AS I WATCHED the big American helicopters circling the US Embassy in Kabul, I thought of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”. As the smoke of burning files billowed out of the Embassy compound, I recalled Aragorn before the Black Gate of Mordor. As Sauron’s Orc legions marched towards the uncrowned King of Gondor’s vastly outnumbered army, he rallied his quailing knights with a speech that has always stuck in my memory:
“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”
In those stirring lines, Fran Walsh captures perfectly the chivalric Western ethos. The idea that an oath, once given, cannot be broken. That protection offered and accepted cannot be withdrawn unilaterally and arbitrarily. Most of all, that there is no greater sin than the betrayal and abandonment of the weak by the strong. Through all the blood and sweat and tears of our history. In spite of them being honoured more in the breach than in the execution – these have been the animating ideals of the “Men of the West”. The principles they strove to live by.
What nation, looking aghast at the chaos and confusion created by the United States precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan, would consider putting its faith in American promises? What peoples, oppressed and abused though they may be by tyrannical regimes, will ever again look to the Western democracies for inspiration? What enemy of freedom and equality need any longer quail before the might of the West? The answers, tragically, are: “None.”
The true measure of the Afghanistan debacle will not be calculated in terms of the blood and treasure expended in that unhappy country. It will be calculated in terms of the loss of faith in the West’s word, and the West’s values, that the West’s betrayal and abandonment of the Afghan people – especially its women and girls – has provoked.
Henceforth, whenever anyone hears the “International Community” (a mealy-mouthed euphemism for the nations of North America, Europe and Australasia) warning some international miscreant against earning its displeasure, all that’s likely to be evoked is hollow laughter. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling miscreant than the Taliban, but it is equally difficult to imagine the Taliban losing too much sleep over what the “International Community” might do to it. After all, it’s been demonstrating its displeasure for twenty years with “Daisy Cutter” bombs, Cruise missiles, and “pinpoint” drone strikes, and all the “International Community” has achieved is the restoration of Taliban power.
And what about the nations not generally included in the “International Community”? What of the Russian Federation, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Peoples Republic of China? What will they make of the West’s forsaking of its friends; its breaking of the bonds of fellowship?
What has happened, they will ask themselves, to the West that responded to Stalin’s provocations of 1948 with the Berlin Airlift? The West that met North Korea’s sudden southward thrust with a UN “Police Operation” that drove its forces back across the 38th Parallel, and which, thanks to the United States, has maintained a strong military presence in South Korea for nearly 70 years? The West that massed its armies against Saddam Hussein in 1990-91 and made good the promise of President George H.W. Bush that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait “would not stand”. The West that, however imperfectly, and self-interestedly, kept its word?
Writing for the Newsroom website earlier this week, Professor Robert Ayson, observed: “Kabul’s fall could be the last echo of a period when western governments believed their armed forces could knit together broken nations. Despite all of today’s talk about democratic values, the message is that we don’t really mind how you govern yourselves, or actually whether you govern yourselves, as long as you don’t harm us.”
But, cowering behind walls, while the rest of the world burns, is the policy of appeasers and defeatists. The Men of the West’s day has come – and they have not stood.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 August 2021.