August 22, 2021

Foreign disaster makes domestic chaos feel even more apocalyptic (Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc.)

I've been trying to understand why the reactions to the failure to defeat Afghanistan have been so much more doom-and-gloom, compared to every other failure to control foreign nations after WWII. It's puzzling since we've been out-of-control in Afghanistan for the entire duration of the invasion, 20 years. It's not like it's a revelation that we were never going to absorb Afghanistan into our sphere of influence. What's so special about the current climate?

First we need to review the history of failures that did not provoke an apocalyptic response in the American public's psyche. And after WWII, all we've done is fail.

Yet nobody remembers the failure to control North Korea in the late '40s and '50s as a monumental disaster, even though we leveled their entire country and still lost so badly that Eisenhower won on GTFO the war. We lost the Philippines at the same time, and no one recalls that as a dark milestone along the way of American imperial decline, even though it clearly was that.

Nobody remembers the repeated failures to control Central America during the '80s and '90s, when all of the leftist groups we had tried to suppress ended up in control of their national governments. Ditto for the failure to coup Chavez out of office in Venezuela in the 2000s.

Nobody remembers our failed attempt to take over the leading state of the former Yugoslavia as it was breaking up -- Serbia -- in the '90s.

Everyone does remember the failure to win Iraq, however it's not recalled in the same funereal tone as the ongoing reactions to the loss in Afghanistan. Awful mistake, what were we thinking, etc., but not as a sign of the apocalypse. Nobody remembers the failure to absorb Libya in the early 2010s, or the rest of the Arab Spring color revolutions of the time.

Nobody remembers in dark tones the Islamic Revolution in Iran from the late '70s. They do have bad memories of the hostages taken at the US embassy, the botched rescue mission, and how long it was drawn out. But that is a distinct event from the toppling of the US-backed Shah, who we had installed via coup in 1954, and the irrevocable loss of Iran as a member of the American imperial sphere of influence. If the new government had not taken American hostages, we would not remember that geopolitical death knell at all.

The only one of the never-ending string of failures post-WWII that has left indelible scars on the American psyche is the loss in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, in the late '60s and early '70s. Everyone knows the reference, countless works of popular culture have been made about it, it will never leave the public's awareness, and it will always carry a negative doomer connotation.

Aside from the sudden collapse of the American attempt to control Afghanistan, there was a similarly doom-and-gloom reaction by the elites to the American failure to oust Assad in Syria after their government invited Russia to turn the tide against the jihadists. All of those apocalyptic news cycles about the "Fall of Aleppo" (to the anti-jihadists), the horrors of the Syrian refugee crisis, and the like, during the late 2010s.

Also, the "what world are we living in?" feeling when Trump met with Kim Jong-un, became the first sitting US president to set foot on North Korean soil, and in general struck up a friendly tone with the North Korean leader (after the "fire and fury" outburst of 2017).

If China feels confident after witnessing our collapse in Afghanistan, and takes over Taiwan in the early 2020s, that will also provoke an apocalyptic response (both pro and anti).

So what's in common between Vietnam and Afghanistan? The domestic climate, namely one of civil breakdown, riots, and other forms of collective unrest. This climate runs in a cycle that peaks every 50 years, as modeled by Peter Turchin well ahead of the 2020 peak that he predicted a decade in advance.

Most recently was the Wokeness / Black Lives Matter / Antifa chaos of the late 2010s and early 2020s. Before that, the peak in the late '60s and early '70s (known afterward as The Sixties (TM)), centered on a radicalized Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam War activism, and student / youth rebellion.

Every failure of the American empire in between those peaks -- and they did nothing but lose -- was felt as a disappointment, a pressing concern at the time, and so on. But they did not have the apocalyptic feeling of the failed wars circa 1970 and circa 2020.

Ditto for the failures after WWII but before Vietnam, crucially the Korean War. At worst people remember the dark prospect of nuclear war surrounding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in the early '60s, but they don't react that way to the overall loss of Cuba in the late '50s and afterward.

