On Oct. 21, 1967, tens of thousands of anti-war protestors marched on the Lincoln Memorial and then onto the Pentagon. Half a million American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam fighting back the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Vietcong. Men were dying every day.
Our withdrawal six years later was a laughable failure for America. We were unable to fulfill our policy of containment, unable to secure South Vietnam’s territory and unable to triumph against the symbol of communism. As the Taliban’s leaders compare the imminent 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan to the withdrawal from Vietnam, we must see the flashing warning. The phrase “declare victory and run” undoubtedly spilled out of the Taliban’s mouth without much forethought. However, they must be taken seriously.
America does not simply declare victory. It wins victories. It does not back down. If our country backs down, the world will return to the feudalism of the Dark Ages—petty princes baying not for the kingdom but for whatever they can get. There is no one nation that can or will step in as a behemoth as we once did following World War II, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations to keep petty nations from their citizens and from one another.
There are those who suggest that America’s switch from winning victories to declaring victories is a sign of decline. I asked Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, what she thought of such claims. She looked me straight in the eye and told me that America would be unparalled for diplomatic and military power for years to come. She said the issue in question was America’s soft power, or the perceptions, feelings and beliefs that people have of our nation.
There are those who still have faith in us. In 1998, the Kosovars in Serbia did not cower as the U.S. Air Force rained bombs upon Belgrade; they knew they were safe. They knew the precision of our bombers would ensure that they were not hit. The Kosovars cheered and cheered as American troops marched into Belgrade. During the past decade, Afghani children played street soccer with our troops in uniform and their parents did not feel the need to call them in. If we cannot recognize, celebrate and believe in our men and women on the field, we will not see the world do so either. “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America,” said President Dwight Eisenhower. This is soft power.
Today, we are withdrawing from Afghanistan because our government failed to win the hearts of our people with their action-plan for Afghanistan. The action-plan was infinite in scope, without a goal and without an end. President Barack Obama himself said that we would not win. We killed innocent people. We are no longer the saviors we were in the 20th century. We are an intoxicated, drugged marksman—the children of our town throw stones at us on the street, and in the next town, and in the next and onwards. The widespread protests against our wars are not against the act of war against evil, but against the incompetency of war that ravages the lives of good citizens and soldiers.
There was something ethereal in the way we won World War II and most secondary wars following. Extending staggered diplomatic support, followed by economic support and ending with a short, mighty military assault, we were showy yet efficient. The American people glorified that nation and the world lapped it up. There are those who say our century came and went, yet as a proud American, I say we have centuries to come. All we have to do is improve upon our precedent, and of course, believe in our future.
Being American is no longer only a source for pride, it is also a cause for responsibility. Declaring victory soothes our wounded pride, but declaring a victory without truly earning one is shirking our greater responsibility as a nation so incomparably endowed. If we turn inwards, our nation will be reduced to being a guard of the Americas. We will guard our morsel just as Russia guards Eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia guards the Gulf and China guards South-East Asia. This does not do justice to the world’s expectations of an America that helps those in need, looking beyond its own. America must continue to use its resources and power for good.
As the people of Afghanistan ask us to stay and as the people of South-East Asia beckon, let’s not forget what it means to be America. Let us not turn our tails and flee. Let us not fail.
Pi Praveen is a Trinity freshman. Her column runs every other Friday.