Japan’s ruling party race puts legacy of Abenomics in focus

FILE PHOTO: Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, embroiled in a case against his secretary over unreported political funds, holds a news conference in Tokyo, Japan December 24, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato

September 24, 2021

By Leika Kihara

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan’s widening wealth gap has emerged as a key issue in a ruling party leadership contest that will decide who becomes the next prime minister, with candidates forced to reassess the legacy of former premier Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” policies.

Under Abenomics, a mix of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies and a growth strategy deployed by Abe in 2013, share prices and corporate profits boomed, but a government survey published earlier this year showed households hardly benefited.

Mindful of the flaws of Abenomics, frontrunners in the Liberal Democratic Party’s leadership race – vaccination minister Taro Kono and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida – have pledged to focus more on boosting household wealth.

“What’s important is to deliver the benefits of economic growth to a wider population,” Kishida said on Thursday. “We must create a virtual cycle of growth and distribution.”

But the candidates are thin on details over how to do this with Japan’s economic policy tool-kit depleted by years of massive monetary and fiscal stimulus.

Kono calls for rewarding companies that boost wages with a cut in corporate tax, while Kishida wants to expand Japan’s middle class with targeted payouts to low-income households.

The winner of the LDP leadership vote on Sept. 29 is assured of becoming Japan’s next prime minister because of the party’s parliamentary majority. Two women – Sanae Takaichi, 60, a former internal affairs minister, and Seiko Noda, 61, a former minister for gender equality – are the other candidates in a four-way race.

Parliament is expected to convene on Oct. 4 to vote in a successor to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who announced his decision to quit less than a year after taking over from Abe.

A government survey, conducted once every five years and released in February, has drawn increasing attention to trends in inequality during Abe’s time.

Shigeto Nagai, head of Japan economics at Oxford Economics, said the survey revealed “the stark failure of Abenomics to boost household wealth through asset price growth.”

Average wealth among households fell by 3.5% from 2014 to 2019 with only the top 10% wealthiest enjoying an increase, according to survey conducted once every five years.

Japanese households’ traditional aversion to risk meant they did not benefit from the stock market rally, with the balance of their financial assets down 8.1% in the five years from 2014, the survey showed.

“We think the new premier will need to consider the failures of Abenomics and recognise the myth that reflation policies relying on aggressive monetary easing will not solve all Japan’s problems without tackling endemic structural issues,” Nagai said.

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda defended Abenomics and said the pandemic, not slow wage growth, was mainly to blame for sluggish consumption.

“Unlike in the United States and Europe, Japanese firms protected jobs even when the pandemic hit,” Kuroda said when asked why the trickle-down to households has been weak.

“Wage growth has been fairly modest, but that’s not the main reason consumption is weak,” he told a briefing on Wednesday. “As the pandemic subsides, consumption will likely strengthen.”

(Reporting by Leika Kihara; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)





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Biden Legacy: Massive Benefits Spending

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan in Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 11, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

If so, prepare for even more calls for expanded welfare.

Joe Biden seems to be enamored with enacting FDR-like changes in the U.S., and for good reason. FDR’s shadow is both long and enduring. Take, for example, the Social Security program that he helped create: Since its passage, it has fundamentally altered American life — affecting how long we work, when we retire, and how many of us wind up in poverty. Today, that program pays monthly checks to 55 million retirees, survivors, and their dependents. (The disability benefits that were created in the 1950s support millions more.) But while it took decades for Social Security to reach this scale, President Biden has already exceeded that level by sending new monthly benefits to an estimated 65 million children across 39 million families — amounting to 30 percent of all households in America.

That massive check-writing operation is one result of the American Rescue Plan, the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief law that President Biden signed in March. That law included three major expansions of the long-standing child-tax-credit program, the costs of which added to the deficit.

First, it increased annual payments per child — from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age six, or $3,000 for older children. Second, it severed the connection between receipt of benefit and work by parents. Previously, only parents who worked could qualify — and full payments were reserved for those who worked enough to owe federal income taxes. Now, increased payments flow even to parents without any employment, earnings, or federal tax liabilities at all. Third, the new law pays checks in monthly installments, rather than in a single benefit at tax time.

Biden has suggested that these changes were needed to address the pandemic. In March, for example, he said that the American Rescue Plan “directly addressed the emergency in this country because it focuses on what people need most.” Yet in truth, these checks have nothing to do with the pandemic. (Just take a look at the now-dusty white papers proposing similar measures, long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.) Supporters, including the president, have repeatedly called for making the enlarged payments permanent, further undermining any such connection.

