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American hope survived Vietnam. Will it survive Afghanistan?

Current catastrophe evokes painful — and hopeful — memories

A military transport plane launches off from Kabul airport on Monday while Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate are stranded outside.
A military transport plane launches off from Kabul airport on Monday while Afghans who cannot get into the airport to evacuate are stranded outside. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Hope seems fragile — particularly in trying times like what is unfolding in Afghanistan today. Yet somehow American hope endures.

The Trump administration’s decision to abandon Afghanistan, carried out with “messy” execution by the Biden administration, is a geopolitical humiliation for America. This month’s chaotic scenes from Kabul as the U.S. beats a hasty withdrawal brings more than haunting pictures that parallel America’s similarly hasty 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam. This affects real people our nation made commitments to.

In 2011-12, I served with the 10th Mountain Division in Kandahar Province. A young Afghan man volunteered to serve with the U.S. Army and was placed with my unit as a translator. He was only 19 years old. I listened to him recount his belief in the ideals of American freedom and his vision that Afghanistan could be more than a war-torn country ruled by drug thugs and violent Islamic extremists. He served with American forces loyally as an Afghan believer in the goodness of America and the best our nation offers. Like me, he undertook military missions side by side with American soldiers; unlike me, he went out with our troops unarmed because he was an Afghan national amid U.S. forces and was not permitted to carry a weapon.

The disaster in Afghanistan gives the U.S. a black eye and bolsters the standing of our international detractors, particularly China and Russia. The events in Kabul undermine America’s reputation for resolve against our enemies.

But the abandonment of Afghanistan is more than an international power move; it is an abandonment of people who placed their trust and faith in the promise of the United States. As America continues to grapple with problems around illegal immigration, my former translator patiently awaited bureaucratic adjudication of his special immigrant visa to legally come to the U.S. He is still waiting — now in hiding from the Taliban. Even more than the problem Afghanistan poses for America’s international reputation, the real tragedy comes from these individuals whom our government leaves behind.

It does not have to be this way. I know.

Even as the catastrophe of Afghanistan unfolds, I still hold hope in America. A similar calamity took place in the wake of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. That war, like this conflict in Afghanistan, was full of heartbreaking stories. But it also contains seeds of all-American hope.

You see, my mother emmigrated to the U.S. from Thailand amid the Vietnam War, having served as a translator for the U.S. Air Force. I had the fortune to be born in this wonderful nation and then go on to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army. I also held the privilege of winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives. No other country on earth can welcome the child of immigrants from the most humble of circumstances to be a leader of its soldiers and maker of its national laws as America does. This has been and must always be the hope of America.

Our nation is not perfect. We never claimed to be. But we do claim to be a nation that constantly strives and hopes to be a more perfect union. This hope was validated in the American Revolution, it sustained our country through the Civil War, it held through the Vietnam War. It is up to us Americans today to renew our commitment to that hope now.

I hope my translator can find a way out of Afghanistan and obtain his well-deserved American visa. I hope the tragedy of Afghanistan is mitigated with time. I still hope in America. When a child of Afghan refugees wins election to Congress sometime in the future, we will know American hope is still alive.

Charles K. Djou is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He represented Hawaii’s 1st District as a Republican from 2010 to 2011 and was the first Thai American elected to Congress. The views expressed above are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.

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