In the past week, I’ve learned that our soldiers were put in harm’s way by a group of politicians, generals, and bureaucrats whose quality as leaders and human beings it is difficult to understate. They are so fantastically corrupt that they spent two decades funneling trillions of dollars in aid they knew wasn’t helping to a puppet government which had its greatest achievements in the areas of fraud, child rape, and heroin production. They are so pants-shittingly incompetent that somehow it didn’t occur to any of them that it might be a bad idea to have the Americans with guns leave before the Americans without guns. And they are so unashamedly self-serving that none of them will face any consequences for any of it.
“Human beings,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote in the 2005 essay collection that turned out to be his last book, “are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”
Vonnegut was right. Our so-called leadership are spoiled rich children. And one of the toys they broke was my friend and neighbor Andy.
Staff Sergeant Andrew McCaffrey was a hero. In 2003, he lost his right arm below the elbow to a hand grenade. He could have returned home and collected benefits for the rest of his life. Instead, Andy trained himself to shoot left-handed and became the first soldier in U.S. Army history to return to combat duty after losing a limb. He served three more tours in Afghanistan. It was an act of courage, sacrifice, and dedication of which the politicians who sent him to war and the generals who commanded him were unworthy.
The same grenade blast that took his arm also inflicted a traumatic brain injury that affected his personality over time. After returning stateside, Andy became increasingly violent and erratic, culminating in a court martial and his eventual retirement from the Army. He found community among other veterans, but during the Covid lockdown turned increasingly to alcohol to self-medicate. In the early hours of August 19, 2020, he took his own life in his Arlington, Virginia apartment, not 50 yards from where I slept.
My wife and I first became aware of Andy as “the guy who says ‘f—’ a lot.” We’d hear him out in the courtyard yelling “F— this” and “F— that,” to anyone or no one, in a Don Corleone rasp. Understandably, we avoided him for several months. But when I found myself unemployed and quarantined, I decided that if I was going to make it through this pandemic with my sanity intact, I’d need to meet my neighbors. To that end, I bought some lumber and constructed a bench for the courtyard, hoping that it would foster a sense of community. I also constructed the bench in the courtyard, since there wasn’t much room for woodworking in my one-bedroom apartment.
Andy saw me sawing and drilling and asked what I was up to. I, more than a little intimidated, told him. His face lit up. He told me he knew just the thing and dashed off to the dumpster. With the help of his wife Karen (on whom he doted), Andy dragged a block of wood so heavy that the trash collectors refused to haul it away over to my bench. I dutifully sanded and painted it, and it became a footrest, a table, a bar.
Over the next several months, it served all those functions. A group of around 10 neighbors, all of us working remotely or not at all, began congregating several nights a week beneath the warm Virginia starlight and the red brick buildings that surrounded our courtyard on three sides. We drank, talked, smoked cigarettes, listened to music, let the dogs frolic—we got each other through.
On such nights, Andy would contribute some excellent anecdotes, many of them about barfights. He got in so many barfights that he’d developed a gentlemen’s agreement with the Arlington cops: He would go quietly as long as they’d promise not to handcuff him. Apparently the two parties had reached this agreement only after Andy had demonstrated several times that he could instantly escape from handcuffs by simply removing his prosthetic arm. When his favorite bar finally banned him, he unleashed a stream of invective against its absentee Canadian owner that rose to the level of poetry: “That maple syrup drinkin’ motherf—er! He doesn’t understand the situation on the ground!”
He also added to the courtyard décor. His contributions—solar powered string lights, lawn flamingoes, and an absurd number of bird feeders—were of questionable taste, but everybody was just a little too scared of him to say anything about it. They’re all still there.
Sometimes he would talk about the war. He frequently boasted about his “million-dollar education” as a special forces soldier. I never got a comprehensive explanation of what he did in Afghanistan, but the impression I formed was of a stone-cold operator wearing a T-shirt, ballcap, and desert camo pants; sporting a non-regulation beard; and popping in and out of the base as it suited him. He regaled us with tales of intrigue, how he’d play informants off against one another until he had some Taliban big fish dead to rights. Then and only then would he hand his intel off to some colonel who would order a raid and claim all the credit. He took pride in his work and in being, as one FDNY firefighter told him, the “instrument of vengeance” for 9/11.
