Chronicle Of A Failure Foretold

“I was reminded again how the men who start wars invariably live through them to justify the behavior that has left millions maimed and dead.” Jim Harrison

Saigon, 1975. Kabul, 2021. The motif of the limits of American military power is that of helicopters evacuating personnel from embassy compounds once thought to be impregnable, and permanent.

I was opposed to the invasion of Afghanistan from the beginning. While the American reaction to the 9/11 attacks was understandable, it always struck me as an overreaction, misguided, out of proportion. I place the Patriot Act in the same category. The folly of trading civil liberties for the illusion of safety, and in the process creating a massive bureaucracy with a creepy name — the Department of Homeland Security — was sure to return to haunt us, and did in the summer of 2020 when protestors were snatched off the streets of Portland by DHS thugs in unmarked vehicles and uniforms without insignia or identification. I never consented at the ballot box to be kept under constant electronic surveillance by my own government. Homeland. The word has fascist overtones.

Had 9/11 been treated like a crime America would not be scrambling to exit Kabul today. Nor would Osama bin Laden have been able to evade capture for ten years, hiding in plain sight in Pakistan. We were told that bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world, hunted by all of America’s major intelligence agencies, and with help from our “allies” in the region. I’m sure it will be fifty years before the full story about bin Laden is known, but my gut sense is that the reporting on the raid that killed bin Laden by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is nearer the truth than any official explanation by the US government. And, of course, the War on Terror didn’t end with bin Laden’s death. Over the course of two decades the lies told by the military establishment to Congress, the media, and the public about Afghanistan rival the lies told about Vietnam. We’re winning; progress is being made; we’re turning the corner; we can leave victorious once the local security forces are trained and equipped, indoctrinated with our fool-proof methods; all we need to completely turn the tide in our favor is a troop surge; all we need is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Year after year. Thousands of Afghan and American lives, trillions of taxpayer dollars, wasted.

Once the rather nauseating explosion of “thank you for your service” tributes, solemn moments of silence for our fallen heroes, and stadium flyovers by Navy F-14’s lost their novelty, the American people forgot about Afghanistan. Who could keep track of the Whack-A-Mole nature of the conflict, with the Taliban being routed one year only to return the next more potent than ever. Our victories on the ground were ephemeral; the Taliban had only to be patient, to wait. That was the way to outwit the overwhelming military power of the foreign invader. It worked against the Soviet Union. It worked against the United States, too.

I’m struck by how often the most egregious blunders are conceptualized and sold by men and women with the finest pedigrees, educated at elite institutions like Harvard and Yale. The best and brightest of the Vietnam Era, the financial wizards who crashed the world economy in 2008, and the architects of the War on Terror, which was always meant to be evergreen. We’ve forgotten the inconvenient fact that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were nationals of Saudi Arabia, but the United States could hardly launch a military invasion against our dear friends in Riyadh, not at the risk of losing access to Saudi oil. No, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney gave the Saudis a soft pass, as has every administration since. What was the first foreign country Donald Trump visited? Saudi Arabia. Hubris. Greed. Corruption. Rot. This is how global empires deteriorate and collapse. Under the crushing weight of stupidity and the mythology of their own infallibility.

In my head I can still hear the voice of George W. Bush, the faux cowboy, as he justified the undeclared war against a country that had not attacked the United States; a country in a part of the world that most American citizens couldn’t find on a map or begin to understand; a country of regions, tribes, languages, dialects, feuds and traditions. Bush painted with a simplistic brush, good against evil, on our side or the side of our enemy, our benevolent god against their malignant god. A shocked and frightened nation bought the story. Now will come the excuses and justifications and retellings of the story, recast, not as a tale of colossal failure, but as a noble effort to bestow American-style freedom and democracy on a country that never asked for either.

Brian Tanguay writes about politics, culture, and books. Co-founder of the California Review of Books and the long running blog, Shouts from the Balcony.