Why National Honor Matters
America’s flight from Afghanistan wasn’t the first time the country abandoned former allies—with tragic consequences.
If you can read the harrowing tales and bitter recriminations of America’s abandoned allies in Afghanistan without disgust or rage, you are made of tougher stuff than I.
Last month, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty aired an interview with a man, Hanif, who’s been in hiding since the Taliban takeover last summer. After lengthy service as a security guard for American and NATO troops, he’s now hoping against hope for an opportunity to escape his native land. “In the nine years I worked, I braved great dangers and accompanied the Special Forces to remote corners of Afghanistan,” Hanif said. “I feel that no one has helped me.” In another interview, a former interpreter pleaded for someone to save her and her “three little kids” from Taliban assassins who bear a special grudge against female Afghans who helped resist their reconquest of the country. “Why did I help the U.S. Army?”, another still-hunted Afghan asked National Public Radio last month, “Why was I risking my whole life being [an] interpreter?”
There are many other stories coming out of Afghanistan. Stories of fear, desperation, and betrayal. Many are about women and non-Pashtuns who served in government, aided NATO forces, or fought against the Taliban themselves as soldiers or police officers. Now they are on the run or living under assumed names. If captured, not all will be slaughtered, true. Some will “just” be tortured, maimed, or imprisoned.
When President Joe Biden ordered his retreat from Afghanistan last year, our country suffered both disaster and dishonor. The two are interrelated. The United States and its allies didn’t go to Afghanistan to conduct some random nation-building experiment. We went there to confront and kill al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban who acted as accessories to their crimes. We did so at great cost. We then remained to deny al-Qaeda any chance of regaining a base and the Taliban any chance of returning to power. Our ongoing mission was hardly costless, to be sure, but it was well within America’s capabilities to continue for the foreseeable future. And as is now evident, the full costs of continuing that mission were lower than the full costs of ignominiously abandoning it.
By “full costs” I mean not only those denominated in dollars, freedoms, and lives today, but also the blow to American honor that comes from abandoning our Afghan allies. It’s true that they didn’t volunteer to serve and fight alongside us simply because they shared our moral outrage at the 9/11 attacks. They had their own reasons to revile al-Qaeda and its partner-in-crime, the Taliban. They wanted something better for themselves and their children. They dreamed of a safer and more prosperous Afghanistan.
In that, they’re not so different from other people who’ve fought alongside us in prior wars. Ever since our days as frontier settlers and rebellious colonists, Americans have enjoyed support from allies whose initial motivations may have differed from our own but who nonetheless became critical comrades-in-arms as we confronted a common foe. Unfortunately, our country’s postwar conduct toward such allies has been uneven. When we demonstrated gratitude and reciprocal obligation—as in the case of European powers after World War II and South Korea a decade later—they and other nations became more likely to support us in future conflicts. And when we failed to live up to our responsibilities, that harmed not only our national honor but also our national interests.
When I read remonstrances and pleas from our abandoned allies in Afghanistan, I am reminded of similar words uttered nearly two centuries ago, preserved in both historical documents and in oral tradition. They are the words of Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks, as well as those of the insufficient number of American politicians and veterans who championed the Native American cause during the run-up to the Trail of Tears.
Over the course of the War of 1812—which proved to be more a sustained conflict with British-allied Indians than with British regulars or Canadian militiamen—many Indians resisted the call to attack their American neighbors. While nursing legitimate grievances, they believed the best way to secure a safe and prosperous future for their people was to maintain good relations with the United States while adapting to the new social and economic realities of the frontier. While these cultures had long supplemented hunting and gathering with extensive cultivation of corn, squash, beans, and other crops, in the early 1800s they began to adopt key farming and herding practices of their White neighbors while also learning to produce cloth, tools, and other goods for use or trade. The resulting changes in gender roles—male hunters and warriors becoming agriculturists and tradesmen, female agriculturists becoming spinners and weavers—made traditionalists uneasy, as did the conversion of some Indians to Christianity and the continued expansion of White settlement.
Some leaders, most notably Shawnee chief Tecumseh, became convinced that conciliation and adaptation were dead ends. In particular, Tecumseh and his visionary brother Tenskwatawa disdained the so-called Civilized Tribes’ policies as decadent and doomed to failure. During an 1811 trip southward to confer with like-minded Creeks and to recruit allies among the other tribes, Tecumseh repeatedly questioned the integrity and even the masculinity of those who adopted “White ways.” He predicted (correctly as it turned out) that whatever U.S. Presidents or agents might promise, the leaders of states such as Georgia seemed intent on denying Indian nations both truly independent governance as well as true equality under the civil authority of state governments. The only alternative to death or forced exile, he said, was to accept the financial and military assistance of Britain and to resist American expansion by force.
