Memorial Day 2021 marks a historic but grim milestone in the long wars America has been fighting in the Middle East.
If all goes as planned, this will be the last Memorial Day during the 20 years of war in Afghanistan.
For a century and a half, Americans have paused on Memorial Day to think about the thousands of men and women who have fought in our wars, but did not come home to their families.
On each Memorial Day since 2002, we have wept over fresh graves of fallen fighters. Now, that may at last be over.
President Biden has announced that all U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attack by al-Qaeda that first ignited the war.
It is the longest war ever in American history, 20 years of fighting and negotiating. More than $1 trillion has been spent, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines have served in Afghanistan, the related war in Iraq, or both countries. Many returned for tour of duty after tour of duty.
More than 6,500 of them did not come home alive. In Iraq, 4,418 have died. In Afghanistan, 2,218 have been killed. Tens of thousands more wounded.
On Memorial Day, we need to remember the sacrifices and service of all of those who fought, but most especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up their life for our country.
It is difficult to believe, but a generation has passed since this war began. Millions of today’s young adults were not even alive on 9/11. Here is a brief history of the war:
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airliners and used them as bombs to destroy the World Trade Center in New York and devastate the Pentagon in northern Virginia. A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers revolted against the hijackers.
Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim group. It had provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror organization which planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. vowed to retaliate.
On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States began a bombing campaign against Afghanistan. Before the end of that year, U.S. ground forces invaded, the Taliban government fell and many of its fighters fled into neighboring Pakistan.
In early 2003, U.S. troops also invaded Iraq, igniting a wider war. U.S. officials believed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but none were ever found. We did, however, overthrow him.
The fighting in Iraq officially ended in 2011, but the fighting in Afghanistan, which had waned during the Iraq war, had heated up again. In 2009, President Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops to the country to defeat the resurgent Taliban. It did not work and the war dragged on.
In 2019, President Trump began peace talks with the Taliban, and in early 2020, he announced a deal under which U.S. forces would withdraw by May 2021. Biden generally is keeping to the agreement but delayed the final withdrawal until September.
So, 20 years after the war began to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, it will end with the Taliban poised to retake power.
Historians may debate for years to come the conduct of the war and its conclusion. But policy and political disputes must not be permitted to diminish our recognition of the bravery and sacrifices of the servicemen and women who fought there.
Since the American Civil War, the bloodiest in our history, ended in 1865, we have set aside this day to decorate the graves and cherish the memory of the soldiers who gave everything for their country.
When we mark the next Memorial Day, our hope is that this country will be at peace again, with no troops on the front lines.