The following is the second entry in what will hopefully be a collection of the author’s thoughts and reflections on the 2021 Fall of Afghanistan. If you enjoy it, consider sharing.
If you missed Entry #1, you can view it HERE.
In the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of attending the infamous Infantry Officer Course in a scorching Quantico, Virginia. As its title would suggest, the Infantry Officer Course trains new Marine officers to take command of infantry platoons. The course is one of the most difficult schools the Marine Corps has to offer, in no small part because its curriculum is kept a closely guarded secret. Students have little to no idea what challenge will hit them day to day or week to week. During the months of grueling training, one of the biggest themes was selflessness. The instructors regularly drilled into our twenty-something year old skulls that we didn’t matter. At all.
It wasn’t about us.
In combat, we’d be told, we could just as easily take a bullet to the dome exiting the bird, and we’d be replaced in short order. Our sole job was to make sure we had the competence to accomplish our mission and bring all our boys back home.
Success was measured objectively and failure came with consequences. You couldn’t distance yourself from your own botched attack or navigation errors. Evaluation was constant, and instructors swiftly rooted out incompetence.
After leaving the Marine Corps, I also had the privilege of being accepted to Harvard Law School, where I currently attend. Like my graduation from IOC, it is an achievement I’m sincerely proud of and I’m humbled by the incredible opportunity to learn from and with such bright individuals. But attending an elite institution is a very different experience than what I am familiar with. Unlike IOC, the instructors at Harvard regularly make clear to the students, both implicitly and explicitly, that it is all about them.
One day, these twenty-something year olds would hold the levers of power. They would be in charge. Thus, their vision for the world should presumptively hold weight. The sky is the limit. Where IOC students are held accountable for bad ideas, Harvard students are often encouraged to embrace fantastical solutions without any critical assessment of the second and third order effects. For example, in one class, a student forcefully argued that murder should only be punishable with fines. In other words, one commits a murder, and instead of going to prison for a substantial amount of time, she pays some restitution and goes about her day. Another student argued that because the institution of policing is racist, cities should completely dissolve their police departments. It does not take a Juris Doctor to take swift inventory of the ludicrous outcomes that would follow. Yet both positions went utterly unchallenged.
Regrettably, I don’t suspect other top institutions are much different.
As of this writing, no one has taken real responsibility the utter catastrophe that has unfolded in Kabul. There are reports that every institution is scrambling to blame each other. In a serious country, a flurry of resignations would have been tendered by now. But our policy makers, our politicians, our intelligence officials… all of them are sourced from elite institutions where “bold” ideas trump workable solutions. Where speaking in terms of abstract utopian ideals is preferable to recognizing the harsh practical realities of our world. And where the consequences of their actions don’t matter.
Take the intelligence community for example. The intelligence community that missed 9/11. The intelligence community that claimed it had unequivocal evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein. The intelligence community that said it would take 90 days for the Taliban to take Afghanistan. Not to mention the Tet Offensive, Pearl Harbor, or the Iranian revolution. Of course, When it comes to the IC, all efforts at oversight are doomed from the start. First, congress and the president only see what the IC allows them to see. Second, the layers of secrecy classifications, interagency cross-pollination, and compartmentalization makes the foundations for intelligence decisions very difficult to review. Thus, whenever the IC is flatly wrong the American people are left with shrugged shoulders and a “maybe next time, tiger”
In effect, we fund an unaccountable national storytelling apparatus that maps random and disjointed tidbits of information onto a predetermined narrative. In turn, that narrative is informed by the winds of politics or culture or worse. Whether it is smuggling cocaine into the US, or going to war with Vietnam, the IC has always conveniently had the intelligence to seal the deal. Sure, intelligence officials will demand you respect their assessment when political or institutional gain is at stake. But like weathermen, they are given a pass for being reliably wrong.
Or how about politicians, who also hail from our prestigious institutions. Told they are heirs to the nation, they are consistently rewarded for having bad ideas. Many are deeply entrenched in power and efforts to unseat them face an steep climb. There are virtually no consequences to their actions.
I can go on, but I won’t. You can find the same pattern in so many of our institutions. The story is the same.
Kabul is a lesson for the American people, should they choose to learn it. Kabul is the ugly monster that cannot be obscured by political pundits. It uprooted the false premises of the intelligentsia and laid bare the incompetency of their management. It is a reflection of the deep truth that decisions have consequences. That for too long, a self-important aristocracy has been allowed to make it all up as it went along, sacrificing America’s children in the process.
It is not my expectation that anyone will be seriously held to account for what happened in Kabul. That’s fine. We’ve become numb to it. But I have to hold faith that the American people will no longer be so easily swayed by appeals to experts or lay prestige. I have faith America will remember, learn the lessons of this hour, and be stronger for it.