On Viewing History

I’ve been watching the news from Afghanistan the past few days and digesting my own reaction and the reaction of people around me, veterans and others alike. The mix of reaction is interesting, and illuminates how historical events often reverberate differently based on point of view.

Feelings are running high, and it is impossible to view the heartbreaking scenes of the last 72 hours (and counting) without being moved. It is also interesting how many people look for something familiar to anchor their views and/or provide perspective (like the numerous comparisons with Saigon 1975). Others move immediately to analysis and discussion of implications—not that they don’t care, but this seems to be the best way to channel their feelings.

As for me, I have written and spoken on the fall of major cities before. I detached a bit from the initial burst of emotions and engaged my historian brain for context and perspective—Saigon & Da Nang 1975, Madrid 1939, and Singapore 1942, among others‚—to help frame what it happening and its possible implications.

There is a lesson in historical interpretation here. No matter how recent or far away the event is, there will be multiple valid perspectives and reactions. This is a function of individual standpoint, background, personality, and thought process. We should bear that in mind as we consider this event and other events we interpret throughout history.

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6 Responses to On Viewing History

  1. Theodore Peter Savas says:

    Chris–a pithy and cogent take.

  2. Your writing on Afghanistan is interesting and one of many ways to look at the situation. The total history of Afghanistan should be studied to understand we were fighting an unwinnable war. One could looks back to the 10 years Russia fought in Afghanistan. Even better, one can go back to Alexander the Great. I look at history in military view point of fighting a war, in Afghanistan and determine ” NOT IN THIS LOCATION, IT’S UNWINNABLE. “

    • John Pryor says:

      Save by the Taliban? It seems that the same logic could have been applied to our wars against the Plains Indians– their territory, brilliant light cavalry adapted to the terrain. And yet….Russia expanded to the Pacific ocean, Rome fought in numerous environments alien to Italy. So I disagree.

  3. Jim says:

    We are going to say that we need to learn from our experience in Afghanistan, we said the same thing after the Phillipines and Vietnam. There are several issues:
    The feeling that we could impose our way of life on a culture that had few if any common points
    We were so confident that we would win that we had no plan for failure.
    Ike said that our nation has no taste for long wars, the draft paved to way for Vietnam exit. We finally after 20 hrs reach our limit.
    As Vietnam vet I feel the frustration and pain for today’s Veterans who served honorably in another ill conceived adventure

    • DJ Harvey says:

      Although Bin Laden never succeeded in building a terrorist state, our nation-building in Afghanistan was always about preventing Al Queda from turning the country into a base from which Al Queda could access Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. With the fall of the Afghan government, much like North Korea, a Taliban Afghanistan can menace its neighbors if it chooses to push into Pakistan (a scenario that has no doubt crossed China’s mind — India’s, too). It all depends upon whether the Taliban can actually hold Afghanistan, rather than simply destroy it.

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