I didn’t take many life lessons from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), but one line has stayed with me. It comes when Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is confronted by a group of his fellow Radical Republicans, incredulous that Lincoln, their ideological foe, has decided to push one of their most fervent goals: the passage of a Constitutional amendment banning slavery.
It must be some kind of trick, or a bait-and-switch, the Radicals say. A fictional congressman played by Stephen Spinella says of Lincoln: “We all know what he’s doing and we all know what he’ll do.” It’s then that Stevens/Jones, who until that point has been off camera, suddenly pipes up and says: “I don’t.” Then he admonishes his colleagues to look at the opportunity before them:
“Lincoln the inveterate dawdler, Lincoln the Southerner, Lincoln the capitulating compromiser, our adversary and leader of the godforsaken Republican Party—our party—Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery in America. Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.”
I’ve been astonished by a lot of things this month. I’m astonished that Joe Biden—Biden the imperialist, Biden the doddering centrist, Biden the neocons’ fav—ended up being the guy to end the Afghanistan War. I’m equally astonished that the country has managed to stay fixated on the end of a war that, for two decades, could barely muster two hours of total TV news coverage even in its deadliest years.
Even the far more lethal surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19, and the onslaught of Hurricane Ida—the fifth strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States, which has flooded whole towns and cut off power to a million households in Louisiana and Mississippi—has done little to change the topic. If you had told me a month ago that Americans would be seemingly more engrossed by arguments over the withdrawal from a forgotten war than over a monster storm in the South, or a virus currently killing over 1,300 Americans a day (and rising), I’d have told you were crazy. Yet here we are.
There are smart-sounding things I can say to try and explain this state of affairs. For one, the Afghan withdrawal has turned out to be an effective cudgel Republicans can against the Democratic president, turning public opinion in ways that COVID and climate change-fueled hurricanes are not (and not least because members of Biden’s own party and the media are often taking the lead in bashing him). Media execs and “defense” reporters are surely being influenced by their friends in the security state—the generals, spies, and defense contractors who have built careers and fortunes in Afghanistan and see no reason to stop. Or maybe after twenty years of failure in the War on Terror, we were just due for a reckoning.
But to be honest, I’m a bit flummoxed. Everything that I have seen in my life as a foreign correspondent led me to the conclusion that Americans don’t really care about what’s going on overseas—even when our own troops are involved. I’ve been convinced that this apathy has been cultivated through intentional silencing by our politicians and the media. As Sven Lindqvist wrote in Exterminate All the Brutes (one of the sources for Raoul Peck’s excellent HBO series of the same name): “The men representing civilization out in the colonies were ‘invisible’ not only in the sense that their guns killed at a distance, but also in that no one at home really knew what they were doing.”
I still think all of that is mostly true. To be honest, I’m committed to thinking so at this point, as it is one of the central theses of my upcoming book on America’s empire. And there are plenty of other examples to back up that point—as Spencer Ackerman writes in Reign of Terror (have you gotten it yet? you should) of the continuing, now-decade-old U.S. war in Somalia: “It was often said that Afghanistan was the forgotten war. Somalia could never earn that distinction since no one in the United States had ever paid any attention to it.” And it is certainly the case that, as soon as there were Americans (both real and imagined) that could be put at the center of the Afghanistan story, the lives of ordinary Afghans—including those we are killing on our way out the door—have been relegated to their usual non-role in our national self-story.
Still, there is something in this astonishing moment worth embracing or at least using it to reshape your calculus. The original Forever War is, officially, and suddenly, over. We lost. At least some of us are coming to terms with that fact. Americans, at least judging by media and social media, are for a moment talking about foreign policy, and what our troops, diplomats, and contractors actually do in the world. A president of the United States—a politician who came to Washington during the Vietnam War and spent his entire life breathing the air of the military-industrial complex—just told Americans: “There is nothing low grade or low risk or low cost about any war.” If none of that surprises you, then perhaps nothing will. I’m going to sit with it for a while and get back to you.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire (coming Jan. 18, preorder now). On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.