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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Export education rather than war

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: April 25, 2021, 6:02am

There was Army 1st Sgt. Eric Emond of Brush Prairie. He was 39, a husband and father of three, when killed by an improvised explosive device in the Ghanzi province of eastern Afghanistan in 2018.

And Marine Sgt. Jason Peto of Vancouver. He was 31 when killed in 2010 by a bomb while trying to rescue a Marine who was injured by another explosion.

And Army Pvt. Andrew Shields of Battle Ground. He was 19 when killed by a suicide bomber in 2008.

There have been others, as well. At least 22 service members or contractors with Clark County ties have died in the interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

With President Joe Biden announcing last week the intention to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, the cliché is to ensure that they didn’t die in vain. That U.S. efforts in the near Middle East have had a lasting positive impact. That we, essentially, remember why we were fighting and why more than 6,500 American military personal died there over the past 20 years.

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.