Close to two months have passed since America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan ended in total disgrace, as the Taliban swept into Kabul without opposition and the US-backed “democratic” leaders fled the country in panic with millions in cash in tow.
The War in Afghanistan cost America roughly $2 trillion. 2,460 American troops died, along with an even greater number of civilian contractors. In return, Americans truly got nothing. A two-decade experiment in “nation-building” built nothing except a corrupt patronage network that collapsed the moment America stepped away. While our ruling class moralized about fostering freedom and progress in a backwards land, the reality is that America propped up a corrupt government that locals hated. Afghanistan didn’t even benefit economically from the geyser of American money showering the country for two decades. Quite the contrary, in fact. During the American occupation, Afghanistan’s economic performance ranked among the worst in the developing world.
When it finally became clear, 15 years too late, that our efforts were going nowhere, America’s civilian and military leadership even managed to bungle our long-awaited withdrawal, flying out embassy staff and local collaborators in a panicked last-minute evacuation. Success in the doomed mission depended on the cooperation of a passive, victorious Taliban. As if to put an exclamation point on the calamity, America’s final missile strike before total withdrawal, meant to assassinate senior ISIS-K leaders, instead incinerated seven children.
Just about everything that could go wrong in Afghanistan, did. America’s defeat in Afghanistan wasn’t its bloodiest military defeat, but its most embarrassing one. The catastrophic withdrawal now stands in infamy as the most shocking symbol of a nation in profound crisis.
Of course, America has never been perfect. We have suffered many grievous, bloody, and humiliating defeats before in our long and storied history. And yet we somehow managed to overcome these failures, eventually emerging a stronger nation on its way to becoming the richest, most powerful, and most innovative nation in world history.
If we are now to overcome the Afghanistan disaster, two things are necessary. First, we must look back to our prior defeats, and study how we as a younger nation responded to these defeats in order to become stronger than ever before. The second thing we need is brutal honesty. The stakes are too high to indulge pretty lies, and there is nothing to be gained through the self-deception that America nearly won in Afghanistan, or that its defeat came down to bad luck or a simple lack of will. This really was America’s worst defeat in history and accepting that reality is critical, and we need to face this before we can overcome it.
To demonstrate these points, let’s take a look back at the less-distinguished corners of America’s military history and the lessons we learned from them.
Battle of Long Island
The American Revolution never came closer to total collapse than it did on the Brooklyn Heights on August 26, 1776. America had only declared its independence two months prior. The Continental Army under George Washington was outmatched, outmaneuvered, and badly, badly outnumbered.
While struggling to protect the port of New York, Washington took up a position on the far west of Long Island, in today’s Park Slope neighborhood. He got crushed. 2,179 Continental troops, more than one-fifth of the entire army, were killed, wounded or captured. The British, on the other hand, suffered fewer than 400 casualties.
Yet that calamitous day also saw some of the greatest heroics in all American history. The 1st Maryland Regiment, one of the finest units in the young army, charged the far-superior British forces. The unit was shattered, suffering more than 90 percent casualties. Two hundred fifty-six were killed and roughly a hundred captured, but the action bought time for the remaining Continental Army to avoid destruction that evening and escape to Manhattan during the night. In the words of historian Patrick K. O’Donnell:
The Marylanders who participated in that unorthodox assault became known as the Maryland 400, or the Immortal 400. With their blood, the Immortals bought “an hour, more precious to American liberty than any other in its history.” … Had Howe pressed the attack on the forts that afternoon, his victory likely would have been total. The war might have ended that day. It was one of the few times in the Revolution when all the circumstances were aligned for a crushing British victory. The British would have captured the bulk of the American army, including possibly even Washington and his top commanders. That could have snuffed out the Revolution, turning it into little more than a footnote in the history of the British Empire. [O’Donnell, Washington’s Immortals, p. 71]
The Battle of Long Island was a crushing American defeat. But Washington escaped with his army, and America witnessed a model of heroism and sacrifice that would inspire the new nation for hundreds of years to come.
St. Clair’s Defeat
The Battle of Little Big Horn may be more famous, but General Arthur St. Clair’s defeat along the Wabash River on November 4, 1791 was America’s worst disaster in more than a century of conflict with the American Indians.
From the beginning, it was obvious that the US Army was vulnerable. While St. Clair was given two regiments of regular army, he wasn’t given enough money to pay them, so the regiments were demoralized and understrength. Without enough regular troops for the job, St. Clair called out hundreds of unprepared militia for his campaign into Ohio. In short order, 1,000 warriors of the Northwest Confederacy took St. Clair by surprise and utterly annihilated his command. Of St. Clair’s 920 men, 632 were killed and another 264 wounded for an overall casualty figure of 97.4 percent.
So what is the upside of this disaster? Like with other defeats later in American history, it can be summed up in one word: Accountability. While St. Clair survived the annihilation of his army, President Washington forced his immediate resignation. The US Congress created its first ever special committee to investigate the defeat, while Washington convened the first general meeting of all US government department heads. In short, the defeat created the United States Cabinet as an institution.
