America had never lost a war, and then there was that famous photograph – April 29, 1975, Hubert van Es, working for UPI, Americans crowding on to the roof of the United States Embassy to board a helicopter, a line of desperate people climbing a single ladder to the last helicopter as the United States abandoned Saigon. The North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam had captured the city, all of it, and that was that. This was the opposite of the Joe Rosenthal photograph of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 – a staged photograph but powerful. That was victory.
This was defeat. That wasn’t actually the roof of our embassy in Saigon. That was 22 Gia Long Street, just an apartment building, but a building that housed employees of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the top floor reserved for the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy chief of station – and that was close enough. The image said it all.
That was a bad time and Operation Frequent Wind was the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and “at-risk” Vietnamese from Saigon, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Some of us are old enough to remember that – flight after flight – perfectly good helicopters pushed off the deck of aircraft carriers into the sea to make room for even more helicopters. We had to get these people out. We did what we could. We lost. And everyone was bitter. Nixon had resigned the year before and was long gone. Gerald Ford oversaw this inevitable defeat determined by the Paris Peace Accords two years earlier – a man who was never elected to the presidency. He could do that. He didn’t have to please anyone. He didn’t have to fear any outrage. He had no constituency. So, he pulled the plug, and Jimmy Carter was president soon enough. It was over.
And that war was “for” nothing. The communist tide, that was going to sweep that part of the world, didn’t sweep that part of the world, and communist Vietnam is a trusted trading partner now, and not all that communist anyway, and a nice buffer to counter the Chinese. But no one knew any of that back then. Everyone only knew we’d lost, for the first time. And that would never happen again. That has driven all of our geopolitical and military policy and strategy since then – never again.
Iraq doesn’t count of course. Obama pulled the plug there. Of course George Bush did that two years earlier. Obama just formalized that. But ask any Republican – we should have never left – we should still be there – if we were still there the Middle East would be a wonderful place of peace and prosperity with a Starbucks on every corner. All those people might even find Jesus. And of course we’re still in Afghanistan. Things suddenly could get much better in our upcoming eighteenth year there. That’s possible. Anything is possible. But of course that’s all nonsense. We keep doing the Vietnam thing.
Donald Trump was going to fix that. No more foreign wars. No more alliances with other nations – both the UN and NATO were stupid and those people were cheating us. So were all our allies, even Canada and Mexico. To hell with them, and as for the rest of the world and their stupid little wars, let them do what they will. None of that is our business or even very interesting. It would be America First now. Maybe we should close our borders too.
This did appall most Republicans in office, but not enough voters. Those who voted for Trump probably remembered Vietnam too, but had the opposite reaction. Yeah, we lost, but we shouldn’t have been over there in the middle of nowhere in the first place. Who cares about such things anyway? And why NOT lose when none of that was our business in the first place?
American commandos were working alongside Kurdish forces at an outpost in eastern Syria last year when they were attacked by columns of Syrian government tanks and hundreds of troops, including Russian mercenaries. In the next hours, the Americans threw the Pentagon’s arsenal at them, including B-52 strategic bombers. The attack was stopped.
That operation, in the middle of the American-led campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, showed the extent to which the United States military was willing to protect the Syrian Kurds, its main ally on the ground.
But now, with the White House revoking protection for these Kurdish fighters, some of the Special Forces officers who battled alongside the Kurds say they feel deep remorse at orders to abandon their allies.
“They trusted us and we broke that trust,” one Army officer who has worked alongside the Kurds in northern Syria said last week in a telephone interview. “It’s a stain on the American conscience.”
“I’m ashamed,” said another officer who had also served in northern Syria.
Many felt ashamed on April 29, 1975, when they first saw that Hubert van Es photograph of that last climb up to that last helicopter leaving as we abandoned Saigon, and would recognize this too:
The response from the Kurds themselves was just as stark. “The worst thing in military logic and comrades in the trench is betrayal,” said Shervan Darwish, an official allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
And there was this:
A retired four-star Marine general on Sunday bluntly criticized President Donald Trump over the ongoing Turkish military offensive in northern Syria, saying, “There is blood on Trump’s hands for abandoning our Kurdish allies.”
Gen. John Allen, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan and former special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS under the Obama administration, told CNN the unfolding crisis in Syria was “completely foreseeable” and “the US greenlighted it.”
“There was no chance (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) Erdogan would keep his promise, and full blown ethnic cleansing is underway by Turkish supported militias,” he said. “This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats.”
That may be unfair. Trump does seem to like autocrats – the only leaders he respects – but, alternatively, he may not give a shit about anything over there, far away. It’s not that he admires dictators – he does and doesn’t hide that – but it may be more that he just doesn’t care about any of this.
The means there’s a new Operation Frequent Wind in progress:
Kurdish forces long allied with the United States in Syria announced a new deal on Sunday with the government in Damascus, a sworn enemy of Washington that is backed by Russia, as Turkish troops moved deeper into their territory and President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the American military from northern Syria.
That was the big news. We abandoned our allies to die. They chose to join our enemies:
For five years, United States policy relied on collaborating with the Kurdish-led forces both to fight the Islamic State and to limit the influence of Iran and Russia, which support the Syrian government, with a goal of maintaining some leverage over any future settlement of the conflict.
