The Fall of Kabul is a National Shame

For nations to preserve their sense of honor, they must not ignore their sense of shame.

“I will, therefore, begin by saying the most unpopular and most unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat…”

“All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness. She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies and with the League of Nations, of which she has always been an obedient servant.”

“…the terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: ‘Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.’” —Winston Churchill, in a speech to the House of Commons on October 5th, 1938.

The counterpart to honor is shame.[1] When a person who believes in honor does not act honorably, he or she must feel shame. And, as no honorable person is infallible, the only people who feel no shame are those who have no honor. So, too, is it with nations.

The Afghanistan War was an honorable endeavor, begun in response to an attack on these United States by a band of brutal zealots given aid and comfort by the Taliban. During the course of the war, the United States and its allies in NATO gave to the freedom-seeking class of Afghans an implicit—and, at times, explicit—assurance that they would not be delivered once more to the very same oppressors that our might had freed them from.

President Biden withdrew that assurance in April this year.[2] Within four months, the people of Afghanistan have once again been enslaved by the Taliban. Those men remain as totalitarian in their beliefs and barbaric in their deeds as they were two decades past; any restraint that they may display while consolidating their power is merely a temporary expedient in service of their self-interest, and cannot be presumed to last.

The manner in which this war has ended, therefore—whatever may be said of the calculations of interests and capabilities behind the decision to retreat from Afghanistan, with which I disagreed, or of the miscalculations about the speed and totality of the subsequent collapse, which I shared—is nothing but dishonorable.

If we are to restore our honor in the future, then we must now feel shame.

As the first step to restoring that honor, our shame ought to motivate us to give safe haven to all the Afghans who now crowd the Kabul airport, or who wait in neighboring countries, having been forced to flee upon pain of death or persecution because they believed in liberty for their homeland. We ought to welcome them as Americans and let them share in liberty as Americans.

It is difficult to write this, because I feel not only shame, but regret. I served in the U.S. Army, but not in Afghanistan—despite having dedicated much time as a cadet to learning its history and language in anticipation of doing so.[3] I could not have altered the war’s outcome, but I regret that I did not share personally in bearing its costs. Those who bore the battle should take solace at this moment in the fact that they did what was in their power to do.

Mr. Biden may not regret his decision, and perhaps he need not, if he truly believes it to have been unavoidable for the well-being of our Republic. But if he is an honorable man, as I believe him to be, he ought to feel shame for it nonetheless.

I love my country. It is built on noble principles, and it will find its way back to honor; I am not ashamed of it. But today, I bear shame with it.

[1] For an excellent, concise examination of the concept and history of honor and its relationship to shame, I recommend What Is Honor? And How to Revive It by Brett H. McKay, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Art of Manliness (AOM), an equally excellent blog. The work is available as an ebook and also as a series of articles on the AOM site.

[2] It is true that this assurance had been all but withdrawn by his predecessor. Yet it is Mr. Biden who made the final decision, and it is thus with Mr. Biden that final responsibility lies.

[3] This was partly an accident of timing and placement: I entered active duty after the “Afghan surge” of 2009-2012 had run its course and while the U.S. presence there was in the process of being substantially reduced. Consequently, my unit was not deployed. Yet it was also a byproduct of personal choice: I left the Army shortly after completing my obligated service. Had I remained an active-duty officer, I may have eventually been deployed there with another unit.