Afghanistan is not Vietnam

You’ll hear many Vietnam analogies this week. Ignore them.

Amid the fraught situation in Afghanistan, political operatives, pundits, journalists and social media commentators have invoked the Vietnam War. Edward Snowden, in his weekly newsletter, called the Kabul airport a “tragic sequel to Saigon.” USA Today asked, “Is Kabul Biden’s Saigon?” An NBC News headline read, “As the Taliban gains ground, Biden grapples with the ghosts of Saigon.” A Washington Post headline read, “As Taliban seizes Kabul, the Vietnam War’s final days remembered.”

You should ignore these analogies.

Instead, this is an opportunity to practice our media literacy and historical literacy skills. We should remember that amid a fast-moving media story, analogies are not neutral. They are, in fact, selected with agendas in mind: to create a compelling news angle or to advance a political objective. What gets chosen as a point of comparison says more about us in the present than it teaches us anything about the past. The analogies presented claim to offer greater clarity and understanding, but, in truth, they are often attempts to wedge a rapidly-evolving event into a pre-conceived narrative.

Republicans and Conservatives are invoking the Vietnam War because they want to make Afghanistan a campaign issue for Biden and the Democrats in 2022. They will use the events in Afghanistan to portray President Biden, Speaker Pelosi and other Democrats as clumsy, unprepared, unfit to govern, and disrespectful to U.S. service members. Republicans also want reinforce their messaging around immigration and refugee policy, and to exact revenge on Democrats for their attacks on Presidents Bush and Nixon during their past military failures. Those events may seem eons ago, but Washington insiders have long memories.

Progressives, on the other hand, will cite the Vietnam War to advance their long-standing argument that the American, imperial, capitalist, war-on-terror agenda is morally bankrupt. Drawing a parallel to the horrors of Vietnam dramatizes the point. For other Progressives, the parallel with Vietnamese nationals who assisted the U.S. war effort justifies an argument for looser immigration policies. This happens to be a policy I agree with, as a child of a refugee and married to an immigrant. Still, it does not erase the fact that pro-immigration activists are utilizing history amid this political crisis to advance a long-held policy belief. The analogy has little to do with the past and everything to do with the present.

Finally, journalists will cite the Vietnam War because it has a rich mythology and a documentary record that is readily available for deployment in click-bait news stories. Vietnam provides arresting and accessible photographs and newsreel footage that can be spun into a variety of Web and social media content. Yesterday in my Twitter feed, for example, I saw imagery of the Saigon airlift and a young John Kerry testifying before Congress. The Vietnam mythology also places journalists at the center of the story, the embedded reporters the ones who told the American public what was really going on (a myth that journalists have convinced themselves is true when the reality is far more complex). This is a hallmark of today’s journalism; journalists placing themselves at the center of the story, staking a claim to be the moral compass of society, truth-tellers amid a world of deception.

There are many historical parallels that could be drawn to what is happening currently in Afghanistan. A more appropriate one would, perhaps, be the American evacuation from Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in 1984, or the Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan in 1989. But Vietnam holds a mythical quality in American life that journalists love to exploit, and a moralizing aspect that political actors on both sides of the aisle use to advance their agendas. Such invocations have little to do with sincere historical analysis. It is our job as media literate and historically literate news consumers to suss out the agendas at work behind the scenes.

History should play a critical role in understanding what is currently unfolding, and one might start with Afghanistan itself: its people, its tribes, its religions, alliances and rivalries among differing factions, the mythology of the Islamic Caliphate, the legacy of resistance against the U.S.S.R., the relationships with neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and China… all of which would have been helpful for American leaders and generals to understand better in 2001, but which were largely overlooked in favor of surface-level analogies to past conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War. It would also be helpful to understand how during the 2010s, then-Vice President Biden firmly opposed the troop surge in Afghanistan. The surge was ultimately authorized by President Obama at the behest of military leadership. But Biden has been opposed to troops in Afghanistan for nearly a decade, which informs his decision-making now. It’s noteworthy, too, that the Taliban have been steadily reclaiming provinces across Afghanistan—which is roughly the size of Texas—since 2014. Afghan collaborators have had their lives at risk for the past seven years. But when dramatic images get beamed across the world, the armchair historians emerge. In a few weeks’ time, the news cycle will move on and new analogies to different situations will be drawn.

While the Afghan and Vietnam Wars do bear a modicum of resemblance, conflating them reduces their complex histories to merely nations on the other side of the world that Americans have intervened in militarily. More significant are the differences between the two conflicts. The U.S. fighting force in the 1960s and 1970s exceeded 3 million soldiers and included a draft. The U.S. population was 200 million people. Today, the American military barely exceeds 1 million soldiers, with no draft, in a population of 330 million. Many Americans had loved ones directly involved in Vietnam, which helped make the war a pressing societal and political issue at home. Most Americans spent the past 20 years distantly removed from the conflict in Afghanistan.

American forces were officially involved in Vietnam for 11 years, though covert operations began earlier. At their height more than 500,000 troops were in the country and more than 58,00 Americans died in total, with more than 1 million Vietnamese citizens killed (though some estimates place the figure much higher). In Afghanistan, at peak 100,000 American soldiers were in country, with the number as low as 2,500 personnel. Approximately 2,500 American service members died and, in just the past decade, 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. The numbers for both conflicts are horrific, yet the scale of involvement, the reasons for involvement, the duration of involvement, and the unique cultures, geographies and heritages of the two nations are vastly different. To draw an analogy between Kabul and Saigon is to see both situations solely through an American-centric lens that elides all the details and leaves a surface-level analogy of limited use except to generate clicks or score political points.

In the months ahead there will likely be a Congressional inquiry into the chaotic American departure from Afghanistan. While that should be an opportunity for a serious examination of our foreign policy decisions, it will more likely become a partisan spectacle that will do a disservice to history and the American taxpayer. Serious policy questions require serious governance. And serious analysis requires serious history. Analogies provide neither.

Have a good week.

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