Departing Afghanistan

A poem for Memorial Day

The Atlantic has often channeled the resources of poetry—its charged and immediate patterns of language—to mourn and memorialize the war dead. The earliest years of the magazine spanned the Civil War, during which the editors published dirges, elegies, and ballads that told stories to console, to heal, to hearten. An elegy for Rupert Brooke took the sonnet into a new, modern vernacular at the time of the First World War. In October 1944, the magazine put together a portfolio of Soldier Verse; in 1960, The Atlantic published Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a poem that reflects on the uses of monuments and memorials.

“Departing Afghanistan” continues and deepens this legacy. William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral and the former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote “Departing Afghanistan” in June 2021, prior to the evacuation in August.

The poem emerges from a period of deep reflection and personal soul-searching: Had all the losses, over 20 years, been worth the fight? In its emphasis on the experience of service members, and in its haunting refrain, “Departing Afghanistan” provides neither a defense nor an explanation. After all, the decision to go to Afghanistan and to leave Afghanistan was never the decision of the service members.

Instead, for this Memorial Day, Admiral McRaven offers a probing inquiry and a sustaining melody—and a message to the service members that, as McRaven put it to me: “for twenty years they fought with courage and convictions, they kept Americans safe and they should have no regrets as we depart Afghanistan.”

— Walt Hunter

The Hindu Kush will be quiet now,
silence will come to the ancient lands.
The roar of the planes
will fade in the night
as we depart Afghanistan.
The scholars will chide us
and the pundits will pan,
why did we stay so long
when we should have been gone—
gone from Afghanistan.
But the fight was a good one,
noble and right,
no matter how long it took.
Not a soul has been lost on American soil,
not a single building shook.
For 20 years our people were safe,
living their lives in peace,
raising their families across the land,
because our soldiers fought—
fought in Afghanistan.
It was a tragic waste, some will say,
the loss of so many men.
The rows and rows of headstones
on the graves at Arlington.
But a noble life is never a loss,
no matter where they may fall.
To the soldier who did their duty,
they’re a hero forever, for all.
Make no mistake about it,
we came for a righteous cause.
We fought with courage and conviction.
We fought for the betterment of all.
And for those who cheer our final days,
be careful about what you wish.
For the fate of the Afghan people
is unlikely to be filled with bliss.
The children will weep as their future fades
and old women will cry to their men.
“They weren’t so bad,”
the elders will say,
as we depart Afghanistan.
We pray for the people of Afghanistan,
they are warm and kindly souls.
We pray that their future
will be filled with success
as the days and years unfold.
I hope those we saved will remember us,
and the innocents we harmed will forgive.
But to those who bore arms against us,
may you regret each day that you live.
The winds will howl through the vacant FOBs,
through the plywood and houses of tin.
The tarmacs will rot
in the noonday sun
as we depart Afghanistan.
Some will say it was right.
Some will say it was wrong.
Let the history books decide.
But every soldier did their best,
of that, no one can deny.
We ache for those warriors we lost
and the loved ones who bear the pain.
If only we could have saved them all,
and brought them home again.
The Hindu Kush will be quiet now
and silence will come to the ancient lands.
For those who served
let there be no regrets
as we depart Afghanistan.
William H. McRaven is a retired naval officer.
Departing Afghanistan