Amnesia – Our Super Power & Our Kryptonite: Thoughts on the U.S. War in Afghanistan

An illustration accompanying today’s Washington Post article about the debacle in Afghanistan shows a friend of ours, a 19-year old Marine, lying in blood on the floor of a helicopter. Corporal Britt had been on the ground in Afghanistan for just two weeks when an improvised explosive device detonated nearby. My wife Chris met him weeks later, when he came for treatment at the VA clinic where she works as an occupational therapist. I met him when he enrolled in a PTSD research study I was running at VCU. Years later, he is hemiparetic with impaired vision and speech, living with a friend, fishing when he can, and wondering what that war was all about anyway. A question we all would do well to ask, as President Biden withdraws our last ground troops from that embattled country.  A month ago, Biden promised that this next two weeks would not replicate our withdrawal from Vietnam:  “There’s going to be no circumstance when you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”  But with the Taliban surrounding Kabul and the U.S.-trained government armed forces fade like morning fog before them, expect to see exactly that.

Which will bring to an ignoble end the nation’s longest war.  The numbers are numbing, as numbers tend to be: 20 years, a quarter of a million Afghan casualties (including at least 50,000 civilian men, women and children killed), 6,242 Americans killed, 20,666 Americans wounded, and $2.26 trillion down the drain (AP NEWS).  This is a tragedy of our own making, one that stretches across Republican and Democratic administrations alike, and it is unlikely that anyone will ever accept the blame for what we have done there. In 1987, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who had stood on the beach at D-Day, wrote this about Vietnam and our tendency to amnesia after war:

“Forgetting is a normal human activity, although the usual result of forgetting mistakes and craven deeds is to repeat them.”  She added, “Amnesia spared the men at the top, the men responsible for the war: the nation forgot to blame them.”  And this: “It was over.  And no one was responsible. The grandees in Washington and Saigon – the politicians, the policy-makers, the planners, the administrators, the generals – just walked off.  Nobody even said, “I’m sorry.” Reading Gellhorn’s scathing essay, “Last Words on Vietnam” (in her indispensable collection The Face of War) now is doubly shaming, because she was so accurate in her recognition that yes, we would forget, and forgetting do it all again, which in Afghanistan we have.

Twenty years is a long time for a nation with acute attention deficit, a half hour news cycle, and an instant gratification addiction to keep track of a war. Do you remember that we initially invaded Afghanistan as a police action, seeking to hunt down the 9-11 plotter Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda compatriots? That he escaped to Pakistan when the Bush Administration simultaneously launched “Shock and Awe” on Iraq, claiming “weapons of mass destruction” that never materialized?  That the Obama administration chose to prop up a frankly corrupt government in Kabul, and take on the Taliban army, even after Bin Laden was dead and Al Qaeda shredded? That the Trump administration blustered and fretted, even feted the Taliban at Camp David?  How likely is it that anyone in any of these administrations will be held accountable for the two decades of devastation they caused, for the proof they once again offered our allies of American fecklessness, for allowing themselves to be led like naïve children by war mongers spouting the same optimistic lies told so often during the Vietnam War? 

How likely is it that anyone will even apologize for any of this?  Dick Cheney sits on his Wyoming ranch, counting his Halliburton fortune, Bush, a hobbyist oil painter, dares to display portraits of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, blithely overlooking (as he overlooked so much) his responsibility for their thousand-yard stares. Obama, who fought the war in his own detached, cerebral style, perfecting new tactics – drone and missile strikes and satellite surveillance – that will serve our future “police actions” and “little” wars, prepares streaming entertainments. If only the Taliban had promised Trump a hotel in Kabul, the war would have ended already. 

That said, I think, at the very least, that the numbers bear repeating:  20 years, a quarter of a million Afghan casualties (including at least 50,000 civilian men, women and children killed), 6,242 Americans killed, 20,666 Americans wounded, and 2.26 trillion U.S. dollars down the drain.

The Taliban, who are, yes, cruel Medieval fundamentalists, are by all accounts also superb fighters and canny opponents. Rallying his troops in 2008, a Taliban leader counseled that beating the Americans only required patience: “They want to flee from Afghanistan just as they turned tail and ran from Vietnam.” Dude knew his Americans.

Afghans not aligned with the Taliban would do well to flee, if they can. But if they remember our history, as we do not, they will know that our current President, then a young Senator, voted against aid to refugees from Vietnam. What can they hope from him now, as he completes a sputtering withdrawal begun in the latter days of the Bush administration, while no doubt counting on Americans to shrug and forget it all?  

Young men like our friend Britt will not, of course, be among those with amnesia. They will limp along in the shadows, unwelcome reminders of our aimless (and shameless) imperial ventures. Out here in the light, we will breathe a brief sigh of relief, then get on with the work of forgetting, so that no doubt, in no time at all, we again launch Shock and Awe on some other wayward nation. After all, how else can we justify our multi-trillion dollar arsenal and keep our restless citizenry in line?     

August 20: The withdrawal from Kabul looks every bit as chaotic as that from Saigon. Today the Washington Post shared this article, our 20-years war by the numbers.

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