The new issue of the New York Review of Books has a short op-ed, which first appeared as a blogpost last week at the magazine’s site, by Garry Wills, professor emeritus at Northwestern University and author of several dozen books about religion and American history. His efforts in the latter field include his Pulitzer-winning Lincoln At Gettysburg, and his bestselling 1970 book Nixon Agonistes, which, in many ways, became the template for many of the books critical of the thirty-seventh President since then.
Wills’s article, in the space of about six hundred words, offers his opinion about what President Obama should do in Afghanistan. After the President returns from his whirlwind trip to Japan and China, it will be time, as Sen. John McCain pointed out this week, to make the final decision about how many more troops to commit to the eight-year fight against the Taliban, and for how long.

A considerable number of voices in the media and in the blogosphere have argued in recent weeks that the plan toward which the President seems to be leaning – an increase in the troop levels in Afghanistan, whether or not this corresponds to the 40,000 that the commanders in the field think is required at this point – is not one he should undertake. Wills is one of these voices.

In his article he contends that the arguments in favor of maintaing a military presence in Afghanistan are “the ones that made presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon pass on to their successors in the presidency the draining and self-lacerating Vietnam War.”

It’s worth mentioning that when President Nixon resigned in August 1974, I don’t remember any column or op-ed piece on the subject – and they were legion – which said that the Vietnam War was an ongoing conflict that Nixon had passed on to Gerald Ford. As far as the liberal pundits were concerned in those days, we were well and truly removed from that conflict for good. The North Vietnamese took such sentiments to mean that if they tried to overrun South Vietnam, the United States would do nothing to stop them.

And in the spring of 1975 this proved to be true when Congress rejected President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger’s appeals to aid South Vietnam, disregarding the promises made by President Nixon to protect the sovereignity of that nation when the Paris peace accords were signed in January 1973 – promises made to protect peace, but which Wills, evidently, regards as an extension of war.

He goes on to say that “when we did withdraw, the consequences were not as fatal as those we incurred during the years that saw the deaths of over 50,000 of our soldiers and many more Vietnamese.” Well, it’s true that while many died in Vietnamese prison camps after the South was defeated, the numbers were not equivalent to the number of Vietnamese that died in the course of the war. But in Cambodia, a nation that fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge at the same time as South Vietnam was conquered, far more civilians died in four years of “peace” than in the preceding years of war.

Cambodia is worth keeping in mind when one looks at what follows in Wills’s commentary:

Some leader has to break the spell before costs mount further while our wars are passed from president to president. Among other things, this will give our military a needed chance to repair the wear and tear on men and equipment that the overstretched regular services and the National Guard have suffered, and to make them ready for other challenges.

We are in Afghanistan in response to a challenge, if one could call the bloodbath of 9/11 such. The Taliban, with no provocation from us, allowed Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to use their nation as a base to launch the vicious attacks of that day. In the eight years that Americans have fought and died to make sure that the Taliban would not have the chance to abuse the rule of a nation in such a fashion again, it has become more and more clear that, if it were allowed to regain power, it would not only take bloody revenge on every man and woman hoping for a civilized life in Afghanistan – that is to say, perhaps as large a percentage of the population as died in Cambodia – but would do its best to help its allies in northwest Pakistan overthrow that nation’s government, and thus gain control of nuclear weapons. Then we would see “other challenges,” on a scale so abominable that “wear and tear” on our tanks and airplanes would be the least of our worries.

Yesterday’s announcement that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other 9/11 conspirators will be tried for murder in New York is a reminder of what American servicepersons in Afghanistan are trying to protect us from. I hope that during their trial, enough testimony is presented about the Taliban’s acquiescence in bin Laden’s evil to remind even Garry Wills of why we have to fight in Afghanistan, and why the consequences of withdrawal would be so tragic.

In his op-ed, Wills says that Obama should get our troops out of Afghanistan even if the response to such an action results in his being a one-term President. A man so familiar with American history should remember that the subject of his Pulitzer-winning book persevered in 1864, in the face of calls from many of the pundits of his day to make peace with the South on its terms, and, within a matter of months, prevailed. The Gettysburg Address, indeed, explains just what the United States is fighting to preserve and protect now. Perhaps Northwestern’s professor emeritus of history should reread it.