The Raw Soul of a Nation

Joel Cawley
11 min readSep 17, 2021

The reactions to the US pullout from Afghanistan have been remarkable. No nation handles defeat particularly well, and after 20 years of futile combat and endless lies by four different administrations, the US was not at all prepared for the realities we faced. As so often happens in human affairs, our first reaction was to shoot the messenger. Completing the extraction process begun by the prior administration has put the Biden team in the crosshairs as that process painfully and inevitably reveals our deep failures. The pain is real as are the failures and our elite pundits and media have been relentless in unleashing those emotions on the Biden administration, on the messengers.

When we fought in Vietnam the existence of the draft meant any young adult from any walk of life could find themselves thrust into a muddy rice paddy surrounded by terrifying injury, death or life-altering physical and emotional scars from the chemicals and tactics we deployed. Like Afghanistan, it was a futile war fought on the basis of abstract ideologies and ridiculous theories about “dominos.” It was driven by hubris, not national interest. The souls of our children, of our entire nation, were embedded in that distant, violent, conflict. It drove us deeply apart precisely because those realities drove powerful, personal feelings about our true shared purpose.

In Afghanistan, we had no such shared emotional entanglement. Our volunteer army hailed mostly from lower to middle class families with little to no direct voice in our national affairs. People with those national voices have provided decades of performative lip-service and “crocodile-tears” for our soldiers, but there has been no real national emotional engagement, no sense of a shared fate for the nation. Our human connections have been weak at best and more often than not just fake. Revelations of wasted resources, massive corruption and rampant profiteering also found no traction in our sociopolitical discourse. There was no scandal arising from these squalid realities, only a cynical dismissal that simply accepted what should have generated national revulsion and subsequent prosecution.

There was no sense of a shared national fate, no national revulsion at heinous corruption because we as a nation have lost our sense of common purpose, common values, even common reality. The Taliban did not inflict this deadly wound upon us. We did it to ourselves. We allowed a poisonous ideology that substitutes economics for humanity to permeate every nook and cranny of our society. In our zeal to put a price on everything, we’ve lost our ability to understand the value of anything that’s important.

We transformed our capital markets from a system to raise funds for our real economy to one that systematically extracts the economic wealth created by generations of Americans for the benefit of a handful of parasitic oligarchs. We’ve transformed the institutions intended to ensure our national defense and public health into impenetrable machines that systematically impose costs that are literally twice as high as they should be and deliver lost wars and the worst health outcomes of any developed nation. We’ve twisted the laws intended to protect our citizens into abominations that empower economic interests over all others. And, we’ve allowed an anti-democracy movement to flourish to the point it has taken complete control of one of our great political parties increasingly denying the general public any say over our fates or freedoms. The “consensus of the governed” has had its human heart cut out on the altar of the market.

These same forces have rapidly eroded the pillars of journalistic integrity essential for an informed populace, a trend magnified by demagogues and social media technologies hell bent on driving as many divisions in society as possible. The losses arising from the steady erosion of our common purpose are incalculable. As the saying goes, a house divided against itself cannot stand and any society lacking the “load bearing pillar” of a set of shared interests is at serious risk of structural collapse.

Our involvement in Afghanistan did not begin this way. In fact, it was the searing power of our shared national reaction to 9/11 that brought us to that infamous “graveyard of empires.” We found a common purpose in that white-hot moment and unleashed it with a vengeance. However, as deep as those real emotions were, we lacked the social institutions to sustain that clarity and commitment towards our common purpose. Those critical features of our sociopolitical infrastructure have been systematically eroded, tossed away on a scrap heap of political self-interest and cynicism.

There’s a curious parallel in our national response to the pandemic. When the scale of that public health menace first became clear we responded with alacrity and common purpose. Despite myriad denials and abysmal presidential leadership our initial congressional actions exemplified the power and strength of this nation to both tackle the disease and sustain all of us through the ordeal. The results were truly extraordinary, but despite our successes the commitment did not last. Far too many of our national leaders viewed a common purpose as a weakness, as an affront, and set out to pit us against ourselves at every level — city vs city, blue state vs red state, Republican vs Democrat, urban vs rural, masked vs unmasked and, our latest, vaccinated vs unvaccinated.