A full investigation found fault not only with General St. Clair, but also the entire War Department, which had fielded an unprepared, poorly-equipped, and badly-supplied army. Within three years, the US Army was reborn as a professional, full-time force, with proper pay, training, and equipment. The new United States Army, commanded by Revolutionary hero Anthony Wayne, won a decisive victory over the Western Confederacy at Fallen Timbers in 1794, securing the Old Northwest for the United States and inaugurating 150 years where America would not lose a single war.
Little Big Horn
Custer’s Last Stand is the proverbial military calamity in American history. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer graduated dead last in his West Point class and during the Civil War became the youngest general in American history. But his career stalled after the war’s end when the army was dramatically reduced in size (remember when America did that in peacetime?). Custer ended up demoted back to lieutenant colonel. A decade later, Custer sought glory in the American West, but instead led his men to disaster. Five companies of United States cavalry were killed to the last man in the final major Indian victory over the United States.
In contrast to Long Island or St. Claire’s Defeat, there are very few positives to Little Big Horn even in the aftermath. The war itself was a sideshow that the United States soon won. There was little to inspire the American public in such a bloodbath. It was just an idiotic blunder where Custer’s incompetence got hundreds of his men killed unnecessarily. No doubt he would rapidly be promoted to the Joint Chiefs if he held command today.
Still, there is an important caveat to the deadly defeat. While in the popular imagination Custer’s Last Stand is about a modern army being overrun and destroyed by primitives fighting with spears and arrows, this isn’t true. Custer’s army wasn’t just outnumbered, it was also outgunned. The US troopers were all armed with single-shot carbines, while at least 200 of the Lakota braves were armed with repeating rifles that could shower the Americans with a deadly spray. This sets the defeat apart from Afghanistan, where America really was vanquished by a backwards foe with no air force, no heavy weapons, and small arms that belonged on the set of Rambo III.
In raw numbers, the Battle of Bataan is the greatest defeat in American military history. On December 7, 1941, there were some 150,000 US and Filipino colonial troops on the island of Luzon. In fact, when the Japanese invaded Luzon after Pearl Harbor, the defenders outnumbered them. But the Japanese had surprise, experience, cohesion, and control of both the sea and air. Within three weeks, the Japanese took Manila, while the Americans withdrew into a redoubt on the Bataan Peninsula smaller than New York City.
But after being pushed into their tiny corner, with almost no supplies and thousands of miles from any relief, the Americans hung on tenaciously for months. Only on April 8, four months after Pearl Harbor, did 76,000 American and Filipino troops finally capitulate in the largest surrender in either country’s history. A month later, on May 10, a final force of 10,000 troops on the island of Corregidor surrendered as well. Despite the defeat, the fighting was fierce enough that even today the Philippines marks Bataan Day as a national holiday commemorating its veterans.
When those US troops went down to defeat, their commanders went down with them. Generals Edward King and Jonathan Wainwright spent three years in Japanese captivity with their men after surrendering, enduring enormous hardship. But not everybody went into captivity. Among the soldiers on Bataan and throughout the Philippines, hundreds slipped away from the Japanese forces to join insurgencies against the Japanese occupation. Others managed to escape once taken prisoner. On Mindanao, Army reservist Wendell Fertig, a civil engineer with no prior combat experience, refused to surrender and instead organized one of the most successful guerrilla campaigns in history, eventually controlling some 95% percent of Mindanao even before American troops landed to liberate the island.
Just like at Long Island 170 years before, Bataan was a devastating defeat for the American armed forces. But in that defeat there was also spectacular individual heroism that could inspire the nation as it embarked on four years of grueling warfare.
While America took a beating in the Pacific right away, their first real engagement in the European theater had to wait until 1943. And when it happened, it was ugly.
After Operation Torch in November 1942, the American forces had an easy few months cleaning up the Vichy French forces and occupying Algeria. But in early 1943, an overconfident US Army advanced into Tunisia and had their first serious encounter with the German Wehrmacht at Kasserine Pass, in the desert 150 miles southwest of Tunis.
The result was a calamity. Erwin Rommel, the legendary German commander, thrashed American forces which were woefully unprepared for modern warfare. Led by generals who stayed far away from the frontlines, the Americans were too widely dispersed, allowing the Germans to easily crush isolated units. Unwilling to do the hard work of digging deep foxholes, Americans dug shallow slit trenches instead that could not hold up to enemy attack. The Germans inflicted casualties at a 7:1 ratio, captured hundreds of vehicles, and forced the Allies to retreat nearly 50 miles.
Yet as sharp as the Kasserine Pass defeat was, it almost immediately redounded to the benefit of the American armed forces. General Eisenhower immediately sacked the ineffective General Lloyd Fredenhall, and had him replaced with another commander who would soon become an American immortal: George S. Patton. Eisenhower fired other commanders as well, and replaced them with new ones who were encouraged to lead near the front and exercise greater individual initiative. Almost everything about US combat doctrine was overhauled, as the American forces rapidly improved their use of armor, artillery, and airpower.
