Beware the Rambo narrative of Afghanistan
The plot of Rambo: First Blood Part II is seared into the brains of American men of a certain age. Sentenced to prison following his rampage in First Blood (aka Rambo I), Rambo is pardoned in order to perform a secret mission for the government. Instructed to investigate allegations that U.S. servicemen were still captives more than a decade after the official end of the war, Rambo parachutes into Vietnam. Finding the rumors are true, he violates his orders and liberates a group of POWs from their Vietnamese and Soviet captors.
Forty years later, we're watching the emergence of a new version of the Rambo narrative. This time, debate is focused on up to 200 U.S. citizens who could not be evacuated by the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
The situation violates President Biden's promise that "if there's American citizens left, we're gonna stay to get them all out" and imposes a duty on his administration to help those who want to leave. But we should resist turning a predictable result of imperial retreat into a stab-in-the-back myth that prevents a re-evaluation of American foreign policy.
Although its details are fanciful, Rambo dramatized a real controversy. Following the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, nearly 600 American servicemen, including future senator John McCain, were repatriated in Operation Homecoming, but some veterans activists contended that a portion of approximately 2,500 Americans still listed as prisoners or war or missing in action remained alive in the country. Over the next two decades, their fate became a rallying cry for populists and hardline Cold Warriors, who saw them as victims of bureaucratic indifference, at miminum, and perhaps an intentional cover-up. The issue even played a role in the 1992 presidential campaign, when it was taken up by Ross Perot.
The controversy began to dissipate when a Senate committee including John McCain issued its findings in 1993. Although it admitted that some Americans might have been left behind by Operation Homecoming, the committee report found no compelling evidence that any survived two decades later.
Yet doubts remained. Among the skeptics was journalist Sidney Schanberg, whose efforts to secure the release of his colleague Dith Pran following the American evacuation of Cambodia were dramatized in Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields. In a 1994 essay, Schanberg argued that live POWs were "not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy ...They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret."
Today, POW/MIA flags continue to be flown at many federal installations and some states. For the majority of Americans born after 1980, though, these symbols are likely to be inscrutable relics of a different era.
Younger generations may get our own substitutes, though. In addition to heavy criticism in the media, congressional Republicans plan to introduce a bill requiring the administration to provide an accounting of Americans still in Afghanistan and produce a plan for their evacuation.
The measure is unlikely to get far so long as Democrats control the House of Representatives. More than a serious proposal, it's a way for Republicans to stoke anger at the administration without criticizing President Trump's agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, which set the withdrawal in motion. Yet bipartisan investigations are also likely.
Critics in both parties are right that the administration should be held accountable for its broken promises. Protecting citizens is the most basic duty of any government. Figuring out who the Americans in Afghanistan are, what they're doing there, and how to get them out, must be the priority of diplomatic and clandestine agencies.
But we should be prepared for the possibility that remaining American citizens don't fit the template of prisoners held against their will. Specific information is hard to come by (as it probably should be given the danger posed to those remaining). It's likely, though, that the group includes U.S.-born minors living with Afghan parents, U.S. citizens married to Afghan nationals, and perhaps even altruists who refused to abandon their colleagues. Removing people in these situations isn't as simple as providing seats on a plane.
The precedents for Americans caught without military protection or in-country diplomatic representation aren't limited to the past or to Southeast Asia. Since 2015, thousands of U.S. citizens have spent time stuck in Yemen, despite evacuation efforts as recently as last summer. The Yemen case is also important because it belies claims that Trump would necessarily have persisted where Biden gave up. Evacuation of military personnel, who act under orders and whose whereabouts are (in theory) always known, is hard enough. Full removal of civilians living and moving among the local population is even more difficult.
My point is not that those left behind in Afghanistan brought trouble on themselves or should be abandoned. Rather, it's that their situation is an almost unavoidable consequence of defeat in decades-long, quasi-imperial conflicts against irregular adversaries.
My point is also not to absolve the president of any blame. Even as he led U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, Biden couldn't bring himself to tell the truth, lapsing into wishful thinking about bringing every man, woman, and child home by August 31. He's justly paying a political penalty for that now.
But demands for accountability connected with the screwed up withdrawal shouldn't distract from criticism of the whole enterprise. The United States has been losing in Afghanistan for years, not just over the last few weeks. As Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times, the war was "a general catastrophe, a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs, and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors." The true national disgrace is that there's little chance of that happening.
Further, stereotypes of the Taliban as inherently bloodthirsty terrorists shouldn't obscure the reality that they have interests that could eventually foster a more conciliatory relationship with the U.S. If successful in establishing a state, they may find that they share American concerns about more radical Islamist movements, like ISIS-K, and expanding Chinese and Russian influence. Such a turnabout against expectations would not be unprecedented, either. In Rambo II, the Vietnamese are depicted not only as inveterate sadists, but as ideological fanatics. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, Vietnam has become a de facto American ally against China.
Finally, we must resist the underlying fantasy, so memorably depicted in the Rambo films, of unlimited military competence restrained only by bureaucratic mendacity. The reason we failed in the War on Terror was not because American soldiers were betrayed by the suits in Washington, but because global crusades without plausible, clearly defined goals simply don't work. So long as popular culture and political rhetoric sustain the delusion that success is the reward of good intentions and indomitable will, we'll find it difficult to resist doing it again.
After symbolically rescuing America from defeat in Vietnam, Rambo's own next mission was to Afghanistan.
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