A gifted orator and charismatic leader, Tecumseh won many to his cause in the Ohio country and Great Lakes region. In the South, however, he largely failed. Only among some of the Creeks did he find a receptive audience. Indeed, he didn’t just fail to persuade the others: His proposal enraged and antagonized them. According to oral tradition, when a visiting Cherokee leader named Ganundalegi (whom the Whites called “The Ridge”) heard the Shawnee chief speak in a Creek village, he threatened to kill Tecumseh if he tried to bring the Cherokees into his confederacy. When Tecumseh disregarded the warning and tried to enter Cherokee lands, a Cherokee warrior named Junaluska confronted him at a mountain pass called Soco Gap, turning him away.
In 1813, ongoing civil strife between the pro-war Red Stick faction of Creeks and the peace party of White Sticks erupted into a full-fledged civil war. The United States, now officially at war with the Red Sticks’ patron, Britain, prepared to invade the Creek homeland in present-day Alabama from the east, north, and west. For each thrust, American forces were augmented by Indian allies. At the pivotal battle of Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, General Andrew Jackson’s forces included a hundred White Stick Creeks and five hundred Cherokees, including the aforementioned Ganundalegi and Junaluska.
Jackson’s Indian allies contributed greatly to the resulting American victory by first encircling the Red Stick position, which was nestled within a bend of the Tallapoosa River, and then attacking it from the rear while Jackson’s regulars and militia launched a frontal assault. Junaluska himself was said to have dealt the decisive blow by swimming the Tallapoosa under heavy fire and returning with several Creek canoes in tow, a heroic feat soon emulated by enough warriors that the Cherokees could then cross in strength to take the Red Sticks from the rear. Legend has it that Junaluska even saved Jackson’s life from a Creek assassin. “As long as the sun shines and the grass grows,” an appreciative Jackson is reputed to have assured Junaluska, “there shall be friendship between us, and the feet of the Cherokee shall be toward the east.”
This bit of folklore ends on a tragic note, however. Much later, in the spring of 1830, when then-President Jackson was trying to push his Indian Removal Act through a closely divided Congress, the Cherokee National Council sent Junaluska from his North Carolina farm to the nation’s capital to plead its case to his former wartime commander. Junaluska found Jackson unyielding. “Sir, your audience is ended,” the President said. “There is nothing I can do for you.”
In the final scene of the story, set several years later during the Trail of Tears, Junaluska witnessed a Cherokee mother fall dead of a heart attack while holding the hands of two of her children and carrying a baby strapped to her back. The old warrior was said to have lifted his tear-streaked face to heaven: “Oh my God, if I had known at the battle of the Horseshoe what I know now, American history would have been differently written,” he muttered. “If I had known Jackson would drive us from our homes, I would have killed him that day.”
Although this story may be apocryphal, it conveys an important aspect of the debate over Indian removal in the 1820s and 1830s. Defenders of tribal rights frequently observed that Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and White Stick Creeks had not only maintained peaceful social and commercial ties with White settlers, but that they had also fought on the American side during the war with Britain and its allies. In 1823, for example, Ganundalegi and other Cherokee leaders rebuffed a federal attempt to acquire more land by referring to their wartime service. “Those acts we performed are a demonstrative proof of the sincerity of our affections and fidelity,” they said, which formed a more solid foundation for relations between their two nations than “volumes of promises” from the American government. And in 1834, as President Jackson sought to carry out his removal policy, a letter from the Cherokee delegation urged him to remember “the awful streaks of blood and death” they’d shared at Horseshoe Bend. “We were then your friends—and the conduct of man is an index to his disposition,” they wrote. “Now in these days of profound peace, why should the gallant soldiers who in time of war walked hand in hand through blood and carnage, be not still friends?”
It was, alas, all for naught. The Cherokees and other former wartime allies of the United States got those volumes of promises, and little more. Many thousands died as a consequence, both during forced marches to present-day Oklahoma and during subsequent conflicts within and among resettled and displaced tribes. As for the United States, while many Americans acquired the lands they’d long coveted, the country’s reputation was severely damaged. As settlers continued to move westward, other Indian communities were loath to put their trust in peaceful coexistence or treaties with the United States. They had good reason. America’s betrayal of its former allies produced a short-term gain, yes, but more violence and conflict in the long run.
Honor matters. It’s not the only thing that matters, of course, but to deny its significance in human affairs—including affairs among nations—is a position far removed from realism. By choosing what may have appeared to be the expedient course in Afghanistan, one intended to reduce risk to American forces and to please a war-weary public, President Biden not only abandoned our allies to a horrible fate but also managed to embolden future aggressors, and to discourage future allies from casting their lot with us.
History will not be kind to his foolish blunder.
John Hood is a foundation executive, author, and syndicated columnist who teaches at Duke University. His latest book is Forest Folk (2022), a historical fantasy novel that, among other things, depicts Cherokee involvement in the War of 1812.
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