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5 Wrong Lessons Learned in Afghanistan

5 Wrong Lessons Learned in Afghanistan August 16, 2021

I was wrong. That is all there is too it. I was angry. And I made a decision from a place of anger. I was not along. The whole country claimed it was mourning. But we were really just angry. Here are 5 lessons about how me and others got it wrong.

We Were Wrong About the Victims

The campaign against Al Queda and its Taliban allies began 1 month following the September 11 attacks on The World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The number of victims was believed to be over 7,000 at that time. The attack on Pearl Harbor killed far less “only” 2, 403. The appropriate articles of the North Atlantic Treaty were invoked.

The outrage at the time is understandable. Even though the number of dead from September 11th was reduced to 2,997, arguing for a decisive response seems appropriate. But let’s consider the cost of 20 years of occupation in Afghanistan. The US lost 2,448 soldiers during that time. The number of wounded is 20,722. The Afghan civilians lost 47,245. 66,000 Afghan police and soldiers were killed during the occupation. The Taliban and their allies lost 51,191. I include the Taliban casualties as a separate number from other Afghan deaths. And there are still other deaths from NATO allies, aid workers, and contractors.

“Just War” theory requires the response from the injured side to be proportional. The number of civilian deaths of the Afghan people does not come close.

The Response Was Unethical

“You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1:19-20) Was it right to respond? Yes. But it was unethical not to consider first the issues involved. James describes an ethical principle for interpersonal relationships. Angry people tend to forget anything they may have said or done prior to the injury. We may engage in self-justification.

I was taken to task by Noam Chomsky in a brief email exchange over this problem. Being a true anti-imperialist, Professor Chomsky told me previous US involvement in the region was the primary issue. I was not listening. He cut off our discussion.

Now the enemy from 20 years ago are back in charge. Present US involvement is the issue from now on.

We Are Completely Wrong About War

American Christians have a sense of warfare that brings with it hope. We wait for the “final battle” to end the conflicts. Our mythological view of the big wars in our history affirms this. The American Revolution did not end at Yorktown in 1781 in a final decisive battle. It ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. New York, Charleston, and other areas was occupied by the British until then. The US Civil War did not end at Appomattox Courthouse. Fighting continued in other parts of the country into the summer of 1865.

Wars begin in battles and end in negotiations even if one side unconditionally surrenders. There are legal documents involved. Militaries set the parameters from which diplomats work. Not all wars end in these ways. But most do. The last great victory the US celebrates is the Second World War. But no specific battle ended the war. The US political tendency though is to use that war to define every war sense then. The public is left wondering when (not if) we will win.

We Confirmed We Don’t Learn

I asked my wife if she remembered seeing the coverage of the evacuation from Saigon in April 1975. She had not. I played a couple of videos for her. Evacuating the Embassy from Kabul has been just as chaotic. George Santayana gets credit for saying, “Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it.” Hegel is quoted also, “The only thing we learn from History is that we learn nothing from History.” Vizzini from The Princess Bride says, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” It does not matter who gets the credit for the observation. We know it’s true.

The reason we do not learn from the mistakes in the past is because we look at the wrong ones. We believe hindsight is 20/20. And that leads us to imagine we see the mistakes of the past clearly. The fact is we do not see or think as clearly as we want to believe. It never comes to mind that our predecessors also thought they clearly saw the mistakes of their ancestors. We often do not get their successes right.

War Is Always Wrong

I once believed Augustine’s “Just War Theory.” But after about 5 years of the “Global War on Terror,” I decided War was unjustifiable. People find ways to justify what they want to do. Fighting is necessary sometimes. It is part of the human condition and reminds us of the destructive nature of sin. Sadly, states fight one another.

A young man and I were talking in the parking lot one afternoon. He had a Bronze Star license plate my state gives to honor military heroism. We talked about it.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said.

“Someone thought what you did was important.” I replied.

He shrugged. The former soldier was struggling with some strong inner demons. All of them were made worse by his combat service. I haven’t seen him in a while. I hope he finds healing.

Grace is important for all of us. Failing to practice mercy for others produces guilt that keeps us from being merciful to ourselves. Repentance opens us to grace. I was wrong. I can’t make it right. We need our sorrow healed.


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