I’ve lived in Washington since 1981 and have been a faithful reader of The Washington Post ever since. I think I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have seen the word “resign” in a front-page headline. So when that word does appear, it’s a true “bacon-cooler” moment, to use the industry term for a story so arresting that your hand pauses en route to your mouth and the bacon goes cold while you read, spellbound, to the end of the story.
If you have not seen Karen DeYoung’s Oct 27 story, “ U.S. Official Resigns Over Afghan War”, you owe it to yourself, your country, and our soldiers over there to read it. But even more powerful than Ms. DeYoung’s stunner of a scoop is the accompanying letter of resignation itself of Matthew P. Hoh, the 36-year old Marine-turned-Foreign Service Officer. It is a cry of conscience and an indictment of our continued presence in Afghanistan.
One doesn’t envy Mr. Obama, but he’s the Decider now.
One can only pray—I use the word literally—that President Obama will read it before he makes his fateful decision about where we go from here in Afghanistan. One doesn’t envy Mr. Obama, but he’s the Decider now. To quote John Kenneth Galbraith, father of Peter Galbraith, who was recently sacked from his U.N. job for making too much of an impolitic fuss over Karzai’s blatant electoral thievery in Afghanistan, “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
Since you are reading this post on a computer, you’ll be able to read Mr. Hoh’s letter yourself. I won’t recapitulate it all here—it demands to be read in its entirety. But to limn some of his more salient points….
In essence, he says, the U.S. is little more than a “supporting actor” in a long running tragedy of Afghanistan’s now 35-year-old civil war.
Reading his letter, I thought of the famous exchange between the Confederate soldier and his Yankee captor.
Why do you hate us so, Johnny Reb?
Because this is our land, and you’re on it.
• Walter Russell Mead: Why Saving Afghanistan Requires Cutting Deals with Shady People• Michael Smerconish: Musharraf on Fixing Pakistan and the Afghan SurgeMr. Hoh writes that “like the Soviets”—a phrase to send a shudder up any American spine—“we continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.” The bulk of the insurgents, he says, are fighting not under the flag of the Taliban but against the presence of foreign soldiers.
The situation, he writes, “reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam; an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology.”
Our presence in Afghanistan, he continues, has only further destabilized Pakistan, the nation where we should truly be concentrating our efforts.
As for the argument that leaving Afghanistan would only allow al Qaeda to launch another Sept. 11-type attack, he points out that 9/11 and the subsequent Madrid and London bombings were organized not in Afghanistan but in Western Europe. (His resignation letter, eerily enough, is dated September 10 of this year.)
He quotes an unnamed U.S. commander there, “very talented and intelligent … one of America’s best,” who tells every visitor and staff delegation and senior officer: “We are spending ourselves into oblivion.” This is no minor point. As Professor Paul Kennedy of Yale has ominously warned, “imperial overstretch” can bankrupt and ruin even the mightiest empire.
Finally, Mr. Hoh writes, “Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time. The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.”
Mr. Hoh is a decorated combat veteran of Iraq. He has seen death up close. His helicopter went down in a river. He alone survived, and blames himself (unwarrantedly) for failing to rescue his comrades. He suffered post-traumatic stress, and descended for a time into alcohol and depression. In a truly American twist, what brought him back from the brink was the television show, Rescue Me, about a New York City firefighter who suffers 9/11-related survivor guilt.
Reading Mr. Hoh’s anguished, principled and urgent letter put me in mind of two great (and I use that word literally, too) Americans of the Vietnam era: John Paul Vann and Frank Snepp. Vann, a soldier-turned-foreign-service officer was the indispensable man of Acts 1 and 2 of our Vietnam tragedy. Frank Snepp, the CIA officer who spoke out against our shameless betrayal of our friends when Saigon fell, and who was unjustly punished for that act of conscience, was the hero of Act 3. With his letter, Matthew Hoh becomes the indispensable man of what one prays will be the final act of our adventure in the land that defeated Alexander the Great, Great Britain, and Russia.
If after reading Ms. DeYoung’s account and Mr. Hoh’s letter, you draw these same conclusions, do more than post a comment here. Do the old-fashioned thing: Call your congressman and senator. Tell them, “It’s time for us to go.”
Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online News Association award in the category of Online Commentary.