After Kasserine, General Rommel dismissed the Americans as nearly useless in battle. Yet less than three months later, German forces in Tunisia had surrendered, and the next year, the lessons America had learned paid handsome dividends during the all-important Normandy invasion.
And here it is. The comparison that everybody made during the fall of Kabul. In raw human costs, America’s Vietnam War failure is far worse than Afghanistan or any other conflict on this list. More than fifty-eight thousand Americans died in the Vietnam misadventure. American society was damaged, perhaps beyond repair.
As far as national embarrassments go, in many ways Vietnam was not nearly as bad as Afghanistan. First, Vietnam was a far more intense conflict, against a determined enemy supported by a rival superpower. North Vietnam had tanks, artillery, and an air force. Crucially, it also had the willingness to absorb millions of casualties in order to win—a nearly-unprecedented level of fanaticism almost nobody anticipated.
The Afghan collapse also disgracefully revealed just how fake the “democracy” propped up by America in really was. Without thousands of US troops around to actively prop it up, the Kabul government totally and instantaneously evaporated. South Vietnam was not like that. The country fought on for two years of intense warfare even after U.S. forces were fully withdrawn. If not for the 1973 oil shock ruining its economy and the Watergate scandal ruining the Nixon Administration’s political capital, South Vietnam may have survived.
Sure, just like Afghanistan, Vietnam ended with frantic Americans evacuating by helicopter from city rooftops. But at least in Vietnam, the eventual defeat of the south came after years of continued resistance, rather than the moment American troops stepped away.
Importantly, the Vietnam defeat also led to the rebirth of the American armed forces. When Vietnam was winding to its messy conclusion, the United States Army was in disastrous shape. Soldiers deliberately murdered their officers in “fragging” incidents. Thousands of troops were hooked on heroin. Race relations were terrible—a 1971 race riot at Travis Air Force base ended in 175 arrests. And in a misguided desire to uplift America’s cognitive underclass, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara recruited tens of thousands of low-IQ Americans to join the Army in the hopes they would learn valuable life skills; instead, Americans got a shoddy, low-morale army filled with “McNamara’s Morons.”
In the years after Vietnam, though, the tide turned. As the military shifted into an all-volunteer force, the US military reemphasized the importance of merit for its soldiers and quality for its equipment. While it would have been easy to try and fix racial issues with affirmative action, the military instead took the harder path of trying to narrow racial disparities by bringing black officers up to the level of white ones, and making it clear that only qualified officers should be promoted. While this meant that racial promotion gaps still existed, it meant that soldiers did not have to fear that the officers leading them through life-or-death situations were put there to meet a diversity quota.
The result was that, 16 years after the fall of Saigon, America won an absolutely decisive victory in the Persian Gulf War and made it clear it was an unmatched military superpower.
But as you know, that success didn’t last. A decade after the Gulf War, America went back into the Middle East, this time with no objective and no clear enemy. And now, 20 years later, it is leaving, and once again its armed forces are in crisis and its superpower status is in jeopardy.
So, what sets all of America’s prior defeats apart from Afghanistan? It isn’t the scale of the disaster, the number of men slain, or the importance of the war. Almost all those past setbacks were worse on every single axis. What makes the Afghan defeat so humiliating is the total absence of accountability or recognition from leadership that changes are needed at all.
Past American defeats were part of a narrative where the country learned from its disasters and took away crucial lessons. Defeats, though painful, served as the building blocks for future victories. Generals were sacked and armies were reorganized. If nothing else, Americans at home witnessed their fighting men acquit themselves with enormous heroism in the name of something greater.
But right now, America’s leadership is still breathlessly racing forward with all the developments that led to the Afghan defeat in the first place. For the past 20 years, the US military has become steadily less nimble, and increasingly obsessed with rigid ideological goals rather than practical ones.
In Afghanistan, destroying the Taliban took a backseat to blowing through budget allocations and advancing women’s rights. Now, two months after the fall of Kabul, ideological distractions appear more important than ever. A war on “white rage” has replaced any consideration for military effectiveness. Leaders have jettisoned the use of objective aptitude tests for promotions in the name of increasing gender and racial diversity in the upper ranks. And officers are picking fights with cable news hosts on Twitter.
This is the real reason the Afghan defeat seems to be a terrible harbinger of things to come. The scale of the defeat itself is not as concerning as what it portends. By all accounts, the United States military has become entirely fraudulent and hollow—a once-great institution now being worn as a skin suit by the bloated, incompetent forces of wokeness.
But all is not lost. To observers in 1791 and 1975, the American armed forces must have looked quite pathetic as well. Instead of falling apart, America recognized its failures and became stronger. And if brave leaders can recognize the failures of today, Afghanistan only has to be a one-off humiliation, rather than a dark harbinger of greater defeats to come.
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