Well, hasn’t this been a week! As if all our poor Earth’s travails — environmental, geological and political — weren’t enough, now we’re watching video footage that, except for its scope and suddenness, reprises the United States’ humiliating withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1975.
And just as quickly, we’re discovering we are a nation of outspoken experts on every phase of this failure of our 20-year, multi-trillion-dollar attempt to create a stable democracy, governed honestly by an properly elected central authority, in a cultural milieu utterly unsuited for it — rather like trying to braid the tail of a galloping horse.
Yet still the experts pop up — logistical, military, aeronautical, political, cultural, you name it. There are two main themes to their comments: Who’s to blame, and I could have done it better myself. I’m not complaining; I’m an expert, too. But I’ve been around longer, and been reading news and opinions for quite a while — I broke in on Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson in the early-1940s — and I’ve seen this drama before.
Just as always, everyone expressing his opinion (there’s a scatological description of opinions not appropriate here) is dead sure he or she is right. Disagreement leads quickly to flying spittle, waving fists and name-calling. I wish we could listen to the wisdom of Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox. It was offered in response to a question about COVID-19 restrictions, but it’ll serve:
I — what I hate about all of this discussion is how sure everyone is of themselves. And I think that’s a mistake that’s happening across the board … Every special educator … every kindergarten and first-grade teacher that I’ve talked to have talked about real issues, cognitive delays … those types of things. Now, the question is, do the health outcomes outweigh that? And then I hear people on my side of the aisle saying that the virus is absolutely meaningless when it comes to young people, that there are no impacts at all. And that’s not true, either. And so I wish there was just a little more humility, that there was a little more room for nuance. And I don’t know that anybody’s completely right on this one.
Consider World War I. With the victorious Allies’ knee on its neck, Germany accepted punishing penalties and demands for reparations that led naturally to resentment and the rise of a demagogue who fed its beleaguered citizens constant doses of nativism and various fears until it blossomed into Nazism. But the end of World War II saw, instead of retribution, the Marshall Plan which, unsurprisingly, led to a different sort of peace. It was a perfect example of what I call “stopping the hurt.” Then the Cold War revived our superannuated generals’ authoritarianism (remember Dr. Strangelove? We all do, but instead of laughing, we might have been listening).
Saddam Hussein was our ally against our perennial enemy, Iran. But then, even though his megalomania kept Al-Qaida and the Taliban at bay, our weak president, clearly influenced by advisers with defense contractor connections, pitched us a fearful vision of mass destruction and a campaign of “shock and awe” that led to — what? Only a cockeyed optimist could have failed to see the mess at the sloppy end of that campaign. Watching it develop, I felt like a chip in a millrace, as we beat our chests and prepared to blast Baghdad into the Stone Age.
Afghanistan was pitched as a “hunt for the architect of 9/11,” but the mission crept a bit from there. All of us are complicit in this one. We’ve known for years that the millions we poured into propping up the Afghan government were transshipped elsewhere. We’ve subsisted on agreeable fictions, like the “body counts” of Viet Cong shamelessly fed us by General Westmoreland. Even our geniuses were caught flat-footed by the melting of the Afghan army under the Taliban sun.
As I mentioned, I’ve seen this drama before. The Taliban (“students, seekers”) are already broke, fractured and separating into factions. We made an egregious mistake in propping up a corrupt government and its Potemkin military. Now it’s time to let the Afghans, already rallying against an unthinkable return to medieval Sharia law, run their country as only they know best.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.