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Home/Rod Dreher/The Fall Of Imperial America

The Fall Of Imperial America

I woke up this morning to video clips of Afghanis falling to their deaths from the undercarriage of US Air Force cargo planes taking off from Kabul airport.

A friend pointed out that this is a fitting, if horrific, bookend to the American adventure in Afghanistan. He wrote, of the Falling Man of 9/11, and the falling Afghanis today: “both accepting certain death as an escape for equally certain and lethal torment.”

And this:

We have a lot to talk about today. But first, let me acknowledge that Patrick J. Buchanan, a co-founder of this magazine, told us so. He called it all back at the beginning. He warned us not to engage in nation-building. He warned us not to make war on Iraq. But our elites of the Left and the Right — especially the Right — treated him as a heretic. Today, we are living with an Iraq that is dominated by Iran, with a Syria that has been dismantled among the Assad regime, the Turks, and the Kurds, and with an Afghanistan that is once again ruled by the Taliban.

This is what has come of George W. Bush’s crusade. This is what has become of American leadership in the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. Most important of all, this Afghanistan catastrophe is what has become of two decades of senior leadership at the Pentagon, the State Department, and elite foreign policy and national security circles. Biden owns the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, no doubt about it, but let’s not forget that in that infamous press conference a month ago, where he said Kabul wouldn’t fall, he was just mouthing what he was told by the Pentagon.

I hope that the recriminations do not turn partisan, and end up with Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for this disaster. I hope that they will instead focus on the military brass and the State Department. Senators and elected officials don’t know much about war. They depend on expert advice. As the Washington Post documented in its publication of the Afghanistan Papers, the military brass lied. Excerpt:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

More:

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

A friend of mine who is a veteran of Afghanistan told me so this morning, his voice breaking with emotion recalling all his comrades killed in the fight. “For nothing,” he said.

This is on the elites. This is on elites like Carter Malkasian, senior adviser to the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2015-2019. In this piece from last month in Politico, he admits that it never really occurred to these American geniuses that the Taliban were really motivated by their religion. Excerpt:

The Taliban had an advantage in inspiring Afghans to fight. Their call to fight foreign occupiers, steeped in references to Islamic teachings, resonated with Afghan identity. For Afghans, jihad — more accurately understood as “resistance” or “struggle” than the caricatured meaning it has acquired in the United States — has historically been a means of defense against oppression by outsiders, part of their endurance against invader after invader. Even though Islam preaches unity, justice and peace, the Taliban were able to tie themselves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match.

The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on a sense of Afghan identity that incorporated national pride, a long history of fighting outsiders and a religious commitment to defend the homeland. It prodded men and women to defend their honor, their religion and their home. It dared young men to fight. It sapped the will of Afghan soldiers and police. The Taliban’s ability to link their cause to the very meaning of being Afghan was a crucial factor in America’s defeat.

This explanation has been underappreciated by American leaders and experts, myself included. We believed things were possible in Afghanistan — defeat of the Taliban or enabling the Afghan government to stand on its own — that probably were not.

Gosh, you think? What the hell did these eggheads think that the Taliban were?! It’s like a senior American expert in 1945 writing that it was surprising to discover that the Nazis really cared a lot about race. This is what happens when you have an elite that is wholly secular, and incapable of thinking outside that narrow box. Why did they tap Ghani as president? Because he was the most secularized, technocratic Afghan politician — somebody American experts could understand, but also someone incapable of inspiring loyalty among Afghanis.

This is not going to get any better. I want you to recall something I’ve written about in this space before. It’s what a European friend told me was the upshot of his time doing graduate studies a couple of years ago at Harvard. He said it was shocking to him to see how so many students asked professors not to talk about issues and topics that triggered their anxiety — and how professors yielded to these crazy requests. My friend said this happened in class after class. It scandalized him. He said that not one of his fellow students doubted that they were destined to enter into the elite class of leadership. It shook him up. He said that his country depends on a strong USA, but he could tell that the next generation of leadership elites are going to be even more fragile and wrongheaded than the current one.

We are in serious trouble. Look at this:

The sergeant major continues:

The U.S. Army is focused on preparing for large-scale combat operations. Its training, equipment, experience in combat, and the quality of its Soldiers make it effective and lethal. The diversity within the U.S. military’s forces must grow and adapt to the diversity of the United States. The cultural and ethnic differences of its Soldiers are the unique assets that our adversaries lack. Diversity in the U.S. Army is its strength and combat multiplier.

