Edith Shain was 91 years old when she died peacefully last week in her home in Los Angeles. You knew her as the woman in the iconic black and white photo of a jubilant soldier kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. The snapshot tells an American tale of a war ending and an entire generation of people coupling up – creating the suburbs, a solid middle-class and a stupendous baby boom.
What strikes me about the photo is that they really knew how to end wars back then. For example: they used to end wars…back then. There was a global conflict followed by a resolution. Beginning. Middle. End. Done. Birthrate skyrockets.
Now we have two never-ending wars and Cialis commercials on an eternal loop. How far we’ve come.
The U.S. decided to invade Afghanistan after September 11th in 2001. As troops were being mobilized, Americans preemptively bought yellow ribbons to show support for the mission and the troops. Yellow ribbons also appeared in 1979 during the Iran Hostage Crisis and again in 1991 for the troops in Operation Desert Storm. Then ten years later they were back, displayed for all to see: tied to trees, flagpoles, telephone poles and every pole in between. Our nation was awash in American flags and yellow ribbons. “These colors don’t run!”
The other day I saw a yellow ribbon stuck in a chain link fence. The ribbon was tattered, frayed and sun-faded. The war in Afghanistan is so long it has outlasted the material of the ribbons initially supporting the effort. An original ribbon from this current war is now an antique.
About five years into the conflict yellow ribbon car magnets became a big trend. During that time I was traveling all over the country, and in every pocket of the U.S. were cars, trucks and SUVs with magnets showing support for what had become not one, but two wars. Yellow ribbons were ubiquitous. And then gradually the magnets starting disappearing until they were gone. Individually – one by one – in private, with no fanfare and no media coverage – Americans removed their patriotic yellow ribbon magnets from their vehicles. You don’t see them anymore. Apparently something as temporary as a magnet shaped like a ribbon is not the proper symbol for the war we are actually waging.
With all the red-baiting and pundit-driven fear of the U.S. becoming a communist country because we no longer let health insurance companies deny coverage to sick children, we’ve lost sight of an important fact: the Soviet Union – communists – lost their collective red shirts in Afghanistan. The perils of fighting a determined local force whose idea of infrastructure is a bridge to the sixth century proved too enormous for the last super power that fought there.
In fact, Afghanistan is an empire graveyard. It has been for millennia. How about this for a foreign policy: don’t invade a place where the last successful incursion was led by Genghis Khan.
Last week a Rolling Stone article about the war in Afghanistan resulted in the retirement of General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. The media attention focused on the personnel issue in the chain of command. What was skipped over was the passage about the COIN (acronym for counter-insurgency) doctrine created by McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus. “The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975),” wrote reporter Michael Hastings.
That’s right. We are looking at past mistakes and incorporating them into our current conflict – which is like gathering a bunch of defective parts, putting them into your new car and being surprised by the outcome.
So far the war in Afghanistan has cost the U.S. $300 billion. It’s already the longest war America has ever fought. The date President Obama gave for the start of withdrawal is July 2011. The war hawks argue this is too soon.
You can say many things about the war in Afghanistan but “not long enough” is not one of them.
Maybe those worn-out ribbons are more of a symbol than we planned on.