When Will We Ever Learn?

For the sake of Mary and Clay, for the sake of war victims and refugees past and present, let us Americans begin to learn from our country’s military interventions.

Mary is #11 of 13 children born to Hmong refugees from Laos who escaped the aftermath of the American war in Indochina. She was a star student in the public policy course I taught at the USC school of social work. Mary impressed me immediately with her energy, ambition, and work ethic. Now she’s a clinical social worker in a Bay Area hospital in California.

Mary posted a heartfelt plea on Facebook for Americans to be sensitive to the plight of the refugees coming out of Afghanistan after the US pullout. I reached out to her and we had a long Zoom conversation. The debacle in Kabul opened up the intergenerational wounds in her life and the lives of her family members, long after the pullout of the US from Indochina. The Hmong people lived in the mountains of Laos and became allies of the US against the Communist forces there. When the war ended, they were extremely vulnerable to the vengeance of the Pathet Lao forces. Many Hmong people came to the United States as refugees – with no English, having never flown on an airplane, never used a toilet or other modern conveniences, never learned to read or write. Their ancient culture, with its rituals focused on ancestors and spirits, felt utterly out of place in America. Mary spoke of the overwhelming adjustments that her parents and family members had to make in order to find their way in the United States. Mary feels the second-hand trauma of her mother’s tears in the airport when they arrived in the US, when it took many hours to find their American refugee sponsors. How could they pass on their language and culture to their children while allowing them to acculturate? Would the spirits find them when they performed their sacred rites so far away from their ancestral home? Mary and her siblings had to serve as translators and helpers for their parents, taking on adult responsibilities while their peers at school got to be “just kids”.

Mary shed tears on our Zoom call as she felt her way into the plight of the refugees trying to escape Kabul. “There was no planning to prevent this humanitarian crisis. This new diaspora will be an exact mirror of what happened in Southeast Asia. There will be long-term effects, multi-generational grief at losing collective identity as a people, losing the status they had at home. Their religion, language, and culture are intertwined: what will they keep, what will they lose, in a new country? There will be ripple effects into future generations…”

It makes Mary’s soul ache to watch that wrenching tragedy spool out again today. After another long occupation, another calamitous exit results in thousands of at-risk people desperate to escape a country that no longer affords them a home.

I am hardly an expert on foreign affairs. I do not have access to the level of information that our country’s intelligence agencies gather. But as a citizen who took a college course in Middle Eastern history, and continues to read good books and follow reputable sources of journalism, two decades ago I was able to predict the general outcome of the American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And I find that very disturbing. If a regular bloke like myself can figure it out, why can’t the people running the military and the government? It appears that hubris is the evil twin to power. That if your favorite tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That if you are in charge, you start to assume you are smarter than the rest of us. That since America is so great (again), surely other countries will welcome us to shape them in our own image.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, I had a hunch to make contact with my friend Clay, a fellow member of Mt Hollywood Church in Los Angeles. A few years ago he did an active duty tour as a Navy reservist in Afghanistan. He told us that he spent his months there with his hand cocked and ready to draw the pistol on his hip at every moment. He was training Afghan soldiers, and there had been incidents in which members of the Afghan forces had shot and killed US trainers. Just another hint that maybe we weren’t so welcome there after all. Our whole church breathed a huge sigh of relief when he made it home in one piece.

Every American ought to be grateful that Clay was willing to serve our country. He’s a big, strapping guy with a heart of gold – tough and also kind and sensitive. But the fall of Kabul gut-punched him. I texted him: “I feel that you are having feelings.” Oh did he ever. We got on the phone and he poured out his heart. “I just want to go into the bedroom and get under the covers and hide.”

Just writing his words makes me cry.

In high school, I and my male peers faced the prospect of being drafted into fighting in the war in Vietnam. Funny how having your life threatened has a way of concentrating the mind. In those days, we had “teach-ins” as part of the anti-war movement… the public educating the public about the history of Indochina and the US intervention there. Also at the time, I was on my school’s speech and debate team, and one year the national debate topic was about Vietnam. So we went up to the nearby university library and studied the history behind the US intervention there. And we discovered that it didn’t make any sense.

This time around, there was no military draft, so a lot fewer minds were concentrated on the history of Iraq and Afghanistan. But a cursory exploration of it would have revealed the futility of the American “nation-building” agenda in those countries, both of which were geographical abominations created by British imperialists. Their boundaries did not match the ethnic and tribal realities on the ground. The initial euphoria of ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan of the Taliban was extremely unlikely to translate into happy endings – and certainly not through foreign occupation… as evidenced by the Soviet invasion in the 1980’s. (See this eerily familiar video accompanying a song in Russian about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.)

We must honor our soldiers who served there by recognizing the space they created for the expansion of human rights, particularly women’s rights, in that country for two decades. We must honor their intention to keep America safe from the 9/11 terrorists who used Afghanistan as their base. Our soldiers are not responsible for the unwise decisions of the generals and the politicians who sent them there. And we must honor the people of Afghanistan who bravely fought the Taliban and worked hard to build their country better. Despite the current calamity, their toil and trouble was not completely in vain. It is not their fault that their government, and ours, failed them.

When will we ever learn? It is time to get serious about studying current events and the history that has led up to them. So that we don’t make the mistakes we made in Afghanistan – and Iraq and Central America and Vietnam – ever again. And if we think Afghanistan is messy, any day now our country is going to have to reckon with whether or not we are really willing to keep our promise to defend Taiwan, which is threatened imminently with invasion by China. The American people are not at all prepared for the potentially disastrous consequences of US involvement there.

It’s time for our progressive churches to hold “teach-ins” for our members – and invite our neighbors to join us. We need to learn from veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, from historians, and from journalists who have covered the conflicts. We’re the right folks to host these conversations in our communities. Let’s talk together about how to make these “teach-ins” happen —
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California. An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, his latest book is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021). His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership. He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org.

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