the beige curtains of a cramped living room backdrop. 

As I gazed, my thoughts went to how some might believe freedom of belief and thought are better understood today than for those alive on September 1, 1962, in a racially divided, American Cold War state of hubris. The nation then was famously ready to “fight any foe” who dared thwart such freedom, yet not quite prepared to fully defend the creed that fired such dreams of freedom within.

My younger brother arrived and we chatted haphazardly as families do, my father soon falling asleep at the hum. An attendant announced that Thanksgiving lunch would soon be served in the cafeteria. I volunteered to stay as my brother, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, a faith that refrains from national holidays, rose to leave. He gently reminded me that, as I was disfellowshipped from the church, it would be a violation of their beliefs if I ate with our father.  

It had been some time since I heard this refrain. Having permanently left Jehovah’s Witnesses at age nineteen when I became a naval officer candidate at college, I understood the implications of being spiritually dead and unclean to them. Encountering these memories and feelings again some thirty-seven years later, I forced myself to change the subject and soon made my exit.

As I left, my brother apologized for the awkwardness–I thanked him by replying that I had committed my lifetime of active duty in uniform to the defense of all beliefs, and that I was proud to have defended his as well.  

On the two-hour drive back to Washington, D.C., I wondered aloud how any God might be laughing at this campy moment. I recalled the same thought I’d had as I left an Army mobile trailer on a base in Tallil, Iraq, in March 2008. I had just watched my mother’s funeral online–merely minutes after attending a joint service for three soldiers who had been killed by indirect fire days before.

At the end of the solemn yet patriotic military funeral on base, those of us in command were invited to drop our challenge coins in three pairs of empty boots. The experience stood in contrast to my mother's service with Jehovah's Witnesses, where ministers stiffly read her obituary from a newspaper and gave a short talk about the afterlife. The differences could not have been more striking. Walking back to the barracks, I shouted my grief and anger at the sky, questioning how any god could allow for so much indifference and tragedy. 

In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, commanding a provincial reconstruction team, I often spoke of being ready to die for the beliefs of others with whom we might never agree. A far cry from George Patton, to be sure, who famously remarked that an American soldier’s duty was to make the enemy die for their cause, not the soldier for his own. More than a decade later and now tempered by the horrors of war, I realize I was projecting my own views upon others who may have rightfully doubted that our counterinsurgencies could prevail.  

What a complicated thing it is to be ready to die for your country’s national security objectives. In a counterinsurgency school in Kabul, I awoke one night as Afghan teenagers, hired as interpreters, huddled in a bunk bed next to me and giggled at videos of ghastly beheadings at knifepoint. I laid awake in bed, not so much startled by the dark behavior, but processing the dissonance of strategic objectives which awaited.

On my first day in command, we banned pork from our dining facility except on Fridays, when we ensured the Afghans who normally cooked and washed for us were home and able to worship without guilt. Walking from village to village in Khost province, Afghan police in green Ford Rangers occasionally tried to run me and my colleagues down at high speed. Once, invited by the provincial governor (and unplanned), I left the safety of our armed convoy to plant ceremonial trees during a Nowruz celebration. Then there was the time our team returned a dead Afghan teenager to a police station near his home so that he could be buried by his family according to Islamic belief—he’d been shot after he and others were caught placing an improvised explosive device on the side of a road.  

The intent of these actions was not often agreed upon by my teammates, to be sure. But they executed that intent anyway, as the poet wrote, signed with their honor

To this day, I try to convince myself that I had a higher purpose of mission in mind: to prove to these seemingly forlorn people, living in constant wartime conditions two hundred years or more in the past and yet still resilient, that the United States of America was nothing like the Taliban, nor the Soviets, nor the British, nor the Persians, nor the Mongolians; nor even the Greeks and countless others who had overrun their villages, leaving behind topographical names, poetry, discarded weaponry, and the odd set of green or blue eyes. The American creed of freedom was alive and well in my mind. As an intellectual and spiritual immigrant to that creed, I must have seemed to some like a zealot of new conversion. And yet these Afghans, needing nothing from me, exuded a special happiness and contentment I had rarely known.

Senior civilians and military officials would visit our outpost along the porous ratlines of the Pakistani landscape and ask about strategy. Soon I realized we were often making it up ourselves as we went. My answers recorded then make me proud but also wince, today. Whatever we could do to lead our troops and brace them for danger, in daily attempts to make Afghans believe that their collection of disparate tribes and tongues was Islamic, unified, and capable of providing essential resources (justice, education, water, medicines and aid)—was the strategy. Famously not a strategy, was our ill-placed hope that Afghans in turn would help us to ensure that their lands would never again be used as training grounds for attacks against the United States. 

