What’s America’s Story of Afghanistan?
Vietnam lingered in the American body politic like a residual infection. Afghanistan could also poison American politics for years to come.
“ALL SORROWS can be borne,” wrote Isak Dinesen, “if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” Today, America has sorrows to bear. The Afghanistan War has left 2,500 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Afghans dead, the Taliban in control of Kabul, Al Qaeda crowing about victory, and teenage Afghan girls unable to attend school. America needs to tell a story about Afghanistan or craft a narrative of the war that helps Americans make sense of events, learn lessons—and move on.
As the Afghanistan War recedes into the past—at least for Americans—the war moves from the drone’s eye to the mind’s eye. The Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote: “All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Military loss is one of the most arduous traumas that a country can endure. “To lose an empire is to lose yourself,” said one French general in the 1960s. “It takes all the meaning away from the life of a man, the life of a pioneer.”
Battlefield failure may be especially hard for Americans to comprehend because U.S. culture is obsessed with winning. As General Douglas MacArthur put it, “There is no substitute for victory.” Despite this upbeat sentiment, since World War II, American wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan all ended in alternatives to triumph. Today, the United States is fractured by partisanship, gripped by conspiracy theories, and is highly vulnerable to the strain of military loss. President Joe Biden wants to pivot from foreign wars to domestic problems, but the legacy of Afghanistan could further unglue U.S. society.
HOW WILL America recall a tough loss like Afghanistan? Memories of past failure are a shattered mirror of sharp-edged fragments that reflect discordant images. Military fiascos can produce three kinds of national trauma response. The first is collective amnesia where people suppress difficult memories. The journalist David Halberstam described the Korean War as “a puzzling, gray, very distant conflict, a war that went on and on and on,” about which, most Americans, “preferred to know as little as possible.” Similarly, after Vietnam, the journalist Martha Gellhorn said the immediate American reaction was “consensual amnesia.”
The Biden administration hopes that Americans will shrug off the loss in Afghanistan. Biden dodged reporters’ questions about the crisis: “I want to talk about happy things, man.” Afghanistan has long been a forgotten war. In 2020, one poll found that: “over half of Americans said they do not follow any news about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.” In the summer of 2021, the war suddenly reentered American consciousness, as the media showed shocking images of the Taliban’s lightning advance, the fall of Kabul, and the chaotic American departure. And then, once again, people forgot, as the residues of Afghanistan slipped from the mind like a dream upon waking.
Forgetting can sometimes be useful, allowing people to let go of harmful resentments or create space to accommodate new experiences. But in the end, amnesia is a coping strategy not a solution. Forgetting past failures is a ticket to repeating the same mistakes and being unready for the next challenge. After Vietnam, the U.S. military tried to forget everything about its experience of guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia. Rather than institutionalize the lessons learned from a decade of tough fighting, the military stopped teaching about Vietnam in its professional schools, and the Army destroyed all its materials on counterinsurgency at the special warfare school at Fort Bragg. As a result, the United States was unprepared for later unconventional conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
A second trauma response is the emergence of a “syndrome” where Americans fixate on past reverses and try to avoid copying them at all costs, like the Vietnam syndrome or the Somalia syndrome. Never again. In the coming years, an Afghanistan syndrome will create a strong aversion to any military campaign that physically resembles the war in Afghanistan, for instance, nation-building in the greater Middle East.
Of course, America ought to avoid repeatedly hitting its head against the wall. Washington should be wary of overconfidence about the wisdom of regime change and the ease of reshaping foreign societies it does not understand. But syndromes can be an intense but narrow form of learning—at once too potent and too limited.
The United States may become overly skittish about missions that bear a superficial physical resemblance to a past fiasco. In 1993, the United States was scarred by the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Somalia, when eighteen American soldiers died during a humanitarian intervention. The Somalia syndrome meant that the following year, in 1994, the United States refused to stop the genocide in another African country—Rwanda.