On Sunday – after Mr. Trump abruptly abandoned that approach – American leverage appeared all but gone. That threatened to give President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers a free hand. It also jeopardized hard-won gains against the Islamic State – and potentially opened the door for its return.
The announcement of the deal Sunday evening capped a day of whipsaw developments marked by rapid advances by Turkish-backed forces and the escape of hundreds of women and children linked to the Islamic State from a detention camp.
And now it was time to get the hell out of there, to pull out all our troops, but such things never go well:
As American troops were redeployed, two American officials said the United States had failed to transfer five dozen “high value” Islamic State detainees out of the country.
Turkish-backed forces advanced so quickly that they seized a key road, complicating the American withdrawal, officials said.
We’d captured some really bad guys, but couldn’t get them out – no time – and the Turks had cut our supply lines – so there was this:
The Turkish incursion has killed scores of people, and left Kurdish fighters accusing the United States of betrayal for leaving them at the Turks’ mercy. That is what led them to strike the deal with Damascus, which said on Sunday that its forces were heading north to take control of two towns and to fight the “Turkish aggression.”
Turkey’s invasion upended a fragile peace in northeastern Syria and risks enabling a resurgence of the Islamic State, which no longer controls territory in Syria but still has sleeper cells and supporters.
Since the Turkish incursion began on Wednesday, ISIS has claimed responsibility for at least two attacks in Syria: One car bomb in the northern city of Qamishli and another on an international military base outside Hasaka, a regional capital further to the south.
Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that the United States has taken the worst ISIS detainees out of Syria to ensure they would not escape. But in fact the American military took custody of only two British detainees, half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages, American officials said.
We lost. That’s about it, but Trump spun that the other way:
Previously, Trump administration officials argued that keeping Mr. Assad’s forces out of the territory was key to stemming Iranian and Russian influence and keeping pressure on Mr. Assad.
Mr. Trump says his decision to pull American troops out of the way of the Turkish advance was part of his effort to extricate the United States from “endless wars” in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
But not to worry:
Mr. Trump also tried to assuage his critics, including Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who broke with him over the Syria decision and is promising bipartisan legislation to slap economic sanctions on Turkey.
The Kurds will die, or stay alive by hooking up with Assad’s Syria and Putin’s Russia. Why do we care? But if the Turks get too nasty we’ll slap a few tariffs on their goods or something. But we won’t fight, not over there, not anywhere. We’ll take care of things here.
The Washington Post reports on how that notion was received:
President Trump’s order to withdraw essentially all U.S. forces from northern Syria came after the commander in chief privately agitated for days to bring troops home, according to administration officials – even while the Pentagon was making public assurances that the United States was not abandoning its Kurdish allies in the region.
The officials, granted anonymity to describe internal deliberations, described Trump as “doubling down” and “undeterred,” despite vociferous pushback from congressional Republicans who have been loath to challenge the president apart from a few issues, such as national security.
Behind the scenes, Trump has tried to convince advisers and lawmakers that the United States is not to blame for Turkey’s military offensive…
In short, we fight nowhere now, and Turkey was going to do this anyway, so the initial reports of atrocities’ here and there and the coming ethnic cleansing with a bit of genocide have nothing to do with us. We couldn’t stop Erdogan. No one could. How would we? We have no power in this world.
But of course Trump had to check for approval on that:
Trump has closely watched that kind of public criticism in recent days – complaining frequently about comments from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in particular – but has been encouraged to stay the course by other allies who support a withdrawal, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, according to administration officials.
The president, one senior administration official said, was particularly heartened by a segment from another Fox News host, Lou Dobbs, defending him last week.
Fox News, however, is not the larger Republican world:
Some Republican donors and officials worried that Trump’s decision would trap them in an untenable situation and have deleterious effects around the world. Furthermore, the significant intraparty rift is coming at a time when Trump particularly needs Republican support as he faces the threat of impeachment.
“Republican senators are going to increasingly resemble a herd of ostriches with their heads in the sand,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor. “They don’t want to break with Trump while simultaneously wanting to disagree with his policy on allowing Turkey to get away with exterminating the Kurds inside Syria.”
Still, Trump has resisted the repeated urging from some of his closest allies to intervene in the situation and has become more convinced that bringing troops home is both the right decision and a key political promise to fulfill ahead of the 2020 election.
That’s Operation Frequent Wind again, with this rationale:
The usual argument against removing troops, according to former senior administration officials, would be that doing so would cause widespread deaths and chaos and Trump would be blamed for it.
“Normally, convincing him he would be blamed for death and chaos could keep it from happening at least at that moment,” one former senior administration official said.
But current administration officials say many moderating officials like John Kelly are gone, and longtime friends say the move is consistent with Trump’s worldview – and that he has long wanted to do this.
And thus he got this:
In urgent meetings and telephone conferences, top national security officials studied often-conflicting accounts of what was happening on the ground. In public appearances, Cabinet secretaries denied that the United States had “abandoned” its Syrian Kurdish allies to invading Turkish forces and threatened severe sanctions against Ankara.
