[NOTE: One of our members shared this column with us following the US final withdrawal from Afghanistan. Fr. Maekawa, son of NVC member Don Maekawa, served in Afghanistan earlier in our involvement there. He kindly gave us permission to reprint it here, noting that he wrote it a week prior to the final chaotic days of the withdrawal. We thank him for his words and his service.]
During my vacation I closely followed the fall of Afghanistan. Back in the 2000’s I did a deployment there as a military chaplain. My job was to visit our bases and outposts to offer the Mass for the Catholics and general support to the service members. In all, I ministered at 17 different places in the country. Some of the bases were large with 800 or more personnel. Most were small with fewer than 200. The main mode of transport were helicopters and so I was able to see much of the country. Sometimes I was able to go out with the soldiers on missions and had the opportunity to see and meet the local Afghan population.
When the news reports of the Taliban offensive began flowing in, I felt a personal connection to what was happening. It was with sadness and some distress that I heard of the fall of Kabul. The country was overrun so quickly that countless Afghans who committed themselves to their nation, NATO and the American forces were overrun. They have no chance of getting to a safe place with their families. Many of our own people are also now stranded. For the moment there is no clear way forward for us to find everyone and get them out.
There is much debate now about what our 20-year presence in Afghanistan accomplished. Cutting to the heart of the matter is the question was it a waste of lives and resources? That debate will go on for a while. Hindsight often becomes closer to 20/20 with the passage of time.
Our original mission there was to get Osama Bin Laden. It changed to nation building.
Was that actually possible? Was it an altruistic endeavor? Regardless of whatever flaws in that mission’s conception, motivation, and execution, what we imperfectly offered to the Afghans was an opportunity to develop a national infrastructure that could support a more peaceful and prosperous life.
Americans cherish opportunity. It is the offspring of freedom and liberty. Perhaps that was one of our miscalculations. Other cultures may not value it as highly as we do. A British Royal Air Force chaplain (Catholic) I knew in Kandahar once said to me “You Americans always have something to do. Even when you are off duty, you fill that time with plans and activities.” My unspoken thought was “Isn’t that what everyone does?”
Most of our families came to America poor and seeking a better life. They didn’t expect it to be given to them. They just wanted a chance. They reached for the opportunity to pursue dreams and to be rewarded with the fruits of their industriousness, ingenuity, enterprise, and initiative. From this vantage point, we can look at the failed American effort in Afghanistan as one that evolved into an attempt to share with another nation a gift that we ourselves so highly treasure.
Our Gospel this week is about opportunity. It is the conclusion of the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of John. Jesus explicitly proclaims he is the Bread of Life: “Whoever eats this bread will live forever” Jesus offers the opportunity for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through his living body and blood. It is an opportunity and an offer that Peter and the Apostles cannot refuse:
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Fr. Steve Maekawa, OP - Pastor