America may ward off a repeat of the exact same experience but fail to reckon with deeper problems. Barack Obama entered office in the shadow of the Iraq syndrome. When the United States intervened in Libya in 2011, Obama was determined to make Libya the opposite of Iraq. This time, the United States would act with United Nations and Arab League support. There would be no nation-building and no American boots on the ground. The United States would “lead from behind” and take a back seat to the Europeans. But after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power, Libya collapsed into much the same kind of anarchy seen in Iraq. Obama said that failing to plan for the consequences of regime change was the worst mistake of his presidency. America is like a cat that jumps on a hot stove and learns not to jump on the stove, but otherwise continues to leap without looking.
A third harmful response is weaponization, where people use military loss as a cudgel to hammer their political opponents. After Vietnam, Richard Nixon claimed that liberals, Congress, and the media had stabbed America in the back. Kathleen Belew showed in her book Bring the War Home that feelings of betrayal in Vietnam helped to forge an alliance of white supremacists, apocalyptic cultists, and anti-government militiamen that spurred Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City. In 2004, Republicans reopened the wounds of Saigon by “swift-boating” John Kerry and attacking his record of service in Vietnam. Donald Trump dodged Vietnam through a medical deferment, but he nevertheless stoked popular anger at military failure and promised that America would start winning wars again.
TODAY, EVADING responsibility for Afghanistan is one of the few bipartisan positions in Washington. The contours of America’s exit strategy were set by Trump’s deal with the Taliban in February 2020, which laid out a roadmap for U.S. withdrawal in 2021. By the time Biden came into office, America’s leverage in Afghanistan was rapidly receding. Despite the vast power gap between the United States and the Taliban, the Afghan group held the best cards. The main Taliban demand—an American withdrawal—was something the United States also desperately craved. The Taliban were unwilling to pay for something that would happen regardless any more than they will pay for tomorrow’s sunrise over the Hindu Kush. As the saying goes, America had the watches, and the Taliban had the time.
Meanwhile, like the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations before it, the Biden administration refused to level with the American people about the slow-motion debacle unfolding in Afghanistan. The truth was much too painful to hear. Biden blamed Afghan soldiers for the Taliban victory—“The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight”—even though the Afghan security forces had suffered 66,000 dead, or over twenty-five times more fatalities than the United States. At the same time, some on the Left weaponized Afghanistan in a different way, seeing the campaign as an opportunity to demonstrate the foolhardiness of almost any U.S. military intervention.
There is a healthier national response to loss: renewal. Sigmund Freud distinguished between the visceral dejection of “melancholia,” which triggers a retreat from the world, versus “mourning,” or slowly moving on from an injury. After all, failure has one redeeming quality: it’s how people learn. Loss can cut through the institutional and psychological barriers to change. Therefore, military defeat is a priceless opportunity for the nation to shift course. U.S. policymakers should engage in a root-and-branch assessment of the operational problems in Afghanistan, such as the folly of trying to construct another country’s military in the image of the U.S. military. To take hold, however, these lessons should be underpinned by deeper learning in U.S. society. And for this to happen, America needs a story about Afghanistan.
NARRATIVES ACT as a kind of social glue. Shared stories with agreed lessons are how societies communicate. People naturally think of war as a story, with heroes, villains, and a narrative arc. A tale of war creates order out of an overwhelming deluge of information. Narratives of conflict shape the bounds of acceptable war and create a model for what to copy and what to avoid. The first great text of Western literature is a tale of war, The Iliad. Our stories of war are inherently simplistic and easily manipulated. The historian Drew Gilpin Faust said, “war struggles and jostles against the artificial structure of narrative.” We are drawn, for example, to emotionally laden tales with striking visuals. The novelist Chimamanda Adichie described another problem, “the danger of the single story” or one dominant tale that shuts out the diversity of experiences. But understanding war is impossible without narrative. Story is the grammar of memory.