Those We Leave Behind
Will America repeat the tragedies of the past as it walks away from another war?
As the United States and its NATO allies abandon Afghanistan, there will be massacres of the Taliban’s enemies, a vicious persecution and virtual enslavement of women, and assaults against the mostly Shiite Hazara minority. All of this has already begun. Thousands who have worked directly with the Americans will be targeted, including those who have served in the Afghan army and police and their families.
It’s true that, after the first few successful weeks in 2001, the United States mishandled Afghanistan. Ultimate success may never have been possible, at least in the way we envisioned it. Still, Afghanistan faces a tragic fate. After so many deaths and so much effort and suffering, only ashes will remain.
Modern colonial wars usually end that way. After World War II, the French waged bloody wars in Indochina and Algeria to try to keep their colonies. Yet in Indochina, many of those suspicious of the communist independence fighters, but who felt patriotic, were unwilling to support French domination. In the same way, the Arab and Berber Muslim majorities in Algeria may have begun with doubts about the extremists of the National Liberation Front (FLN); but most of them, in the end, would not support European rule. Those who remained reluctant to support the FLN or, worse, fought for the French were massacred in the thousands, immediately, when the French gave up.
Wait! The Americans weren’t a colonial power. Weren’t we welcomed as liberators in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least at first? Yes, but as we tried to reshape these societies in our image—with all our military officers and civilian contractors, who understood Washington, DC, lobbying and American public relations manipulation better than they did Asian and Middle Eastern societies—we produced a series of disasters. Many of the locals decided over time that we were in fact not liberators but heathen interlopers. We killed too easily, had too much money, befriended the corrupt, and disrespected Islam. We could not be trusted.
This was not new; sadly it had happened in Vietnam, too. There was a time, early in the Vietnam conflict, when South Vietnam had enough popular support to survive independently. After millions of Vietnamese died on both sides, and widespread destruction wrought by American bombs and chemicals, the support was gone and South Vietnam fell. We weren’t trying to create a colony; but many Vietnamese, even in the South, certainly thought we were.
If I had been a college student in Vietnam at the time when I was actually a college student in the United States, I might well have concluded that I should side with my own people against the brutal, ignorant American foreigners who were supporting a corrupt, ineffective South Vietnamese government. Today, if I were an Afghan village elder, I would probably want the Americans gone for many of the same reasons, even if I disliked the Taliban almost as much.
There are still interminable debates about what has happened in Afghanistan. There are many books and articles to come. For the bloody ”American War,” as the Vietnamese see it, following the similarly bloody “French War,” there will never be a definitive conclusion.
Yet the task right now is not to pass judgment on the last six decades or so of America’s wars; it is to focus on one of the many tragedies that these decades have left behind. The local people who wind up on the losing side will surely not be pitied by the winners of these conflicts, who see themselves as liberators. Just as surely, they aren’t likely to be celebrated by an outside power, like America, that may have lost but has the luxury of trying to forget as quickly as possible.
A French parallel
There is an odd French story about this dilemma that few Americans know. On November 28, 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy bestowed the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration, on an eighty-nine-year-old former French army major, Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc. In 1961, at age thirty-nine, he had commanded an elite Foreign Legion regiment fighting to keep Algeria a French colony. When it became clear that French President Charles de Gaulle was going to abandon the effort, Saint Marc joined an attempted military coup, which quickly failed. The generals who led the coup and the professional soldiers, as opposed to the French draftees who formed the bulk of the army and just wanted to go home, were labeled fascists. Saint Marc surrendered. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to ten years in prison. After five years, he was freed. He then retired.
He was in fact far from being a fascist. As a teenager, he had volunteered in the French Resistance, fighting against the Germans and their Vichy government collaborationists allies. He was captured by the Germans, tortured, and sent to Buchenwald, where he almost died. After the war, he joined the army, fought in Indochina, and was devastated when the French left. The many Vietnamese who had sided with the French against the communists begged to be taken to South Vietnam. Many were, but many others never made it. Saint Marc thought they had been betrayed.
