The recent events in Afghanistan sent me back to my undergraduate days. The date was 30 April 1975, when the last American personnel on the ground in Saigon, Vietnam were airlifted out of the city as it fell to the communist forces. American troops had fought to prevent this for over a decade, with a presence already beginning in the 1950s after the French withdrawal. Like most Americans, our family initially supported the war as the latest battle in the ongoing struggle to contain communism. In elementary school my class wrote letters to soldiers serving in that conflict, and I still have the letter my GI wrote me in return. We were, after all, patriotic Americans, and communism had proved to be a vicious ideology, capable of murdering scores of millions of innocent people where it was in power.
As that war became a stalemate with no end in sight, increasing numbers of Americans lost confidence in their political leaders. Presidents Johnson and Nixon sounded decreasingly plausible as they defended their respective strategies in continuing the fighting and finally negotiating a “peace with honour” in Paris in 1973. I would turn 18 that year and fully expected that I might be drafted into the military. A lottery had already been held for young men my age, and my birthday was near the top, although poor eyesight would likely have exempted me from actual service.
When the end finally came, only a month after I turned 20, Americans were horrified by the scenes they were seeing on their televisions: South Vietnamese clamouring to leave their country as the United States abandoned them to their conquering enemies.
America’s longest war
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, many of us had hoped that the U.S. had learnt its lesson from a quarter century earlier. And what was that lesson? Make sure that any foreign military involvement clearly defends legitimate American interests, know the country and its people where your troops are stationed, and keep the goals realistic. Among other things, this rules out nation-building.
Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration, once its troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and later Iraq, succumbed to idealistic dreams of reshaping these countries into stable constitutional democracies. Unfortunately, a successful democracy is dependent on two major factors: first, a cohesive sense of nationhood, and second, supportive political traditions. Both were absent in the two countries. This practically guaranteed that the wars would become quagmires with no easy exit.
Afghanistan became America’s longest war. When Americans abandoned the country, the government in Kabul collapsed, the president escaped in disgrace, and the Taliban quickly overran a country from which they had been ejected two decades earlier. The United States became the latest in a string of imperial powers to meet defeat in this central Asian region.
And yes, the United States is an empire. By using this label, I do not mean to discredit that country altogether or to vilify it. Empire brings advantages by creating a broad zone of peace in which normal life and commerce can occur. But any effort to manage an unstable globe carries risks. No single nation could possibly acquire enough knowledge of distant lands or mobilize enough resources to make a success of such efforts consistently. Moreover, if its leaders are in the grip of an ideological narrative that distorts realities in one way or another, the possibilities of failure multiply.
So now I reread what my GI wrote me in 1966: “you asked who is winning the war. Well, I’m glad to say that, I believe we are.” Sad to say, my GI’s name is engraved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
There will always be casualties in war. But a just foreign policy requires considerable wisdom – a wisdom that too often eludes leaders persuaded of the righteousness of their country’s motives.
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