By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
The country needed President Biden to speak even though there wasn’t much that he could say.
The chaos as American troops withdrew from Afghanistan was vivid and indelible. The fear was writ large on the faces of civilians trying to evacuate; so was the anger and sorrow. There were new deaths to mourn and countless futures now imperiled. And Americans at home were appalled as they saw what their government had wrought, how nation-building had devolved, how a 20-year war — even the ending of it — was so infuriatingly, heartbreakingly messy.
All Biden could do with his Tuesday afternoon speech from the White House was craft a few minutes of order and eloquence at the tail end of profound havoc.
He walked into the State Dining Room at a stride. His suit was dark. His shirt was crisp and white. The knot of his blue tie was slightly off-center and a tiny American flag pin was affixed to his lapel. Biden began speaking as soon as he reached the lectern. He didn’t pause for effect or to settle himself.
“Last night in Kabul,” the president began, “the United States ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan; the longest war in American history.”
The last soldier had left Afghanistan, and the president once again explained himself and explained the circumstances of his decision. He thanked the members of the military and their families, that tiny percentage of the population that has lived with upheaval and carried this burden for two decades. He also spoke to everyone else; all the rest of us who have had the luxury of not thinking about this war or those people. He addressed the majority of the American citizens who only recently roused themselves, along with their concern and their outrage.
At the center of Biden’s remarks was his unshakable belief in what he had done. He did not waiver from that. He raised his volume to emphasize his certainty. He sliced the air with his arms as if he was clearing a confounding trail to certainty. Perhaps the country would be able to grab onto his conviction and steady itself.
“I give you my word with all of my heart. I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision and the best decision for America,” Biden said.
He reminded the country of all the American personnel who have died — 2,461, he said — and the vast sums of money the United States has poured into Afghanistan; $300 million a day for two decades, he said. “What have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunity?”
The president spoke for about 30 minutes and as he finished and began to walk away, one could hear reporters in the room shout questions. And for a brief moment, he paused and turned back to the lectern. But it was only to retrieve his mask. There would be no impromptu back-and-forth. He would not speak off-the-cuff. War is a bloody mess. The only thing that props people up, that keeps them from crumpling into a heap, is the promise of order. The gift of exactitude. That’s what he’d come to deliver.
The president spoke and his words weren’t an answer to the myriad questions about how the withdrawal was organized or an explanation for its shortcomings, but they were an expression of finality. They were the beginning of the end as he saw it. The quieting of the storm.
When the bodies of the last service members to die in Afghanistan arrived at Dover Air Force Base on Sunday, the president was there to honor them. He met with family members, and some of those meetings were tense and volatile. As the flag-draped transfer cases were moved from the military plane to waiting vehicles, there were wails of anguish from assembled relatives. But all of that emotion and torment was surrounded by the balletic choreography of soldiers moving in unison, of white-gloved hands lifting together, of graceful order.
The military brought their own back to the United States with care. Everything was considered and intentional, which was the very opposite of what these men and women faced as they secured Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Order doesn’t reduce the searing pain of grief, but it may help to stabilize the ground under the mourners’ feet. It magnifies the significance of the tiniest gesture. A single soldier walking alone is unremarkable, but it becomes a majestic movement when it’s in synchronicity with six others. The sense of focus is intensified when all eyes are attuned to a single subject. The enormity of war is made real in row after perfectly aligned row of white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
Biden’s presence at Dover may not have soothed anyone’s soul. He was there because that’s where he was supposed to be. He was there so that the order would not be disrupted.
And after the last soldier left Afghanistan, Biden was there at the White House in front of the microphones speaking to the public because that was the expectation and he fulfilled it. The United States didn’t fix Afghanistan. It may be another 20 years before there is any consensus on precisely what was accomplished. But in the meantime, Biden offered this: “We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible.”
“No nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the United States had the capacity, the will and the ability to do it, and we did it today. The extraordinary success of this mission is due to the incredible skill, [bravery] and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals.”
He allowed himself to say it once. Only once: success. To do so any more extravagantly would have been out of order.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.