Today, August 16, 2021, will probably not go down in history as did Pearl Harbor, declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “day that will live in infamy.” That particular day, December 7, 1941, has, in fact, stood the test of time. But today’s day, in 2021, is being declared as much by a host of media pundits, politicians from both parties, and most of the public as similar. Why? Because today is the first official acknowledgement that Afghanistan has fallen to the Afghan rebel group, Taliban, after twenty years of American occupation.
Typically, the media now devotes full coverage to the event. As if the ball game began in the ninth inning.
The repercussions of this day, to be sure, are important. A nation does not place its soldiers and its reputation on the line in such a faraway and relatively obscure location without expecting at least some measure of compensation or reward. Nor does the “Leader of the Free World” expect its dignity and credibility to remain amidst defeat from a rough-hewn and irregular mob of guerrillas. Worse, the Taliban had already been defeated earlier and had taken the entire country within several days, compared to the overall U.S. occupation.
The spectacle of the U.S. defeat rises higher than mere embarrassment: the loss of effort and finances (estimated one trillion dollars), the commitment of soldiers and their families, especially combat deaths (2,400), the legacy of physical and mental ailments that will burden the country for years and decades, the global repercussions from the notion that the American commitment, under any circumstance, has little or no credibility, and, finally, the companion notion that “superpower” status as the creator of “world order” will inevitably be occupied by someone else (China?).
These are the potential consequences for the United States. Consequences for Afghanistan are immeasurable by western standards, but “tragic” by any comparable or historic criteria. For the U.S., with global responsibilities and centuries of involvement, it was a strategic and costly mistake; for Afghanistan, it could well be the “end of the line.”
But in assessing the lasting consequences of Afghanistan, a degree of historic perspective might help.
Consider the beginnings of the USA as a country. Within five years (1776-1781), a relative handful of American irregular soldiers (less than one-quarter of the population), led by a comparative few “radical” Patriots had ousted the world’s ranking “superpower” from the control of much of the American continent. They went on to establish an independent nation with political principles that continue to this day as the singular inspiration for freedom and liberty the world over.
The “losers,” on the other hand, themselves went on to develop the greatest Navy in world history and, at its peak, controlled all seven major oceans and twenty-five percent of the globe’s geography and population. Within one hundred years, they had allied with their former enemies to win the two greatest world wars in all history plus the Cold War with World Communism.
Not bad for a few million islanders isolated on a northern corner of the European continent.
After the Spanish-American War (1898), the U.S. took responsibility for “democracy” and stability throughout the region, with over twenty-five military occupations, especially in Haiti, Panama, The Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. Decades later, they had all failed miserably, especially in Nicaragua, which the Marines had governed since 1912. To change this, President-elect Hoover made a “goodwill” tour of Latin America (1928), while his Secretary of State (Henry L. Stimson) told reporters (1932) that the time for U.S. interventions was through. When asked if he would intervene again, he responded, “Not on your life.” At the same time, the State Department issued a memo that, in Nicaragua, it was “preferable to run the risk of revolutionary disturbances now and let the strong man emerge without further waste of time.” The Marines felt the same, with a private memo concerning “the good name of the Navy and Marine Corps, which would be getting out with the stigma of having failed in its job and withdrawing in the face of reverses.”
The net result of these events came with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” (1933) and the subsequent creation of the Organization of American States (OAS, 1948), two of the greatest achievements in the history of American diplomacy.
Do we recall April 30, 1975, the day when North Vietnamese regular soldiers first entered Saigon, South Vietnam, thus ending the U.S. twenty-five-year engagement (back to the Truman Administration) to “contain” Communism in that country? By its end, the Vietnam War took the lives of over 58,000 American soldiers, several times that figure crippled, plus over two million Vietnamese, and cost the American taxpayer close to one trillion dollars (in today’s value). Bombing tonnage by the U.S. Air Force exceeded three times the tonnage of all theaters of World War II. Not to mention the many years of domestic unrest and protest against the war, including the suspension of classes in over 250 colleges in one year alone (1968). The image of that day, April 30, is now being compared to Afghanistan in the current media machine as a reminder of the“doomsday” consequences of failed foreign “entanglements.”
Personally, I remember the “day” as if it were yesterday. Walter Cronkite made the announcement on his nightly show, as did all other networks. Graphic scenes of Vietnamese clinging to helicopters and planes dominated, the lines of civilians trying to exit were shown as they are today. Scenes of NVA soldiers entering the embassy and other buildings gave no doubt as to what was happening. Vietnam was over, and they all “moved on.”
The networks then showed weather and sports. The malls stayed busy, traffic was heavy, schools were open, and business was “usual.”
The next day was May 1, nothing to report. Within a few years, movie actor Ronald Reagan declared “morning in America.” He held five summits with Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and two years later, so did the Soviet Union. The Governor of Arkansas won election in ’92 on the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” (and he probably meant both parts). Most of the world declared America the new “superpower.”
The rest, so they say, is “history.” Vietnam today is with the U.S. and other countries against China.
Conclusion: Will August 16 be remembered next month, the next six months, the next year? Ten years away? There are 193 countries in the world (UN), Afghanistan is one.
There is an old saying: “Success is never final, failure is never fatal.”
What is “final”? What is “never”? How will each influence how the U.S. responds to August 16, 2021?