Afghanistan: America's Longest War

On the heels of the 1,000th U.S. casualty, the war hits home.

ByRick Hampson
May 28, 2010, 10:22 AM

May 31, 2010 -- Three months after 9/11, every major Taliban city in Afghanistan had fallen -- first Mazar-i-Sharif, then Kabul, finally Kandahar. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were on the run. It looked as if the war was over, and the Americans and their Afghan allies had won.

Butch Ivie, then a school administrator in Winfield, Ala., remembers, "We thought we'd soon have it tied up in a neat little bag."

But bin Laden and Omar eluded capture. The Taliban regrouped. Today, Kandahar again is up for grabs. And soon, Afghanistan will pass Vietnam as America's longest war.

The Vietnam War's length can be measured in many ways. The formal beginning of U.S. involvement often is dated to Aug. 7, 1964, when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving the president a virtual carte blanche to wage war. By the time the last U.S. ground combat troops were withdrawn in March 1973, the war had lasted 103 months.

U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. On June 7, the war will complete its 104th month. President Obama on Thursday reaffirmed his commitment to the war, saying "it is absolutely critical that we dismantle that network of extremists that are willing to attack us."

This longest war is far from America's bloodiest. It has drifted in and out of focus and, for much of its life, been obscured by another war, in Iraq.

How to gauge such a war's impact on the home front on this Memorial Day weekend?

USA TODAY visited two small communities: Bardstown, Ky., which became famous for its losses in Vietnam, and Winfield, hometown of the first American to die in combat in Afghanistan.

As the home of Mike Spann, a 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer killed in northern Afghanistan on Nov. 25, 2001, Winfield understands just how long the United States has been at war and how illusory was the hope of a quick victory.

As a town whose Vietnam War memorials bear the names of 16 men, Bardstown also knows what war is like. But neither Bardstown nor surrounding Nelson County has lost anyone in Afghanistan or Iraq; here, the war is a distant drum.

Winfield (pop. 4,500) is a dry town whose voters this month upheld the ban on alcohol by five votes. Bardstown, twice as populous and much more prosperous, calls itself "The Bourbon Capital of the World." Both have National Guard units that served in Afghanistan or Iraq and pride themselves on always having answered the nation's call to arms.

People agree the war has gone on too long. But they differ on whether it's time to end it.

To understand, listen to two sons of Bardstown who fought side by side in a National Guard unit that lost five men in one battle in Vietnam.

Don Parrish, 68, says the goal was to catch bin Laden, "but we're trading a lot of lives ... Somehow we need to end this mission, if for no other reason than to stop the killing -- theirs and ours."

Tom Raisor, 66, says the mission can't end yet. He says that just as the Communists needed to be stopped in Vietnam, al-Qaeda must be stopped today or it will again use Afghanistan as "a breeding ground for terrorists" to hit the U.S. homeland.

In Bardstown and Winfield, people grapple with another, even more troubling question: What if Afghanistan is a lost cause? What if the lives of Mike Spann and about 1,000 other Americans were lost in vain?

After his son's death, Johnny Spann recalls, he would drive to his real estate office, park in back out of sight of the street, sit at his desk and cry. No houses got built; little business was done.

Still, because Mike was the first American to die in Afghanistan, his father says, he made a point of calling the parents of those who fell after him.

He did not tell them about God or country. His message was simple: "I'm so sorry. I know how you feel. I lost my son, too."

The months passed, and the war continued, and eventually Johnny Spann stopped calling. There were too many parents, too many dead children. "Now, you can't remember all their names, there are so many," he says.

His own son was an all-American kid, who in high school got good grades, went to church and on weekends drank a little beer and raised a little hell.

Mike was hardworking -- as a teenager he built a house, earned a pilot's license and had ambitions to see the world beyond Winfield. Dale Weeks, a buddy, says Mike always talked of joining the military, then the FBI or CIA.

He graduated from Auburn in 1991, served as an officer in the Marines for eight years and joined the CIA's covert military operations unit. After 9/11, even though he was married and the father of three children, he volunteered to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

On Nov. 25, he was at a prison interrogating prisoners (who included, although Spann did not realize it, John Walker Lindh, an American trained by al-Qaeda).The prisoners rioted and attacked their captors with weapons hidden in their garments. Spann was shot twice in the head.

Most people back in Winfield didn't even know Mike was in the CIA, let alone fighting in Afghanistan. Dale Weeks got the news from a friend who waved him down on the road.

At that moment, something changed.

"That was one of our boys," he says of Mike. "The war wasn't just on TV anymore."

Mike's death, Weeks says, "was the biggest thing ever to hit Winfield." Journalists came from around the world.

