“It’s just like 1975,” my mother said to me as we both watched the unraveling of Afghanistan through news reports. For my mother, the news of well-equipped military forces falling like domino pieces followed by an ensuing panic and rush to exit the country ahead of a menacing occupying force is all too familiar. In April 1975, after experiencing years of war from the beginning of her childhood, my mother (at the age of fourteen) and her family were hastily put on the run as the final offensive by Communist forces in Vietnam began to pick up speed. The Americans were not coming. The country was disintegrating. The goal became survival. My grandfather, an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), would likely be captured and imprisoned in a reeducation camp if he stayed behind.
With little choice, my mother’s family raced south to Saigon. There they saw scenes that uncannily resemble those we have seen in Kabul in recent days. Chaos enveloped the city, with thousands of frightened and terrified people—both military personnel and civilians who had assisted US efforts in a wide range of ways—seeking any possible way to flee the country with their families before they faced reprisals for collaboration with the Americans. My mother’s family was lucky; they were able to climb aboard one of the few remaining ships of the South Vietnamese navy that were sailing out to sea for the final time. Combined with airlift efforts from the embassy under Operation Frequent Wind, over 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated before Communist tanks rolled into Saigon. Later, people like my mother were in-processed through four different military facilities in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, California, and Florida, and eventually resettled throughout the United States. My mother would later get a college degree and raise me and my two older sisters. She always told us that she wanted us to fully live the American dream and to take advantage of the opportunities she never got.
A little more than forty-one years later, my mother watches another of America’s long wars end with eerily similar results. In a matter of weeks, another nation in which America invested years upon years of its blood and money has completely dissolved. The Americans were gone. City after city fell. The country was no more. Now, thousands face potential persecution for collaboration with the Americans. Those people now look to the skies over Kabul hoping that the next plane that comes in will be able to get them out of the country before it is too late. Due to the efforts of many West Point graduates and government officials, several Afghan officers who are graduates of my alma mater have been evacuated. They are the lucky ones. Thousands of at-risk individuals, ranging from contractors and humanitarian aid workers to interpreters who worked for the US military, still remain in Kabul, hoping they will not be left to the mercy of the Taliban.
Those Afghan officers remind me of my grandfather as he tried to find a way for my mother and his family to survive in April 1975. If my grandfather had been captured, he and my mother’s family would have suffered immensely. I cannot imagine what the Taliban will do to the many soldiers America has trained and fought alongside, or the numerous civilians that have assisted our long war effort.
I cannot answer whether America’s war in Afghanistan was worth the cost, nor can I assign blame for the final fall of the Afghan republic. Those debates will endure for the foreseeable future. In this moment, however, we must unite and realize our moral obligation to those who have served and been at America’s side. In 1975, despite an apathetic American public, President Ford sought to ensure a speedy evacuation for as many at-risk persons as possible in the final days of the war, a decision that saved thousands. For my mother and grandfather, the early parts of their lives are defined by the devastation of America’s involvement in Vietnam, but so too are they defined by the moral obligation and sense of humanity shared by many US government officials who felt they had a duty to help those who had supported America’s efforts in the country and those who fought directly alongside American soldiers.
There is a saying in Vietnamese: “When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” It’s essentially a message to remember gratitude for those who helped you in your journey. For twenty years, the people of Afghanistan endured and helped us in our fight to ensure a safer world for Americans and the world at large. We cannot abandon those whom we educated, trained, and fought with in our two-decade struggle. Nor should we abandon those who supported the fighters. No matter who is to blame for the rapid fall of Afghanistan, we should all agree that the thousands of lives that hang in the balance right now are worth the trouble not only because of our humanitarian instincts, but also our duty to those who have shared in our hardship. If we truly succeeded in meeting our national security objectives despite the final outcome of the war, as the president said in his address on Monday, then should not we give thanks in the form of safe refuge to those who have suffered or will suffer?
Of course, America has begun this process already. The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program is a start, but the program has a history of backlog and may only assist a paltry sum of those who are actually eligible. We must expand this program dramatically and increase the resources needed to ensure speedy processing. We must increase the number of third-country safe havens to continue processing of refugees and all who fear for their lives even after the last American troops have left the country. Consequently, we must substantially increase airlift capabilities in and out of Kabul, working with the private sector and nonprofit organizations like No One Left Behind to supplement military cargo lift. The Defense Department has allocated room for thirty thousand Afghan SIVs in similar fashion to the way my mother was in-processed into America in 1975. We should not let that be the upper limit of our compassion and moral obligation. Nor should we see our obligation as complete after the evacuation of only those in Kabul is finished. With the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States admitted at least sixty thousand refugees a year for several years (with some years totaling well over one hundred thousand) as people attempted to escape Communist Vietnam. Although times are certainly different now in other respects, we must at least aspire to fulfilling our deep moral obligation and high ideals.
The timing of the fall of Kabul and follow-on pleas for help from thousands of people could not have come at a more critical moment in the American experiment. As democracy and human rights come under attack around the world, we must not renege on our commitment to our ideals. We must show the ability of a free people to come together and show compassion. In his farewell address in 1989, President Reagan recounted the story of a refugee from Indochina being rescued by an American sailor. Upon meeting the American sailor, the refugee said, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.” America was and should continue to be a symbol of freedom and prosperity. We can embody those ideals more resolutely through meaningful, concrete acts of kindness to our Afghan allies—just as in 1975, as my mother escaped potential persecution, she and many other Vietnamese Americans came to see America as the land of opportunity and freedom.