In Algeria he fought for an impossible ideal, to somehow integrate the Muslim population with the 10 percent of the population who were Europeans and create some kind of interethnic harmony. That was never possible, though many thousands of Algerians did fight with the French for various reasons. De Gaulle realized such a solution was impossible, but he also did not want France inundated with Muslim refugees, so he made sure only a relative few would be allowed in. The European settlers were all let in. When the FLN took power, they managed to kill some Europeans who had not left in time. As the escape route for most of the Muslims who had fought with France was closed, many thousands were massacred. France shut its mind to the tragic, fruitless, cruel war it had waged. Decades later, French General Jacques Massu, long retired at ninety-two (the French colonel in the classic film The Battle of Algiers is modeled on him), admitted in an interview something he had long denied: Of course we tortured, he admitted, and we were wrong. But so did the FLN, which of course was no excuse.
Saint Marc foresaw that Algeria would produce a betrayal like the one in Vietnam. In interviews and in a book that he wrote, he said so. He had rebelled, he said; it was his duty to do so. He failed. He paid the price, as he had expected he would. Only when France started to recognize what it had done in Algeria did French conservatives decide to honor Saint Marc as a former rebel who acted honorably.
The FLN, it should be noted, were terrible rulers. They created a corrupt, inefficient patronage state masquerading as socialist. Over time, they killed hundreds of thousands of their people while repressing dissent and ruining the economy. Large numbers of Algerians fled—mostly to France, where they speak the language. France now has the ethno-religious immigrant challenges de Gaulle had tried to avoid.
So, was Saint Marc an honorable soldier whose behavior can be condoned? No: The war he waged was vicious, unnecessary, and hopeless. But we should try to understand him, because Americans may well face similar issues.
When the United States abandoned South Vietnam in 1975, it left behind millions of South Vietnamese allies. We behaved better than the French: Large numbers who succeeded in escaping were allowed, ultimately, to immigrate to America.
But we have been much less generous to the Iraqis who worked for us, and I fear that we will close the door to the many more Afghans who desperately need to leave.
There were no American military coups after we were defeated in Vietnam. Yet there were plenty of disabused, angry American veterans, enlisted men and officers who have never forgiven their fellow Americans who turned against the war or even the U.S. politicians who just quit. We also have some military professionals who are bitter about recent wars, believing they were betrayed by civilian leadership. Some have shown inclination toward right-wing groups, even those that flirt with the idea of coups.
Any country with a large professional military sent into losing wars against weaker but more tenacious indigenous resisters runs this risk. Seeing that heroic effort and sacrifice yield only defeat and betrayal is a prescription for deep resentment. Few Americans fully understand this because most of us grew up thinking that our army always defends our democracy and can never threaten it.
Are there enough military personnel, retired or active, who are angry enough to join a coup attempt and actually pose a threat? A few years ago, the question would have seemed absurd. But that was before a one-term President tried to do exactly that: to launch a forcible overthrow of democracy. It was before one of the country’s two major political parties refused to condemn the action. It was before 124 retired American admirals and generals signed an open letter claiming that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and President Biden was not legitimately in office. The letter claimed Democrats are pushing a Marxist tyranny that will end American democracy. In reality, it is the actions urged in the letter that would constitute the end of American democracy. How does that differ from what the French generals and Major Saint Marc attempted in 1961?
America in 2021 is not France in 1961. No fleeing American settlers are being driven out of Afghanistan. The American war never convulsed American public opinion in the way that France’s colonial wars convulsed the French. Our top military officers still condemn any kind of political involvement.
Nevertheless, a large minority of the American public no longer accepts the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential vote. Prominent politicians flirt with their own versions of a coup. How many discontented active and former military people would it take to join them and spark a civil war?
The military thinks a lot about “honor,” but that idea can be used to justify all sorts of not-so-honorable political acts. Americans generally trust the military more than just about any other government institution. But an army and navy feeling that their honor has been sullied by reckless, inconsistent, and unpatriotic politicians could easily turn into yet another danger to democracy. There is no need to panic, but the potential for tragedy is not zero.
Meanwhile, we should urge our leaders to do something truly honorable: Let those Afghans who want to come to America do so. In that respect, at least, Saint Marc was right to feel guilty about abandoning allies, even if his response to that sense of betrayal was deeply wrong.
Daniel Chirot, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
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