“This is total chaos,” a senior administration official said at midday, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the confusing situation in Syria.
It seems that the Turks, our NATO allies, given Trump’s permission to go after the Kurds and wipe them out, might fire on our troops too:
Although “the Turks gave guarantees to us” that U.S. forces would not be harmed, the official said, Syrian militias allied with them “are running up and down roads, ambushing and attacking vehicles,” putting American forces – as well as civilians -in danger even as they withdraw.
At the same time, the official said, the Islamic State is active in the area, and there are reports that Russian and Syrian forces are moving in as well. “We obviously could not continue,” said the official, who called the situation “a total shit-storm.”
Turkey seems to think Trump gave them full permission to fire on our troops and wipe them out too, and that doesn’t sit well with some:
In Congress, criticism of both Turkey and Trump was vocal and bipartisan.
“The weakness and incompetence that this president has shown when it comes to national security is stunning,” Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. Accusing Trump of “bending to autocrats,” Reed said that “instead of telling Erdogan to stand down, President Trump is in full retreat. It’s shameful.”
Trump has played down concerns about the crisis for days, saying Turkey will be responsible for any Islamic State fighters who might break free in the chaos.
On Sunday, he tweeted before departing for his golf course in Virginia that it was “very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change” and accused “those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars” of pushing the United States to stay in the fight.
Trump added that the Kurds and Turks have been fighting for years, a reference to the decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other,” he said. “Let them!”
He’s fine with that:
After he returned to the White House from the golf course in late afternoon, he tweeted a criticism of the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry, and later tweeted that Islamic State prisoners “will never come to, or be allowed in, the United States!”
Asked about Trump’s decision to play golf while much of his national security team was in crisis mode, the senior administration official said, “I can assure you, the president has been earning his money on the Syrian account in the last eight days.”
He will not allow the bad guys in. That’s why he’s paid the big bucks. He’s rich. Trust him. That’s the frequent wind here, but the world is moved by images, the tattered flag being defiantly shoved into the sky above Iwo Jima – pride and victory – and the last helicopter leaving Saigon – shame and defeat.
And now there’s a third set of images:
A video depicting a macabre scene of a fake President Trump shooting, stabbing and brutally assaulting members of the news media and his political opponents was shown at a conference for his supporters at his Miami resort last week, according to footage obtained by The New York Times.
Several of Mr. Trump’s top surrogates – including his son Donald Trump Jr., his former spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis – were scheduled to speak at the three-day conference, which was held by a pro-Trump group, American Priority, at Trump National Doral Miami.
They all said that they kind of missed that video, but it sure looked official:
The video, which includes the logo for Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, comprises a series of internet memes. The most violent clip shows Mr. Trump’s head superimposed on the body of a man opening fire inside the “Church of Fake News” on parishioners who have the faces of his critics or the logos of media organizations superimposed on their bodies. It appears to be an edited scene of a church massacre from the 2014 dark comedy film “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
Mr. Trump has made attacks on the news media a mainstay of his presidency, and he tweeted a similar – but far less violent video – in 2017. In recent weeks as he has confronted impeachment proceedings, he has ramped up his attacks on the news media, repeatedly calling it the “enemy of the people.”
So it all fits together:
The video depicts a scene inside the “Church of Fake News,” where parishioners rise as Mr. Trump – dressed in a black pinstripe suit and tie – walks down the aisle. Many parishioners’ faces have been replaced with the logos of news media organizations, including PBS, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and NBC.
Mr. Trump stops in the middle of the church, pulls a gun out of his suit jacket pocket and begins a graphic rampage. As the parishioners try to flee, the president fires at them. He shoots Black Lives Matter in the head, and also shoots Vice News.
Some of those in the church try to apprehend Mr. Trump. He fends them off and makes his way toward the altar, knocking over several pews. He wrestles a parishioner with a Vice News logo as a face to the ground and then shoots the person at point blank range. In the background, the former FBI director, James B. Comey, is seen trying to get away.
From there, Mr. Trump attacks a range of his critics. He strikes the late Arizona senator John McCain in the back of the neck. He hits the television personality Rosie O’Donnell in the face and then stabs her in the head. He strikes Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California. He lights the head of Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential rival, on fire.
He takes Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, hostage before throwing him to the ground. Then he strikes former President Barack Obama in the back and throws him against a wall.
The clip ends with Mr. Trump putting a stake into the head of a person with a CNN logo for a face. Mr. Trump then stands on the altar, admiring his rampage, and smiles.
But really, he was just continuing his thought:
The video is similar in style to one Mr. Trump tweeted in July 2017, in which he is shown at a wrestling match body slamming CNN’s logo and beating it up. The president was roundly criticized for encouraging violence against journalists by posting that clip, but his supporters enjoyed it, and helped make the tweet viral.
So choose the iconic image that sums up the nation – the flag above Iwo Jima – pride and victory – the last helicopter leaving Saigon – shame and defeat – or this – sneering contempt for the press, and John McCain, and the previous president, expressed in gleeful murderous sadism. Things have changed from 1945 to 1975 to this. That’s the way the wind is blowing now, frequently.