One of my favorite passages in “War and Peace” comes when young Nicholai Rostov gets his first, and nearly last, taste of combat.
Unhorsed and injured, he’s lucky to escape at all, but what he has left behind are his romantic notions and his childish sense that he is not subject to the same rules of fate as anyone else.
As noted here the other day, that is what General Sherman was trying to drum into the heads of those young military academy graduates, when he told them
I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!
Neither Rostov, in literature, nor Sherman, in real life, let their experiences turn them into pacifists or cowards, but they certainly learned to approach war with colder, more analytical appreciation than they once had. To reference St. Paul in a very different context, when they became adults, they no longer talked like children, thought like children or reasoned like children, but put aside childish things.
Now, as John Cole puts it, we seem to be rushing both to declare defeat and to lay the blame at Joe Biden’s doorstep. In a brief note on the Times-Tribune website, he explains his cartoon:
It probably was inevitable that any American pullout from the now decades-old war in Afghanistan would be chaotic and fraught with human suffering. And Joe Biden has done himself few political favors in the way America’s exit is currently going. But given that the only real alternative was for the U.S. military to remain there indefinitely — propping up a government and army that obviously had no support from the Afghan people — the question is not whether the pullout would be messy, but *how* messy.
Yesterday’s bombing at the airport was tragic, certainly, but, first of all, we’d had warnings that something was up and, second, well, war is Hell.
It was tragic for the people involved, but it was tragic when an American drone struck an innocent wedding party in Kandahar in 2008, not to be confused with the wedding party in Yemen that was accidentally droned in 2013. War is Hell.
Like Rostov, you have to recognize that it might have been you, that these are not puppets and symbols but real people whose mothers loved them and who had friends and who wanted to live.
Like Sherman, you have to accept that, if you go to war, these horrific things will inevitably happen.
Clay Bennett (CTFP) suggests the naivete of going to war in Afghanistan and expecting anything other than sudden disasters.
The past 20 years have seen a series of suicide bombers, of car bombs and of rogue soldiers turning their guns on their erstwhile comrades. It is right and proper to be horrified at yesterday’s carnage, but it is extremely naive to be surprised.
As for laying the blame at Biden’s doorstep, numbers alone refute Michael Ramirez (Creators)‘s finger-pointing.
Even discounting the 25,000 Americans who died in the Revolution, during which Washington was not yet president, his administration saw 1,056 American soldiers killed in the Northwest Indian Wars (more if you count both sides).
And I’ve heard rumors that one or two Americans died while Lincoln was president, not just in the Civil War but in the Dakotas as well, another pair of cases in which the exact numbers depend on your definition of “American.”
Every one of them, including the 13 who died yesterday, had mothers who loved them and friends and plans.
It’s not a contest, nor is it a game.
So what should our expectations be? Alan Moir offers a view that many cartoonists have put forth, that the Grave of Empires is chalking up yet another victory, whether you measure victory by flags captured or simply by an ability to outlast invaders.
The cartoon would be unremarkable, if its color scheme and the solitary figure did not echo Elizabeth Thompson’s iconic portrait of Dr. William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad, the last of 16,000 British forces who had retreated from Kabul at the end of the First Afghan War in 1842.
Then, as now, in a tribal world of warlords, a promise made by one won’t necessarily bind another, and, as the British soldiers, their families and servants withdrew, they came under repeated attacks, with most being killed but some being held as hostages.
Despite having mothers who loved them.
I had fortunately, only one ball in my arm; three others passed through my (coat) near the shoulder without doing me any injury. The party that fired on us were not above fifty yards from us, and we owed our escape to urging our horses on as fast as they could go. The sight was dreadful, the smell of the blood sickening; and the corpses lay so thick it was impossible to look away from them, and it took some care to guide my horse so as not to tread upon their bodies. — Lady Florentia Sale
Michael De Adder‘s cartoon says “Another Heartbreaking Handover ” — as, of course, it is — but the Washington Post ran it under the headline “Never Forget,” a term traditionally applied to things like the fall of the Alamo or the sinking of the Maine, or even the attacks of 9/11, in order to gin up passionate excitement among “children ardent for some desperate glory.”
De Adder is correct to mark another sad ending to another war, but whoever wrote that headline needs to know this:
Mothers, and fathers, and friends, and comrades, do not have to be told never to forget.