by David O. Chung
Even though I try to stay away from the haze of rhetoric that swirls around from all the different media sources, sometimes it finds me. And it happened again with the Afghanistan withdrawal.
With no shortage of armchair quarterbacks in the media and on social media, I think I heard it all in the days that followed the American withdrawal to the airport in Kabul. Each side was laying blame at the other side’s feet, the rhetoric so thick in hypocrisy and contradiction, it was hard to keep score.
We shouldn’t criticize, we were told, because even the Vietnam War protesters didn’t criticize President Ford when Saigon fell in 1975. It made me chuckle to think about a war protester criticizing a withdrawal. Wouldn’t they be gloating instead of thinking of the bloodshed? After all it was what they wanted, never thinking of the lives it cost.
Something else I heard was that chaos is expected and President Biden shouldn’t be second-guessed. Not sure where these people live, but in America the right to criticize our government is protected under the Constitution. So saying we can’t criticize is laughable.
Another gem was that the military is the one who are doing things badly. And they always have. Now having been a part of the military, I’m the last one to say they are perfect. But I don’t think it’s fair to blame the soldiers for the deficits in the leadership of their superiors and of our elected government officials.
The American military hasn’t lost a battle in modern history. We give our soldiers a mission, the tools to complete the mission, and they go out and kick-ass. I saw it in Vietnam where we fought for each other, protected each other, no matter what our ethnicity or skin color. I wasn’t there to experience the fall of Saigon in 1975. But I could imagine some of the things they experienced.
I’ve seen the desperation and helplessness on the faces of refugees desperate to escape a certainty of torture and lingering death. A death not only for them but for each one of their family members. I saw their eyes from the inside of a cargo plane in Vietnam that was accelerating for take-off. I also watched as they faded into the distance, their bodies tumbling off our plane and rolling in the red dirt before splaying lifeless. Their lives were the price of our escape. The cost of my and my crew’s survival and the survival of a hundred or so South Vietnamese refugees.
This scene played out a few years before Saigon fell. It haunts me to this day. In my mind I was reminded of the anguish and fear in those eyes again when I heard about the withdrawal in Afghanistan. The faces in Afghanistan would’ve been different, their clothing different, but in my mind the fear and anguish in their eyes were the same.
The only remaining truth is that what is happening in Afghanistan is predictable just as it was in Vietnam. And if it’s predictable, then we can and should plan for it.
Anyone who reads the history of what our troops experienced in Vietnam doesn’t need to hear it from me. Even before I left, we were fulfilling a system of reassignment of assets to the South Vietnamese. Yet with each passing day, the more this system fell apart. By the time we left, we were destroying equipment that was still useful as we clamored to reach the withdrawal deadline.
I am anti-war because I saw the death and destruction firsthand. It’s ugly, it’s hard to justify, and it can only be won with a total domination of a population. I’ve had no problem saying that our troops should leave Afghanistan and should have been gone years ago. I can also say that I’m angry and ashamed at the method it’s being carried out.
Was there a solid plan for withdrawal in Afghanistan? Looking at the outcome, it’s hard to find any evidence that a plan existed. If we were going to create a plan for an event that is so predictable, the first requirement is that we have to want to avoid the chaos not just say it’s the cost of doing business. We have to care enough about our own troops, our allies on the ground, the families of our allies, that we actually take action to prevent the inevitable. And this is one instance where all we’ve proven, without a shadow of a doubt, is that we don’t care. We certainly don’t care enough to put any kind of forethought into how we bring the last of our troops home.
I cried when I learned that Saigon fell. I knew so many of the South Vietnamese people personally. I had worked with them and trained them. Through my tears, I wondered if any of them were alive. I wondered if they died fighting or being tortured. My heart broke. Or I should say that it broke a little more, which I didn’t even know was possible.
In 1973, when I breathed a sigh of relief that I was leaving the sweltering climate of South Vietnam, it wasn’t my responsibility to care for the rest of the soldiers, the South Vietnamese Army, or the farmers in the rice paddies. It was the job of the military leaders, the elected officials, and the diplomats to care. To care enough to actually plan for a withdrawal that saves the most number of people. To provide the tools to our troops to carry out such a plan. It is obvious that our leaders have failed us again. And my heart, with all its scars, breaks a little bit more.