Matthew Hoh, the recipient of The Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, always wanted to serve his country. He grew up hoping to be a firefighter like his father but ended up joining the Marines when no department seemed to be hiring. Hoh calls it the best job he ever had.

After two tours of duty in Iraq and a stint in the State Department in Washington, D.C., Hoh was appointed Senior Civilian Representative of the American government in Afghanistan as a political advisor. On September 10, 2009, five months into his yearlong contract, he resigned from what he calls the second-best job of his life. In doing so, he became the highest-ranking U.S. government official to publicly renounce his country’s foreign policy in Afghanistan.

Hoh’s job was to represent American interests at the village, district and provincial level in Afghanistan — first to the brigade commander in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where he spent two and a half months, and then to the Afghan provincial governor in the southeastern province of Zabul. But through his daily conversations with Afghans, the early doubts he had about the U.S. role in Afghanistan only grew stronger.

“Within a month, people I was meeting, local and foreign, officials and civilians, told me it was a civil war with very little benefit to the United States,” he said. “We are fighting people who don’t want to be occupied.”

But it was the story of Korengal Valley, in Konar Province, that was pivotal to Hoh’s change of heart. Approximately 20 kilometers long, the valley is home to roughly 10,000 Afghans who only speak Korengali and want nothing but to be left alone. Yet American soldiers have suffered so many casualties there that in a 2008 article, The New York Times named it “the valley of death.” Hoh learned that when American troops were first stationed there in 2004, there were hardly any skirmishes. But that changed over time as the Americans occupied a timber mill — in a region where the timber trade is vital to the economy. They also brought in the central Afghan government, a faraway power that had done nothing for them, which demanded a timber tax on Korengalis for the first time. From only two encounters in an eight-month period in 2004-05, violence has escalated so much that now there is almost daily combat in Korengal.

Military commanders told Hoh that there is no purpose to a continued presence in Korengal Valley; that their presence there had accomplished nothing useful. “If we leave, [the Korengalis] are not about to march on Kabul,” Hoh said. “And what boggles the mind is that for every valley that we’re in, there are 50 that we’re not.”

After Jalalabad, Hoh was stationed in Zabul, where his experiences further convinced him that Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war, not an insurgency. “The villagers say that they don’t like the Taliban and they don’t want to be occupied. They have been in a state of war for the past 30 years. They just want to be left alone,” Hoh said.

His decision to resign was fuelled by a combination of things: his belief that with al-Qaeda no longer present in Afghanistan, the U.S. government had no business in Afghanistan; his growing realization that despite numerous briefings to his superiors, nothing was done to pursue a political rather than a military solution; the fraudulent national election; and his perception that leaders ignored the truth when it didn’t fit their agendas. “I didn’t want to participate any longer in a government that was failing to comprehend the situation or do the right thing,” Hoh said simply.

His four-page resignation letter — published in The Washington Post in October 2009 along with a front-page story about Hoh’s courageous act — was insightful, articulate and hard-hitting: “The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.”

Hoh’s public stand made waves in the foreign policy community. Hoh received offers of employment from both Ambassadors Eikenberry and Holbrooke. Flattered, he accepted the latter, going back to Washington, D.C. to a position on Holbrooke’s staff. But when he picked up on perceptions within U.S. government and military circles that there would likely be a troop increase in Afghanistan, Hoh realized that once again, political solutions were being sacrificed for military ones. “I felt a bit like I was selling out. If I believed in the mission, I could have just stayed in Zabul. That was where I could do the most to help. But more troops would equal more casualties; and so I reconsidered,” he said.

At a time when Afghanistan was still looked at as the “good war,” Hoh came forward, very publicly and at great risk, to question the war’s fundamental rationale. His passionate and informed letter of resignation lit a spark and was, for many, the first extended argument against further escalation in Afghanistan. He did this at great personal cost, severing his ties to the U.S. government and cutting off what was, by all accounts, going to be a very successful and promising career. His criticisms have proven remarkably prescient. Had he not come forward the way he did, the debate over Afghanistan would look very different. For all these reasons, we award Matthew Hoh the 2010 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

2010 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches

Speech Transcripts

MATTHEW HOH: I left for Afghanistan a year ago, on the 18th of this month. I never had any thought that I would be here receiving this award for what in the simplest terms is for being a war protester. Never thought I’d be here doing this. But only after a few weeks in Afghanistan, after having worked on Iraq and Afghan issues for pretty much most of my life since 2003, either here in Washington, D.C. or in country in Iraq or Afghanistan, I’ll be the first to admit I was tired and I was under a burden. It’s stressful to do that; it’s difficult to do that. It becomes very personal and it gets very emotional. But then there’s another part to it, an intellectual part and a rational part that you can’t divorce, that you’re constantly thinking about. And why are we doing this, what are we there for? 

