Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The life and death of North Ogden, Utah Mayor Brent Taylor, known as Major Brent Taylor in Afghanistan, reminds us of the unifying ideals behind the idea of America and the selfless grace that underlies true service. It is a tragic – and timely – reminder.
America is a nation divided and exhausted – if we doubted it, the run-up to the midterm elections have made this especially clear. Common narratives about what our country should represent seem to fail us. And yet when it comes to Afghanistan, the site of our nation’s longest war, there is agreement across the political spectrum that that country is a basket case – a place where America is “failing.”
But Major Taylor, killed in Afghanistan when a member of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces opened fire this past week, saw things differently. He challenged both the notion that America’s division is inevitable and that Afghanistan’s future is hopeless.
His example pushes us to acknowledge that, in America, what we have in common binds us to one another and to our ideals. And his praise for the “brave Afghan soldiers” he served with reminds us of the sacrifice that that nation’s forces have made for their country.
That he was killed by a member of the same forces whose bravery he praised is not lost on anyone. But the fact is Maj. Taylor himself spoke highly of so many among those forces; the enormous tragedy of his killing does not undo the high regard in which he held them. Indeed, his family wrote that there is “heartache but no regret.”
And an Afghan pilot wrote to Taylor’s family, praising the man Taylor was and asking them not to see “the violent act that took his life as representative of us or our sentiments toward Americans.” “I assure you that the one who shot him represents evil and violence,” wrote Abdul Rahman Rahmani. “On behalf of my family and Brent’s friends here in the Special Mission Wing, we pledge to continue to work hard until the end, the day when peace will return to our country and violence and hatred no longer claim the lives of both of our countrymen.”
Taylor urged us to care about the sacred right to vote and made his work protecting the recent Afghan elections look and sound noble and worthwhile, while highlighting the courage of those he sought to help. And if we take his unselfishness and care for others to heart, we might end up in a place where kindness is not a sign of weakness, but an expression of patriotism.
“Service is really what leadership is all about,” Taylor, a father of seven, wrote in a Facebook post this past January while announcing his upcoming deployment, his second to Afghanistan (he had also served two tours in Iraq). And he noted last month, while safeguarding the Afghan elections – marred by violence and death – that “it was beautiful to see over 4 million Afghan men and women brave threats and deadly attacks to vote in Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years.”
Wrote Taylor, “the strong turnout, despite the attacks and challenges, was a success for the long-suffering people of Afghanistan and for the cause of human freedom.” And he remembered his Afghan colleague, “my dear friend Lieutenant Kefayatullah who was killed fighting the Taliban the day before voting began.”
“As the USA gets ready to vote in our own election (Tuesday), I hope everyone back home exercises their precious right to vote,” Taylor wrote. “And that whether the Republicans or the Democrats win, that we all remember that we have far more as Americans that unites us than divides us.”
This is a message that sounds out of place in 2018. And yet, from those who have devoted their lives to serving this nation and who have deployed over and over again, it is not so unusual to hear.
Less than 1% of this country’s men and women have fought 100% of this nation’s wars for 17 years, with precious few of their fellow citizens noticing. But those who have given their careers to these battles have seen a great deal about how the rest of the world works. They are alive to the preciousness of our right to vote. They have seen how key institutions are to protecting individual rights, and how important basic security is to the exercise of democracy.
“Things are going great over here for our team,” Taylor wrote on October 17. “We are working hard with our brave Afghan colleagues and our dedicated NATO allies to help ensure a safe parliamentary election day this weekend, so the people of Afghanistan can choose their leaders in peace.”
Taylor marveled at the Afghans who risked their lives for their right to vote. He wrote in April “the dedication of the Afghan soldiers is especially inspiring. There is not a single Afghan soldier I know who has not lost at least one (and often more) father, brother, family member, close friend, etc. in this war. Yet they keep up the fight against a barbaric enemy that stops at nothing (for example, militants murdered 57 innocent civilians at a voting registration center just yesterday).”
As Election Day nears, let us remember Taylor’s words from January.
“As my family and I undertake this opportunity to serve our country, I encourage each of you to find some way in 2018 to ‘ask not what (our) country can do for (us) (but) what (we) can do for (our) country,’” Taylor wrote.
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“Whether it is volunteering at a charity organization, reading to children at a school or simply helping a neighbor, there are ways all around us to brighten someone’s day, to lift another’s burdens, and to make our city, state and country a better place.”
As Tuesday arrives let us each take his words to heart. Major Taylor may be lost to us, but his words remain. And we, as a nation, would do well to honor his example of caring, service and patriotism not simply spoken, but lived.