According to this view, we would have felt a similar apocalyptic reaction to our failed wars around 1920, but we were still an expansionist empire back then and never lost. Not to mention WWI was not fought on our soil, and we didn't enter until the end. Our other attempts to control countries through force succeeded, e.g. the occupation of Haiti from 1915-'34.

Over in Europe, however, there was absolutely a climate of apocalyptic reaction to the disasters of the late '10s and early '20s. Their empires had all been born in the early modern period and were at the end of their life-cycles. Nobody was going to win big over the others, since no one was still in an expansionist phase, all stagnating for decades at the time. So, their domestic civil unrest was amplified by a foreign policy loss, whereas our civil breakdown of the same time was not coupled with a lost war.

That may also explain why the South still feels such a bitter sting over losing the Civil War and getting Reconstruction imposed on them. That was somewhat of a "foreign policy" loss, given that they had seceded from the Union, but losing a big war no matter whether you consider it foreign or only quasi-foreign. That took place amidst a broader backdrop of civil unrest, riots, and the like, circa 1870, in line with the 50-year cycle.

If hypothetically, the North and South had fought a war around 1900, when there was no broader climate of civil unrest and state breakdown, it might not have left such a bitter taste in the mouth of the Southerners. No one likes losing, but they'll get over it eventually (Korea, Nicaragua, Serbia, Iraq, etc.). When it's coupled with, and amplified by, a climate of domestic unrest, it takes on a whole different meaning.

Why? Well, the foreign catastrophe would seem to only be further evidence that, domestically, things are going to hell in a handbasket. That it's the literal end of the world as we know it. And it is only going to make people undergoing domestic breakdown all the more worried if they get defeated in war at the same time, because the victors of that war could invade and control us, while we're bitterly torn apart internally. And typically a foreign invader isn't going to have our best interests at heart, so that will only accelerate the end of the world as we know it.

That's more or less what happened when the South lost the Civil War and then got occupied by the Union Army during Reconstruction. Luckily we're not surrounded by mighty empires right now, or we would really be going nuts. What if we didn't just fail to absorb Afghanistan, but it or one of its allies were a powerful or at least nascent empire, that decided to pounce on our foreign disaster and domestic breakdown, by invading and occupying us?

As our empire enters its death spiral, after decades of stagnation, that will only become more likely. Thankfully, though, we're not surrounded by powerful armies, and those that do exist would rather just kick us out of their sphere of influence (e.g., China kicking us out of Taiwan, or Russia kicking us out of the Middle East).

In the meantime, it does seem like "Afghanistan" is going to be the next "Vietnam" in the public's awareness. It is far from the only time when the supposedly strongest military in the world had to suddenly GTFO of some supposedly backwards shithole country after failing to absorb it into our sphere of influence. But it is the first failure since Vietnam to unfold during a climate of domestic breakdown, only adding to the sense of chaos and disintegration that we've felt in our daily local lives over the past few years.


  1. To clarify, there will be real structural consequences of this apocalyptic feeling, it's not just measuring how people's emotions fluctuate over time.

    Last time, the disaster in Vietnam led to the end of the military draft. Nixon ran on ending the draft in '68, then he & Congress ended it altogether by '73. Ford pardoned the draft dodgers in '74.

    And just like that -- no more draft, forever.

    This reminds me of Turchin's view of how empires decline, where each disintegrative phase takes off a certain amount of asabiya, and after a few such phases, it's all over, notwithstanding the periods in between where it seems to get somewhat better than total anarchy.

    E.g., total chaos during the Crisis of the 3rd Century in Rome, which shaved off a lot of Roman asabiya that had been building from 300 BC through the 2nd C.

    But then things stabilized during the 4th C. And yet that was not enough to take asabiya back to its previous high -- it was just arresting the plummeting plunge.

    The next disintegrative phase in the 5th C melted down the remainder of Roman asabiya, and the empire was over for good.

    I don't know what specific changes will be made in the wake of the catastrophic end of the Afghanistan War, but it will be something on the order of ending the draft. Another rung lower down the ladder.

