Once the North Vietnamese offensive began in March 1975 our military and civilian planners went into high gear. By the end of April when Saigon fell, refugee camps were already in place in Guam, the Philippines, Camp Pendleton, California, Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania, and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. American leaders gave clear signals to the advancing North Vietnamese that any interference with the retrograde would be met with military force. A full naval Task Force was off the coast, scooping up thousands of people (including my wife’s entire extended family) who had set out in small fishing boats without knowing whether they would live or die, and then brought to refugee camps that were ready to assist them. In a very short time, under the threat of an advancing army, our military rescued more than 140,000 Vietnamese, with hundreds of thousands of Boat People to follow over the next few years.
In a perverse way, perhaps we should look at the calamitous blunderings in Afghanistan as an opportunity to demand a true turning point. Americans know that a great deal of our governmental process is now either institutionally corrupt or calcified. They want change, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, no matter his empty credentials in government. Lacking clearly expressed options, most don’t really know how to articulate the specifics of what that change might encompass. It’s kind of like the statement of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart many years ago that he couldn’t define pornography for you, but he knew it when he saw it. In this case, most Americans can clearly agree that what they have been seeing time and again, domestically and overseas, is not good government, despite honorable intentions among many dedicated people.
Even the very best among those who come forward to serve often find that the good they came to do is stultified by distracting debates over the very premise of why the American system of government was created and whether the icons of our past were truly motivated by the words incorporated in our most revered documents. The military itself is increasingly being used by leftist activists as a social laboratory to advance extreme political agendas. Congressional oversight leans heavily toward social issues, with too many members struggling without success to focus on accountability at the very top when, for instance, good people at the bottom have to implement poorly conceived plans that might kill them.
This is not an exaggeration, and it is not just what has been happening at the Kabul airport and elsewhere in Afghanistan. Those situations merely provide us a microcosm, a symbolic moment in time, that allows us to see the implications of confused or distracted leadership, military and civilian alike, motivated by political machinations. In the American political system, we have the capacity to demand that this inequity change. What we need is the will to do it.
Jim Webb served as a Marine in Vietnam, as Secretary of the Navy, and as a United States Senator. He is the Distinguished Fellow at Notre Dame’s International Security Center.