Our longest war is over. It’s not easy to accept defeat. But it has happened again. The Taliban have defeated us, just as the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese defeated us in 1975. The last few days have been hard for me as I watch the chaotic crowds, faces etched with fear in their mad attempts to escape whatever retribution the Islamic fighters have in store. I hear the rotors and see the familiar sight of the helicopters. Fresh wounds on top of old wounds. On April 30,1975 I sat transfixed in front of the TV as the North Vietnamese tanks smashed the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon and the U.S. ambassador walked up the embassy ladder to the rooftop chopper pad, the American flag folded neatly under his arm. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War I am used to isolation, but on that day I was completely alone like I have never been. Nobody else watched the debacle with me. Nobody else seemed to feel the same pain that I felt. I lost many comrades in the Vietnam War.
I didn’t think I would relive that suffering so many years after Vietnam. I didn’t think that I would feel the utter waste and futility, the grief for the good men dead in a war that was lost before it began.
I thought I was free of the rage that comes only to soldiers who see the sacrifice of their comrades lost and scattered by the winds of fate. But that’s not the way it works. I am feeling it again, now.
It seems that many of us are doomed to always feel that pain. Like many other war veterans, I know too much. I know the history of Afghanistan, however superficially, but enough to make a difference. It’s an ancient history. It goes way back. That mountainous land, “the rock pile,” as our troops called it, has seen many invaders. The Persians invaded Afghanistan, Alexander the Great invaded, the British did it, and the Russians tried. And then we tried. We failed. Just like all the others. Not for nothing is Afghanistan called the graveyard of empires.
We are still the premier world super power. I am not writing the American obituary. But there’s a lesson in our Afghan defeat: there are limits to power. Don’t get involved in colonial wars is the lesson about limits of power. A “colonial war” is an asymmetrical war, in which the enemy is not equal militarily to our forces. It’s a guerrilla war, an insurgency, with people fighting on their home turf to expel a foreign invader. That the insurgents are weaker militarily does not mean they will lose. On the contrary, this gives them a greater moral power which the foreign army cannot match. In the last century the foreign invader has usually been a European enemy who is perceived as imposing alien ideas on “native” people. Unfortunately, we are copying the Europeans. How could we, heirs of revolutionary heroes who defeated the British empire in our own war of national liberation, fall into the same trap as the European powers? It is hard to fathom. But fall we did.
The Afghan Taliban are a horrible bunch. Their ideology is repugnant to us, a blend of medieval fundamentalist Muslim fanaticism and jihadist hatred of modernity. They are barbarians. But in spite of how abhorrent they are to us, how much they oppress women, and how much they support Al-Qaeda-type groups, there is one thing about them we cannot overlook.
We must realize that they are freedom fighters. According to their own sense of right and wrong, however warped it looks to us, they are in the right because they are fighting for the freedom and independence of Afghanistan. The North Vietnamese communists believed they were fighting for the freedom and independence of a unified Vietnam. The Algerians believed similarly when they kicked out the French and the Indians when they kicked out the British. And so on.
What this means is that once a people make up their minds that they want to be free of foreign domination, it’s impossible to defeat them. The lesson is that there is force in the world stronger than fascism or communism, stronger even than democracy or religion. This force is called nationalism.
Even a tribal country like Afghanistan is now waking up to a sense of nationhood, to nationalism. We can’t defeat that.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS. He teaches U.S. Southwest History, Mexico/U.S. Border Studies, and U.S. Military History.