How American to believe that the hopes of others–and through those hopes, our own future national security–could be purchased by means of some market imagined from afar.

The money we gave to Afghan contractors in these pursuits largely ran through the fingers of the Taliban, and we knew it. For those of us lucky enough to have studied war, the refrain of Clausewitz ran through our minds: “The greatest and most important task for any statesman is to understand the nature of the war he is in, and not to mistake it for another.” Yet it didn’t take much study for a young woman or man from Southie or Brooklyn in uniform to understand we had already failed at the task, long before we had even arrived. 

Near the end of our ten-month tour, I felt the best way to bring everyone home with honor and without further injury was to finish strong in discipline and rigid in combat posture, and simultaneously, to carefully meter our remaining exposures to risk. Those who desired their combat devices for posterity had earned them. I decorated every member of the team I could. And then we went home. 

Our finest moment happened shortly after we left. We were able to help two Afghan advisors who had served with us in Khost, and their families, come to the United States, long before our national exit occurred in 2021. And yet I am not close to them today. I thought I came to help them live better lives, to sacrifice for their right to believe. How they were using their freedom they earned wasn’t something I felt I needed to further pursue.  

I was and am still convinced that the framework of American freedom, as flawed as it may be, is still the best opportunity in the world for these Afghans and their families. It was worth fighting for. I am proud of what we, our military and civilian teams, did out there, and of how we conducted ourselves. They—we—did return with honor, and for those who could not return, our nation owes their families incalculable debts of love and support. It is a testament of the greatness of this nation that its citizens volunteer to serve, placing themselves at risk not for a religion, nor for a single leader, but for the finest cause that has motivated people to serve in this history of the world. 

The question is not whether commitment to a creed of freedom is just, but if it can be enough.

The human condition is made of irreconcilable and insatiable desires, as well as the irony of dreaming infinitely yet living temporally, as Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote. This paradox inspires us to transcend our short moment—just as I tried in serving the freedom creed of my country, and as my father, brother, and others still do with their religious faith. There is an ever-present desire to transcend: Choose life, or choose death, the same value of transcending the temporal remains. To believers and many agnostics, the sanctity of life is real. To others, incomprehensibly, killing is a political act, temporarily satisfying a desire to be heard by permanently silencing another.

Is that the line to be drawn in such transcendance? When the attempt to transcend our moment might possibly exclude or hurt ourselves or our neighbors, as Jefferson famously wrote about religion? When a superior of man “wills” a judgment of absolute right to be finished at “an appointed time,” as Lincoln argued in his Second Inaugural? When a brother shuns brother in hopes of a future greater reward? 

What our parents dreamt for us, and theirs for them, was often contained in the context of a belief system and a shared set of values. I know I have done the same for my children: wishing for them a better life—meaning greater opportunities in the form of education or relationships or experiences, plus the freedom to pursue them—in terms of resources and time and security. Most of those dreams come from something imagined or experienced. And some may turn out to be misguided. Yet they also represent the transcendent. Those dreams may be part of an eternal responsibility of sorts:  a responsibility for those who love freedom to continually search for the good society, one that does not yet exist. 

I am still awed with gratitude that I was able to speak with my mother the day before she died. Tipped off by my wife who happened to visiting my parents at the time, I took a chance on a military phone connection from my trailer in Iraq, contacting a nearby base, which then dialed the familiar number.  

“I have one question for you, Steven,” my mother whispered in a tone I recognized from years past, when she spoke over the phone to members of her side of the family during the holidays—not one of whom shared her particular faith. “I want you to know that I am proud of you. But I need to know if you are proud of me.”  

That was the most fraught of all possible questions. The only answer possible in that crackling moment, was “Yes, Mom.” She was ending her life the way she believed it should be lived, defending her beliefs to the end, and she knew I was ready to do the same; our respective competing ideals of freedom on earth based on a shared acceptance that there was something “worse than death.”  She understood, perhaps, that this struggle for freedom of belief and the question of its proper defense was one that we, as families or as a nation, might never fully resolve.

Steve Deal, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret.) served as deputy chief of staff to the Secretary of the Navy and deputy chief learning officer for the Department of the Navy. During his twenty-seven years on active duty, he commanded Patrol Squadron Forty-Seven, in Ali Air Base, Iraq; Joint Provincial Reconstruction Team Khost, Afghanistan; and Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten in Whidbey Island, Washington.  

Image: Sgt. Joshua Smith, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, chats with an Afghan boy during an Afghan-led clearing operation April 28, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

AfghanistanMiddle EastPolitical Philosophy