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‘Graveyard Of Empires’: U.S. Vet Reflects On Afghanistan Through Poetry

 The cover of Justin Eggen's "War & Select Poems" which shows the book title and a hand reaching down to a solider holding a weapon
Courtesy of Justin Eggen
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U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Justin Eggen is a father, national award-winning poet and graduate student at Florida Atlantic University.

The world is watching as the U.S. makes a chaotic departure from Afghanistan — and the Taliban takes over.

Justin Eggen is following the developments closely from his home in Palm Beach County. He's a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

WLRN is here for you, even when life is unpredictable. Our journalists are continuing to work hard to keep you informed across South Florida. Please support this vital work. Become a WLRN member today. Thank you.

WLRN’s Luis Hernandez spoke with Eggen, who is also an award-winning poet with an upcoming book titled “Ten Years Ago, Ten Years Later.” It will be out and available for free in September. You can find more of this work here.

You can find ways to help in Afghanistan, and a list of organizations working on the ground, here.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

WLRN: You're still in contact with the interpreter who you worked with while you were deployed in Afghanistan. How often do you get to talk to this person and what do you share with each other? 

EGGEN: I talk to him pretty frequently. He has a child and a son. After he got back off of our deployments he came over to the United States. And he still has his family over in Afghanistan. And I talked to him and asked him how's he doing? And he said, "I'm doing fine. I live over here [in the U.S.]. I'm doing great. But my family, they're very scared. They don't really know what they're going to do."

His family, they understand the good that can come with changing your society into whatever society that we were trying to change that society into, like prop them up as like a democratic, free society with free elections and stuff. They don't know what they're going to do because they've been living basically free in this sort of society for the past 20 years.

It's hard to hear these stories. And why does it seem like it's such a surprise? Why is it just seemingly coming out of nowhere? When the last few months we've been watching the Taliban slowly creep towards Kabul. And the last few years, the veteran community, we've been talking to ourselves and saying to everybody, "Listen, they need to have a plan. They need to have a real endgame plan for this, because we all know how this is going to end" and we're watching all of that unfold right now.

You look back on everything that's happened and do you think we failed as a nation? Did we fail in Afghanistan? 

I do not believe that we failed because we gave the Afghan people an ideal to strive towards, we gave them 20 years of free, no Taliban rule. The Taliban were hiding away. Just because we're leaving doesn't mean we failed because there's a whole generation of kids that grew up understanding what Afghanistan could be without the Taliban. So you have these little kids that are going to grow up in the men. You have these little girls that are going to grow up into women. And they know what a real Taliban-free Afghanistan looked like and what it was because they experienced that.

We may have failed on a level of, well, you know, the Taliban took over Afghanistan again and within a matter of a week or whatever of us leaving. I don't want to say that we failed because it's not a failure. We showed them something that they never had before and now they can work towards that on their own. Now we're not going to be wasting American taxpayer money there. We can focus our taxpayer money on stuff that's going on here. So hopefully we get some new leaders in D.C. that see this as like a wake-up call to not have this happen again. So in my opinion, I don't see it as a failure. I see it as a learning experience.

You have an upcoming book, “Ten Years Ago, Ten Years Later.” Is there a poem in there that you might read for us? 

JustinEggenBooks_08242021.JPG
Courtesy of Justin Eggen
Books written by U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran Justin Eggen, who is is a father, national award-winning poet and a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University.

A lot of people have been asking me, "How do you feel about what's going on in Afghanistan?" And, me, being the poet and who I am, I was like, well, I could tell you. Or I could emotionally try to bring you on a journey [to show] how me and my brothers feel about what we went through in Afghanistan. And this poem, I think, encapsulates this whole book and the idea of it.

— — — —

Ten years later I find myself questioning the motives and

reasons my buddies sacrificed for,

What was it all worth,

When the Taliban retakes control?

This is how the Nam vets felt,

I tell myself,

As I see it all unfold.

Why is it when we leave everything seems to go?

As if their constraints were our foot patrols and our

advising roles,

Farmers with pitchforks,

Is what you’re told.

Mass misinformation is how we were sold,

Youthful draining poppy fields,

Another generation of giving souls,

Death scours and collects as we pay the toll.

IEDs erupt as our youth is torn,

Friends scattered in pieces,

Same day their child is being born,

We know not Love,

Only forced bloodshed and scorn.

Nothing is better here,

Endless days wafting into haze,

Endless nights where we,

The devils take flight,

Escaping reality for seconds if only to come back to the

light.

Unimagined life becomes once we lose our respect,

Ten years later nothing has changed,

Just remove the troops,

It goes back insane.

Twenty years ago gave birth to our war,

Unknown to us,

Were the shared experiences that split our core,

With that,

Along came the brotherly bonds that were forged.

Twenty years later our hearts no longer favor the conflict

we once saw,

A losing battle in which so much youth was dissolved,

Where do we go from here?

An answer I pursue to resolve.

The GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES,

Etch another name,

For it’s one of the greats,

Welcome to the cemetery,

The United States.