Out of the Quagmire

When Jon began his journalism career at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he wrote a headline for a wire story from Afghanistan that prompted a summons to the editor’s office. As a copy editor, he had studied the story carefully so he could craft a compelling headline that would use unconventional language to convince the reader to take a deeper dive. It was a report about a U.S. raid on a village that left several civilians dead. There were different interpretations of the same event, from the military perspective and from the villager perspective. Regardless of how the conflict began, the result was the same: innocent victims of war had gotten caught in the crossfire. Because it was one of the first reports from inside Afghanistan, Jon wrote a headline with layers of meaning: “Into the Quagmire.”

The next day, he was standing in the editor’s office being schooled about the weight of the word “quagmire,” its association with America’s involvement with Viet Nam, and the need to convey the meaning of the story objectively rather than editorially.

Jon felt sufficiently chastened. But now, 20 years later, he feels vindicated.

The longest war in American history has ended up costing us more than $1 trillion, the lives of at least 2,448 American service members, and the enduring physical and psychological wounds of more than 22,000 more.

It’s hard to see what of lasting significance has been achieved as a result of our going into the quagmire. This weighed heavily on our minds and dominated our conversations throughout the weekend, despite our best efforts to refocus our attention by watching the 1989 fantasy/drama “Field of Dreams,” the Great Performances presentation of Andrea Bocelli’s “Believe” concert, and a PBS pledge drive special of Kathy McCabe’s “Dream of Italy.”

America’s involvement in Afghanistan has been an equal opportunity calamity, with responsibility shared by Republican and Democrat administrations. President George W. Bush launched the war only to shift focus to Iraq before any stability had been achieved. President Barack Obama wanted to withdraw American troops but surged their levels instead. President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in 2020 for a complete withdrawal by last May. When President Joe Biden came to office, he announced the withdrawal of all troops by September 11, leaving the Taliban poised to seize control with shocking speed.

The decision to bring our troops home was right, but the chaotic withdrawal has proven to be tragic. Uncounted Afghans who had worked for years alongside our troops, civil society groups, aid organizations, and journalists, have abruptly found themselves in mortal danger. America may have gotten out of the quagmire, but we left behind those who risked everything because they believed we would help them realize a future built on civil rights, women’s empowerment and religious tolerance.