August 22, 2021

Get Me to the Plane on Time

The words below are to be sung to the tune of “Get me to the church on time” from “My Fair Lady” by Fredrick Lowe. I wrote this a few days ago as the U.S. was beginning to remove Americans and American allies from Afghanistan. It seemed amusing them. Today, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan seems dire, and my lyrics seem less amusing.

I’m exfiltrating in the morning If I’m not a victim of a crime. Rebels are fright’ning, But I’ll run like lightning To get me to the plane on time. If there are roadblocks, I’ll find a way To rebels outfox And to save the day ’cause I’m exfiltrating in the morning; There may be airport walls to climb. Kabul has fallen; The people are bawlin’, But I’m gonna meet the plane on time. Kabul has fallen; The people are brawlin’, So get me to the plane on time.

August 16, 2021

Thoughts on Mask Mandates

I admit it— I don’t like wearing a mask. I particularly disliked wearing a mask until I found one that didn’t fog my glasses. (Grocery shopping was especially frustrating when everything on the shelf was a blur.) I wore a mask wherever I was told I should, and I stayed home except for needed trips to the supermarket or pharmacy.

America was doing a fair job of social distancing, wearing masks, and self-isolating if necessary. Nonetheless, infections, hospitalizations, and deaths increased steadily during the current pandemic until the development and deployment of effective vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Those vaccines promised to end the pandemic, though the threat of imported viruses could not easily or quickly be diminished. Nevertheless, President Biden’s Independence Day vaccination target seemed within reach. The CDC’s suggestion that the fully vaccinated could go maskless in most situations promised a return to the normality of the status quo ante.

Just when we were approaching definitive freedom from mask-wearing and COVID-19 anxiety, progress toward universal (or at least widespread) vaccination stalled. A significant segment of the population refused, irrationally, to be vaccinated. Moreover, the CDC’s advice about allowing the fully vaccinated to go maskless seemed to give permission for unvaccinated morons to do the same. Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are on the rise again, particularly in areas where large majorities are unvaccinated.

In this surprisingly worsening stage of the pandemic, children are going back to school—not virtual school, but real, in-person school. In many districts, school boards are requiring everyone in school buildings to wear masks and for students to be separated as widely as possible. This seems a prudent response to the current state of the pandemic, particularly in light of the fact that many students are not only unvaccinated but also are not yet candidates for vaccination.

On the other hand, in states like Florida and Texas, we find governors issuing edicts banning mask mandates, whether for schools or other establishments. We also are seeing angry parents claiming their rights as parents to send their children to school without masks. The governors, of course, are pandering to their craziest yet politically important constituents. That group includes the angry mothers fighting for their right to send their children into harm’s way.

I am a staunch supporter of allowing people the freedom to be stupid and to act in personally destructive ways. However, a nation is not simply a collection of individuals having no relationship to one another. There are things we must do for the common good, including paying taxes and obeying laws. As a nation, we also act to protect children from danger, even when that danger is presented by a parent. Parents do not own their children as they might a washing machine, and they are not free to expose their children to unnecessary risks. In demanding the right to send children to school without masks, they are exposing not only their own children to potential harm but other children as well. This is not acceptable.

Citizens accept all sorts of “restrictions” on their freedom for the good of all. We obey traffic laws; we wear seatbelts; we pay our debts. Why has wearing a mask become such an intolerable imposition on our free will? We are generally required to wear clothes in public. Is that such a burdensome imposition? It only protects the sensibilities of others. Having to wear a mask can protect the very lives of others. Doesn’t that make wearing a mask even more important than wearing other clothing?

It is unfortunate that, in some circumstances, mask mandates are necessary. But they are.

August 15, 2021

Who Lost Afghanistan?

Surely the question of who lost Afghanistan is destined to be an oft-asked question. There will be a lot of blame to go around, but the question of what could have been done is at least as interesting. In truth, Afghanistan lacks a compelling national identity and, if history is any guide, is virtually ungovernable. Perhaps the Taliban can return Afghanistan to the seventh century; no one seems capable of taking it to the twenty-first.

Republicans will be quick to blame President Biden for what appears to be the coming total defeat. Democrats will, I hope, point out that it was the Trump administration that negotiated the U.S. withdrawal while getting virtually no concessions from the Taliban in return. In fact, under Mr. Biden, the U.S. is leaving later than when the last administration agreed to do so. But the president was unwilling to try to pull a rabbit out of what was clearly an empty hat.

There is no doubt that most Americans wanted the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan and terminate the war that has seemed interminable. There is no evidence that extending the war another year or another five years or another ten years would have resulted in a stable, modern, democratic Afghanistan. Long before now, the futility of pouring resources into that benighted Asian country became apparent.

A succession of American presidents believed (or pretended to believe) that, at the very least, we could build an Afghan military capable of defending its country. But we have clearly failed at that task. We experienced a similar failure in Vietnam, which should perhaps have tempered our expectations. Frankly, I do not know how to build a modern, competent fighting force in a backward country with a corrupt government. It may be impossible.

Our adventure in Afghanistan began rationally enough but quickly took a wrong turn. The original objective was to eliminate terrorist training camps and to capture Osama Bin Laden. Obliterating training facilities was easy. Capturing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was more difficult, particularly as President Bush decided to open a totally unjustified second front against Iraq, a move that diverted both resources and attention. Bin Laden slipped away, thereby sending the message that one could attack the United States and get away with it. We then made the fatal mistake of trying to replace the Taliban government with a democratic one. The bootless task of nation-building, a task our presidents were loath to admit, was begun. Clearly, that task has failed.

The adventure begun under President Bush continued under Presidents Obama and Trump. Donald Trump essentially negotiated an American withdrawal absent any concern for its consequences. That decision was inherited by President Biden, who seemed to have a fatalistic (though surely realistic) view of the end of our Afghan involvement.

President Biden could not reasonably have avoided defeat short of committing us to a forever war. He deserves credit for acknowledging the inevitable. He must accept blame, however, for a chaotic departure from Afghanistan that has failed to extract our Afghan allies who may face elimination under a Taliban regime. As of this writing, it is not even clear that we can safely extract our diplomats and American civilians from harm’s way.

The Taliban has pledged to offer a different kind of governance than it practiced when last it was in power. One can hope that it does so, but such an eventuality seems unlikely. All we can do now is pray for Afghanistan and its people.