The only hope for the future of Afghanistan

Comparisons of the two wars are legion, but maybe there is one silver lining

August 26, 2021 4:43 am

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on Aug. 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

In more than 75 interviews I conducted with Vietnam War veterans during a two-year period, there was only one common element among all of them.

They were officers, enlisted soldiers and draftees, from every branch and every year. They had differing political views and their experiences, as part of the military, were almost unimaginably varied. Except for one thing.

They all believed the Vietnam War would have been winnable if the politicians had just let them.

About the only moment they all had in common was watching the last moments of Saigon fall and a helicopter hurriedly leave the U.S. Embassy right before the advance of the North Vietnamese. Few veterans can talk about that moment, even though most were back in the states, without speaking wistfully or having a few tears in their eyes.

So I can’t imagine what they thought when they saw the choppers and airplanes leaving Kabul, Afghanistan, last week. The images were so perfectly similar that I can hardly find the words to describe the vacant feeling of watching a nation seemingly repeat the same errors that we had supposedly learned. Quagmire. My generation’s Vietnam. And an abiding sense of not understanding any of it, from why we were there to why we left like that.

I suppose it’s up to the next generation of journalists and current historians to help unwind those threads and weave together a narrative that makes more sense than the jumbled mix of photos, headlines and messages we’ve received back home during the course of four presidential administrations.

The only thing positive is that in the intervening years between Vietnam and the end of Afghanistan, we’ve seemed to welcome our soldiers home in a better way, but only time will tell if we live up to our commitment to care for the wounded vis a vis the Veterans Administration.

As luck would have it, I had lunch scheduled just 48 hours after the pull-out with a former Army colonel who had spent time fighting in the Middle East. He, too, was without words, but had re-read the memoirs of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the lead architects of the Vietnam War. McNamara hadn’t written his memoirs of Vietnam till the 1990s, so they read like an extrapolation of lessons. The man I was meeting with had pulled 11 lessons from McNamara’s book about our involvement in Vietnam, and every one of them fit Afghanistan.

And so we sat talking about what had been accomplished in both places, and why we had failed to grasp an understanding of the history, culture, language and customs. We talked of why just handing another group of people a copy of the Constitution and saying, “Here, do this,” is probably a recipe for chaos rather than a blueprint for freedom.

However, the conversation turned back to Vietnam – a country we are now on good terms with. Though it is nominally communist, it’s a prosperous country almost completely transformed from the provincial and impoverished nation we started “helping” in the late 1950s.

When veterans go back to visit and when tour groups fly over there, they are often shocked to see a friendly, modern country that, for the most part, welcomes Americans.

Even though we lost so much in treasure and blood in Vietnam, it’s a country that enjoys peace and a modicum of prosperity, even if it didn’t wind up adopting the form of government we would have preferred.

And so in a week of headlines that have seemed hopeless and tragic as we contemplate what cruelties the Taliban could inflict upon citizens, especially women who have grown up in a more free Afghanistan, about the only silver lining I can see in otherwise black storm clouds is the idea that someday, probably decades in the future, Afghanistan can be something more like Vietnam.

When we look and ask ourselves what all of those names on the Vietnam War Memorial stand for, it’s easy to reply in heady terms – life, freedom, liberty, happiness. The reality of war is a bit more messy, though. It doesn’t always feel so noble when you read the political histories, and see how those lofty ideas get translated into the battlefields, jungles of Vietnam or the steep mountainous terrain like we faced in Afghanistan.

However, I hope if veterans look at Vietnam – or other countries where our soldiers have gone and died – they’d be proud to see a group of people living in peace and determining the destiny of their country. Hopefully, they’d be happy to see the standard of living improved and cooperation between two countries formerly at war. After all, soldiers die in war, but they don’t die to perpetuate it.

Even though I have read the violent and turbulent history of Afghanistan – a crossroads place that has been rocked by war and strife for hundreds of years and where it’s been famously said that empires (Britain and Russia) go to die – I hope that the countless fortune we’ve spent there, eclipsed only by the life loss we’ve sustained in that place so far away can somehow be transformed by the influence of American values for the past 20 years into a country that can live in peace and prosper.

Something not so unlike life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.