Am I really going to write this same blog post again?
Yes, yes I am. This blog, if it has any function at all, is something of my online diary. The events that are currently going on in the world are obliging me to write this.
I am writing this on August 18 2021, and I hope that is all the context you will need. If the picture doesn’t help, it has been just a few days since the US completely left Afghanistan. Since then, everyone and their dog has brought out the tired and true canard about history repeating itself, as well as its hit sequel ‘the American empire is ending’.
Although they are both unfounded and pretty silly, my problems with these statements is actually different for each. The first is just a lazy heuristic for people who don’t want to actually learn history. The second is something that doesn’t make sense on a lot of levels.
I like analogies, so I am going to start there. Back when either of us was on social media, my brother posted one of those anti-mcdonalds posts that would go viral every so often. His (my brother’s) specific grips was something akin to “I remember even as a kid being skeptical of McDonalds, and how they somehow managed to get all their burgers to look exactly the same.” This made no sense to me. For starters, I didn’t think all McDonald’s burgers looked the same. One may have more ketchup than the other, yet another may have two pickles instead of three. Oh, but they were all roughly the same? Roughly isn’t exactly. Details matter. The second point that made this notion not make sense to me was the fact that growing up, me and this very same brother lived in a house where our parents fed us the same damn meal almost every night – pasta in a simple red sauce. They made the sauce on Sunday night and we ate it most of the week. And every week, it was the same sauce. For fucking years. On Thursdays, we would have Pasta e Fagioli. We never once ate it on Tuesday. It was always on Thursday. And it was always the same exact Pasta e Fagioli. Never a variation.
Each of those plates of pasta, to me, where exactly the same. But isn’t it curious that when McDonald’s churns out identical meals day in and day out it is bad, but it wasn’t when my mother did it. It makes sense only when you start from the notion that McDonald’s equals bad. But just like with the hypothetical burger above, when one looks at the nuance, things likely were not identical. This bowl of pasta may have had 150 grams of pasta and 50 grams of sauce, while another may have had 160/40.
Details make a difference. The American War in Vietnam ended and before the Vietnamese could catch their breath China invaded them1. You got to give it to the Vietnamese, they sure do know how to fight back, because that didn’t end well for China. The bullshit American Line about the Vietnam was, roughly, ‘blah blah blah puppet state for the USSR and China’. The US was wrong, and that much is indisputably clear. But there is nothing analogous to that with what happened in Afghanistan. There is no threat of a puppet state, there was merely a state no one is comfortable with. We can’t roll back the tides of history and play things out differently, but we can look at Vietnam currently, the victors of their war, and see that the ‘American-nanny-of-the-world’ fears were unfounded, and that Vietnam never fell to any other power. But what if they had lost the Sino-Vietnamese war2?
The ultimate point on this is that whether Afghanistan is another Vietnam is not a decision we get to make now. It is something that we will get to decide in roughly forty years time. The criteria for deciding that is something that a future generation can figure out. There is a chance that the similarities will be so striking that ‘Afghanistan was another Vietnam’ may actually apply. But I somehow doubt it. I think it may be the case of people wanting to ignore nuance to a fit a narrative.
But right now I am not convinced. I not only am not convinced that the one is significantly like the other, but I think there are differences that are worth highlighting. These differences make American look pretty bad. I think Afghanistan shows that America is incapable of learning from past mistakes, and shows to what extent the famed ‘military industrial complex’ has gotten significantly worse. You have to throw this nuance away by calling these two things the same. So what is the mother-fucking point of doing it? It is stupid and lazy heuristics for stupid and lazy people.
Somewhere in one of the above paragraphs I wanted to mention that I also don’t think the gulf of Tonkin lines up with 9/11, but the conspiracy nuts tend to see them is equal events. The burden of proof, once again, falls on their shoulders. I will sit here quietly until they change my mind.
The greatest irony to this is that back in 2003 when Bush invaded Iraq I had a ‘bad feeling’ about the war and told my brother that I thought it would be another Vietnam. He told me that was impossible, because Vietnam was a jungle and Iraq was a dessert. He was going through a lot of stuff back then.
Sigh. My life is truly a fucking comedy.
I actually believe it is a possibility that America’s time under the sun may be coming to an end, but not nearly as strongly as I believe that the arm-chair soothsaying of the ‘the american empire is ending’ crowd is a game for charlatans and political grifters. My father was prone to making proclamations his whole life, and well before Donald Trump was on anyone’s political radar, my father would end his prophecies with a Trump-esque “Believe me!”
Sometimes I consider renaming this blog to ‘cheap lazy heuristics’ because those terms has become such a central focus of my writing these days. It would be truly nice if the world just fit so neatly into god damned boxes, but once again if you ignore all the tiny details all burgers or plates of pasta look the same. And again, the details matter.
When did the Roman empire fall anyway? The people I talk to seem to think that it happened on some Tuesday, and Wednesday morning it was all under the rug. There is a reason the First Reich was called ‘The Holy Roman Empire’, and it wasn’t for purposes of marking. That’s who they thought they were. The Greeks liberated from the Ottoman empire also identified as Romans, so much so that ‘Hellenes’ was just barely selected over that at the birth of Greek Nationalism. Rome took centuries to die.
But if History repeats itself, as these sophists fucking insist on, then how do we know that we are not at the transition from Republic to Empire? While we have some of the characteristics of Empire (military expansionism and presences abroad), we are short some of the other characteristics (autocratic rule)3. ‘History repeats itself’ boils down to illiterate people saying ‘I can’t actually defend my position, but I want to say it anyway.’
Frankly, I really don’t have time for this shit.
1 Un-fun-fact: When I was in China, my students refereed to this as the ‘War of Vietnamese aggression’, Lol.
2 I can already see people not understanding this. I do not mean to imply in any way shape or form that the Sino-Vietnamese war meant the US should have stayed in Vietnam. I am saying that if History had played out differently, the Vietnam war may have been twice the failure for the US. My stance is still that the US should never have gone into Vietnam ever.
3 I should be clear here that I am not one of those ‘well, actually, America isn’t technically an empire’ apologists. That’s a level of ingenuous that I am not interested in. It is empire enough (in my book).