20-Year Letter: An Afghanistan Chronicle by Benjamin W. Warner (Köehler books, 2021, 155 pages)
A few short months removed from the events of 9/11, LT Warner is a young reserve officer with a burning desire to serve. Presented with the opportunity to do so in the new Global War on Terror, he jumps into his new assignment full blast, oozing with patriotism, a lot of cockiness, and not much of a plan. But soon enough he finds that his new normal will be clouded with uncertainty. New soldiers, new leadership, and a new geographic location are just the tip of the iceberg.
As the rear cargo door of the plane lowers to reveal a pitch-black Afghanistan night, the young leader encounters his first real challenge: simply leading the team off the airplane-over an airfield riddled with landmines. From there, 20-Year Letter follows LT Warner throughout the entire undertaking, chronicling the bad, the terrifying, the stressful, and even a little bit of the good. His tale is a comprehensive perspective of everything that isn’t glamorous about war.
Since the United States announced its decision to end the “forever war” in Afghanistan over the coming months, I started looking for reading material that would provide me a chance to reflect on the United States contributions since 9/11. I found that source in Benjamin Warner’s book, 20-Year Letter: An Afghanistan Chronicle. The author writes with conviction, passion, and honesty all wrapped in humility, as he recollects his extended deployment as a junior officer serving in Afghanistan during the very early days of post 9/11 combat operations. Interestingly, publishing this book is culminating the author’s career as an Army Command and General Staff College instructor, where he teaches and mentors future Army leaders. By writing this book, he has positively cemented his legacy through his reflections. Lessons learned provide an easy to digest book for future Army leaders to learn about preparing for, living, leading, and leaving a combat zone.
Warner structured the book into the following six well thought-out main parts: I. Getting There, II. The Life, III. The Good Stuff, IV. The Struggles, V. The Long Road Home, VI. The Leaders that Changed Me. Every part is filled with personal anecdotes and lessons learned that will keep your attention, make you laugh, maybe force a tear or two, and give you pause to think deeper about our role in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. Did we achieve our national objectives? Was it all worth it? Is now the time to leave? I do not pretend to have all the answers, but his book forced me to reflect on these questions. What I do know is continuing to support those that have served in Afghanistan and similar locations will be important for many years to come.
Personally, the chronicle intrigued me because his Afghanistan deployment brought back many memories of my own deployment. As different as our deployments were, mine being to Iraq, there were many of the same elements. There was a roller coaster of a ride preparing to deploy, endless workdays, interesting interactions with international partners, and challenges of staying engaged with family back home.
There is one specific story I will convey from the book because I have never heard of such an incident revolving around weapons. As the author and his soldiers were anxiously expecting a shipment of soda, one of the other service members accidentally discharged their grenade launcher, striking the soda shipment. Obviously, it destroyed the soda. But miraculously, it did not hurt anyone. I am confident that the soda, being a liquid, absorbed the grenade detonation and saved lives. This is just one of many almost unbelievable stories that the author shares, and it makes for engrossed reading.
It is my understanding that the author’s initial intent was to put his war-time experiences down on paper for his children, but the project evolved into a much larger project; the book I now hold in my hand. As I read the book, it inspired me to share my deployment experiences verbally with my children in a more deliberate way than what I had been doing.
I would recommend this book to any military member that has not deployed. It is both a good primer on what to expect in a future deployment and a sneak peek into a deployment for someone who may not have had the opportunity. It may also fill a tactical level gap between policy makers, academics, or thought leaders that make recommendations using the military tool of national power. After spending this past year reading and studying policy and strategy, I can understand how easy it can be to forget how national level policy affects the tactical level. I can also understand how decision makers can produce better policy if they understand tactical level implications of using the military to meet national security and defense objectives.
I wonder whether I will ever find the time to write my chronicle. What I know though, is the American public needs to hear more stories from our military members. It helps to humanize the experience, provide new perspectives that may get drowned out by the hot story of the day, and educates those that may not have a direct link to the military. Thankfully, Benjamin Warner took the time to share his own story and I wish him the best as he transitions to post-Army life. I look forward to hearing more lessons learned from his follow-on deployment that “ended up being a lot like hell.”
Lt Col Christopher P. Mulder, USAF is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, an Air Force pilot, and engaged in national security and leadership matters. Additional information about Christopher Mulder can be found at: Christopher P. Mulder – Atlantic Council
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.