I served in Afghanistan four times between 2005 and 2010 while assigned to various U.S. Special Operations units. During the time I spent there, and in all the years since, I felt like it was worth it, despite the loss of friends and the seemingly never-ending war, which for a long time not a lot of people outside the military seemed to care about. And also, up to now, I felt that what I contributed to the effort in that country was important. But in August of 2021, in the aftermath of the complete collapse of the government of Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban, my thoughts were … complicated.
As I’ve done many times in my life, after the fall of Kabul I turned to music to help me work through life’s challenges. During my time on the ground inside Afghanistan, I served with the national-level Special Operations task force headquartered in Bagram. As Bagram was a very active (and therefore very noisy) airfield and given our night-focused operational schedule, it was hard to sleep at night. Sorry, I meant it was hard to sleep in the morning because that’s when we went to bed.
One of the ways I dealt with the noise was to pop in earphones and crank up the music on my MP3 player. In addition to helping drown out some of the external noise, it had the additional benefits of providing soothing music and helped me mentally practice the songs’ lyrics and guitar chords.
While I still have that old player, I long ago lost the proprietary USB adapter that allowed the MP3 player to connect to my laptop. With no ability to add new songs, all the music has been frozen in time since 2010.
Reflecting on the recent news out of Afghanistan, last night I pulled out that old player from my desk drawer, popped in a fresh AAA battery and a new set of headphones, and took a trip down memory lane.
Counting the songs I had on there more than once, there were about 74 songs on that little orange player. The complete list is at the end of this article, with embedded links in case you want to hear some of the music yourself. Some of the songs on the list, like Brown Eyed Girl, were on there simply because they were easy for me to play on the Martin Backpacker guitar that I brought with me on all of my deployments. Other songs, the ones by artists like Sheryl Crow, Dido, and the Dixie Chicks, were there because my wife, Lilla, is an extremely talented singer and those songs made me think of her.
Still others like Hey Ya, were there to get me pumped up, and others, like Kind and Generous, helped me wind down. Bombs Over Baghdad, Babylon, and Rock the Casbah reminded me of my three tours in Iraq. Sail Away was on the list because my sister Kathy recommended David Gray.
My playlist also included a bunch of Allman Brothers songs, because of the band’s connection to Macon, Georgia, home of Mercer University, where I went to college and where I met and eventually married my wife. I always wanted to learn how to play “Little Martha…”
After some reflection on the way Afghanistan ended, I went through the list of songs on my old MP3 player and picked 20 of them, to represent the 20 years America spent fighting there.
As an officer who served there, there is no way for me to see Afghanistan as anything other than a war I lost. This is the soundtrack to that defeat, courtesy of an 18-year-old MP3 player, a 20-year war, and a 49-year-old Afghan War veteran.
Hands Clean by Alanis Morrissette because we kind of wiped our hands of Afghanistan, although it was anything but “clean.” 99 Problems by Jay-Z, because I’ve got 99 problems, but apparently Afghanistan ain’t one, anymore.
Watershed by Indigo Girls, because the fall of Afghanistan, much like the events of 9/11 that led us there in the first place, was a watershed moment in my life, and for our country.
Midnight Rider by The Allman Brothers Band, because that’s more or less how the last U.S. forces left Afghanistan. Landslide by Dixie Chicks because that’s how it seemed the Taliban won … in a landslide. White Flag by Dido, because that’s what the Afghan Army largely seemed to do after we left.
Numb / Encore by Linkin Park featuring Jay-Z, because many Afghan War vets are feeling pretty numb right now … and if Iraq is any indication, we’re going to have to go back in for an “encore” performance after the terrorists consolidate their control. I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas because I’ve got a feeling that with the way we left Afghanistan, and who (and what) we left in it, we’re going to have to go back.
Clocks by Coldplay, because, the Taliban were fond of saying, “America has the watches, but we have all the time.” And they were right.
Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison and Daughters by John Meyer, to remind me of the two children I spent 42 months away from during my time in combat.
Do What You Have to Do by Sarah McLachlan and Rock the Casbah by The Clash, for the American service members on the ground in Afghanistan, trying with every ounce of their being to get thousands of desperate civilians out of harm’s way.
How Does It Feel by Bob Dylan, because I know a lot of my fellow veterans are feeling a certain way right now.
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Charles Faint served 27 years as an officer in the U.S. Army. During his time in uniform he served seven combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq while assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Joint Special Operations Command. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Yale University and in retirement serves as the Chair for the Study of Special Operations in the Modern War Institute at West Point. This article represents his personal reflections on the war in Afghanistan and is not an official position of the United States Military Academy or the United States Army.