Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The America they knew

This week’s US casualties in Kabul lived through a tragically narrow slice of American history

A week ago, Marine Corps Sgt Nicole Gee, a 23 year old from Sacramento, California, posted a photograph on Instagram. In the image, Gee is holding an Afghan baby. “Kabul, Afghanistan. I love my job,” read the caption. A few days later, she posted again. This time, she was posing next to a queue of people boarding a US C-17. “Escorting evacuees onto the bird,” she wrote, finishing the caption with a heart emoji.

On Thursday, Gee was killed. She was one of some 170 fatalities in an attack at the entrance to Kabul airport. Twelve other American servicewomen and servicemen died.

The average age of the 13 US troops lost this week was just 22. Only two of them were over 23. As America approaches the final days of its presence in Afghanistan, it is worth contemplating the country those men and women grew up in and considering what the tragically small slice of American history they lived through might have looked like to them.

To them, the war on terror wasn’t the new normal. It was just the norm

Most of them were just babies when the planes hit the twin towers. 9/11 wasn’t something they remembered but something they were told about. The conflict that claimed their lives in its final days was already underway while most of them were still in nappies. For them, the war on terror was not experienced the way older Americans experienced it: as a shocking jolt that upended misplaced post-Cold War assumptions. It wasn’t the new normal. It was just the norm.

They had barely mastered their times tables when the financial crisis struck. The first recession came before they knew what the word meant and was the deepest in a century. It did to economic policy what 9/11 and the wars that followed had done to much else in politics. A consensus was torn apart, settled questions were reopened. But Generation Z was too young to remember that such a consensus ever existed. The economy would not fully recover the job losses that started until a six year old in 2007 turned 12.

All the while, America’s political system appeared increasingly dysfunctional. The bipartisanship frequently invoked by today’s moderates isn’t a distant memory to those in their early-twenties. It’s ancient history. To them, politics and culture wars are one and the same. Hyper-partisanship is all they know. If economic and geopolitical rulebooks had been rewritten in the 2000s, the political rulebook was torn up when Gen Z entered their mid-teens. Donald Trump’s rise and the subsequent meltdown provided countless further opportunities for events to embarrass those who claimed to know what they were talking about.

Time and again, government failed. It failed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It failed to stop the contagion of the financial crisis. Its regulators waved through a prescription painkiller that fuelled an opioid addiction crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands. Most recently, world-beating ambitions that were once a defining characteristic of American politics were hard to find in a lacklustre response to the pandemic.

In the background, there was the steady digitisation of everyday lives: everything from political conversations to commemorations of the milestones of young adulthood mediated by algorithm. A war started half a decade before the iPhone ends with some of its final casualties posting on social media from Kabul.

The American generation which counts those who gave their lives this week among their ranks has grown up with elite, institutional and expert failure not as a shocking aberration but as the default setting. Time and again, foreign policy elites have issued the wrong diagnoses and the wrong prescriptions. Economic conventional wisdom has been shattered, upended, disproven. Politics grows more bad-blooded and less serious. Claims of competence and expertise are regularly proved to be unfounded. More recently, America’s cultural elite has turned on its own country: happy to pronounce America irredeemably wicked whilst kowtowing to Chinese censors.

And after all of this, America elected a president who treated his predecessor and the last four years as an unseemly aberration and whose staff boasted that the adults were back in charge. Thanks to the decisions of those adults, young American soldiers found themselves in a deadly trap at the gates of Kabul airport.

Cynicism, disillusionment, anger: all are understandable reactions to much of what has happened in the two decades of recent American history. That is what makes the patriotism and public service of those 13 Americans killed this week all the more sobering. Just young enough to know nothing of America before Afghanistan, just old enough to die there. They deserved better.

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