The Before and Aftershocks of Afghanistan
An Elaine-inspired recap
Good, troubling morning, subscriber,
I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy the height of summer despite the news cycle reaching worrying lows. I come bearing a rehash of past episodes that shed light on present woes. To quote Elaine quoting Leo Tolstoy, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
This is our second of three recaps before Season 3 premieres on September 9th. I’d intended to talk today about the Confederate-y history of history textbooks, but instead I’ll discuss textbooks with paying subscribers next week. You can sign up below!
Now, to Central Asia.
Seasoned viewers might recall that we touched on the War in Afghanistan at the end of Season 2. Even then, it was clear that the war would not end well. As one US official mused, “Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave.”1 This raised a question: How does the US routinely launch interventions like Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan that rarely lead to enduring freedom?
In many ways, the answer dates back to a conference in 1893, when a historian named Frederick Jackson Turner transformed conceptions of the “frontier.”
Up to that point, most scholars had viewed the academic discipline of history as primarily concerned with compiling facts, dates, and names. But Turner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was part of a new generation of historians trying to “explain” the relationship between economics, science, culture, and politics.2
And as he theorized in a late afternoon session during the 1893 World’s Congress of Historians and Historical Students, this relationship originated on the western frontier. As settlers “transform[ed] the wilderness,” he argued, they developed “striking characteristics” like “dominant individualism” and “that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.”3 Turner’s point was not that exuberant settlers were the early Teletubbies...
...but rather that the qualities settlers developed on the frontier led to “the promotion of democracy here and in Europe.”
Now, there was just one problem with this flowers-and-rainbows argument: Turner all but erased the existence of people of color and women. For many white men, that was exactly Turner’s appeal. By 1922, as one prominent historian at the time attested, so many books employed Turner’s arguments that it was impossible to list them all. And notably, US leaders began adopting Turner’s arguments, too.
Why? Well, the western frontier closed in the 1890s, and politicians were keen to find more land (and people) to exploit—or as Elaine might say, “We just want to take this and add that.” Conveniently, Turner equating taming new frontiers with the “advancement of freedom and democracy” offered a tidy justification for invading other countries.
Soon Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson borrowed Turner’s soothing, self-flattering, and ignorant arguments to justify sending US troops to the Philippines, the Caribbean, and Central America. Fast forward to 2001, likely without even realizing it, so too did George Bush when justifying invading Afghanistan:
As a Turner-influenced crisis now unfolds in Afghanistan, the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, carried out by KIansmen and neo-Nazis in the wake of the Vietnam War, suggests we should be on the lookout for a surge in upheaval at home.
Because, although pictures of people on the far-right sporting both swastikas and Confederate flags are now common...
...Nazis and white supremacists weren’t always buddies. During World War II, few Klansmen supported the Nazis. But things began to change after Vietnam.
Many soldiers, embittered by antiwar sentiment at home, began to see anyone with left-leaning sympathies, whether it be Vietnamese troops or Civil Rights activists, as the enemy. As Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Gorell Pierce proclaimed in the late 70s, “People realize time is running out” to defeat Communists and, “We’re going to have to get together” with Nazis.4
In 1979 North Carolina, neo-Nazis and Klansmen joined forces, previously a rare occurrence, to form a new group called the United Racist Front. (“We Want to Keep the Cold War Going Kids” was already taken). From the get-go, the URF’s main target was North Carolina’s Communist Workers Party (CWP), which consisted of labor organizers, Communist Jews, and Black Power activists.
And the URF let its animosity be known in November that year. As CWP members marched in an anti-Klan protest in Greensboro, 12 URF members showed up armed with clubs and guns.
Within minutes, five protestors lay dead or dying, and their white power assailants fled, nowhere to be seen.
Of course, it wasn’t hard to identify the gunmen and track them down—the whole altercation was caught on film—but convicting them in front of an all-white jury was trickier. In fact, in not one but three different trials that followed, juries let the gunmen off the hook.
Emboldened, white power members interpreted the exonerations as a sign that uniting worked. This Vietnam-War-inspired union has fueled the far-right ever since:
Now that the War in Afghanistan is ending (that is, for people who are not in Afghanistan), this union might receive a new injection of strength. As historian Kathleen Belew wrote on Twitter:
And for the record, I’m not a HUGE fan of Seinfeld, but when I read warnings like Belew’s, Elaine helps to dull the pain. After all, if she can put Nazis out of business, maybe we can too.
Either way, see you in two weeks with our final recap before Season 3, and premium pals, see you next week with more on textbooks.
From “The Afghanistan Papers”, by Craig Whitlock, in the Washington Post. The papers are stunning 🤯 I recommend reading them for more context on how things went awry in Afghanistan from the jump.