When the Impossible War ended, I was in a cabin in the woods in Oregon. Towering pines, unpaved roads, canyons, creeks, a crystalline moonlight that stretched across the hamlets and orchards and interstates and the farm dogs roaming around outside low-lying barns.
It was called the Forever War, but that was misleading. The problem wasn’t just that it had dragged on for so long. It was that it had attempted to do something that could not be done.
It was late. My wife was sleeping. So were our children, ages six and three. I was watching the already infamous video of the Afghans falling from the sky. They had chased a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane about to take off on the tarmac at Hamid Karzai International Airport. They’d climbed aboard the wings and into the wheel wells. After the plane had taken off they tumbled to the Earth below.
The first thing I could think of — I wasn’t alone — was the image, nearly two decades old, of the couple jumping from the World Trade Center. Bookends of calamity.
In the beginning, on September 11, 2001, there was grief and rage and fear of what lay ahead. But we never doubted that a great deal lay ahead. We were still the indispensable country. We had been wronged, gravely, and we were armed with a gargantuan moral authority and an unstoppable killing machine.
And there was — just beneath the tears and disbelief, the plumes of dust, the candlelight vigils, the images of the missing — a strange anticipation. When George W. Bush, bullhorn in hand, declared, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!,” I was in a newsroom in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the reporters and editors and the old ladies who laid out the pages and the old men who ran the press, with their faded Marine Corps tattoos and their packs of Marlboro Reds tucked into their shirt pockets, started to clap. One of them said, “Fuck yeah,” and I remember feeling a little fuck-yeah-ish, too. We looked forward to tuning into the war we were about to launch.
Then, we failed. We failed over and over and over. In Iraq. In Afghanistan. But also — and this was harder at first to see — at home.
We kept electing commanders-in-chief who had never served, who had credentials but had never built anything, whose success resided atop the more substantive success of more serious people. The post-Cold-War president could make you feel all kinds of things, but he was always a little out of his depth because he had very little to begin with. He made promises he did not really understand. We won’t just pummel Afghanistan into glass. We’ll turn it into a Jeffersonian republic. We’ll make these people into a people they have never been, even though no one — the Brits, the Soviets, the Persians — has ever attempted as much, let alone achieved it. We will do it because we’re Americans.
It wasn’t just our presidents. It was that the whole machinery of American government seemed less capable of doing big things: mopping up New Orleans; quashing the subprime meltdown; making sure Big Pharma didn’t kill us with painkillers.
The fastest-growing technology companies didn’t create so much as connect. They connected us with friends and drivers and places to eat and to stay. Uber was great, but no one was pitching apps to tackle joblessness, cancer, alienation.
We talked with more people than ever. The number of acronyms and emojis we vomited out — voicelessly, by way of thumb — exploded. But the things we said were more trite, thinner. Which made everything faster, smoother, “smarter,” and exponentially lonelier.
We were stuck in the middle of this strange contradiction — the more and the less blended together. Which left everything feeling flat. Even those interactions that still took place IRL, which were always being interrupted by a ping or a vibration or someone glancing at a screen, wondering whether more interesting things were happening in this other invisible, parallel universe.
We justified all this the way we always justified things, by arguing that it was more convenient, that we didn’t know how we ever lived without it, that it was impossible to get by without it. But we forgot that it was also impossible to get by without other human beings. We were relieved we no longer had to have difficult conversations — one could simply ghost or delete or block — but we started to think this might not be healthy. Difficult conversations, after all, were important and good, and they instilled character. They made us more real. We yearned for the days before high-speed and we talked endlessly about the importance of authenticity. The truth is, we just missed it.
Then we discovered that almost everyone under 30 had no idea what we were talking about. This was when we knew we were in trouble.
The people in charge stopped being adults, which meant they stopped upholding the values and standards of those who came before and they rationalized this abandonment by telling themselves that the Tik-Tokification of American discourse was harmless or forward-looking or a good way to “engage” Gen Z. They forgot that it was their job not to engage with the young but to teach them.
They were confused, and, in their confusion, they failed to distinguish between influencers — otherwise known as popular people with short shelf lives — and leaders, who were willing to harness and even sacrifice their popularity in the service of something bigger than themselves. Everyone in the land of this new, horizontal, non-elite elite, was a brand now, and they spoke the same stupid, happy lingo of the H.R. Department — relentlessly upbeat, irony-averse, disingenuous, parochial. They thought the worst thing in the world was to offend. They said amazing a lot.
