Twenty years after the carnage of 9/11, I find myself troubled with the nation I have fought for and profoundly angry with its leaders.
Eleven U.S. Marines, a Navy corpsman, and a soldier were killed by suicide bombers amid our evacuation from Afghanistan. Our nation's leaders, in an attempt to conceal how disastrous the evacuation was, are listing these deaths as combat fatalities. But the actual cause of death is betrayal. During the evacuation, these soldiers were ordered not to take normal security measures for protecting themselves against IEDs. Instead, they were told to rely on the deal the Biden administration had made with the Taliban for IED protection. We will never know whether the Taliban allowed the suicide bombers through their lines or simply failed to check them. But we do know that these U.S. troops were ordered to rely on the Taliban for screening out IEDs, and that that deal cost them their lives.
All soldiers, Navy personnel, and Marines understand the risks of combat, and they are trained, equipped, and motivated to successfully “close with and destroy the enemy.” They never volunteered to review documents and screen panic-stricken hordes pressing to enter Kabul airport, where people were literally trampled to death in the chaos. Our leaders misused and abused these thirteen military personnel. The arrangement with the Taliban cost them their lives. They had no ability to defend themselves.
One gold star parent told President Biden that he had blood on his hands. That is clearly true. But the Marine Corps shares his guilt. So does General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command. Our military leaders seem less concerned with our ability to win in an armed conflict than with “woke” political consciousness. Meanwhile, China is dramatically expanding its influence, growing more belligerent, and stressing combat effectiveness.
I served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. Two of my sons, both Marine officers, saw combat in Iraq. Together we have completed six combat tours. All of us have combat decorations. We have always been proud of being Marines and serving our country. That pride is now mixed with disgust for the degrading behavior of our nation’s leaders in the Afghanistan decisions of recent weeks. Their ineptitude, deceit, and callousness make it very difficult for my sons or myself to encourage others to serve. When we served, our priorities as leaders were clearly defined. After this evacuation, it appears that combat priorities have been replaced by public relations goals.
President Biden has argued that no matter when we left Afghanistan, it was certain to be messy. On this at least, he’s clearly right. His incompetent team would have ensured a disastrous evacuation regardless of the timing. This explains Biden's urgency in shifting attention to domestic issues.
What happens next? Will an honest investigation to get answers, assign accountability, and learn the right lessons take place? Or will we deny reality and claim the numbers of people evacuated indicate some sort of implausible victory? Will we fire the obvious losers and political sycophants? Will we demand that our military focus on combat effectiveness and put aside political correctness?
We need to stop talking about our “great military”—in my family, we already know its character from direct experience—and demand great military leadership. Our current military leaders appear to be ill-suited to leading troops in battle, and that, at the end of the day, is what we need them to do.
On the international front, we’ve suffered long-term damage to both our military and diplomatic credibility. The fighting in Afghanistan is now over for us. But only the theater of the struggle has changed—there remain terror organizations, some of whose members are almost certainly among the Afghans we evacuated.
I remember vividly the shame I felt watching Saigon fall and the panicked attempts of thousands of Vietnamese desperate to flee. Afghanistan is worse. There is nothing that looks, smells, or feels like “victory,” or even dignity, in our exit. Joe Biden isn’t the only man responsible for this 20-year slow-motion car wreck, but he bears full responsibility for the inexcusable way it has ended. Every country in the region will now draw its own conclusions about American reliability, or unreliability, as China rises to fill the vacuum we left.
Meanwhile, back at home, if we continue to teach our young people that America is fundamentally racist and irredeemably flawed, we will reap exactly what we sow. Why would any person of intelligence and character put his or her life at risk to defend a country controlled by a leadership class that continually derides or ignores tens of millions of Americans, along with their needs, their convictions, and their concerns?
Here’s a modest proposal: Let our pundits and our political and cultural elites fight the next war. The rest of us can watch from the sidelines.
Joseph Mahoney commanded a Marine infantry company in I Corps, Republic of Vietnam, 1967-68.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.