The president also argues that the new checks amount to a substantial “tax cut.” On July 15, he called the benefit “one of the largest-ever single tax cuts for families with children.” Not so. Official estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show that over 80 percent of the current expansion reflects new benefit spending directed at parents who do not owe federal income taxes; under 20 percent constitutes tax relief. Taxes will have to rise significantly to cover the $1.6 trillion cost in just the first decade if these benefits are made permanent.

The Biden administration seems to be taking the advice of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who, during the Great Recession, said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. . . . It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Recall the prior consequences of that approach: a $900 billion temporary stimulus law and Obamacare. Today’s lawmakers are again capitalizing on a crisis, seeking an even greater $5 trillion in benefit expansions and a continuation of these checks.

The significant number and costs of today’s checks obviously ought to be of concern. But it is not the only one. So, too, is the precedent they create for later, more-expansive measures. That very real consequence is already taking hold. Consider that Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) recently introduced legislation to permanently provide larger monthly checks to all but the very richest U.S. residents. Her plan would double federal spending — and taxes, if policy-makers tried to cover the staggering cost. Don’t be surprised if demands for such massive benefit expansions grow if monthly checks to one-third of all households are made permanent.

Democrats also suggest that these checks reduce child poverty, but they are poorly targeted to that effort. In addition to offering expanded benefits to millions of families earning over $100,000 per year, they also overturn the successful, bipartisan and pro-work welfare reforms of the ’90s by eliminating work requirements for recipients. More broadly, they will make tens of millions of families — nearly all in their prime working years — newly dependent on monthly government payouts.

One of the key questions facing Congress this month is whether to continue this deluge of government checks. President Biden and other Democrats who support making them permanent are already resorting to budget gimmicks to minimize the apparent cost, leaving it to future lawmakers to raise the taxes needed to pay them permanently. That’s no surprise given recent polling, which suggests support can quickly evaporate in the face of the broad tax hikes required to cover their full cost. Congress’s decision will ultimately determine whether this massive federal check-writing operation will be cemented in Joe Biden’s legacy — an initiative that’s already made FDR look like a government-check-writing piker by comparison.

Matt Weidinger is the Rowe Fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute.





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Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot, accused of trying to ‘re-assassinate Abe’ with tweet questioning his legacy

Ford’s Theatre lives in American infamy as the site where Abraham Lincoln, the 16th United States president, was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. The theatre is now a national historical site managed by the National Park Service.

However, an official social media account belonging to Ford’s Theatre incited mockery over the weekend after seemingly questioning why Lincoln has been put “on a pedestal” in American history.

What did Ford’s Theatre say?

The Twitter account for Ford’s Theatre solicited suggestions from social media users on Saturday “a more useful, more complex, or more realistic” to remember Lincoln.

“Do you ever feel we, as a nation, put Abraham Lincoln ‘on a pedestal’?” the account said. “What do you think might be a more useful, more complex, or more realistic way to think about or memorialize the 16th president?”

Lincoln is consistently remembered as one of America’s best presidents. Not only did he lead the U.S. through the American Civil War — with the Union defeating the confederacy — but he was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for all slaves in confederate states. Lincoln’s legacy remembers him as someone who fought for freedom for enslaved Americans.

Lincoln, in fact, has been named
the greatest president in American history by C-SPAN for decades.

What was the reaction?

Considering Lincoln’s status in American history, Ford’s Theatre was raked over the coals for the tweet.

  • “John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln in the Ford Theatre in 1865 so that the Ford Theatre could assassinate his character 156 years later,” Siraj Hashmi reacted.
  • “Next up on Revisionism Hour, we have contributions from Dealey Plaza, the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition, and the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, along with minor presentations from the Palace Hotel, San Francisco and Warm Springs, Georgia,” National Review’s Charles Cooke mocked.
  • “Trying to re-assassinate Abe I see,” another person said.
  • “I feel that Abraham Lincoln belongs on a pedestal and that it is both useful and realistic to recognize him as one of the greatest political leaders in human history,” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said.
  • “On the other hand, it’s entirely on-brand for Ford’s Theatre to take a shot at Lincoln,” The Atlantic editor Yoni Appelbaum said.
  • I feel that you, as a Twitter account, shouldn’t diminish the president who was murdered while patronizing your theater—a tragic fact that is the only reason anyone cares about your theater,” Christopher Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said.
  • “If it weren’t for Lincoln you’d be condos right now,” another person mocked.
  • “Did John Wilkes Booth tweet this?” Fox News radio host Guy Benson mocked.
  • “we should build a temple to Lincoln on the National Mall,” Washington Examiner reporter Jerry Dunleavy reacted.
  • “If I were Ford’s Theatre, I would probably be quiet on Lincoln,” another person said.





