Honor the Empty Seats This Thanksgiving
Americans and Afghan Allies Remain at Mercy of Vengeful Taliban Regime
Thanksgiving is arguably the most American of our holidays.
In his first year as our first president, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November as a day of thanks for our new nation. Thereafter the holiday was observed in various ways in various states. As part of his project of reinforcing our shared identity as Americans, President Lincoln transformed it into a national holiday.
Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued in October 1863. The outcome of the Civil War was very much in doubt—as were Lincoln’s prospects of reelection in the coming year. The president would deliver the Gettysburg Address on Thursday, November 19th, the week before Thanksgiving.
Far from triumphalist, Lincoln’s proclamation called for “a day of humiliation and prayer.” It was to be a moment for Americans to recognize our debts of honor to one another, including those who came before us, those who come after us.
Those gathering for Thanksgiving in 1863 would be poignantly aware of the empty seats at their tables. Members of their families, valued friends, and millions of their fellow citizens were enduring a third consecutive winter of war. Thousands had lost their lives or were grievously injured or suffering in makeshift hospitals or horrific prison camps. The future was murky. The sole certainty was that many more would suffer and die in the indeterminate months and years ahead.
Remember Americans Stranded in Afghanistan
There are conspicuous, empty seats at our national Thanksgiving in 2021. They represent the hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children abandoned amid the heedless retreat of U.S. forces and support personnel from Afghanistan.
There can no more urgent priority than the secure evacuation of American citizens, green card holders, and key Afghan allies left behind. Many who put their lives on the line for the United States are disappearing into the dark night of Taliban rule.
One might suppose that the Biden administration, having failed so conspicuously and unambiguously in the initial evacuation, would move heaven and earth on behalf of those remaining.
Instead, they seem to harbor the hope that out of sight is out of mind. It’s as if the political class in Washington tacitly supports the Taliban’s efforts to draw an opaque shroud over the destruction and chaos unleashed in recent months.
Foreign Policy recently reported, “The State Department believes as many as 14,000 U.S. legal permanent residents remain in Afghanistan.” The numbers are notoriously uncertain. Pentagon and State Department officials variously disclose that “hundreds” of American citizens remain, including some who are said to wish to stay for the time being.
Al Jazeera reports that more than 28,000 Afghans have applied for temporary admission to the United States on humanitarian grounds. Approximately 100 have been approved.
These cold, spare statistics encompass grieving families and sundered communities.
As from the start of what became the longest war in U.S. history, the patriotism, courage, and sacrifice of those in the field stands in damning contrast to the fecklessness of so-called “elites” who set the policies and issue the orders.
The World is Watching
Responsibility for the decades-long debacle of the Afghan war is apportioned between successive administrations of both of the legacy political parties. Many Americans, including this writer, concluded that our presence should have been drawn down years ago, in coordination with our NATO allies.
By contrast, responsibility for the planning and execution of our unworthy, unfinished exit lies entirely with the current administration.
The president should focus every resource at his disposal—public and private diplomacy, collection and dissemination of authoritative information online, and the White House “bully pulpit”—to protect those who served to protect us.
Those represented by the empty seats of Thanksgiving 2021 should be honored with the gratitude, humility, solemnity, and resolution exemplified by Washington and Lincoln and their generations.
Image credit: Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1942-43, Public Domain.