Growing Up in Afghanistan, or, A Eulogy for an Empire

Hanging on the wall in their house, my parents have a terrible little painting I did in kindergarten. It’s supposed to be the American flag. The stars are on the wrong side, it’s shaped like an oval, and there are two flag poles, one in the middle and one on the stripes side. It’s an absolute mess, but it gives me a little window into my four-year old mind. I didn’t know much, but I knew I loved America. I could have painted anything I wanted (my brother’s painting from the next year is of a Volkswagen Beetle), and I chose, of my own accord, an American flag. In my eyes, America was special. It was worth honoring. I was blessed to live in the best country in the world. Sadly, I didn’t have the wherewithal to date that little kindergarten painting, but I know it was shortly after 9/11.

I don’t remember 9/11. I was only three when it happened. I don’t have the experience of knowing exactly where I was or what I thought when I found out about it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t even know that it happened at all. These things are beyond toddlers.

I do remember the start of the War on Terror. I remember hearing about these far off places on the news, and I remember my classmate’s dads getting deployed with the National Guard. But even in the midst of all this, I never sensed any serious fear or worry. 9/11 was terrible, but it fostered a sense of camaraderie. The attack was a great tragedy, but it was only a minor setback for a country as great as America. She was coming out of the largely wholesome and prosperous 90s. The great enemies we faced in the twentieth century had fallen, and America was the one world power standing.

This is the optimism I was raised in. “You’re an American. You live in the best country in the world with all the best opportunities. You’re one of the good guys.” That was what I was taught at home, at school, and at church. I believed it, and in some way, I still want to believe it.

One source of this optimism was the everyday bipartisanship I lived with. Everyone I knew was a Republican and thought very highly of President Bush, but there was never any real animosity toward the other side. The only Democrat I knew lived two doors down from us. He was a lawyer with a big library. Like me, he enjoyed reading fiction. I used to go down the street to borrow books from him, and he would indulge me in conversation about what we’d both read. His political views were a big joke more than anything. He was just the quirky guy who voted for Obama, but that didn’t make him any less of a good Christian man who loved his family, his church, and his community.

When Barack Obama eventually did win the presidency, people disagreed about his policy proposals, but anyone who saw him as anything other than a decent man who wanted America to thrive was considered a right-wing kook. Concern about his methodologies never translated into disrespect for his office or his person. And when he did good, the conservatives I knew didn’t shy away from praising his achievements. There was a sense that a person who did good for America was worthy of honor no matter their political alignment. And when Osama bin Laden was finally killed, it was seen as a victory for America, not for Barack Obama or the Democrats.

But despite all the positivity and optimism I was inculcated with as a child, I’ve come away with a very bearish perspective on America. I don’t trust the institutions I once admired. I struggle to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and I’ve developed a regional affinity for the South and Mississippi to a degree I’ve never experienced before.

To be honest, I haven’t deciphered the source of these feelings. On one hand, I really do believe that America is worse off than it has been the past twenty years. On another, I know I’m getting older. I’m not the starry-eyed youth I was once was. I have a wife and a child and a mortgage. I’m also partly responsible for a church that’s been put under immense pressure by COVID, racial unrest, and political divisions. The waters I’m navigating today are of a totally different magnitude than my high school clubs.

In some sense, I hope it’s the former, that we’re all just worse off. I hope life doesn’t make me weary and jaded. I trust in Christ’s rule over all of this, but I must admit that his scepter is increasingly hard to find.

No American Scapegoats

I’ve heard many people compare these last few years with the tumultuous seventies. That never rang more true than when we saw the helicopters evacuating the US Embassy in Kabul. But there’s one big difference between then and now: scapegoats.

The seventies were marked by three Presidents: Nixon, Ford, and Carter. In American politics, all three of these men served as a scapegoat in the eyes of the American public. When turmoil broke out at home and abroad, they took the fall for their country.

In particular, I’ve always had a very high view of Gerald Ford. He modeled true shepherding after the Watergate scandal by ultimately sacrificing his own political ambitions for the integrity of our republic. Ford’s pardon of President Nixon destroyed his career but saved the country from further unrest. When all was said and done, the people could at least say, “It’s the President’s fault.”

The truth of that statement was obviously dependent on a variety of factors, but Americans could offer it to themselves as a consolation. It provided them with someone to assign blame to in order to free themselves of animosity toward each other. By 1980, Americans were able to vote for a clean slate, and Ronald Reagan was able to recover some of America’s spirit.

