In Afghanistan, the reasoning is simple; the ruling Taliban was harboring terrorist training camps that led to the attacks of 9/11. In Iraq, the reasons are more specious. But regardless of the initial thinking, America’s longest war leads to an examination of the future and the fruitlessness of our desire to shape the world in our own image.
Which brings us to “The Coldest Winter,” a 2008 book by David Halberstam about America and the Korean War. In a long and fascinating narrative about a war that resulted in 36,000 American deaths but is overshadowed in our collective memory by the triumph of World War II a few years before and the quagmire of Vietnam a few years after, Halberstam touches on something particularly relevant to Afghanistan.
“In 1952, under pressure from the Americans,” he writes of South Korea, “a new military academy was inaugurated, based to an uncommon degree on West Point. Many of the early faculty members were American officers. The curriculum, like the one at West Point, was tilted heavily toward engineering. Many of the country’s most talented young students were sent there — and it became an instant source of meritocratic talent, a place where a generation of young Koreans could get a badly needed education and prove their worth, and break through some of the social restraints of the past.
“It was an early harbinger of a new, potentially more modern society. It was probably the first step in creating what became in effect a new class in Korea, that of modern, purposeful, increasingly well-educated young men who wanted to bring a new definition of modernity to their country.”
South Korea has been a remarkable success story, turning into a vibrant, modern nation with a per capita GDP of about $40,000. North Korea, a dictatorship that was backed by communist China during the war, has a GDP estimated at $1,700 per person — roughly the same as Afghanistan’s.
The United States does not deserve all the credit for advancements driven by the people of South Korea since the war ended 68 years ago. But the influence of the military academy, which helped establish a vision for progress and upward mobility, first among students, is a fascinating angle not frequently examined.
And it plays into existential questions about the United States’ role in the world. Critics — they are few — claim that withdrawing from Afghanistan will open the door for the Taliban to return. But if Americans were unable to close that door in 20 years of fighting and training Afghans, the hinges are beyond repair.
Instead, the western world’s lasting influence in Afghanistan might come through the Marshal Fahim National Defense University, established in 2013. Or it might come through the American University of Afghanistan, established in 2006. Or it might not come at all.
But in the interest of the brave soldiers who have answered our nation’s call and the ones who will follow in their footsteps, it seems that America is better off exporting education rather than war.