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Pandemic Legacy – Reason.com

Working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) probably isn’t much fun, but the board game Pandemic found success letting gamers indulge in a little epidemiological roleplay. A cooperative game where participants win or lose together as they work to fight disease, a game can typically be finished in 45 minutes.

With plenty of time to pass in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, those who wanted to dive deeper turned to Pandemic’s trio of legacy games, where elements of each gameplay carry over into the next session. It can get quite complicated, with rule changes, challenges, upgrades, and plot developing over the course of a “year” (with each “month” comprising one or two game sessions).

In Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, for example, players can become medics, scientists, researchers, and other roles as the game progresses. In a nod to a peculiarity of government budgeting, players get less funding when they’re successful and more help when they’re failing.

In an all-too-familiar plot point, an incurable disease starts ravaging the globe. Quarantines are futile and the virus mutates. Hope lies not in a cure but in a vaccine created by nonstate actors. And much like the COVID-19 “lab leak” theory, a conspiracy theory about government-engineered viruses might just turn out to be true. Pretty prescient for a game originally released in 2015.



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Sergeant Bee, immortalized in Afghanistan photo, reflects on war’s legacy

William Olas Bee holds a photograph of himself as a U.S. Marine when he had a close call after Taliban fighters opened fire near Garmser in Helmand Province of Afghanistan in 2008, as he poses in his home in Jacksonville, North Carolina, U.S., May 22, 2021. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

September 7, 2021

By Maurice Tamman

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (Reuters) – Today, on a leafy cul-de-sac in North Carolina, his hair is streaked with gray, and he wears his beard long. But on that day 13 years ago, as he sat tucked behind a mud wall in Afghanistan, his head was close-cropped, bare and vulnerable.

Retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Billy Bee is sharing a smoke with Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic on the deck of Bee’s home. The smoke hangs in the humid, still air, just as it did on May 18, 2008, when their lives were stitched together in a single moment of explosive violence and unlikely survival.

They are two men united by war, coming together again as the messy and tragic American involvement in Afghanistan finally was coming to an end, 20 years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., set it all in motion.

Both men remember that 2008 day as being blisteringly hot and humid. Tomasevic was in his underwear and boots, fiddling with a new lens, snapping shots of Bee near Garmsir, in Helmand province, as they talked and smoked. When shots came from a nearby hut, just beyond the wall, Tomasevic rushed into a nearby building inside the compound and grabbed some clothes, his protective vest and a helmet.

He lay down next to Bee. The sergeant was a slim 26-year-old at the time, carrying an M-16 rifle that seemed almost as large as him from some angles. He wasn’t wearing any body armor or a helmet but poked his head above the wall, anyway, looking for targets. Tomasevic, then 38, kept taking pictures.

Moments later, a shot hit the top of the wall near Bee’s head, exploding the mud and knocking him down and backward.

“And for the first time in my career, I drop the camera,” Tomasevic says in his clipped English, spoken with a Serbian accent. “I look at him lying down. I said, ‘Bee, Bee,’ and I look: Where is the blood? The bleeding? And I look around and there is nothing, man, no bleeding.”

Bee was briefly unconscious but apparently fine. Later, going through the images he took, Tomasevic showed Bee the picture he caught the moment the round hit the wall. “You are going to be famous,” he told the Marine.

And within hours, the picture had appeared on websites and newspapers around the world. For more than a decade, a framed print of the picture hung on the walls of the Reuters newsroom in New York City, an exemplar of the news agency’s photojournalism. That shot, taken by a photographer whose own life was forged by war in his native land, is one of the iconic pictures of the conflict in Afghanistan, capturing the eternal fragility of service members at war.

Bee loves the picture. It makes him laugh.

“I look at it with fondness. I mean, yeah, the situation was shitty at the time, the environment sucked, the whole experience was godawful. Except for, you know, the firefights and stuff like that. That’s, honestly, where I think I was having the most fun of my career,” Bee says. “As long as we’re not losing guys, I’m having a blast doing that stuff.”

As it turned out, Bee wasn’t fine after that picture was taken. The concussive effect of the bullet hitting so close to his head knocked him out. The image may have documented the first traumatic injury to the front of his brain, where short-term memory and reasoning are processed. There would be at least one more head injury in June 2010 that resulted in the discovery of brain damage, his medical records show. Nearly a decade after his first deployment as one of the first Marines in Afghanistan, he would never be cleared for combat again.

