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History Professors Consider How The Afghanistan War Will Be Remembered


It has been a week of painful images and deep soul-searching as America's longest war nears its end. Taking stock of these 20 years at war is going to be a long process, but we wanted to spend some time considering what's been gained and what's been lost. How is this conflict going to be viewed by history? How might this long conflict have changed the country? Now, this is going to be just one of many conversations, but today we've called on three guests who are experienced thinkers on this subject. Two of them are veterans themselves. Theodore Johnson is the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also a retired commander in the U.S. Navy with two decades of service, including as a military professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Theodore Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Kathleen Belew is a professor of modern history at the University of Chicago. Her scholarship focuses on violence in American life and culture.

Professor Belew, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KATHLEEN BELEW: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And last but not least, professor Gary Solis is a former U.S. Marine company commander and a longtime professor of law of war, including at Georgetown University and West Point.

Professor Solis, welcome back to you as well.

GARY SOLIS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Professor Solis, let me start with you. As we said, you've taught the law of war and conflict. And I know that you've written about and thought a lot about and talked a lot about ethical challenges that we have faced in this conflict over time. I want to ask two things. Like, what does this bring up for you? And how do you think this war will be remembered?

SOLIS: Well, it brings up in me memories of past conflicts, going back to the U.S.-Philippine war in 1899 to 1902, and how history tends to repeat itself. And how do I think history will look at this war? I would say that it will be reminded of the folly of hubris. I think that this war will be remembered as evidence that republic and democracy is seldom a successful export. And if one were a cynic, one might say that it will be remembered as America's dominion in retreat.

MARTIN: Hmm. Professor Belew, you are an historian of the modern era. And we're still watching events unfold in Afghanistan, but I wanted to ask if you think we could start by thinking about what this conflict represents in American history - 20 years of war ending in this way. What are your thoughts about that?

BELEW: You know, the place that I always like to start is thinking about historical continuity. And one of the things that I've studied that's very concerning that is already afoot and likely to increase is a ginning up of activity among violent political extremists at home. We've seen the aftermath of war is the best predictor for Klan and other white power kinds of activism. And particularly after the Vietnam War, we saw this reach a fever pitch in the United States. Now, what happens to that effect when we're talking about a prolonged conflict, like the one that we are ending in the global war on terror, I think we don't know yet. But I think that there are some really important parallels between the images of the embassy falling in Saigon in 1975 and the images we saw this week in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Theodore Johnson, what about you? I know that you served in Afghanistan. And you were mainly on ship because you were in the Navy. And you also have a background in intelligence, you know, as a military adviser to an intelligence agency. I want to ask what this brings up for you, how this is ending and what that's bringing up for you. And also because you've been writing about this lately, what do you think this means for our national identity, if there's a sense that this is a war that the U.S. has lost?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah, so that idea that we have lost has tremendous ramifications for our nation's sense of itself as a military superpower. So much of the consternation about our presence in Afghanistan is not about national security alone, but about security in our national identity. Are we still the nation that makes the world safe for democracy? This experience in Afghanistan has thrust the American capacity, capability and interest in protecting democracy into question.

MARTIN: So, Theodore Johnson, stay with me for a minute here. Do you have a sense of the way how this will affect Americans' desire to get involved in issues overseas? As you saw, like during the last presidential campaign, there was a debate about what America's responsibility is overseas and how that should be expressed. And I'm wondering if you think, Theodore Johnson, right now that this is affecting that debate in the United States.

JOHNSON: So I think that is putting two things in tension - whether or not we have a moral obligation to protect Afghans, particularly women and children, knowing that once we leave there, that many of the human rights violations they experienced before we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 will return. And that is in tension with the idea that we have national security interests to prevent terrorist organizations from sort of regrouping and mounting an offensive from Afghanistan, as they did in 2001. If we have a national security interest, then we will expend resources and time, et cetera, in order to keep forces in country and put that threat to bed. If we have a moral obligation, we will do the same. But when the national interest suggests that the threat has been mitigated and that it's time for the troops to come home, then that's in tension with the idea that we have a moral obligation to stick around.

MARTIN: Professor Solis, do you mind if I ask - because yourself, obviously, you know, you served for such a long time, and you have a lot of relationships remaining - how are the people that you talk to - I'm particularly interested in returning service members - talking about the end of this conflict and the way it ended?

SOLIS: Well, I haven't had an opportunity to talk to many people about how it is ending. But I am pretty confident that I know what - at least the friends that I have - are thinking about. And they're saying that - (laughter) well, I can't, you know....

