A Time for Truth About Afghanistan


August 31, 2021

It wasn’t long after I’d left South Vietnam for good—my year-long tour of duty having abruptly ended two weeks early, owing to growing enemy encirclement of the country—that the news broke that Saigon had finally fallen. This was in April of 1975, and by then America’s appetite for war had pretty much been exhausted. I had been stationed just outside the city and had traveled in and out many times, and I was saddened by the ravages visited upon a once gracious capital city known as “the Paris of the Orient.” 

But seeing the footage of that last flight lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy, with scores of Vietnamese desperately clinging to the helicopter, left me sickened and ashamed. Here was the final chapter in a failed U.S. attempt to rescue a beleaguered ally from the tender mercies of the Viet Cong. We had abandoned these people and for no other reason than that we’d lost the will to win.

It was a humiliation I had hoped never to witness again.

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And if I hadn’t seen the footage coming out of Kabul, and watched the slow-motion debacle unfolding day after day on the television screen, I might never have seen such sights again.

What we have done to ourselves in allowing this to happen, what we have allowed to be done to the Afghans we promised to protect, is unspeakable. We have dishonored ourselves before the world and it will take more than the usual domestic housecleaning measures to remove the stain.

But as we have got to begin somewhere, let us at least remove the people responsible for this catastrophe, beginning with the President and the whole wretched crowd of his advisors, including especially those buffoons in uniform whose incompetence has been amply demonstrated in the course of this disaster.

We spent twenty ruinous years in a country we could not in the end save. And at what cost? Countless lives and treasure. For what? To find and punish the few terrorists who blew up our buildings along with three thousand or more of our citizens. That is why we first went in. And, surprise, surprise, we succeeded. In fact, in the first weeks and months of the war, we managed, thanks to a handful of Special Ops, to locate and kill most of them.  

Why didn’t we then leave? How have we spent the last twenty years? In nation-building. An exercise in sheer protracted futility, costing many thousands of lives and many more billions of dollars. To what end? To turn eighth-century goat-herding tribesmen into 21st-century suburbanites? A pre-modern world of Muslim fundamentalists suddenly transformed into latte-drinking listeners of NPR?

There are some ideas, as Orwell would say, so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them. Anyone could see, unless he were so besotted with ideology as to be blind to the real world, that here was an experiment bound to fail—to self-destruct, actually, which it certainly did, along with the littered dead blown apart by suicide bombs in the last days of what has laughably been called an “evacuation.”

What a hideous and dreadful end for those poor Marines at the airport and the hundreds of Afghan civilians they were there to defend! 

Who is going to take responsibility for this? That’s what I want to know. Who owns this catastrophe? This is what America needs to determine in the coming weeks. If not for ourselves, then certainly for our children, who have been forced to grow up in a world dominated by the so-called War on Terror. Thanks to the long shadow cast by 9/11—the whole massive and far-reaching apparatus that has become the security state—it is the only world they know. They have never boarded a plane without having to submit to the dehumanizing routine of a weapons search. They are surely entitled to know how this happened.

I’m thinking in particular of my own children, who are no less bewildered by events than I am. One is a young Marine who, not too long ago, saw action in the Middle East. Once a Marine, he tells me, always a Marine. He rallied early on to the Corps, to the ideals of heroism and love of country. He joined because he believed in what it stood for, because he wanted to defend America from her enemies. His sense of betrayal runs deeper than most. Having lost friends to this insane war, it is very personal to him.

This is not about politics, by the way. One does not need to draw partisan lines in the sand, or to have worn a MAGA hat with a Trump t-shirt, to feel a sense of outrage at what has happened. There is enough guilt here for both parties to be ashamed. Neither Democrat nor Republican has evinced much courage in facing the enemy, beginning with the refusal to call them by their right name: Islamic-inspired terrorists. 

Failure to identify the nature of the enemy, of the flywheel of fanaticism that turns the Taliban wheel, has seriously impaired the effort to defeat them. Is there any surprise that the war on terror has lasted longer than any other in U.S. history? Imagine if we’d left unexamined the premises of Nazi ideology when fighting the Third Reich? Besides the redoubtable William

Kilpatrick, who has been wonderfully untiring in his efforts to unmask the true face of the enemy, who else on the Right has had the courage to bring up the subject? Not even FOX News will touch it. As for politicians of conservative persuasion, unless I’ve missed something they’ve pretty much kept their own counsel.  

Such self-deception has long been the centerpiece of our policy toward the Muslim world, and the destruction now playing itself out at the Kabul airport stems from it. It is probably too late, but we need to start telling the truth anyway.

[Photo Credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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