WASHINGTON — The year 2021 is so far framed by the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot and the Aug. 15 fall of Afghanistan without firing a shot.
In a momentous march of malady, misfortune and strife, we also witnessed a second presidential impeachment trial; the comeback of COVID-19; the collapse of a condominium high-rise in Florida; a New York governor rightfully forced out of office; the climate crisis declared to be here to stay and getting worse; a devastating earthquake in Haiti, with a hurricane closing in; and then desperate chaos in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, as the Taliban moved in and we moved out after 20 years.
Just for the record, July was the hottest month ever recorded on our planet Earth.
You add it all up, and it equals an epoch, a sad season beyond belief. Such a tragic year stays encoded in people’s minds and memories over time. The dark year of the deadly plague and Great Fire in London, 1666, is still remembered.
Let’s look at some of the days we’ve just lived through. The sight of Afghan civilians fleeing toward a cargo plane, and the hasty evacuation of American embassy staff, was a rude shock. Not a good look.
President Joe Biden’s ringing defense of his decision to leave a quagmire begun by former President George W. Bush was fair enough. But I know it’s heartbreaking for the military who served there to think of the translators and other friends left to the ruthless Taliban. Women and girls may return to an enslaved status, no different than 20 years ago.
One more lost war, after Vietnam. A veteran diplomat, the late Richard Holbrooke, warned former President Barack Obama that Afghanistan was beginning to look a lot like Vietnam. This was a dozen years ago. Obama literally laughed at him and started a surge.
But more American soldiers were never going to turn the useless Afghan army and police into a fighting force, we know now. All the gleaming weapons the United States gave away now belong to the Taliban, firmly in control of the reclaimed country.
How humiliating, an epic failure by the generals, three presidents and all the foreign policy experts who spun a fiction about how things were going on the ground. Suddenly, there’s no story left to tell except the truth.
Two trillion dollars later, Bush spends time on his Texas ranch painting portraits of injured soldiers among thousands of casualties on the rugged land of mountains and caves. A kind of penance.
Michael K. Gould spent a year deployed to Afghanistan as an Army judge advocate. He observed an impossible mission: “That (year) really opened my eyes to the folly of nation building in a poor, remote, tribalized country where the majority of the people are illiterate and hostile or, at best, indifferent to the goals of the occupation, and where the leaders are massively corrupt.
“This was never going to end well,” he said simply.
The end was eerily like the American farewell to Vietnam.
But here at home, the truth is Afghanistan never occupied us. “In two weeks, nobody is going to remember this,” my father said.
Besides, we’re busy with mask and vaccine mandates as children go back to school and some adults return to the workplace. The brief burst of freedom in June, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decreed the end of the mask era, made us giddy — then wary as the summer case numbers started climbing.
The rising number of new COVID-19 cases — about 130,000 daily — is enough to make you swear off states like Florida for life. Standoffs between the masked and maskless are politicized in the worst way.
That brings me to Jan. 6. I was in the room, the House Chamber. I heard the mob break glass in the marble halls. Then a shattering gunshot in the Speaker’s Lobby. Members of Congress and the press escaped into lockdown for untold hours.
I knew Congress was divided. But I didn’t know how much raw anger and violence was out there. It was the first time the creamy marble citadel of American democracy was ever attacked.
That was only the beginning.
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Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com.