At the midway point between Memorial Day and Labor Day, I think we can all agree that while it’s a tad better than last year’s dog days, 2021 hasn’t exactly been “the summer of love,” or “... fun,” or whatever the PR gurus promised us. The only thing I know about the pandemic with any certainty is that it’s not over. I’m back to wearing a mask in the supermarket. What about you?
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Afghanistan seems headed for a Vietnam-style fall. The U.S. should have seen it coming.
As I watch the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, where American troops are finally ending combat operations and coming home after nearly 20 years of fighting, I keep thinking about a podcast I’ve been listening to this summer called Nixon at War, about the 37th president’s conduct in Vietnam. One of the key points from host Kurt Andersen is that Nixon — whose presidency saw the death of 20,000 U.S. troops and countless Vietnamese — knew that America needed to get out and that the Communist North would win, but he slowed down the departure so he wouldn’t run in 1972 as the president who’d lost a war.
Even though Nixon was called out in real-time by the likes of Sen. Ted Kennedy for needlessly prolonging the war, the president’s cynical, lethal politics carried him to a landslide reelection. Meanwhile, it’s the words uttered by disgruntled Vietnam veteran (and future secretary of state) John Kerry from 1971 that linger: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
In Afghanistan, U.S. operations had already wound down to the point that no Americans have died in combat since Army Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Army Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez were killed in February 2020. History will tell if they were the last men to die for a new generation of mistakes by U.S. leaders every bit as cynical and feckless as Nixon, and shockingly ignorant of the recent past.
I predict you’ll be hearing a lot of Vietnam analogies in the weeks ahead, as the U.S. forces — who’ve mostly already left the war-torn region, including an abrupt dead-of-night pullout from Bagram Air Base — aim to fulfill President Biden’s order to end all combat operations by Aug. 31, or just before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that prompted the military intervention. Already, the Taliban is regaining key Afghan strongholds, and at some point sooner rather than later Kabul could fall — much as Saigon collapsed in May 1975.
Let’s be clear: If you care about human rights and particularly the rights of women, a return to Taliban rule will be a nightmare. And as my Inquirer colleague Trudy Rubin has so eloquently called out, the Biden administration’s efforts to get pro-U.S. interpreters and other allies out of Afghanistan to safe havens remains woefully inadequate. If and when Kabul falls to the Taliban, Republicans will be sure to bludgeon Biden with the bloody shirt of retreat. Former President George W. Bush — who sent troops in Afghanistan in 2001 and badly screwed up by pointlessly shifting focus to Iraq — is already openly critical, saying last week that “this is a mistake.”
I wonder, how long Bush would like to keep American boots on the ground of a nation where — after spending $2.26 trillion that could have obliterated poverty at home, and 241,000 deaths including more than 2,400 U.S. troops — we’ve had no clear objective for years and where most native Afghans clearly didn’t want us? 2031? 2075? 2401?
“The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan,” wrote ex-U.S. adviser Carter Malkasian, as quoted in an excellent analysis of America’s Afghan failure by the AP’s Robert Burns. “It prodded men and women to defend their honor, their religion, and their home.” As Burns details in his piece, even after two decades Americans seemed shockingly ignorant of Afghan culture and history, including its not-so-ancient defeat of invaders from the USSR. That’s on top of the stunning failure by both Republican and Democratic presidents and the Pentagon to absorb Vietnam’s recent lessons about imposing U.S. will on faraway lands.
Biden and his defense team will need to get the details correct, but the 46th president is 100% right on the strategy. His choices were either to literally continue the so-called “forever war” forever, or cut the cord and make sure that no more men or women are the last Americans to die for yet another foolish mistake. Ignore the political opportunists who plan to make 2024 political hay over a difficult decision. Leaving Afghanistan now is a courageous choice — and the right one.
Yo, do this
What am I buying with my Audible monthly credit? Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States — the latest stop in my 2021 racial reckoning tour. Native American removal, slavery and other racial injustice, and labor unrest — there’s surely a school board in Texas that will ban me for reading this.
