“When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.
Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.
It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless. . . . “