My Turn: As we did in Vietnam, we now repeat in Afghanistan

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Published: 8/14/2021 7:56:19 AM

“US vows to isolate Taliban if they take power by force,” read a headline in Wednesday’s Recorder.

The empty, impotent threat behind such a headline is right out of 1975. Try it: simply take a headline about Afghanistan today and put it in the archives for a major U.S. paper and you will see how perfectly, even pathetically, our actions in Afghanistan today mirror those in Vietnam 45 years ago.

When it comes to intractable, but self-inflicted crisis in our history, presidents have a way of poetically framing our folly of helplessness. On slavery Jefferson said, “It is like holding a wolf by the ears; we cannot afford to let go, nor continue to hold on.”

On his folly in Vietnam, his inability to control what he had started, President Johnson said, “I feel like a hitch-hiker caught in a Texas hailstorm: I can’t run, I can’t hide, and I can’t make it stop.”

But they, from Jefferson through Johnson to George W. Bush, are awfully good at starting these bloody misadventures, then crying impotence when they can’t make it stop.

And so the deadly déjà vu all over again. Wringing our hands over what might happen to the bloody gordian knot we have made yet again, in yet another country.

And make no mistake: once the Taliban resumes control of the country, they will go about seeking revenge and making whatever kind of nation they want to. The Taliban is still the only cohesive power in the country, because after decades, absolutely nothing has changed in Afghanistan.

Nor could it have. Not by invasion and conquering.

But we did it anyway, America did. Doesn’t matter if we supported that war, or not. We own it. We, America, owns it, the blood, the toil the useless death. We own it. Failing to stop a war does not relive us of responsibility for its outcome. Sadly, we have never stopped a war. So maybe it is time to own that.

Still, we will hear the voices that will lift to decry the medieval misogyny, the bloody religious sectarianism of the Taliban triumphant. It will not be “Look what we have done!” but rather, “What barbarians they are!” The Right will play the blame game, the Left will decry their barbarism.

And the tragedy of course is that it was never, ever going to turn out otherwise. The Taliban, like the Vietnamese, were never going to ever do anything except win. Both nations had centuries of resisting and defeating foreign invaders. We were just one more.

All the trillions of wasted money, the tens of thousands of lives, the squandering of treasure, ability, and dreams will all have been for nothing: as in Vietnam, time just stood still until the foreigners were gone. Then time resumed.

We cannot, for good nor ill, jump start the evolutionary development of a nation’s politics, economy nor culture.

And our trying in Afghanistan (and Iraq), I think, set in motion the dissolving of our social contract that threatens us with dissolution today.

We were attacked on 9/11, that is true, and it traumatized the nation. But when President George W. Bush decided to invade two nations and continue to cut taxes on millionaires, he pulled on that thread which now has unwoven us.

War should be a shared experience, a shared trauma. But Bush first decided he would commit troops to two Asian land wars, but not ask America to pay for it. The income tax in America in the 1950s, in part to pay for World War II, was 90%! But we fought that war as a nation.

So, the wealthy were not asked to pay for the war, and the middle class, like those of us reading the Gazette, were not asked to fight it in the all-volunteer army. What genius the war machine is! Get rid of the draft so that those uppity college students don’t have to go, and resistance to foreign wars will go down!

And it did. Fighting to stop a war others will fight is not the same thing as fighting to keep your own ass, or that of your kids, will die in. And kill in.

And those soldiers who did? They were supposed to be a generation of soulless game playing zombies, and yet for the first time in its history, the armed forces suffered an epidemic of suicides among returning vets.

And all the while the Taliban set their clocks to their own time and waited for America to grow bored and frustrated, for some American official to arrive and simply call the game on account of ... losing.

And as soon as we have finished bum rushing the exits, we will turn our backs on Afghanistan, and “Afghanistan” will become just another chess piece we used to play chess with ourselves. “Who lost Afghanistan? You did! No, you did!” Is about all we can expect.

Our response to our latest folly could be shaped by that great American Henry David Thoreau in his classic, “On Civil Disobedience,” explaining why he spent a night in jail rather than pay a poll tax to fight the land-grab known as the War with Mexico. Thoreau used the metaphor of a drowning man to explain the duty of all citizens to overthrow the two great moral wrongs of his time — slavery and the war against Mexico — though both profited his nation.

“If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him, though I drown myself…” he wrote. The American people “must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

Joe Gannon, teacher and author, lives in Easthampton.

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