How could that possibly be true? Our military is ethnically diverse, no doubt about it. The fact that it works in spite of people coming from so many different “tribes” is a great thing. But color me skeptical that diversity is a military “strength and combat multiplier.” That’s something a junior officer says to show the commissars that he is reliable.

Look at these guys. They lack diversity. You know what their strength was? Allah. Allah, tribalism, and nationalism.

 

This is how the world works. And look at what the US Embassy in Kabul was doing while the Taliban was preparing to close in on Kabul:

These idiots are more interested in waging the culture war than they are in waging actual war. Seriously, what possible benefit to America’s national interests can virtue-signaling for domestic Twitter consumption bring? We are such an unserious nation. I am a practicing Christian who hates the way Christians are treated in many Islamic countries. But I have enough common sense to know that it does not advance America’s national interest to give host countries the finger by displaying a symbol of Christianity to defy their local norms.

As a friend of mine put it this morning, how many meetings to plan an orderly evacuation of Afghanistan did our military brass miss so they could attend diversity training? Again, we are an unserious country, and the world knows it. A friend of mine whose son is headed to West Point told me that in the boy’s packet of information that just came in there is a rainbow-flag diversity sticker. America might not know how to win actual wars, but it sure is going to equip its troops to win the culture war against traditional morality and old-fashioned American values. A reader of this blog who is a Marine Corps veteran of Afghanistan wrote this morning to say he will be discouraging his son from military service. A friend who is a veteran sent me a tweet by one of his Air Force vet comrades, saying that after what he has witnessed these past few days, he will discourage his son from following in his father’s footsteps.

Can you blame them? Who can have confidence in the senior leadership of the US military? Of the senior leadership of our government? Not Third World people who are asked to cooperate with an American occupation, because America will take care of them. Not after this.

None of it had to happen. True, the Taliban takeover was inevitable, and we had to get out. But we handed over Bagram Air Field to the Afghans on July 1, thus making any evacuation far more difficult. It really seems that all the experts in Washington really didn’t think the Taliban would move so quickly. And here we are.

Daniel McCarthy writes about the lies of our generals, and the lies that our elites have told themselves, and the rest of us, about liberal democracy and the irresistibility of American liberal values. Excerpt:

As long as the Afghan war continued, America could not escape an epoch of failure. And the inability of our vision of the good life to prevail against the alternative represented by the Taliban – even with overwhelming force and wealth on our side – is a dire lesson. Religious zeal and fear for one’s life are far more powerful motives than the Western cult of individual pleasure or the freedom to vote for the likes of a Karzai or Ghani or Bush or Biden. The Taliban are not about to invade America. But we have lived too long by lies at home as well as abroad, and unless we confront the hollowness that grows in our own nation’s soul, and rediscover a nobler liberty in our own land, we will soon find that Afghanistan is not the only Potemkin village.

Speaking of Live Not By Lies, there is a historical parallel to this Afghanistan catastrophe that we had better note well. From the book:

At dinner in a Russian Orthodox family’s apartment in the Moscow suburbs, I was shaken by our table talk of Soviet oppression through which the father and mother of the household had lived. “I don’t understand how anybody could have believed what the Bolsheviks promised,” I said glibly.

“You don’t understand it?” said the father at the head of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. It was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites, including church bureaucrats, treating peasants little better than animals.

“The Bolsheviks were evil,” the father said. “But you can see where they came from.”

The Russian man was right. I was chastened. The cruelty, the injustice, the implacability, and at times the sheer stupidity of the imperial Russian government and social order in no way justifies all that followed—but it does explain why the revolutionary Russian generation was so eager to place its hope in communism. It promised a road out of the muck and misery that had been the lot of the victimized Russian peasant since time out of mind.

The history of Russia on the verge of left-wing revolution is more relevant to contemporary America than most of us realize.

The Russia in which communism appeared had become a world power under the reign of the Romanov dynasty, but as the empire limped toward the twentieth century, it was falling apart. Though its rivals were fast industrializing, Russia’s agricultural economy and its peasantry remained mired in backwardness. A severe famine in 1891 shook the nation to the core and revealed the weakness of the tsarist system, which failed miserably to respond to the crisis. A young monarch, Nicholas II, came to power in 1894, but he proved incapable of meeting the agonizing challenges facing his government.

