Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Quote of the Day (Cecil Day-Lewis, on War, Fear and ‘This High Delirium of Nations’)

“Today, I can but record
In truth and patience
This high delirium of nations
And hold to it the reflecting, fragile word.” —Anglo-Irish poet (and British Poet Laureate) Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972), “Ode to Fear,” in The Complete Poems (1992)

In case you were wondering: Yes, this poet is the father of Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis. He wrote against the backdrop of the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, and the world war that resulted.

The anxiety of our time is of a different tenor than the poet’s, but the potential for resentment, unrest and a widespread conflagration of bellicosity is every bit as real now as it was then. In particular, the mood swings now afflicting the American public over the collapse of the Afghan government pose real concern.

Twenty years ago, a widespread consensus existed for military action into the country. There are any one of several reasons why that mission failed, but—after the longest war in American history—it is clear that the American withdrawal has triggered scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon.

Whether it’s the Russian experience in Afghanistan or Germany’s after WWI, a futile military mission can sow the seeds for national bitterness over the loss of face and the loss of lives.

We should not imagine immunity from such feeling in the United States. But, even as scenes of chaos and carnage fill our TV screens and many question the point of so much American sacrifice, instead of lamenting “another Vietnam” or “another Munich,” lawmakers might want to explain how:

*Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai acted erratically, emotionally, in a paranoid manner, and in deep complicity with those pocketing American aid all around him—and why so many in Congress barely made a peep; 

*Just-departed President Ashraf Ghani cut and ran in the face of the Taliban only a day after a televised address in which he said he still hoped to “stop the ongoing imposed war on Afghan people";

*The Bush administration widened the focus beyond finding Osama bin Laden to a wider war in Iraq;

*Out of $7.8 billion spent by the U.S. on reconstruction projects since 2008, $2.4 billion in assets were unused, abandoned, deteriorated, or destroyed, according to a report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR); 

*Donald Trump can claim that Biden had lost the country when he himself wanted to withdraw four months earlier--and few in his party were willing to denounce the plan loudly at the time, when it could have made a difference.

If historical analogies are in order for Afghanistan, there is another one at hand. The question of “Who Lost China?” in 1949 poisoned American foreign policy—and provided endless grist for Republican talking points—for two decades before Richard Nixon, a Cold Warrior of unimpeachable credentials, moved towards normalizing relations in 1972.

As today, a Democratic President was in office in China when our client government fell with shocking speed in 1949. 

But Harry Truman, like Joe Biden now, correctly saw that there were limits in how much the U.S. could accomplish with a corrupt regime that took American money without building up a stable government or the nation’s will to fight. ("All the money we [have] given them is now invested in United States real estate," Truman observed in explaining why "We are not going to give the Chinese a nickel for any purpose whatever," according to historian Michael Beschloss' Presidents of War.) 

The “high delirium of nations” that Day-Lewis fought against is a dangerous state of affairs. But so is a populace with a cable-bred, one-minute attention span constitutionally incapable of remembering the lessons of history. 

Instead of braying about the Afghanistan disaster, posturing politicians and pundits owe it to a war-weary American people to explain how much longer they were prepared to stay in a remote, mountainous nation long renowned before U.S. troops ever set foot there as "the graveyard of empires"--and when they would know it was time to go.

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