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What does Afghanistan have to do with Vietnam?

Published Mar 13, 2012 10:26am


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Well, the latest news is that a lone US serviceman has gone on a shooting rampage outside Kandahar and killed at least 16 people. The Los Angeles Times reports:

"The shooting early Sunday took place in Panjwayi district outside Kandahar city, in a village called Alkozai. US military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was believed that the assailant had suffered a mental breakdown."

There are so many questions raised but not answered here. We can and will learn more details over the coming days, but the thing is, I’m not confident the real questions will be answered satisfactorily. Why did he suffer a mental breakdown? Will he, and he alone, be held responsible? Another way of asking that is: Will he be made a scapegoat, like the enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib? Might one of these incidents prompt some real soul-searching higher up the American chain of command – maybe even a high-profile principled resignation by, say, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense?

I do know there are many good people in the US military – I’ve met them – and that they take moral and ethical issues seriously. Less than three weeks ago I had the honor of being heard out respectfully when I gave a challenging speech (titled “Some Things Are Just Plain Wrong”) at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. What I do know is that this incident requires a real, soul-searching moral response by the American military hierarchy.

But the military does the bidding of civilian society, and that’s where the real soul-searching needs to take place. I know Americans have a lot on our plate these days, what with the mortgage crisis, the election, etc. But Afghanistan is not far away; it’s right here, bleeding all over American society. Afghanistan is one of the things on our plate, whether we like it or not.

Americans have become great excuse-makers. When Jared Loughner killed several people and almost killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson last year, people like me who saw the incident as inherently political were shouted down by the many who glibly claimed he was a “lone nut.” (One of the articles I wrote at the time is online here.) That excuse didn’t cut it for Loughner, and it won’t cut it in this case either.

I can’t say all that needs to be said in one hastily written article. Nor should I: there needs to be a real, honest conversation about Afghanistan among Americans. Finger-wagging by one writer, or even by a few writers, won’t suffice.

For now, I’ll try to draw our attention back to a question that’s behind so much recent history – so far behind that it usually goes unasked: Do we Americans want to have a relationship with the rest of the world, or do we just want to use other societies and nations for our own purposes?

I recently completed a small research project about coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan after and before 9/11 in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the US foreign policy establishment. As far as I can tell, the last article fully devoted to Pakistan in Foreign Affairs before 2002 was “The New Phase in US-Pakistani Relations,” by Professor Thomas P. Thornton of Johns Hopkins University, published in – get this – 1989. It’s a memorandum from an era now long past, and any number of passages from it could be quoted for ironic or darkly comic effect:

"The United States must consider how to react to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan: Should we use this favorable situation to enhance our role in the region along the Soviets’ southern flank? Or should the United States reduce its heavy commitment in such a distant region and postpone thinking about South Asia until more pressing problems elsewhere have been taken in hand? … The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan reduces the need for an intimate relationship with Islamabad."

Todd Shea, a high-school dropout who has lived and worked in Pakistan providing disaster relief and health care since the earthquake that killed 80,000 people there on October 8, 2005, and who has never been invited to contribute to Foreign Affairs, has an answer to Thornton that resounds with tragic echoes of what might have been. Here’s what Todd said to me in July 2009 (I quote this passage in my new book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti):

"I believe that it was a direct recognition that in the eyes of the US leaders at the time, they were barbarians, subhuman, not worth it. And I would submit that they are human beings, that if US leaders had treated them as important in a human way, then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now. If you remember, at the time, we were loved. Both countries were in such a state of need, and then we just left. “We got rid of our big enemy, let’s get outta here,” and boy, wasn’t that a strategic error. When the [Berlin] Wall came down and we were waving flags and saying “America, America,” why weren’t we waving Pakistani flags? I remember seeing the Wall come down and all that, and I don’t remember hearing anything about Pakistan."

And yes, it has everything to do with Vietnam, with which American society never did come to terms. As an older friend once told me, what the 60s were about was how “the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”

But it’s possible to see clearly, even through the fog of war – if we want to, which means shouldering responsibility for things from which we’d rather avert our eyes.

Read full article here.


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (4) Closed

j. von hettlingen Mar 14, 2012 02:54am
The author asked: "What does Afghanistan to do with Vietnam"? "It has everything to do with Vietnam, with which American society never did come to terms". It's true! What's so frustrating in both cases is the fact that the US had been beaten by David. The recent incident in Kandahar reminds of My Lai Massacre in 1968 during the Vietnam War, though on a smaller scale. The war in Afghanistan so far hasn't seen any major deliberate killing of civilians apart from the shooting spree last Sunday. Yet there had been several tension points - like US marines urinating on dead Afghans and the burning of the Quran - that have exacerbate the US relations with the Afghans. The Vietnam veterans no doubt had a much easier time than their modern peers in Afghanistan. They could visit a bar or a brothel in Saigon on leave. Afghanistan is - according to Britain's former defense minister Liam Fox - a "broken 13th century country". No doubt the Americans subject themselves to harsher living conditions in a country, which had chased many occupiers away in the course of its history. Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the Soviet troops in 1989 after 9 years there. The Afghans expect the Western forces to do the same soon.
ahmed Mar 14, 2012 10:33am
Remember what Mahatma Gandhi told the British : " leave India to us & to GOD --" can be extended to : " Everybody ,please , leave Afghanistan to the Afghans---for better or for worse !!!"
NASAH (USA) Mar 15, 2012 10:19pm
The massacre is the last straw that broke the camel's back of American efforts in Afghanistan. Like Vietnam the US does not need to withdraw in a hurry -- but for humanitarian reasons the US needs to hurry its exit from Afghanistan. Enough is enough.
Yawar Shah Mar 16, 2012 07:52pm
The cold-blooded murder of 16 Afghan women and children by a US soldier is just as horrific, as Lt. William Kelly's My Lai massacre in Viet Nam. There is another similarity, the US had propped up South Viet Nam military, which collapsed as soon as the US withdrew. Those panic scenes of helicopters taking off from US embassy rooftop in Saigon with people clinging for their lives are still etched in everyone's minds. As soon as the helicopters landed on US aircraft carriers, they were thrown over board in the sea. The US has spent $8 billion yearly for last 10 years to prop up Afghan military whose loyalty can't be trusted, as many US instructors have been shot dead by Afghan soldiers. everything will collaspe as soon as the US and NATO forces withdraw. The great American nation, never really recovered from Viet Nam syndrome. Nothing was learned as soldiers are sent again and again to the killing fields, ignoring the huge mental and emotional toll it takes on these soldiers, it destroys them forever.