The Value of ‘Whataboutism’

Have we forgotten our own history?
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A woman grieves in front of a residential building damaged during the Ukrainian-Russian war in Volnovakha, March 11, 2022 (CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters).

 

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Remember Afghanistan? Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Afghanistan—or more specifically, the aftermath of America’s failed twenty-year-long war there—was attracting intense scrutiny, both in the United States and elsewhere.

And rightly so. The victorious Taliban were reimposing their ultraconservative version of Islam, with women in particular subjected to its draconian restrictions. The Afghan economy was in shambles. Banks had closed. Food and medicine were in short supply. Afghans who had supported United States and coalition forces struggled desperately to flee.  

To all of this, the media bore righteous witness. Implicit in the news reports coming out of Kabul and other parts of the country was an insistence that the United States could not simply walk away from Afghanistan—could not absolve itself of responsibility for what was occurring there following the final, humiliating departure of U.S. troops. Then came Vladimir Putin’s reckless decision to undertake a war of choice in Ukraine. With that, Afghanistan disappeared from the headlines, its travails ignored or reclassified as possessing negligible salience.  

We confront here one of the underappreciated paradoxes of the so-called Information Age. On the one hand, the typical laptop or cell phone provides almost instant access to a seemingly infinite universe of knowledge and commentary. On the other hand, at any particular moment, media gatekeepers choose to highlight a small handful of topics with everything else consigned to the margins. The “CNN effect,” as it used to be called, has returned with a vengeance.  

Typically, topics receiving attention are those that have occurred within the previous twenty-four hours.  Meanwhile, those that occurred in the prior twenty-four days or twenty-four weeks—forget about months—are ignored or simply forgotten. The boundless availability of information thereby impedes actual understanding. It kills perspective.

War is uniquely complex. As Clausewitz wrote, war is a chameleon.

As I write, the Russo-Ukrainian War of 2022, having begun just over two weeks ago, continues to wreak havoc, with great quantities of blood spilled and no resolution anywhere in sight. We must hope that behind closed doors diplomats are identifying some “off-ramp” approach that will end the violence.

In the meantime, the bulletins out of Ukraine—however partial, skewed, and laced with propaganda—provide at least some sense of what is going on in the war zone. Anyone with access to the internet can literally spend their entire day—every day—keeping up with those bulletins, which contain innumerable truths, half-truths, and untruths.   

In the aggregate, however, they offer this crucial reminder: among human endeavors, war is uniquely complex. It resists mastery. As specific circumstances vary, so too does war’s very nature. There exists no fixed, identifiable formula—theory, doctrine, arsenal, approach to leadership—that guarantees victory. As Clausewitz wrote some two centuries ago, war is a chameleon.

Russia was supposed to defeat Ukraine easily. After all, in recent years, Putin and his generals had expended exorbitant sums of money in reforming and modernizing Russian forces. That they would quickly overcome any Ukrainian resistance was a given. All the experts said so.   

Not for the first time, events have proved the experts wrong. Put to the test, the Russian army has proven to be astonishingly inept. Sadly, Ukrainian noncombatants must now pay the price for that ineptitude as Russian forces give up even the pretense of using force in a controlled and purposeful way, choosing instead to rely on indiscriminate violence. That this reliance on unchecked brutality will enable them eventually to prevail is not only possible but perhaps even likely if the fighting continues long enough. In the meantime, in numbers far greater than those Putin and his generals once expected, thousands more Russian mothers will mourn their fallen sons.

In all of this, I submit, there is an important lesson for the United States. Learning that lesson requires connecting Russian folly in Ukraine with our own folly in Afghanistan. We too counted on our own mastery of modern war to make quick work of our adversaries and to deliver cheap and decisive victory, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. Instead, in both instances, U.S. forces got a years-long dose of what Russia forces are experiencing now—and what the Russians themselves had experienced during their own Afghanistan War of the 1980s. Assuredly, the specifics differ, but the overarching similarities are impossible to miss.  

The recently emerging enthusiasm in some quarters for getting tough on Russia—for example, by enacting a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace—suggests that more than a few Americans have learned nothing from our own recent, costly, and largely unsuccessful military endeavors. Their eagerness to try again, as evident in the ever-growing size of the Pentagon budget, is palpable. It is also disturbing. As in Putin’s Kremlin, here in the United States the willingness to send someone else’s son or daughter to put their lives on the line remains alive and well. 

Russia’s actions in Ukraine deserve unanimous condemnation. For Americans, perhaps too quickly given to self-forgiveness, condemnation alone will not suffice. Instead of using the Russo-Ukraine War as an excuse for shoving our own Afghanistan War down the memory hole, something more akin to repentance and reparation should be in order.

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

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