A shared commitment to our public health and safety is absolutely essential to our individual freedoms, yet the demagogues have twisted that reality back on itself. Reckless, irresponsible public behavior by those with no regard for the health of their fellow citizens is a direct assault on the freedoms of everyone who seeks to safely enjoy our common spaces, common joys, and common activities. The political movement that purports to be in support of freedom is in fact an aggressive assault on the real freedom of America as a whole. Our shared commitment to freedom, a common purpose that has driven us since our founding, has crumbled as the very meaning of the word has been twisted beyond recognition.

In my book, The Fifth Paradigm, I describe the historical evolution of our socioeconomic paradigms from our founding as a rural agricultural nation, to our shift to urban industrial monopolies in the late 19th century to the completely redesigned economy built by FDR which prevailed from the mid/late 30’s to the mid/late 70s. Each of those paradigms were rooted in the technical, social and economic character of their times and each brought their own specific strengths and weaknesses. Our sense of common purpose waxed and waned through those periods, often excluding important swaths of the country including women, people of color, native Americans and immigrants. But it was always present, always a part of the nation, always part of what moved us forward.

The social strife over Vietnam, the struggles for the rights of women and people of color, and the battles over sexuality and abortion all drove deep divisions in the country setting the stage for a new paradigm that explicitly rejected the value and importance of any common purpose. Our fourth paradigm took root in the late 70s/early 80s. It was championed by Reagan and known to many academics as neo-liberalism or, more popularly, as the “trickle down” theory of economics. This paradigm celebrated economics and individual greed as the prime drivers of national progress and treated any notion of a shared purpose as a step on an inexorable path to serfdom. That socioeconomic system has a close companion in foreign policy known as neo- conservatism. Neocons, as they are known, believe we have both the right and the moral imperative to impose our systems of government anywhere we choose and through whatever means necessary, up to and including literally centuries of war. Those two belief systems have dominated both political parties for the last several decades. For many, they define a “centrist” view despite being quite radical from a historical or global perspective.

Both beliefs are rooted in a deep arrogance by a set of technocratic elites who regard their successes as proof of their virtue and the struggles by others as proof of their lack of economic, societal or even human value. In both of these philosophies the white, western, technocratic elites are claimed to have real value while everyone else is just unwanted ballast holding back the virtuous development of nations and the global economy. These philosophies reject the very idea of a common purpose and regard anyone who seeks such a thing as a naïve rube at best or an evil communist at worst.

Both belief systems are proven failures on every social, economic and moral dimension.

Despite their utter failures these remain firmly embedded as governing doctrines. They are relentlessly positioned as “moderate” and endorsed by the vast majority of pundits and the “chattering class.” Our leading pundits have lived with these beliefs ever since they entered adulthood in the 70s & 80s. Their “wisdom” is almost entirely embedded in the internal subtleties and debates within this overall paradigm. This failed paradigm. That systemic failure cannot be acknowledged by them lest their erudite considerations of issues within the paradigm lose all credibility and relevance. This is the underlying driver of their virulent response to our exit from Afghanistan. The deep failures exposed in that process reveal their ineptitude, their utter lack of anything anyone would call “wise.”

For many Americans who rail against these “elites” it is this paradigm they despise along with the arrogance of those who insist the failed paradigm they’ve promoted throughout their lives is either the only one possible or the only one any “reasonable” person could accept. That drumbeat comes from almost every cable news host, expert commentator or politician. Despite their often substantial differences, Clinton, Bush and Obama all propagated different aspects of the same underlying beliefs. While Trump’s rhetoric and style might have seemed different, his actual governing came from the same roots. His venality and cruelty are simply extreme expressions of the rotted core at the heart of our prevailing paradigm.

It would be natural to believe, as I did a year ago, that Biden would be cut from the same philosophical cloth. It’s becoming clear that that belief, my belief, was wrong. If Trump is known for never accepting or learning from mistakes, Biden’s character is the opposite. He has already shown a remarkable self-awareness and strength to recognize errors and move swiftly to correct them. He may frequently start on the wrong foot, but he’s rarely wrong-footed for long. While I do not believe he has any sort of “Biden philosophy” comprehensive enough to replace our failed paradigm, he does see those failures, knows in his heart that they’re wrong and is decisive in seeking better alternatives. And, a deep part of his personal moral compass is a passionate understanding of the power and importance of restoring our common purpose, our national soul.

