As the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, one image defined the moment: A military Chinook helicopter hovering above the U.S. Embassy, as diplomats and staff fled to the relative safety of the Kabul airport. On Twitter, photographs and video of the helicopter circulated side-by-side with images of another chaotic evacuation after the fall of Saigon in 1975. History never seemed to rhyme so perfectly.
A previous version of the caption accompanying the 1975 photo from Saigon incorrectly identified the building as the U.S. Embassy. The helicopter was hovering over another building a half-mile from the embassy. The caption has been corrected.
But it was maddening to see these two events linked so glibly, as if the still unfolding tragedy of Afghanistan was already understood and fully processed. There are, of course, serious parallels between the current moment and the collapse of South Vietnam, but the larger and most substantial connections are deeper than the particulars of history. They have to do with character — the American character — our hubris, our confidence and our habitually scattered sense of attention and focus.
Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper, ran the Kabul picture on its front page, with the giant headline “It’s Over.” For members of the military, which lost almost 2,500 members over the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, that headline makes sense. But one can’t help but think of all the people for whom this isn’t over, for whom this is just beginning — the Afghan translators, friends, allies, women, teachers, journalists, artists, intellectuals, children who tasted the 21st century and who now face a future of medieval misery.
The sense that “it’s over” must be infuriating to anyone who isn’t cocooned in American exceptionalism. It captures the blithe ineptitude of our foreign policy so perfectly. Like a giant transport plane moving through a sea of desperate people on the tarmac, we blunder from catastrophe to catastrophe. We spend a trillion here, a trillion there, and, in the end, helicopters must ferry out the bureaucrats, functionaries and spies, who failed to see what was painfully obvious to people who ventured beyond the blast walls of the capital’s fortified center. On to the next thing.
I spent a week reporting in Afghanistan in 2004, during the country’s first presidential election since the fall of the Taliban. I felt intense sadness upon leaving. Sometimes, when you leave a place, you say, good riddance, may I never come back. But Afghanistan is a beautiful country and I knew it was unlikely I would return. I wanted to absorb its every detail into my memory — I can still smell the smoke of cooking fires in the October air.
It had been a strange trip. I kept finding the answers I was looking for, which made it easy to write stories yet left a nagging sense that something was awry. The enthusiasm for elections was genuine and widespread, at least as wide as I looked. I sought out the stirrings of civil society, and found them, including a radio station north of Kabul that had built a loyal and avid following of listeners who wanted access to news and information. A female candidate for president was received respectfully and even enthusiastically by voters who pledged to support her. In a village south of the capital, the people phrased their support of America’s preferred president — Hamid Karzai — in curiously elliptical ways. “Some are saying that we will vote for Hamid Karzai.” But maybe that was just a quirk of translation.
It was a bewildering, exhilarating week, just long enough to unsettle any sense of having actually understood the place. Then I left, and moved on to other stories. The American attention span also wavered and flickered and sputtered out, only acknowledging our presence there when terrorist attacks were particularly deadly, spectacular or lethal to Westerners.
Countries, like travelers, want to make sense of things, which is why we reach for an image — a quick metaphor, a ready-made analogy — that will seal history in amber, give it a moral, cast it as a fable. That is, this was all just Vietnam redux and we should have learned from history the first time around. Of course, we should learn from history. But the failure in Afghanistan isn’t just a matter of not knowing history, not having read enough books about the Graveyard of Empires. We weren’t just fatally ignorant of history. Too many people were fatally ignorant of the present. And what little we did know — that the project was floundering from its inception — didn’t circulate, certainly not among the public, which was consistently misled by our military and political leaders.
In Afghanistan, the aftermath of this will be bloody and cruel. In the United States, the aftermath will be played out such that we are almost certain to avoid any genuine reckoning. The war was started by a Republican president, and continued by a Democratic one; a Republican president negotiated away any hope of an orderly exit, while a Democratic one presided over the incompetent endgame. There is hubris aplenty among our military leaders, but also among our diplomats and intelligence services and even some of our aid organizations and NGOs.
Meanwhile, the death toll rises in Haiti, but there’s no time to think about that, and Haiti doesn’t offer us the same mirror to see ourselves and argue over the nuances of words like “surrender” or “collapse” or “debacle.” Laying blame, avoiding blame, pointing fingers, those are the urgent matters. The tumult of recrimination must be kept active long enough to weary the public, and then we must move on to another crisis. This isn’t to say, blandly, stupidly, “everyone is to blame.” But our politics and our media are structured in such a way that the truth of what has happened will be dead on arrival. It takes humility to learn, and we are salting the earth against any hope of humble receptivity to painful lessons.
It is galling that the image we may remember — a helicopter above the embassy — doesn’t even give the country the dignity of having a unique, independent history. For us, it ends just like Vietnam, which means that no matter how painful, the chapter closes with a familiar cadence and resolution. But for those who must live through a new age of Taliban governance, every day will be hard in its own particular and distinct way. For us, now, it’s a matter of sorting out the history. In Afghanistan, people are living in the present, which will go on without mercy in our absence.
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