History seems to repeat itself with the successive defeats of American interventions in diverse countries of the planet. It is worth analyzing what is behind the repetitive failure.
Different theories exist regarding the place of repetition in history. One categorically denies it. It comes from the English empirical and anti-rationalist tradition, whose most distinguished representative was David Hume. Another, which comes from the old Bourbon Naples, considers history as a large swivel wheel where all events repeat themselves. Its most famous author is Giambattista Vico. His final phrase captured the idea and made him famous: corsi e ricorsi (courses and recources). The third is the theory of repetition with variants, whether in an ascending or a descending spiral. This version was formulated by two great thinkers: Georg W. F. Hegel in his dialectics and Charles Darwin in biology, where he never used the word “evolution” but rather the expression “descent with modifications.”
Certainly informed about these theories, Jorge Luis Borges resumed them in a very short story that I reproduce.
Jorge Luis Borges
English translation by Andrew Hurley
To make his horror perfect, Caesar, hemmed about at the foot of a statue by his friends’ impatient knives, discovers among the faces and the blades the face of Marcus Junius Brutus, his ward, perhaps his very son—and so Caesar stops defending himself, and cries out Et tu, Brute? Shakespeare and Quevedo record that pathetic cry.
Fate is partial to repetitions, variations, symmetries. Nineteen centuries later, in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires, a gaucho is set upon by other gauchos, and as he falls he recognizes a godson of his, and says to him in gentle remonstrance and slow surprise (these words must be heard, not read): Pero, ¡che! [hey guy!], but he does not know that he has died so that a scene can be played out again.
This preamble and its reflections help me think, in geopolitical terms, about the meaning of the Afghan disaster.
August 2021: The disordered retreat of American troops from Kabul repeats the disordered scene of American troops retreating from Saigon 46 years before, in 1975. That now distant Vietnamese retreat was a sneak preview of the soviet soldiers’ withdrawal from Afghanistan 13 years later, in 1988. They were corsi e ricorsi in different scenarios or even in the same place. We can go further back.
124 years ago, in 1897 a Second Lieutenant and war correspondent in the British expeditionary force, after witnessing frontier battles in the desolate Afghanistan and participating in combat for the first time, concluded that a warlike conflict between an imperial force and brave tribes from such barbarian region would not have a solution. According to the 23-years-old officer, the British Empire was left with three options: occupy the territory indefinitely, without any good result; abandon the primitive country and ignore its bloody conflicts; or carry out a subtle combination of crafty diplomacy and periodic military attacks. None of the three was a satisfactory prospect. Thereafter, there would be only a series of repeated disasters. His summary of the Afghan war was lapidary: “Financially it is ruinous, morally it is wicked, militarily it is undecided, and politically it is a huge blunder.” The lieutenant was called Winston Churchill.
La vocación a repetir experiencias traumáticas sería parte, según Sigmund Freud, del impulso de muerte, algo así como devolver al ser vivo al estado inorgánico. Las pulsiones de muerte se dirigen tanto hacia el exterior como hacia el interior de una persona y de una sociedad. Se manifiestan entonces en forma de pulsión agresiva o destructiva, es decir en “polarización.” Dejo al lector la tarea de descifrar el enigma y sacar sus propias conclusiones.
According to Sigmund Freud, the vocation to repeat traumatic experiences is part of the death drive –something like returning the living being to the inorganic state. The death drives are directed towards both the exterior as well as the interior of a person and a society. Thus, they are manifested in the manner of aggressive or destructive impulses, that is, in so- called “polarization.” I leave to the reader the task of unravelling the enigma and arrive at his/her own conclusions.
Maybe without knowing it, a clever advisor on national security under Barak Obama’s presidency hit the nail on the head with a good explanation for the repetition impulse. In a recent essay, Ben Rhodes says that the enormous military-industrial complex inherited after WWII and fed by the subsequent Cold War, first created a state within a state (a danger noticed by Dwight Eisenhower in his last presidential speech) and then distorted every public policy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States were left in search of a new enemy around which to mobilize the whole society. They found it in “terrorism” thanks to the acts of Islamic extremism. It was a war without clear goals or temporal end, led by such monumental industrial-military complex, whose inefficiency and extremely high cost was demonstrated once and again. The duration sine die of these marginal wars, in turn, made American society internalize its external paranoia, search for enemies within society, and establish a spiral of suspicions and persecutions—the so-called “polarization” that today infects the entire society as a plague.
Each failure of an external military intervention today exacerbates the internal paranoia. We could well call this situation a downward spiral, with modifications, that summons the spectrum of a voluntary underdevelopment and a social regression.
The fall of Saigon and the capture of Kabul are effectively a repetition of defeat—but with a great caveat, that is an important variation. The surrender of South Vietnam to North Vietnam was in reality the exchange of one western ideology (the ideal of liberal democracy) for another one (Marxist communism) that came also from Europe. This similarity –disguised in all official discourses from both sides– was revealed when the triumphant Vietnamese adapted to and adopted global capitalism. Nothing makes us think that the western retreat from Kabul would give way to a similar regime—only to the return of an internal and frankly primitive tribal struggle.
American unity is threatened today by the internalization of the anti-terrorist war. In its origin, the North American colonies could join, first in a federation and finally in just one State, only after arduous debates, and with a more fragile and provisory solution than the one proclaimed in the Constitution. Unity almost broke with the outbreak of the Civil War, but it survived. It continues until today under the motto e pluribus unum (from many, one). With the current polarization however, this union can disintegrate in an opposed and symmetrical situation to the one that founded the republic 234 years ago: Ex uno plures (from one, many). The opposed mottos are like two bookends that contain a very interesting patch of history—and a tragedy in the making as well.
 . The rivalry between the British and the Russian Empires, called “the Great Game,” was centered in Afghanistan during the XIX century.
 . Ben Rhodes, “Them and Us: How America Lets Its Enemies Hijack Its Foreign Policy”, Foreign Affairs, October 2021.
 In such indefinite war, 7,000 American soldiers died, 50,000 were wounded, and 30,000 committed suicide. On their part, hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis lost their lives and the war produced 37 million of displaced people. And the cost? Nothing less than 7 trillion dollars, that is, a 7 followed by 18 zeros.
 . See the pioneer work of Philip E. Slater, “On Social Regression,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, June 1963.
If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English Edition.