A U.S. flag is lowered as American and Afghan soldiers attend a handover ceremony from the U.S. Army to the Afghan National Army, at Camp Anthonic, in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan on May 2, 2021. Credit: Afghan Ministry of Defense Press Office via AP

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When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, I was a 20-year-old college student, living a safe, comfortable life. That day, I happened to wake up early — for once — and watched with horror as I turned on the news and learned what had happened.

Watching the coverage, I was filled with a number of strong, often conflicting emotions. Fear, anger, pride and sadness all washed over me at the same time as the gravity of the event sunk in.

Those feelings caused me to, in the days and weeks after the attacks, consider joining the military. Like so many people my age, I was swelling with national pride and a desire to do something to contribute to the fight against the terrorists who had attacked us, and for a time that seemed like the logical thing to do.

Central to this burgeoning desire inside me was a belief in the cause. At the time, it felt to most of us like the first morally unambiguous war since World War II. Here we were dealing with clear examples of right and wrong, good and evil. There were bad guys — in this case, both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — and our fight with them was a generational struggle meant to snuff out threats to the United States and the broader free world.

Having grown up hearing stories about the complex and dubiously justified wars engaged in by America in the second half of the 20th century, this seemed to many of us to be our chance to fight for something that was inarguably righteous.

All across the country, kids just like me who felt all those same feelings signed up to serve, hoping to do their part. I had several meetings with recruiters, and came very close to joining the Navy, but in the end decided not to go. I had a chance to answer a call, and I didn’t take it.

As I sit here today, looking back at 20 years of the conflict in Afghanistan, I do wonder what my life would have looked like had I gone through with it, and what I might think of the war in retrospect, considering it today. Given the events of the past several months, culminating in the recapture of Kabul by the Taliban this past weekend, it would be easy to think I would have ended up jaded.

After all, how could you not be? Our country went to war to remove the Taliban from power and reshape Afghanistan from a safe haven for al-Qaida into a liberalized ally in the global war on terrorism. Twenty years later, the country has basically returned to the very place it began, so it would be easy for a veteran to feel like the sacrifice they made was in vain.

I very much hope that those brave souls who decided to step forward and serve their country in Afghanistan resist the urge to feel that way, and instead listen to the words of retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, who became a quadruple amputee while serving in Afghanistan. Mills released a statement Wednesday, articulating his thoughts.

“Please remember,” he said, “that our sacrifices were not in vain. We did our job and we need to be proud of that. Our service helped keep our families and our country safe for nearly two decades. Our service allowed the people of Afghanistan to thrive and create opportunities for themselves over the past 20 years.”

He’s right. Regardless of how the conflict ended and where we are today, the actions of our military for two decades did incredibly important work. They took the fight to the enemy, and destroyed countless terrorist cells abroad. They decimated al-Qaida and drove it to near extinction. They protected American citizens from harm by focusing the attention of the enemy on them rather than on us here at home.

And yes, they helped so many people in Afghanistan, particularly women, have opportunities they never could have dreamed of having before.

If America failed in Afghanistan, it was a failure of the political class, and their unclear, often incompetent management of a war that had very ill-defined goals. That failure belongs to them, not the American soldier, and it doesn’t invalidate the important work that they did to keep America safe. I hope, as feelings of disappointment fill them, that they understand just how important their sacrifice was.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...