MARTIN: Can't use the language they're...

SOLIS: I can't use the words, but they're thinking that this is pretty fouled up. And, well, the question of blame is another question entirely. And I think that some Americans would be surprised at where the blame really should be laid. I feel that what has happened at the end of the conflict is a result of poor planning on the part of the military. We had a four-star general who was there for two years, and he left with no plan, no plan to get people out. The State Department, on the other hand, got all of their people out, but they slow-rolled visas for those who helped us in the conflict. And I think that was another great mistake that does no justice to the righteousness of the war.

MARTIN: Hmm. Professor Belew, you know, after Vietnam, returning service members were some of the most vocal about social issues here in the U.S. I mean, that whole Vietnam generation had a real mark on our politics, wouldn't you say?

BELEW: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I'm wondering what your sense is of how returning service members from this conflict will make their mark.

BELEW: So I think one thing to keep in mind here is that we have - in this conversation, we've been talking about war as if it is only fought out there, and then the violence of warfare stays where we put it. And this is simply not how it works. I think that one of the things that the war in Vietnam shows us is that different ramifications of political and actual violence come into the home front in a lot of unpredictable ways in the aftermath of war. It measures across all sectors of society, including nonveterans, all of us. Men, women, children, people who served, who didn't - everyone is more violent in the aftermath of warfare.

But the aftermath of Vietnam, we see the loss. We see the outspoken anti-war movement largely helmed by veterans. We see a movement against that. We see white power activism. We see paramilitarism. And we see a large social reluctance to warfare in the whole of our society.

But the thing that's different here is the timespan. So I teach undergraduates. They don't remember a time when we were not at war. This has been going on for such a long time and has impacted so many different people and has been a sort of subsumed part of our accepted political reality for such a long time that I think that we all have a lot of coming to terms to do to enter this new moment.

MARTIN: That's fascinating. Theodore Johnson, I want to ask you, because you are often called upon to comment on sort of current politics, you know, political issues, what effect do you think this has on President Biden's domestic agenda? Those scenes of chaos at the airport and, you know, chaos in the street, does that translate into kind of a lack of confidence in President Biden's leadership domestically?

JOHNSON: It remains to be seen. But one thing is true. Americans have short memories. So the idea that the pictures we're seeing today will harm Democrats in presidential elections in 2024, or even in the midterms next year, that's an open question and one that I'm not completely convinced of. More important in terms of politics, not in terms of substance of the matter, is the way the exit is framed. If this is seen as Biden being weak in his leadership, sort of losing control of the situation, that stigma will stick with him more than the visuals of Afghans in the airport trying to be evacuated.

I think what we've seen in Biden's first eight months is he's deployed the vaccine out across the country and tried to reopen schools and the economy. He's gotten an infrastructure bill passed, a major one that many previous presidents have failed on. And now he's adding a feather in his cap on the exit of Afghanistan - all things that Americans wanted. So if he can shape these three major accomplishments in his first eight months as a win, I don't know that he pays a political price for the visuals we're seeing today.

However, if the situation in Afghanistan worsens, if there is an attack somewhere, then they will characterize the exit as a lack of planning, a lack of strategic thinking, a lack of leadership. And I think those labels will stick with him in ways that may be politically damaging more so than, again, the pictures or the video that's coming out of the country today.

MARTIN: Professor Solis, I want to give you the last word. Was this war worth it, in your opinion? And what's your sense of whether other Americans will think it was worth it?

SOLIS: I don't mean to waffle on you, but I think it's a two-edged question. I think it was a righteous conflict that we got into after 9/11 that we should have gotten into and that the American public are strongly in favor of. But things rapidly went downhill. We started paying bounties for people to be arrested. We ended up with Guantanamo and so forth. And I think through political misjudgments and ineptitude, it became something that - it's difficult to be proud of.

But then I would also ask, as Ted suggested, who remembers Vietnam? Who remembers what happened on the rooftop of the embassy when we were trying to get - nobody remembers that. The memories of the American public are short. They will remember 9/11, and they will forget much of what has come after. So I would say on balance, this was a war that was worth it.

MARTIN: That's Professor Gary Solis. He's a former U.S. Marine company commander. He's a longtime professor of the law of war, including at Georgetown University and West Point. Professor Kathleen Belew is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. She's the author of "Bring The War: Home The White Power Movement And Paramilitary America." And Theodore Johnson is a retired commander in the U.S. Navy, the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, and he's the author of "When The Stars Begin To Fall." Thank you all so much for joining us and sharing your insights today.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

SOLIS: It was a real pleasure.

BELEW: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.