Past attempts to radicalize the peasantry went nowhere in the face of its profound conservatism. But by century’s end, industrialization had created a large urban underclass of laborers who were cut off from their villages and thus from the traditions and religious beliefs that bound them. The laborers dwelled in misery in the cities, exploited by factory owners, and unrelieved by the tsar. Calls for reform of the imperial structure—including the ossified Russian Orthodox Church—went ignored.

Few in Russian society, outside of the imperial court’s bubble, believed that the system could carry on. But Tsar Nicholas II and his closest advisers insisted that sticking to the proven ways of traditional autocracy would get them through the crisis. The leadership of the church also ignored internal calls for reform from priests who could see the church’s influence wasting away. Russia’s intellectual and creative classes fell under the sway of Prometheanism, the belief that man has unlimited godlike powers to make the world to suit his desires.

In retrospect, this seems almost unbelievable. How could the Russians have been so blind? It was, in a sense, a problem of the imagination. Reflecting on the speed with which utopian dreams turned into a grisly nightmare, Solzhenitsyn observed:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

It wasn’t just the tsarists who didn’t see it coming but also the country’s leading liberal minds. It was simply beyond their ability to conceive.

That’s how my chapter on “Our Pre-Totalitarian Society” begins. It starts too with this quote by the novelist Nadine Gordimer:

All the young are candidates for the solutions of communism or fascism when there are no alternatives to despair or dissipation.

As I say in that passage, the 1891-92 Russian famine was a key event opening the door for the Bolshevik Revolution. For decades, Marxists in Russia had failed to win the confidence of the middle classes, who stuck by the regime. But the pathetic failure of the Tsar’s government to handle the famine made the middle classes question the viability of the system. Once they began to lose confidence, that gave radicals the opening they needed.

The same thing could happen here. We can’t unsee what we have seen in Afghanistan. We can’t fail to know the magnitude of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of American elites. We can’t pretend to have confidence in the judgments of these people simply because we see no plausible alternative. These are the people who are tearing our country apart by pushing neoracism and bizarre gender theories. These are the people who cannot control the southern border. These are the people who are destroying American education for the sake of a crack-brained Marxist idea of “equity.” These are the people who are failing to provide a decent future for most Americans, while making sure that their kids are taken care of.

They don’t care. They live in Clown World. The leftist commentator Freddie de Boer has a great column up today talking about how The New York Times, our paper of record™, has no incentives left ever to tell its affluent white subscriber base — our ruling class — what it doesn’t want to hear. Do not be fooled, conservative readers. We are also led by Clown World figures. The conservative commentator Mark Steyn writes today:

The scale of America’s global humiliation is so total that I see my friends at Fox News cannot even bear to cover it. As I write, every other world network – the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, not to mention the Chinese – is broadcasting the collapse of the American regime in real time; on Fox, meanwhile, they’re talking about the spending bill and the third Covid shot and the dead Haitians …as if the totality of the defeat is such that for once it cannot be fixed into the American right’s usual consolations (“well, this positions us pretty nicely for 2022”).

No elites — neither Democratic nor Republican — get out of this with clean hands. If they had any honor, the Defense Secretary and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would resign. In June, while the Taliban was preparing its final offensive, Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs head, defended to Congress his expectation that US soldiers read Critical Race Theory books to understand “white rage.”

This beribboned clown-world decadent is the top officer in the United States military.

I’ll end with a reference to Pat Buchanan again. He was widely denounced by all right-thinking conservatives back in 2001 and 2002. He was a heretic of the “far right,” they told us. An “unpatriotic conservative,” as David Frum put it. But Buchanan was right, and they were all wrong. All of them. I say “them,” but it includes me too. Though I don’t recall even denouncing Buchanan, I certainly thought his views were wrong.

Many of us, though not all, have learned a lot in the last twenty years. A lot of the same people who denounced Buchanan as a dangerous far-right extremists back then are trying to stigmatize Hungary’s democratically-elected leader Viktor Orban in the same way. There is nothing we can learn from him, his political views, and his strategy. He’s a far-right dictator who doesn’t celebrate diversity. Et cetera.

You should consider the possibility, reader, that these elites are lying to themselves and lying to you about the way the world actually is. Again.

 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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