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Relearning The Lessons Of History

As a Vietnam veteran, I have been especially troubled by recent events in Afghanistan. We don’t seem to learn from the lessons of history.

We thought, relative to Vietnam, that military might along with American know-how could turn around a civil war between North and South Vietnam. We discounted the long history of Vietnam, including the fact that before French colonization, the country had been an independent nation. No amount of American intervention was going to overcome the drive to reunify that country.

In Afghanistan, almost the reverse has happened–no amount of American intervention was going to unify a country which has had little to no history of being a unified nation state. When we went to war in Afghanistan, it was a country run by tribal war lords. It is still that way.

There will be a lot of negative fall-out from this capitulation, particularly for President Biden and his administration. A departure date had been set by President Trump and it was extended a bit by Mr. Biden. Yet, both men, it seems, were misled by “rosy” intelligence reports put out by the Pentagon that the Afghan Army, trained by us for 20 years, would stand and fight for its own country.

If there is one lesson we should have learned from the Vietnam War, it is that one should not always rely on press releases and unrealistic, hopeful intelligence reports coming from the defense establishment…especially when it comes to “nation-building,” which is not its forte.

Before going to Vietnam as a Navy Patrol Officer, I had read a lot of history about Vietnam including several books written by Bernard Fall who had lived in and visited Vietnam many times. The culture he described and the politics associated with it, were much different than what official Washington was putting out.

I discussed this a bit with a U.S. Army Afghanistan veteran recently who had spent a year in that country. He described it as a place where the combatants were primarily motivated by who would pay them the most–not as to who loved their country more. It was a story of people looking more for American money than for a more democratic society. Many were mercenaries who would shift sides depending on who would give them better combat pay.

The British and Russians tried and failed to subdue and administer this cobbled-together group of mountain tribesmen that someone drew a boundary around and called “Afghanistan.” Now, so-to-speak, America is “going down the tubes of history” in the same place.

It is sad. It is sad especially for the young women and girls of Afghanistan who will likely be sent back to limbo and isolation with the probability that they will receive little or no education. It is sad for the families of American service men and women who died there. It is sad for our NATO allies who also sent troops and tried to help the country.

Post-Afghanistan, our national challenge will be in exercising leadership in a fractured world at a time when it is desperately needed, especially with a communist, authoritarian China on the rise.

Somehow, in the midst of this debacle, we will need to dig down deep into our American roots, recommit ourselves to the rule of law, and strive to continue our engagement in international affairs.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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