That moral compass has pointed him clearly towards an exit from Afghanistan. He has known for a very long time that we have no real national purpose in that war-ravaged country and that we should have left long ago. That knowledge was stymied, even ridiculed by the neocons that still dominate every nook and cranny of our foreign policy decision making. He might not have liked the specific deal the former administration negotiated with the Taliban, but he fully supported the end goal of getting out.

Our actual evacuation from Afghanistan followed a common Biden pattern. There were passionate pleas to the Biden team to radically streamline the visa process used to allow our Afghan allies to immigrate to the US. While some steps were taken, they were woefully inadequate for the task ahead. Our embassy in Kabul made similar unheeded pleas to Americans scattered around the country to get out before it was too late. Most damaging of all, he accepted the advice of the experts who proclaimed that their 20 years of nation building, and training of Afghan forces would enable the Afghans to hold the line against the advancing Taliban. Whether those were lies or simple incompetence, they were, once again, completely wrong. The Afghan defense forces and government collapsed almost overnight leading to the inevitable breakdown of law and order, looting and general chaos that hindered and endangered our efforts to extract US citizens and our allies. It was the worst kind of wrong footed start to a mission that had all the signs of a debacle just waiting to explode.

The media and elite cynics have had a field day, loudly proclaiming Biden’s incompetence and blaming him for our 20 years of failure. Those voices have been wrong about basically everything for all of those 20 years. They’ve learned absolutely nothing from their errors and are once again pointing in the wrong direction.

As they have done before, the Biden administration reacted to events quickly, decisively and to great effect. In a matter of weeks over 120,000 men, women, children and even new born babies have been extracted to safe havens. The process has not been without incident and there have been casualties, including those caused by a suicide bombing attack and a deeply tragic US drone strike. That’s the dangerous reality of this mission. We can’t extract 120,000 Afghan civilians without being exposed to enormous danger from the terrorists who have been active in Afghanistan for all of our 20 year presence. However, particularly given the circumstances, the actual results of the airlift have been among the most successful ever achieved by any nation.

There has also been an amazing outpouring of support from across the country. Countless communities have raised their hands, offering to help resettle these new immigrants, these new Americans. While far from a deep, clear common purpose and rarely reported by our war- mongering media, the spirit and passion of that response is a clear reminder that the American soul may be damaged by 40+ years of neoliberalism, but it is most definitely not dead.

I wrote a whole book on how important it is for us to move to our fifth paradigm, including my perspectives on what that should include. I certainly have no monopoly on that vision. There are many of us who see different aspects of that imperative. I don’t yet know whether Biden is the leader who can help us achieve that shift, but I have no doubt he’s begun the process of extracting ourselves from 40–50 years of moral, economic and foreign policy failure.

Just as he and his team are extracting us from the quagmire of Afghanistan we need to be extracted from the abhorrent, stifling philosophies that have hobbled our national soul. We need to rediscover the common purpose, respect and value we hold towards each other as fellow human beings, as fellow Americans. We need the shared commitment that has propelled us forward so many times in our history. The pandemic and Afghanistan are mere warm-ups for what lies ahead. We need to reverse the ideologically driven damages done to this country over the last 40–50 years. We must confront the painful reality of sharing global leadership with China, a nation with little respect for the freedoms we hold dear. And, most of all, we must urgently tackle the truly existential challenge of climate change.

We will not succeed in any of these endeavors it we’re pitted against each other, but when this nation does rediscover and reignite our common purpose, as I firmly believe we can, I’m confident we will once again be at the forefront, leading the world to a better place for all. The cynics and pundits may scoff at that claim, but they’ve been consistently wrong on both the evacuation and their philosophical beliefs. It will be messy and filled with false starts and dead ends, but we need to find our way forward to our fifth paradigm. The time has come to place our bets and I’ve got my money on America and the path that Biden and his team are blazing.

--

--

Joel Cawley

After 20 years as IBM VP of Corp Strategy Mr. Cawley retired in 2016 and now spends his time consulting and writing on business, economics and politics.