Letter From France
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
An American mother writes from Europe: Walking out of dinner in a low-tax principality in the South of France, I am confronted by a man, who is, I believe, Lebanese and who, upon hearing I am American, says to me, “Oh, you must like paying taxes.”
“No,” I retort. “I am American because I love my country.”
He softens. Nods at me. Chastened maybe, or reminded of his own, long lost or long buried, patriotism.
“You are right,” he says.
All around me, here in France especially but not exclusively, I feel I am surrounded by people who resent my country. That in and of itself is nothing new. I lived here during 9/11, through the invasion of Afghanistan, and of Iraq, after all. I have to think to remember a positive thing I’ve heard said.
Today, though, is different. They aren’t angry that we went to Afghanistan. They are angry that we are leaving. Americans should be ashamed, they say — we destroyed a country, failed to be successful, were unable to nation build. They feel that we — you, I, all Americans, America the nation, the project in democracy even — should be ashamed.
Should I, should we? Certainly many of my countrymen are. On my Instagram feed, I see it: the anger, the sadness, the helplessness. From Republicans and Democrats. One liberal friend mocks Mr. Biden’s claim that the “buck stops with me” — “except,” my friend adds, “this was really the Afghan army’s fault for giving up so quickly . . .”
The wife of a Navy Seal has been raising money for women who were giving birth while their husbands unexpectedly deployed to Afghanistan to support the withdrawal. A Marine, no longer on active duty, is desperate to evacuate his interpreter’s family. A former classmate plans to sponsor women and children still stuck in Afghanistan.
The outpouring is, in a sense, a relief. It turns out that we care. The American people care. Millions of us will do what we can to make it better. We will be welcoming refugees at the airport, setting up their apartments. Even, in the early days, cooking them hot meals. Donating our money. Giving them clothes and books and toys for their children.
Are the American people really to blame here? Americans who fought to rebuild Afghanistan, a world away. Americans who lost their loved ones for Afghanistan. Americans whose hard-earned dollars poured in to help build Afghanistan’s army, police, schools, government, civil society. GIs who gave water to babies and ferried home planes full of refugees, Marines in their camis carrying caskets with their comrades.
Who will blame them?
There are those who opposed the digression into nation building and also opposed our departure? Skedaddling was not our decision. That is President Biden, alone.The decision to withdraw was President Biden’s. He was not forced to choose. He chose.
I find myself resisting the notion that America is at fault. Or that we must cower in shame because Mr. Biden made the wrong choice. It is true, I might well be in a defensive crouch when it comes to my country. I listen to its critics.
Yet I discover that I do not agree. Neither my head nor my heart. I still love my country. We must make better decisions. We must hold people accountable for the decisions they do make. We must do right by the Afghans.
In this crisis as in the last and the next, though, we must not lose sight of everything we are. I am unmoved by French carping. The truth is, they still believe in us. That we stand for more than just ourselves. And in that we are an exception.
Elliott Banfield’s drawing, “Gold Star Mother,” originally appeared in The New York Sun; reprinted courtesy of the artist.