After just a few weeks in Afghanistan, it became very clear to me that the Afghanistan War, a war that had right and worthy reasons when we entered it in 2001 had transformed to a self-perpetuating cycle of habitual troop deployments, and aid and development money just wasted. And, of course, all those senseless deaths, all of which I came to understand had more attachment to the reality, the political reality here in Washington, D.C. than to anything that was actually happening in the valleys and villages of Afghanistan. 

I’m not going to go into the intellectual or rational reasons for my resignation. But I’d like to comment a bit on the moral aspects of it, particularly how I came to find a need to stand up and say, “This is not right;” to oppose it and to resign. Because what I needed to oppose, what I found myself realizing, was that I couldn’t be honest to myself if I didn’t oppose the deaths of our young men and women for the purposes of propping up the Karzai regime. 

There are two things that happened, and both over the Internet. I think what I want everyone here to take away from this is the influence that you can have on other people, because this is what pushed me to do what I did. The 2009 Ridenhour Courage Prize recipient, Bob Herbert of The New York Times, wrote on the death of Robert McNamara last July: “Kids who are sent off to war are forced to grow up too fast. They soon learn what real toughness is, and it has nothing to do with lousy bureaucrats and armchair warriors sacrificing the lives of the young for political consideration and hollow, flag-waving risk-free expressions of patriotic fervor. 

“McNamara, it turns out, had realized early on that Vietnam was a lost cause. But he kept that crucial information close to his chest, like a gambler trying to bluff his way through a bad hand as America continued to send tens of thousands to their doom. How in God’s name did he ever look at himself in a mirror?” 

So I sent Bob Herbert’s letter to friends and colleagues and family. It’s not something I do. But I was disturbed. I was disturbed by what I had seen in Iraq and in Washington, D.C. for the last six and a half years. And I was conscious of my place, and my generation’s place, in history and in time. 

So the response I received from my dad kept me awake at night for weeks until late August when the Karzai regime stole the elections. And you all know that the elections were—the U.S. spent over $200 million on those elections. At this time last year, we were rushing tens of thousands of American marines and soldiers into Afghanistan in order to ensure free and fair elections. And where, by my count, by what I could figure out, over a hundred of those young men and women were killed last summer trying to ensure free and fair elections in Afghanistan. While I was there, the Karzai regime stole them, and this is on top of other problems I had with our presence there. And then we had our senior diplomat for the region say that, “Well, you know, we have electoral problems in our country. Look at what’s happening in Minnesota right now.” 

So, my father wrote to me and he said, “To wage war in countries like Afghanistan and Vietnam, where countless wars have taken place over time, is fraught with chances of prolonged losses. The mountains in Afghanistan and the rice paddies of Vietnam, with the losses come, or will come, the absence of popular and media support. But the leaders believe they can and must win, so the war goes on. 

“Look at how long it took Nixon to get out of Vietnam and he inherited the war. Obama, probably with us for the next seven years, how many young American men and women will die during that time? Hopefully Gates is not McNamara, who was an evil man, and he will not lie to Obama. But you know better than most the climate and attitude in Washington. I just pray and hope that Afghanistan does not become Obama’s Vietnam, but I see so many similarities, I despair. Meanwhile, the media is wetting their pants covering the Michael Jackson mess. What a country.”  

So I just wanted to thank Bob Herbert and thank my dad for pushing me to find the courage to do what was right, and to no longer participate in facilitating and abetting such senseless deaths. This has been a process where I have people come up to me continually and telling me I’m a good man and I’m courageous and I did the right thing. I just see myself as some guy who wrote a four-page letter saying, “I don’t want to participate any longer.” 

But, I know that it’s wrong to ask our young men and women to die for the Karzai regime. It’s corrupt, it’s illegitimate, it’s the very definition of a kleptocracy. It’s wrong to say our soldiers and marines are fighting and dying and killing Taliban and that this is somehow related to the security of the United States since September 11, When the reality is, we’re fighting a rural population that is only resisting occupation.  

And it’s wrong to say our young men and women who return home through Dover Air Force Base have been lost in the fight against terrorism and that their families’ sacrifices have bought American security when al-Qaeda is not present in Afghanistan. It’s wrong. And there are so many families that are suffering today to support a political narrative for this country about military victory in a war that can’t be won militarily. It’s wrong. 

So I just want to thank everyone for this opportunity to speak. Thank you for this honor to be included with these previous recipients. And I encourage everyone here to do as Bob Herbert does, and as my dad did with me, and help influence people to do what’s right. Thank you.