Meanwhile, I’ve had dictators on my brain, especially since the first week in January. Maybe that’s why I’m glad I discovered the podcast Real Dictators, which fittingly came out in 2020 and covers the bios of the world’s worst like Hitler and Stalin in handy short bites of 3-5 episodes. Narrated by the English actor Paul McGann, Real Dictators was morally unsparing in detailing the true awfulness of Francisco Franco and Mao Zedong, two butchers who nonetheless died in power, of old age, and solicited by American presidents.
Ask me anything
Question: Family and friends complain about the cost of gas as if it’s a harbinger of inflation. But as compared to the cost of housing and college education and wages (CEOs too) what is that actual significance of the price of gas at the pump? — Via Tommy Hamilton (@tommy60430 on Twitter)
Answer: Fuel prices can be affected by wider economy (remember how gasoline plunged last spring when the world was in its coronavirus recession?) but this commodity is also affected by more complicated supply-and-demand issues, like hurricanes, war in the Middle East, etc. But here’s the real issue: We want everyday people to buy homes and go to college, but do we want them burning more fossil fuels, instead of encouraging them to take mass transit or commute less when possible? Now’s a bad time, but if prices at the pump come down we should consider raising the gas tax, to fund clean energy research and new infrastructure.
Friday’s opening of the long-delayed Summer Olympics in Tokyo — more than one year late, thanks to the global pandemic — is a moment that a younger me would have been counting down on the calendar with great anticipation. I’d gotten hooked on the Summer Games after the first one I’d watched as a wide-eyed 9-year-old — the epic 1968 competition in Mexico City, which famously had its raised-fist controversy and also some remarkable moments, including Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long jump. So hooked in fact that when I learned the 1976 Summer Games would be just a 7-hour drive away in Montreal, I bought tickets for all kinds of arcane events (men’s field hockey, rowing, etc.), hopped in our horrific green AMC Gremlin and drove with a high-school friend to Canada, where we saw amazing sports — and had Queen Elizabeth II wave to us from her late-night motorcade.
Today, I’m kind of anticipating the Tokyo Games with dread, and I suspect I’m not alone. Under pressure from TV networks that invested a gazillion dollars for Japan to build gleaming new stadiums (and still lose money, as these monuments to capitalist sporting excess always do), an inexorable Olympic momentum is going to let the Games begin. This despite Japan’s failures in controlling COVID-19, the necessary barring of all spectators, and the predictable infections among athletes — on top of the quadrennial controversies about hypocritical drug rules and God knows what else. I’m not boycotting — not when my heroes from U.S. women’s soccer are on the pitch — but I pray that 2020-21′s problems will somehow inspire the folks who run the Olympics to get back to where they once belonged, and reinvent the spectacle to retain the simple joy of competition while somehow casting out the money changers.
Inquirer reading list
Every morning, Philadelphia has been waking up to nightmarish headlines from an epidemic of gun violence, with far too many bullets striking children — even infants and toddlers. Philly is on track for its all-time homicide record, and other big cities are close behind. In my Sunday column, I argued that progressives can’t ignore the problem and should instead seek ownership of it, by pushing solutions that avoid the social injustice of the mass-incarceration regime in America.
As previously discussed here, the big national story remains COVID-19 vaccine refusal — especially in pro-Trump “red states” — which is now snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as America had hoped to see the pandemic wind down this summer. A new Gallup shock poll found that Republicans’ confidence in science has plunged from 72% in 1975 to just 45% today. Over the weekend, I looked at how this happened and what it means for a nation battling a virus and climate change.
Leona Helmsley may have been “the Queen of Mean” but the Trump-era NYC hotelier totally nailed it when she said taxes are for the little people. That’s even true, or especially true, in affluent Radnor Township on Philadelphia Main Line where the historic Ardrossan estate (inspiration for 1940′s Philadelphia Story, which means a lot or nothing depending on how old you are) was subdivided into mini-estates, with the rich owners getting $15 million in tax breaks for “open space” that can’t be accessed by, well, “the little people.” The Inquirer’s Jacob Adelman broke the story — another example of a civic outrage you’d know nothing about if there weren’t journalists working to expose them. Make sure this work keeps going — subscribe to The Inquirer today.