Because one thing history has definitely, for sure, taught us is that pundits and politicians are really good at explaining what war “means.”
The doors fly open and people sprint across a wide concourse. One person falls, is nearly trampled, but gets up and stumbles away. They must be running toward something, or away from something, or both. The video was shared on Twitter by a few hundred users, one of whom offered the wide-eyed caption: “Surreal footage from Kabul airport as soon as it opened this morning – Afghanistan.”
Viewed over a hundred thousand times, the stampede joined the deluge of images streaming out of Afghanistan — of chaos around the airport as desperate people try to flee the Taliban.
Except the footage isn’t from Afghanistan’s capital city. It’s from Arlington, TX, and it’s not refugees. It’s football fans sprinting into AT&T Stadium to see the Dallas Cowboys play the Seattle Seahawks on January 5, 2019.
Once again, we plunge from our couches into horror. Or what looks like it could be horror, maybe, if you can just make out what’s going on with shaky handheld footage, and if you can just trust the caption and the person (?) behind the caption.
This is what social media does best: filling the ether with many, many points of light, so many that we can draw any shape we want in the sky. Mainstream media is happy to sweep in and encourage us to imagine constellations in the chaos.
For American media on the left and center, the “end” in Afghanistan is guns (some of them US-made and paid for) shot in the air announcing terrible new leaders, enormous crowds of people trying to leave the country, and women whose rights — to work, to go to school, to live — are now very uncertain.
For the media on the right, it’s basically Joe Biden — see him? — sagging under the weight of failure, his shoulders hunched in a shrug, and those little stars are beads of sweat popping off his empty, confused head.
As always, there is on-the-ground reporting telling us “exactly” what’s happening — as much as it can, as much as it knows. Far more abundant are the voices telling us what it means: “we shouldn’t be there and never should have been,” or “we saw this coming,” or “it would’ve worked if not for that darn Iraq,” or whether it is, or is not, like the fall of Saigon in 1975, and how much.
These pundit voices disagree on everything, but one thing unites them: They’re so confident! This is where America’s class presidents end up, with their glossy teeth and pathological self-assuredness. Pundits are uncorking hot takes bottled years ago and filling their glasses as they celebrate another opportunity to tell us what it all means. It’s so easy to find statements; it’s so hard to find questions. It’s exhausting.
And it’s easy to forget that, like us, they’re spiking their pre-made takes from snippets of information: things that are happening right now, or hours ago, or even two years ago to panicked sports fans in Texas.
The war for Afghanistan is over, but here comes a new surge: the war for the Afghanistan narrative.
There’s a pop-culture concept called “retconning” that feels relevant at times like this. It’s short for “retroactive continuity,” and you know what this is, even if you don’t. Extend a storyline long enough, and eventually, the current story demands a revision of past events to ensure that where we’re at now makes sense. So: Sherlock Holmes died — for real, seriously, guys — at Reichenbach Falls in an 1893 story; but when the fans lost their minds, Doyle brought him back in a story a decade later. Or: in the Star Wars saga, the Force is definitely a mystical energy that suffuses living beings and holds the universe together, or it was, until 1999’s The Phantom Menace did us dirty by (among other things) revealing that the Force is actually, like, something in your cells.
Retconning happens within stories, too. Rewriting recent events is a major premise of 1984, where now-undesirable aspects of history are removed from circulation and fed to the memory hole, to be replaced by a more au courant version of the past. This is closer to what the “Here’s what it all means” coverage of Afghanistan feels like. Within the maelstrom, pundits attempt to slide in their own versions of history. Possibly, some version of “truth” will take, before we even see how things actually turn out. But when that happens, it’ll all get retconned again. It’s political history as fan fiction.
Not to say that we can’t look at the past and find lessons about what our two decades in Afghanistan have meant. The costs in lives and dollars have long been calculated before the Taliban showed up with receipts. But beware of the retconners, those too-confident voices looking into the chaos and divining meaning. Just because they’re sprinting doesn’t mean they know where they’re going.