    Then things will eventually stabilize -- but not forever. The next crisis phase after the current one, could easily be the "Barbarians over-running Rome in the 400s" kind of crisis. Or the next after that, who knows?

    But we're clearly on that downward spiral.

  2. These are some odd comparisons. Our military invaded Afghanistan and removed its government, before doing the same thing on a larger scale in Iraq. We didn't invade Venezuela to remove Chavez (we could have carpet-bombed Caracas, but there was no demand to do so), just approved of his opposition with negligible investment on our part. Korea was previously occuppied by Japan, and near the end of WW2 the commies kicked them out of the north while the south fell under our sphere of influence. We succeeded in reversing the North's invasion of the South, and still have troops there to this day (whereas we pulled out of South Vietnam and let that fall to the communist North).

    Libya was a stupid intervention, but there wasn't any claim that we were going to "absorb" it (it aligning with the US had been one of the few foreign policy successes of the Bush administration). Instead the foreign policy blob got so hyped about the "Arab Spring" they thought we ought to back it at some place to be on the side of purported angels (whereas we usually back undemocratic Arab governments, as in Egypt), so we imposed a "no fly zone" on Qadaffi to suppress his actions against rebels, which got extended to bombing buildings. How many American soldiers died in Libya? Wikipedia lists only one American death as part of our intervention in Libya, and that was a sailor injured outside of combat.

    People remember Jimmy Carter's failure to rescue the hostages. Dead soldiers & Americans at risk matters more to the general public than our degree of influence over a government.

    The US succeeded in putting down the Philippine insurrection when we first took it over from Spain, but the US planned for there to be Philippine independence LONG before the Korean war, which is why (unlike with Hawaii & Puerto Rico) the inhabitants weren't given US citizenship. They shifted from being an "Insular Government" to a Commonwealth in the 1930s. After MacArthur took back the Philippines from Japan, it returned to being an independent U.S client state, now sharing our enemy of communism (and islamism, though the latter would be less important during most of the Cold War). I suppose you could point to Marcos being forced out of office as the US "losing" the Philippines, but that's well after the Korean War (where we also supported an anti-communist autocrat whose regime was eventually replaced by a democratic one).

    "Nobody was going to win big over the others, since no one was still in an expansionist phase"
    Germans disagreed. Russians as well, although they failed to take Poland after the Bolsheviks consolidated control of their own country. They were still willing to try to take Finland after that failure.

  3. That's another key connection between foreign and domestic chaos. When there's civil breakdown at home, the elites are desperate to stop it in the moment, and prevent it from recurring later on.

    If there's a foreign disaster, that feels like it's only inflaming the domestic breakdown. So war, or some aspect of it, takes some of the blame for the domestic chaos, and suddenly the elites turn against war -- or some aspect of it -- for the mere governing principle of not having to govern an unruly chaotic mob.

    "Will ending the draft shut them up, and keep them from hemorrhaging further trust in the system? OK then, fuck the draft, the draft is over."

    Still, that lost trust never comes back, it's just stopped plummeting for the time being, until the next major crisis to strike both domestically and internationally.

    After Vietnam, young people never regained the faith in the draft system that had prevailed during the Midcentury.

    After Afghanistan, young people will never regain their faith in whatever it is that the elites are going to throw overboard to keep the societal ship from sinking in the here-and-now.

  4. Wow, your rationalization treadmill is about to fly off its axle, you're spinning so hard!

    Everything you said falls under the earlier post about re-framing the meaning of victory and defeat, or the goal of war, so that no matter what, the US military can never lose or be going into a decline.

    In reality, we impose objective true standards of what any empire's goal is in war -- adding new territory to its administration, AKA expanding its sphere of influence. Its drive is to grow and grow and grow.

    It is constructive and integrative (adding new peoples to the imperial fold), not destructive and disintegrative (blowing shit up, killing people, sowing chaos, etc.).

