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A U.S. marine in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Despite the "optimistic or airbrushed predictions" about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of Americans have died and the battles seem far from over, Marine Corps infantry veteran and writer-at-large C.J. Chivers writes for The New York Times Magazine.

Why it matters: "In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old. ... With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist."

The big picture

Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, more than three million Americans have served in uniform, Chivers writes; "[n]early 7,000 of them have died."

  • The policies that sent these Americans overseas "have not succeeded," while the wars have continued to prove "astonishingly expensive" and "strategically incoherent."
  • While the U.S. worked to rebuild the governments of these two countries, they're "fragile, brutal and uncertain." As Chivers writes: "Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens' treasure and its troops' labor lies abandoned. ... Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves."
They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.
— Chivers
One recruit's story

Chivers follows Specialist Robert Soto, a New Yorker who was 10 years old at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and decided at that young age that he "would protect the United States" and eventually enlist.

  • Soto got to the Korengal Outpost ("nicknamed the Valley of Death") in Afghanistan seven years after the war had started.
  • While he was on patrol one day, Soto learned a staff sergeant on a separate patrol had collapsed and died: "Block, he thought. Shut down emotions. You can’t dwell. You can think about this now, or we can get back safe and you can think about it later. Soto chose later. He was 18 years old, switching part of himself off."
  • After losing the man he'd looked up to since the start of his enlistment, Staff Sgt. Nathan Cox, Soto "was no longer the teenager who enlisted to protect his city. Grief and rage and powerlessness brought with them the enlisted infantry soldier's timeless realization: The best guys always seem to lose."

Sgt. Soto received an honorable discharge in 2012, enrolling in college and keeping "his status as a veteran to himself." He graduated with a political science degree from Columbia University two years later.

  • Six years later, he's still "trying to come to terms with his Korengal tour," Chivers writes, wondering if there would be "accountability" for those that sent them there.
  • "[T]he services and the Pentagon seemed to have been given passes on all the failures and the drift."
They just failed as leaders. They should know: They failed, as leaders. They let us down.
— Robert Soto

Go deeper: Read Chivers' full NYT piece.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 4: Trump turns on Barr

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Drew Angerer, Pool/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 4: Trump torches what is arguably the most consequential relationship in his Cabinet.

Attorney General Bill Barr stood behind a chair in the private dining room next to the Oval Office, looming over Donald Trump. The president sat at the head of the table. It was Dec. 1, nearly a month after the election, and Barr had some sharp advice to get off his chest. The president's theories about a stolen election, Barr told Trump, were "bullshit."

In photos: Protests outside fortified capitols draw only small groups

Armed members of the far-right extremist group the Boogaloo Bois near the Michigan Capitol Building in Lansing on Jan. 17. About 20 protesters showed up, AP notes. Photo: Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images

Small groups of protesters gathered outside fortified statehouses across the U.S. over the weekend ahead of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration Wednesday.

The big picture: Some protests attracted armed members of far-right extremist groups but there were no reports of clashes, as had been feared. The National Guard and law enforcement outnumbered demonstrators, as security was heightened around the U.S. to avoid a repeat of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, per AP.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
8 hours ago - World

China's economy grows 6.5% in Q4 as country rebounds from coronavirus

A technician installs and checks service robots to be be used for food and medicine delivery in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, China, on Sunday. Photo: Hu Xuejun/VCG via Getty Images

China's economy grew at a 6.5% pace in the final quarter of 2020, the national statistics bureau announced Monday local time, topping off a year in which it grew in three of four quarters and by 2.3% in total.

Why it matters: No other major economy managed positive growth in 2020. Although the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in China, the country got the virus under control and became one of the main positive drivers of the global economy even as the rest of the world was largely under lockdown.

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