Today, the scapegoat mechanism has stopped working. I think the core of this problem is that the division between left and right has become so deep that to agree on a scapegoat would be an unthinkable concession to the other side. Another element is that the best scapegoats offer themselves up voluntary for the sake of the people, and our leaders have refused to show that kind of selflessness.

Trump could have possibly been a scapegoat if he had a modicum of humility. He could have accepted at least some of the responsibility for the January 6th riots, and he could have given up his office with grace and dignity. But he wasn’t manly enough for that. Instead of saving his legacy for history to remember positively, he decided he’d bask in the spotlight of today and continue to exercise his fame and influence to undermine his successor and his country.

Biden too could have been a scapegoat if he had a modicum of humility. His speech Monday was textbook blame-shifting. None of it was his fault. Instead Trump made him do it, and the Afghans are cowards. To be sure, he received praise from some, but behind a veneer of skilled writers, his speech was cruel and arrogant. Instead of apologizing and taking responsibility, he doubled down on his poor decision-making.

If we were really cruel, we might have even let Afghanistan be our scapegoat. It would have been so easy to make them the cause of our woes. After all, didn’t they sign their country away to terrorists? President Biden certainly thought they were worth blaming. But by God’s grace, the American public still has some grasp of good and evil. Our hearts are still soft enough to look at these people with compassion. Do the Afghan government and military bear some responsibility? Of course. But it would be foolish to say the United States has clean hands.

A Disunity of Mind

Over the past several years, the electorate’s cries to get out of Afghanistan have been getting louder and louder. In order to appease us, President Trump started the process, and President Biden finished it. There’s no denying this is what we wanted. The war was wildly unpopular among Americans, and anybody who thought we should stay was labelled a war hawk.

I’ll admit I agreed. I thought we needed to get out. I thought the work there was fruitless. Furthermore, I still think it was fruitless. Our options were either to let the Taliban take over or risk American lives indefinitely. Neither option was ever desirable, and only one was even possible. We had to leave at some point.

At the same time, I’m deeply disturbed by how we did it. I can’t imagine what it would feel like if my family were stuck on the tarmac of an airport surrounded by terrorists, especially after I’d been promised asylum in the country that had just abandoned me. The United States didn’t even try to keep her commitments. We multiplied our sins of an unjust war with bald-faced lies to an oppressed people who risked their lives for our foolish mission.

Even with all of that, perhaps the most disturbing thing is how Americans are gaslighting themselves to oblivion. Republicans who were calling for an end to the war six months ago are suddenly saying we should continue the war to prevent human rights abuses. And Democrats who were condemning Biden’s actions six days ago have begun applauding him after hearing his childish and pusillanimous speech on Monday. In other words, we’re all so daft that we’ve totally lost any sense of self-reflection. We’ll gladly eat any flavor of bullshit as long as it feeds our gluttonous egos. It’s absolutely disgusting.

The Bottom Line

What’s the solution to all this then? The short answer is that I don’t know.

I can’t offer any serious proposals, and I don’t think it’s right for me to try. There’s hardly a mind capacious enough to apprehend all the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan, and apparently, none of us are up to the job of making foreign policy. Even if there is someone who has a good solution, we’ve demonstrated that we’re not going to listen to them.

Our hands are covered in Afghan blood, and the best we’ve been able to do is blame each other. The United States first got involved in Afghanistan forty years ago to fight a proxy war with a country that no longer exists, and we’ve ended our involvement by demonstrating that the Afghan people were always just pawns in our foreign relations game. The empire is falling apart before our very eyes, just as it has been for many years. The difference is that now our eyes are open to it. The Visigoths are at the city walls. Denial is futile. What would’ve been unthinkable a few months ago is now a clear and present threat.

Our only hope is prayer. We first need to repent and pray for forgiveness. We are a guilty people. Despite everything we’ve been told, the United States in an evil empire. We won’t be remembered as the good guys in this era of history, so the best thing we can do is own up to it.

Second, we need to pray for deliverance from judgment. The People’s Republic of China is already talking about invading Taiwan. We’ve given up our Middle Eastern hegemony to the Russians. If we’re not careful, it’s going to be bad, but now we’re fighting on our heels. Certainly, we don’t have any business lecturing China and Russia on their human rights abuses because we’ve proven to be no different. We’ve given up every bit of ground we had, both physical and moral.

So I don’t have any answers. I’m just sad in a way that I’ve never experienced. I’m losing my storge affection for the United States, for democracy, for the liberal order, and for the institutions that protected them. Twenty years ago, when I painted my little picture, I couldn’t imagine a world where I held such a low view of my country, but here we are. I just hope we can find a way out.