    Anyone who posits the destructive metrics as the goal of an empire in war is simply swallowing the losing military's face-saving propaganda.

    "It doesn't matter if we failed to incorporate that country into our sphere of influence through force -- we weren't really trying to do that anyway! (We just acted entirely like it, before it became clear we were losing.)"

  5. On the specifics, you're dead-wrong about the scale of our involvement in Korea, naturally since it did not leave long-term scars on the collective psyche.

    So you will not only *not* receive such knowledge passively through the culture, but you won't even feel it's worth looking up in 5 seconds on Wikipedia -- how bad could it have been, if I don't have the pre-existing perception that it was a horrific catastrophe?

    In reality, the death toll for Americans was identical in the Korean War and the longer-lasting Vietnam War -- 10s of thousands dead, 100s of thousands wounded.

    For Afghanistan? Only 1s of thousands dead, 10s of thousands wounded. That would be an order of magnitude lower than our losses in Korea.

    Therefore, we can reject your objection about Korea not being a big deal in our psyche because it was not a big deal materially in terms of death and destruction.

    We can also reject the face-saving claim that our goal was not to control North Korea -- of course it was. We tried to scoop up whatever was under the Japanese Empire's control, after we defeated and occupied the Japanese islands themselves. So, it was off to the Korean peninsula...

    Only the Soviets met us there, and were scrambling for the same control over the peninsula.

    The Soviets failed to control the South, and the US failed to control the North. They divided the peninsula at the 38th Parallel, and the outcome of the Korean War did not affect that. Translation: failure to control the peninsula, and having to settle for the Southern portion (which was no prize back in the 1940s).

    Just LOL at "it didn't matter that we lost the Philippines -- a previous gain from our victory over Spain in 1898 -- because we accepted the loss before it happened." If you sit on your hands while the other football team runs down the field unopposed, for the entire game, you didn't really lose because you accepted it beforehand!

    Somehow the American state did not accept that as fait accompli in 1898 or in the decades just afterward. Not until after WWII.

    You concede the point that nobody has bad memories of the Iranian Revolution due to the loss of our coup-imposed Shah, and the loss of Iran from joining our sphere of influence. It was only the superfluous taking of hostages that left bad memories, not our geopolitical defeat.

    We used force directly and indirectly to try to remove both Chavez and Qaddafi. We failed in the first case, and although killing the leader in the second case, still failed to grow our sphere of influence to include Libya. Using force doesn't require a ground invasion and indefinite occupation by 100s of thousands -- look how swiftly the Mongols or other nomadic barbarians knocked out their enemies and brought them under vassal / tributary status.

    And of course the empires of WWI thought one of them could've won big -- that's a sign of their decadent cluelessness! I'm saying that objectively, none was going to win big, *whether they at the time recognized that objective fact or not*.

    Not that that was central to the argument anyway (which is about the compounding effects of a foreign and domestic catastrophe at the same time), you're just a nitpicker. But even then, you're wrong.

  6. Just to clarify how bad the nitpicking is from types like TGGP, when I say "we failed our attempts to add new territory after WWII," that obviously does not include our occupation of southern Korea.

    "B-b-b-but, that was AFTER WWII, and you said --"

    It was less than a fucking week after WWII ended, you hair-splitter. In the relevant theater of the war, Japan formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945. The US military landed at Incheon (now in South Korea) on Sept. 8, 1945 -- literally, not even a week "after WWII".

    So, our occupation of S.K. traces back to 1945, less than a week after Japan surrendered.

    If you want to get autistically literal, you can save face by saying "We never added territory by force after the mid-1940s". But it's easier to remember the milestone of "WWII" than "the mid-1940s", and our occupation of SK began a nanosecond "after WWII" anyway.

    The first tests of our post-WWII strength was whether to keep or give up the Philippines, and the Korean War for control over the entire peninsula, not just the portions that the Soviets and Americans had assumed a nanosecond after Japan surrendered.

    In both cases -- total and complete failure. So bad in the Korean case that the winning presidential candidate ran on GTFO.


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