On Aug. 26, as American presence in Afghanistan neared its sordid end, 13 service men and women, most under age 25, were assigned a path that did not return them to the comforting arms of their loved ones, instead into the lasting embrace of a divine infinity.
From the whale-like jaws of the military plane when the flag-draped coffins emerged, reverentially carried by the military escort, memory of my mother reciting Lord Tennyson’s poem came gushing back: ‘Home they brought her warrior dead’.
The poem speaks poignantly of the stunned stupor into which a woman falls upon seeing the dead body. When she neither “swoons nor cries,” those around her say, "She must weep or she will die." After desperate ways to get her to weep fail, an old nurse places the warrior’s child upon the widow’s knee, when, “Like summer tempest came her tears— Sweet my child, I live for thee."
Through 20 years of a bloody, confused, and confounding war we and our leaders have functioned as though in a stupor.
The war initiated to avenge a bloody attack on America’s citadels of power and pelf which killed and permanently damaged thousands of innocent Americans, gained a momentum of its own, eventually becoming the longest war ever waged by America. Along the way, it may have lost its purpose but not its supporters.
Even after 10 years when Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded the attack, was killed by us, we refused to let go of Afghanistan or the war, both of which engulfed five consecutive U.S. presidents, bled dry our treasury, and maimed, killed, or permanently damaged thousands of our soldiers. It also thrust millions of gold star families into the inferno of eternal pain and suffering over the loss or disablement of their loved ones.
Bereavement is like cancer. It metastasizes. When soldiers die, their parents die with them, and lights turn off equally on their bereaved spouses, partners and children. The capacity to dream is forever lost for parents, while for the rest, their dream’s trajectories have to change.
Wars are unjust for innumerable reasons. Not least is that they are fought on the shoulders of others – not just the lower ranks of armed forces, but more broadly – the socioeconomically vulnerable. Unlike the lottery of draft which picks fighters on a color-, race-, and class-blind basis, a volunteer army picks like vultures on the live carcasses of the needy. The draft’s other merit is that it provides dissenters with cause to mobilize against war, an advantage the Vietnam War clearly had over the Afghan War.
Absent draft-card burners to challenge them, our leaders continued their slugfest indefinitely, till a brash Donald Trump came along to upend the system. He negotiated with the Afghan leaders and the Taliban a U.S. withdrawal conditional to terms to be strictly adhered to by the latter, including no killing of Americans in the interim, and the creation of a broad coalition to govern the country.
President Joe Biden blames Trump for tying up his hands, a blatant ‘untruth’ given his instant reversal of almost every decision Trump took in domestic or foreign arenas. In announcing Aug. 31 as the deadline by which to vacate Afghanistan, Biden therefore was acting entirely on his own, freed of Trump’s apron strings.
Astonishingly, though that decision was taken in April, the Biden administration was slow-footed or just plain incompetent in not devising an efficient and phased way to bow out of Afghanistan, instead choosing to compress it in the terminal days and hours before the self-imposed date of expiry. Worse, their contemptuous disregard for Trump allowed conditionality to fall by the wayside.
Hence occurred the disastrous beginning and end of a job that could have been done with dignity if not with finesse.
The avoidable loss of our 13 warriors is inexcusable and indescribably tragic, but so is the wounded pride and prestige of America, and its tarnished credibility as the world’s leading power and democracy’s lodestar.
To claim success as Biden did on Aug. 31 in his address to the nation, and as his advisers have done repeatedly, sounds hollow in the face of what we and the world witnessed and deem a dastardly execution of America’s exit from Afghanistan.
It took two bloody decades to snuff out a war. But peace as negotiated and carried out by the present administration is not guaranteed. What is assured is the continued threat of terrorism lurking both within and outside our borders.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is an Indian American published author and opinion writer. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)