History Professors Consider How The Afghanistan War Will Be Remembered

Historians in the News
tags: war on terror, Afghanistan


It has been a week of painful images and deep soul-searching as America's longest war nears its end. Taking stock of these 20 years at war is going to be a long process, but we wanted to spend some time considering what's been gained and what's been lost. How is this conflict going to be viewed by history? How might this long conflict have changed the country? Now, this is going to be just one of many conversations, but today we've called on three guests who are experienced thinkers on this subject. Two of them are veterans themselves. Theodore Johnson is the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also a retired commander in the U.S. Navy with two decades of service, including as a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Theodore Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Kathleen Belew is a professor of modern history at the University of Chicago. Her scholarship focuses on violence in American life and culture.

Professor Belew, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And last but not least, professor Gary Solis is a former U.S. Marine company commander and a longtime professor of law of war, including at Georgetown University and West Point.


MARTIN: Hmm. Professor Belew, you are an historian of the modern era. And we're still watching events unfold in Afghanistan, but I wanted to ask if you think we could start by thinking about what this conflict represents in American history - 20 years of war ending in this way. What are your thoughts about that?

BELEW: You know, the place that I always like to start is thinking about historical continuity. And one of the things that I've studied that's very concerning that is already afoot and likely to increase is a ginning up of activity among violent political extremists at home. We've seen the aftermath of war is the best predictor for Klan and other white power kinds of activism. And particularly after the Vietnam War, we saw this reach a fever pitch in the United States. Now, what happens to that effect when we're talking about a prolonged conflict, like the one that we are ending in the global war on terror, I think we don't know yet. But I think that there are some really important parallels between the images of the embassy falling in Saigon in 1975 and the images we saw this week in Afghanistan.

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