They were disconnected from the gravity of the moment, because, like all adolescents, they hadn’t yet come into possession of themselves. They were silly and trite and self-important. They were conduits for social-media personalities. They thought bubble-gum phenoms like Benny Drama were clever.
It’s worth noting that the White House released that Benny Drama video — which was meant to encourage all of us to get our vaccinations — weeks after the State Department warned that Kabul was on the brink of falling to the Taliban and exactly one week before all those Afghans crammed themselves into the wheel well and climbed onto the wing of that C-17, hoping that, somehow, when they opened their eyes, they would be in America.
Our elites’ dereliction of duty, their forgetting — about who they were supposed to be and, just as important, what America was supposed to be — is mostly to blame for the ocean of inanity that has engulfed us. The multiplying stupidities. The mythologies we promulgate online unironically or strategically. The preeners. The pronoun displayers. The opportunists. Michael Moore with his mindless Instagram post about everyone having their own Taliban.
A genuine elite would know enough, be strong enough, to say: enough. To say: no. To say: that is nonsense.
A genuine elite would care little about how many followers it had. It would be steeped in its many responsibilities — to those who had come before and those who were yet to be born — and that sense of responsibility would be reflected in its nourishing and cultivation of the institutions of American life. It would ensure that those institutions remained tethered to their heritage while open to new voices. An ever-expanding, renewing worldview. Like America itself.
Instead, we are governed by weaklings whose weakness has enabled all species of moral relativism. The identitarian left can no longer distinguish between its political foes and those who are truly evil. It cannot see that the “toxic masculinity” it decries extended the lifespans of Afghan women and shielded them from their would-be rapists and enabled their daughters to go to school. The identitarian right wonders aloud why America should absorb the Afghan interpreters who helped us prosecute a 20-year-war in their country. It cannot see that admitting these refugees is a matter not of immigration policy, but of honor and integrity and preserving these values that, it claims, are central to the American character. Both camps have been permanently alienated from their home. Both are incapable of charting a way forward, because they have forgotten, among all the many other things, where we are going. Our ignominious departure from Hamid Karzai International was presaged years ago by their ignorance and cravenness.
We have arrived at the second bookend: the Afghans falling from the sky.
Of course, it wasn’t really a bookend. “Bookend” implies symmetry. This wasn’t symmetrical. The first fall was horrifying, but it was the first. It signaled the start of something, and it signaled the hope that, soon, everything would be different.
Now we know that nothing will be different. That we have been returned to September 11, 2001, but that it is worse this time, because no one fears us and everyone knows we’re never going back. That nothing can be done. About Afghanistan and, really, America. There is a sense of inevitable decline.
In the cabin, at a little past one in the morning, I can hear our daughter mumbling in her sleep, I imagine our son splayed across a queen-size bed, and I feel what all fathers must feel when squeezed between the ugliness of the external world and the boundless love that binds them to their children. I think: There is nothing inevitable about any of this.
In my children, like children everywhere, there is the possibility of the new. But I wonder (how can any of us not wonder?) whether it is too late for poetry, whether the fall has already happened, and whether we — they — will be forced to soldier through the dark. Not in search of themselves, like the Israelites in the desert on the cusp of the Promised Land. But to escape from their history and from themselves.
In the night, it is easy to vacillate, to feel rudderless, to run toward hope and then sink into despair. To imagine that we are out of mornings and then, no, to know that there will be a new morning. In these moments, one tunnels through the gray, with all the ferocity one can muster, hoping that this will come to an end, that the fog is a precursor to something else, but not knowing, never knowing, knowing that everything is ambiguous, fluid, shifting. Waiting to be remade.
Perhaps you have felt disoriented or disillusioned or simply at a loss given the events of the past week. I certainly have.
In addition to the pieces we have run here — if you missed our symposium, please check it out — the following essays have helped me make sense of this uncertain moment:
We Are No Longer a Serious People by Antonio García Martínez
The Ides of August by Sarah Chayes
Farewell to Bourgeois Kings by Malcolm Kyeyune
Assabiya Wins Every Time by Lee Smith
The Week the Left Stopped Caring About Human Rights by Caitlin Flanagan
Biden’s Most Heartless Betrayal by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Requiem for the ‘Stan by Samuel Finlay
Will Biden Invite Afghanistan to His Democracy Summit? by Eli Lake
I’m also very gratified that our recent podcast with Gen. H.R. McMaster made news. The New York Times made note of his harsh words for Mike Pompeo; Maureen Dowd gave it a nice plug in her weekend column; and Axios covered it, among other mentions.
It is your support that allows us to do this work. Thank you so much. — BW