The vengeance was what mattered to Andy. He thought the nation-building side of it was bunk. He told me once that he thought the War in Afghanistan would never be won and that American troops would never leave. I guess he was half right.
As the summer wore on, Andy’s despair displaced his pride more and more. He fell and cracked a rib and began mixing his prescription painkillers with whiskey. We all worried about him. One night, he seemed ready to open up, and we thought it might do him some good. We spoke kindly to him, asked occasional questions, and urged him to take better care of himself. I remember two snippets of conversation:
First, I asked him how he felt about everything he’d done in Afghanistan. “I loved it,” he said. “And I hate that I loved it.” He didn’t just sacrifice his arm and his mental stability to the idiots who couldn’t build a functioning army with 20 years and $80 billion, who thought it would be a good idea to hand biometric data on Afghan translators over to the Taliban. He gave them his innocence, his sense of right and wrong, and of his own place on that continuum. Of that sacrifice, they were also unworthy.
Then I asked him if he regretted ever having gone to war and whether, knowing the toll it had taken, he would do it again. He thought for a moment: “I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Of course he was ambivalent. His sense of self was bound up inextricably with being a soldier. The Army had given him a skillset, a community, a purpose, an entire identity. He couldn’t simply wish all that away. What would be left? He was what they made him. They made him what he was. But unlike God, who so loved his broken creatures that he died for them, the politicians and generals who formed Andy from the clay had no problem breaking him, tossing him aside, and making a mockery of the cause for which he fought.
Andy stood up to go inside but couldn’t keep his balance. I caught him before he fell, draped his arm over my shoulder, and led him toward his building. Thankfully, he lived on the first floor. My shoulders strained under his near-dead weight, my heart under his pain. Later, I tried to imagine what such despair must feel like, and the best image I could come up with was sliding down into a pit. The incline is steep, and the soil is loose. You fall faster and faster, grasping at roots that protrude from the pit’s walls. One root is your wife and another is your friends and another is a movie you still haven’t seen and another is your pride and another is God, but none of them hold, and finally you run out of roots. And you stop grasping. And you just fall.
We reached his door, and he told me he could make it to bed just fine. Not knowing what else to do, I made the sign of the cross over his chest and said, “Bless you, Andy.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m not very religious, but thanks. Bless you too.” Then he went inside. As far as I know, mine were the last words anyone ever spoke to him. One of Andy’s friends, who has lost other comrades the same way, told me he thinks those words saved Andy’s soul. I hope so. I’m more worried for the souls of those who drove him to it—unrepentant reprobates whose negligence and dishonesty spat in the face of Andy’s sacrifice, botching the war, bungling the withdrawal, and then patting themselves on the back for doing it.
The sacrifices Andy made—physical, mental, and spiritual—are incalculable, but they are sacrifices countless soldiers have made before him. It is upsetting to view the consequences of such sacrifices up close (though perhaps anyone who supports sending troops into harm’s way should be forced to), but even having done so, I still cannot deny they are sometimes necessary. If that is the case, however, then the people who make those sacrifices have a right to expect a baseline level of care and competence from the people demanding them.
Last week, I watched President Biden insist that he made no mistakes and gaslight anyone who suggests otherwise. I also watched him compare—with a straight face—the bloated, braindead politico-military establishment that produced this debacle to the voice of God. When Isaiah responded “Here I am, send me,” he knew God might be sending him to his death (as indeed he was), but Isaiah could also trust that his agenda was something more than improvised political ass-covering.
Perhaps most depressingly, we all watched soldiers on transport planes being sent back to Afghanistan to guard Hamid Karzai International Airport (the name of which represents just one more of the fruits of failure handed out to all the major players in this tragicomedy). And all because our president didn’t realize that if you’re being eaten by a tiger and have managed to pry its jaws open, you should probably pull your head out before your hands.
Who would agree to suffer for such a stupid, craven, inept excuse for an empire? How can we expect thousands of Andys to sacrifice what’s best in them to what’s worst in our society?
We can’t. “People,” one Afghanistan vet wrote, “can no longer bring themselves to love and serve a country that has dispensed with the pretense of loving and serving them.” Unfortunately, no civilization can long endure without people willing to make such sacrifices. If we want to keep ours, we must strive to be worthy of those men and women and demand that our leaders do the same.
Grayson Quay is a Young Voices contributor based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has been published in Spectator World, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and elsewhere.