Afghanistan, Vietnam and the Limits of American Power

Afghanistan, Vietnam and the Limits of American Power


In other words, the uniformity of the news media 50 years ago forced a national reckoning; the lack of a coherent narrative, let alone a coherent set of facts, around Afghanistan makes such a reckoning much less likely.

But that doesn’t mean the spectacle of a botched withdrawal won’t leave a scar.

David Paul Kuhn, the author of “The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution,” said he expected that the public had already turned inward after decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the scenes in Kabul would reinforce Americans’ isolationism, seasoned with ever-greater partisan antagonism.

“Then, as now, America is a nation consumed by domestic disunion as we retreat from our longest war — and with that retreat, our footprint on the world stage recedes,” he said. “Thus, we are living Afghan-Iraq Syndrome, echoing the Vietnam Syndrome of old. The nation has turned inward, as it did then.”

Perhaps the most useful parallel between then and now is a more general point — namely, that military failures have a habit of illuminating all that is wrong in a society and its politics. In the 1970s, it was the sputtering end of an era built on the myth of American superiority. The urban and ecological crises at home, just like the military crisis in Southeast Asia, could not be solved no matter how much money or political will was expended.

The same is true today. As Mr. Kuhn pointed out, the fundamental inequity of the war — the small number of soldiers deployed, drawn from a small number of communities — reflects the vast inequities of modern American life.

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“The 9/11 wars might come to capture their own class war, one truer to this era: the division between those on our front lines, and those on the sidelines,” he said. “From an American perspective, it is our small warrior class who mostly suffered this war. It is our ‘essential workers’ who disproportionately suffer this pandemic. Amid historic wealth and cultural gaps, is this once-iconic meritocracy increasingly dependent on a small worker class to do our suffering? Have we now become a society of ‘expendables?’”