Although the fall of the Afghan republic will be lamentable for so many who hoped for a free and prosperous country, it can have a happy ending for some at least. Forty-one years ago, my mother and her family left Vietnam with few possessions. From the depths of despair, however, she worked and earned a college degree and later raised three children. My sisters and I have done as our mother has asked us to do, and strived to fulfill the American dream every day. I hope that Afghans who risked their lives to assist our efforts in their country, like those who are my fellow members of the Long Gray Line, will be resettled in America soon. Maybe those that do will raise children, telling them the same thing my mother has always told me and my sisters.
Danny Nguyen is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and current officer in the United States Army.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla, US Marine Corps
Danny, in August 1964 I was a plebe bracing at table when the Officer of the Day came to the microphone and said North Vietnamese torpedoboats had attacked our destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf, "and the President will speak to the Nation," and we all knew what that meant.
There was great excitement, but I sat there – youngest at table at 17.5, but having studied Stalingrad and the Asia-Pacific jungle-fighting – and thought to myself, "You poor kids. You have no idea what we're getting into. The Country won't mobilize, and we'll be defeated, and many of us here will die." And then … after I left the Academy … I got to watch childhood and Academy friends die … wasted.
I later volunteered for the draft – my locally friendly draft board having lost my file – I was off the grid – and put in my 2 years feeling obligated to my generation to take my fair share of risk, but I did not want to go to South Vietnam, knowing Agent Orange couldn't be as safe as the corporations and Pentagon were claiming and seeing those who went stabbed in the back by the leftists … like today's plebe American History textbook author Eric Foner at Columbia … and college kids not under wartime controls.
I was prepared to go if ordered, but lucked out with serving in USArEur instead.
Vietnam was a just war. Urban South Vietnam was a Western-oriented society – Saigon the Paris of the Orient – and President Kennedy had pledged we would defend free nations whenever and wherever they were threatened. But President Johnson was a political operator not up to major war leadership: mobilization. (See my review of the film We Were Soldiers in the February 2003 American Historical Review. Over the telephone, I interviewed General Moore and Joe Galloway … now both gone … for it.)
By contrast, we went to war in Afghanistan on a "neoconservative" lie: that (a very suspicious) 9/11 had been based there, when it had actually been based in countries much farther to the west. And our invasion of Iraq was even more criminally fraudulent – the weapons inspectors like Hans Blix being chased out of Iraq to prevent them from continuing *not* to find Weapons of Mass Destruction – and was a holocaust for the Iraqi people, as well as our regime-change destabilization wars in Libya and Syria have been – holocausts – for their peoples as well.
Afghanistan was made the War on Terror target exactly because it was so remote and unconquerable, so the WoT could be continued unendingly. (And "Osama bin Laden" was claimed to be in Afghanistan to enhance the target, although the person claimed to be him was actually in Pakistan and when we finally killed him his body was too quickly buried at sea for independent international verification that it *was* ObL. (A report had circulated in 2001 that ObL was terminally ill with only months to live, and an Egyptian newspaper reported his death in December 2001.)
Similarly, some of our Mideast "allies" created ISIS to be so horrible as to justify us going back into Iraq and then getting our foot in the door in Syria, and we may be seeing the same mechanic now with ISIS-K in Afghanistan. And we – the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton State Department – sent Libyan weapons to al Nusrah/Qaeda and ISIS via Turkey and ISIS's Mideast sponsors. Those may have included the sarin gas components for al Nusrah's false flag August 2013 massacre of 1,000 innocent pro-Assad Alawite men, women, and children. (See the article by American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh – Pulitzer Prize for exposing the My Lai Massacre in South Vietnam – in the London Review of Books, "The Red Line and the Rat Line.")
We had Afghanistan – the Taliban (who had nothing to do with 9/11) beaten – as "won" as it ever could be in 2005, but Cheney&Bush kept our servicepeople in there, eventually to be surrounded by hostiles on all sides and instant Bataan-like prisoners and hostages in any forthcoming West vs. East nuclear superpower showdown.
After then, resistance to us rallied and getting out was going to be just as messy as it is, but the American People have had it with the neocons and their wars … and our young and best being wasted in them for their "Arab Spring" fictions, etc.
"Neoconservatives" are not conservative at all. They are revolution-, coup-, and war-spreading utopians quite like the Trotskyites their older members once openly were. The "neoconservative" label is just for the consumption of the gullible and/or profiteering greedy.
As we now finally move out of our big-lie Afghanistan war and The Graveyard of Empires – thank you, Presidents Trump and Biden – the Chinese will move in, and the only time in its history Afghanistan was ever actually pacified was for 100 years by the Mongols.
(Speaking of family, I have 2 ggg granduncles – youngest Andrew just ill-timedly visiting from Australia and brilliant Brigadier Alexander Jack – who were victims in the 1857 Cawnpore (India) Massacre. An English general was in command, not Alexander.)
Thank you for your own service to the Country, Danny, but please don't let yourself be misled and your family's own suffering be misused.
I had hesitated to include this, but not only did the fraudulent nature of our neocon wars throw into question any "obligations" Americans should feel regarding them, Indochinese immigrants – by contrast – were grateful and compatible (and even then sometimes treated badly by Americans).
Many or most of these refugees from Afghanistan will by their nature/ideology not be compatible … or under the circumstnces grateful … and will inevitably include very destructive elements … like some Batistist Cuban refugees (speaking from personal experience) have been.