"Life in Winfield will never be the same," wrote Tracy Estes, news editor of the local Journal Record. "The conflict has become very personal." The newspaper would name Spann's death the top story of the past 40 years.

Much happens in 104 months, even in Winfield. The high school football team made it to the state championship. The town has installed several traffic lights, gotten a new postmaster, hired a new school superintendent and elected a new mayor. The Pastime Theater, a Depression-era gem, has been restored. There's a new Wal-Mart and a new Auto Zone.

Alison Spann, 9 when her father died, has just turned 18. She graduated recently from high school.

People remember what she wrote for her father's memorial service. Her grandfather Johnny read it as she stood at his side: "Daddy, I will miss you, but I know you're going to a better place. Thank you for making the world a better place." She put the letter in his casket, buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Spann's death still reverberates in a community where almost everyone knew him or his parents.

"We're such a small town, there's a common thread, and he's a part of us," says Ivie, the former school administrator who was Spann's neighbor.

"People here are connected with each other," explains Linda West, who taught Mike high school history. "People here remember." They remember Craty Langston, who died in Okinawa in 1945, and Larry Robison, who died in Binh Dinh in 1969. Now they'll remember Mike Spann.

As a result, the war seems closer here. People who've never been there speak knowledgeably of Afghanistan, its frontier towns and fortresses, its obscure battles and warlords.

When there's another war death, says Ivie, Mike's comes back. It comes back when he sees Mike's granite memorial in the center of town, or the highway sign with his name or a car bearing one of the memorial decals Johnny printed up. It comes back when he sees the electronic sign outside City Hall: "Pray for Our Troops."

Still, people here do not agree on what's next in Afghanistan.

The U.S. should pull out, Weeks says. "It's time to start bringing people home," he says. "We've done about all we can do."

Linda West and her husband, Bill, who also taught Mike, worry about his legacy. Bill says, "I don't want to see that he gave his life for nothing …" His wife finishes his thought: "… but will the president get to the point where he says, 'We can't sustain this anymore'?"

People who were here in June 1969 remember what a distant war can do.

They remember how wives and parents went to bed praying not to dream, how they recoiled from the sound of a ringing phone or the sight of a military uniform.

How everyone seemed to be going to or coming from a funeral.

How lookouts at the edge of town waited for Army sedans bearing casualty notification teams.

"Sadness," the local Kentucky Standard reported, "spread over our community like a pall."

That was Bardstown after June 19, when the North Vietnamese attacked Firebase Tomahawk in South Vietnam, killing 10 soldiers of the Kentucky National Guard, five of them from C Battery in Bardstown. By early July, a total of seven Bardstown boys had died in the space of two weeks.

Today, Bardstown finds itself with not a single war death in Afghanistan or the war on terrorism. A town that was one of the most luckless in America four decades ago now puzzles at its good fortune.

Don Parrish, a survivor of Tomahawk, raps twice on the flat arm of an oak chair in his bookstore. His explanation is the same as everyone else's here: dumb luck.

Before 1968, when the Guard unit was unexpectedly called up, the Vietnam War "always seemed somewhere else," according to Tom Raisor's wife, Moneza. That's how Afghanistan seems now. If the war ended, would anyone notice? "I'm not sure they would," Parrish says. "There's a lot of apathy."

He says he doesn't hear much talk about Afghanistan, even now that U.S. forces are ready to advance on Kandahar. In contrast, he still thinks about Vietnam every day.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam share length, and little else. In some ways, Vietnam is the more tangible presence.

This year, for instance, people were excited when Ronnie Hibbs, 66, finally got his Purple Heart medal for his wounds at Firebase Tomahawk.

No one bothered to file the paperwork in 1969, and Bardstown was too traumatized to notice.

When C Battery was sent to Iraq several years ago, Hibbs and other veterans of the unit turned out to say goodbye.

Hibbs says there seems to be little general interest in the fighting, though: "You just don't hear much about it. Then (during Vietnam), everyone knew someone who went over."

Tom Raisor knows the war can't go on forever and recalls how former Defense secretary Robert McNamara years after Vietnam said it had been a mistake.

He wonders how the loved ones of the 58,000 Americans who died there felt about that, and how the loved ones of those who have fallen in Afghanistan will feel if, as he expects, this war ends in less than military victory.

His neighbor's nephew, from neighboring Marion County, died in Iraq five years ago, and the man put up a memorial at the end of his driveway. Recently, he took it down.

Perhaps because of Raisor's war record -- he got the Bronze Star in Vietnam -- the man asked him whether he'd done enough.

"Yes, I told him," Raisor says. "Yes, you did."

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