As the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, one image defined the moment: A military Chinook helicopter hovering above the U.S. Embassy, as diplomats and staff fled to the relative safety of the Kabul airport. On Twitter, photographs and video of the helicopter circulated side-by-side with images of another chaotic evacuation after the fall of Saigon in 1975. History never seemed to rhyme so perfectly.
But it was maddening to see these two events linked so glibly, as if the still unfolding tragedy of Afghanistan was already understood and fully processed. There are, of course, serious parallels between the current moment and the collapse of South Vietnam, but the larger and most substantial connections are deeper than the particulars of history. They have to do with character — the American character — our hubris, our confidence and our habitually scattered sense of attention and focus.
Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper, ran the Kabul picture on its front page, with the giant headline “It’s Over.” For members of the military, which lost almost 2,500 members over the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, that headline makes sense. But one can’t help but think of all the people for whom this isn’t over, for whom this is just beginning — the Afghan translators, friends, allies, women, teachers, journalists, artists, intellectuals, children who tasted the 21st century and who now face a future of medieval misery.
The sense that “it’s over” must be infuriating to anyone who isn’t cocooned in American exceptionalism. It captures the blithe ineptitude of our foreign policy so perfectly. Like a giant transport plane moving through a sea of desperate people on the tarmac, we blunder from catastrophe to catastrophe. We spend a trillion here, a trillion there, and, in the end, helicopters must ferry out the bureaucrats, functionaries and spies, who failed to see what was painfully obvious to people who ventured beyond the blast walls of the capital’s fortified center. On to the next thing.
Countries, like travelers, want to make sense of things, which is why we reach for an image — a quick metaphor, a ready-made analogy — that will seal history in amber, give it a moral, cast it as a fable. That is, this was all just Vietnam redux and we should have learned from history the first time around. Of course, we should learn from history. But the failure in Afghanistan isn’t just a matter of not knowing history, not having read enough books about the Graveyard of Empires. We weren’t just fatally ignorant of history. Too many people were fatally ignorant of the present. And what little we did know — that the project was floundering from its inception — didn’t circulate, certainly not among the public, which was consistently misled by our military and political leaders.