Bee, who left the Marines in April 2013, has a frontal lobe brain injury that affects his short-term memory. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and rage disorder.

But that picture thrust him into the public eye, and he and his wife, Bobbie Bee, have used it to advance the cause of care of service members damaged by war. Today, Bee is routinely quoted in news stories published worldwide and is often cited as an example of how the Veterans Administration struggled to adequately care for service members suffering from mental health problems brought on by their service.

Back in 2008, on the home front, Bobbie was pregnant with their son Ethan. It was Bee’s third deployment in Afghanistan but the first time he had shipped out overseas since they were married in 2006. Until that picture was published, her husband’s absence half a planet away in a war-ravaged land didn’t seem very different from when he went away for training.

Bee never called his wife to let her know about the picture, even though Tomasevic offered to let him use his satellite phone. Shortly after the picture was published, she stumbled onto it while visiting a news site for military families.

“I let out a scream that my parents still remember, because they thought I was going into labor,” she says. “When I saw that picture, I am, like, this is real.”

It was 78 hours before he called and she was sure her husband was alive.

“When we first talked, it was like, oh my gosh, I’m so excited you’re OK. And then I was like, WHERE WAS YOUR GEAR? And he’s like, what happened to the sweet wife who is so thankful I’m OK?” 

In the years that followed, Bee suffered from depression and flashbacks. Two or three times a week, he woke up feeling adrenaline rushing through his body as if readying himself for a bar fight. During the day, a mild irritant for most people could turn to fury in him. He self-medicated with alcohol, he says.

In October 2010, Bobbie Bee says, she came home to find him passed out in the kitchen. Earlier they had fought, and he left her a note, saying goodbye. He wanted to die.

“I tried: two liters of tequila in about two minutes,” he recalls. “Her and I had got into a huge fight and I say: ‘I’m done. Fuck this. I have had enough.’”

Bobbie Bee says she had struggled with his angry outbursts for months since his return, but now she was scared for his life. She wanted to take him to the hospital but worried about what it would do to his career.  He was too heavy for her to move far, so she propped him up against the fridge and taped his head to the door so he couldn’t choke on his vomit.

“I used really strong packing tape,” she says, chuckling with her husband as they recall the episode. “But at the time, it was horrifying. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have family. They were 500 miles away.”

Fortunately, a corpsman friend lived nearby, and he brought over saline IV drips. He inserted them into his fellow Marine’s arms, and eventually, Bee regained consciousness. “And then I wake up with my head duct-taped to the fridge and two mainline IVs in my arm,” he recalls.

With the help of his wife, Bee eventually got treatment and now takes seven prescriptions every day, including several antipsychotic and anti-depression drugs. He has a job working for a company that designs autonomous targeting robots that the Marines use for combat training. He works nights, on Camp Lejeune, the famed Marine base near his home.

Sitting on the back porch, Bobbie Bee watches her husband chat with Tomasevic, who’s visiting the U.S. from his home in Turkey, and says she saw, in that moment, a bit of the man she met and married rather than the man who came home from war. The two men came together to reflect on the years of warfare in response to the 2001 attacks.

“Billy can tell you everything from June 8th, 2010, and prior, as if it just happened, but if you ask him what he had for dinner yesterday, he wouldn’t remember,” she says.

“The time he spent with Goran and things like that, he remembers. So that’s what makes him happy.”

And while sitting next to Tomasevic, he laughs and reminisces about the weeks they spent together, sleeping on cardboard, and numerous firefights with the Taliban. Bee’s memory of those days is precise and detailed.

“I cannot believe I have come to his house,” Tomasevic says. “I feel really good, but I still can’t believe I’m here talking to him. We can’t stop talking.”

Tomasevic spent about three weeks with Bee’s unit in 2008. They came together again in 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan, shortly before the last injury that ended the Marine’s combat career.

Tomasevic has continued working in conflict zones for Reuters, from the Arab Spring in Egypt to the fighting in Syria, Libya and, of course, Afghanistan. He insists he is more than the work he has done shooting conflict and despair.

“I am a professional. I shoot sports, whatever.”

But he acknowledges that he takes special pride in his war work. “I have an affection for war and conflict because I believe this is the hardest to do in this job.”

Thirty years after joining Reuters during the civil war in his native country, then Yugoslavia, he says he can compartmentalize the images, so they don’t damage him in the way others might be damaged.

“I grew up in a war zone. And I have been doing this for 30 years.”

(Reporting by Maurice Tamman; editing by Kari Howard)





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Trump Legacy Comes into Focus 

The daily dramas of that era will fade away in time; the administration’s lasting mark is elsewhere.




NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE

S
hould Donald Trump’s political career be finished, what will be the takeaways from his administration? I’d argue that what reporters have many times described as a nonstop bombardment of exciting news was in fact a relatively uneventful period.

Why, yes, I have heard that there’s a pandemic on. It is the major event of the Trump era, but it had very little to do with Trump.

Look at our close cousins, the U.K. Does anyone seriously believe that Americans would have tolerated its level of lockdown restrictions? At several points, you could be fined $300 for leaving home “without a good reason.”





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Reckoning with the Legacy of Afghanistan

U.S. Marines provide assistance at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, August 22, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sergeant Victor Mancilla/Handout via Reuters)

A 2015 film on the war’s aftermath is worth revisiting now that America is out.

Tobias Lindholm’s 2015 film A War (Krigen, in Danish, and currently streaming for free on TubiTV) opens with a fictional group of Danish soldiers patrolling the desolate countryside of Helmand province, Afghanistan. An IED detonates as a soldier walks over it, and he dies after an unsuccessful attempt to evacuate him. While the film is fiction, Denmark did lose 43 soldiers during the Afghanistan War, no small number for a country of fewer than 6 million inhabitants. (By comparison, Colorado and Wisconsin each have almost identical populations to Denmark, and lost 38 and 36 soldiers during the war, respectively.) A War asks uncomfortable questions, explores the myriad ethical dilemmas facing soldiers, and explores the burdens of soldiers’ families. It may be the best film made yet about the Afghanistan War.

The central theme of the film is the moral burden that falls on soldiers tasked with fighting an unwinnable war. We can debate the specifics of the Afghanistan withdrawal and whether it might have been handled better. We can debate whether staying in Afghanistan to prop up a corrupt government, with the goal of preventing the return of the Taliban, might be in America’s strategic interest even if we come to terms with the notion that the country will likely never be democratic or liberal in our lifetimes. But the immediate collapse of the Afghan government is the ultimate proof that the war’s stated objectives were unachievable, and it was the soldiers on the ground who suffered the consequences of that truth.

Like all countries involved in the Afghanistan War, Denmark, too, had to maintain the fiction that its soldiers were making things better. “You are here to safeguard and help civilians, so they can have a life,” A War’s main character, Claus Pedersen, a unit commander in the Danish military, tells his troops after losing their comrade. “So they can rebuild their country.” It is unclear if Claus believes this himself. But it is very clear that many of his troops don’t. After the death of their comrade, one soldier breaks down and asks to go home. He later gets his wish when he is seriously injured in a firefight.

Soon after the IED incident, an Afghan man comes into their compound distraught. The Danes had previously treated his daughter’s infected wound while passing their house on patrol, and the Taliban were now threatening to kill the entire family for collaborating with the enemy. The man insists that his family spend the night in the compound, or they will be killed. Claus refuses the request but promises that his soldiers will come to the village the next day to clear the area of Taliban. The Afghan man was correct in his assumption, however; when the Danes go to the village, they find the family dead.

The ensuing confrontation with the Taliban sets off a chain of events that leads to Claus’s court-martial, shifting the film’s setting from the Afghan countryside to the Danish military-justice system. Claus is home but now has his decisions second-guessed with dramatic stakes. On trial, Claus is confronted with the moral weight, and ambiguity, of the situation he faced back in Afghanistan. When an injured soldier needed immediate evacuation, what level of risk was he expected to take to avoid civilian casualties? Did he see the combatants in the compound where he ordered an air strike? And perhaps most important: Can those who weren’t there possibly judge the decisions he had to make? The consequences will ultimately fall on his entire family, not just on Claus, if he is convicted of killing civilians and sent to prison.

The burden on those who stay behind makes up the other side of A War. While he is in Afghanistan, Claus’s wife struggles to raise three young children by herself. When he comes home to face trial, she faces the prospect of losing him to a four-year prison sentence. Her children were already struggling to cope with the absence of their father. His oldest daughter, the only one of the children aware of what’s going on, asks him if he did kill civilians.

The movie’s climax comes in the courtroom, not on the battlefield. Its climax has such a subtle genius that to reveal the event in question would be to spoil the film. The significance thereof is never said aloud, but the event’s profound moral weight is understood by all: Are truth and justice inherently linked, or might the former be relaxed in the most extreme of circumstances to serve the latter? It seems Lindholm takes a stance on the matter with his treatment of the film’s premise, in favor of the soldiers put in an impossible situation, but the question remains difficult. Less difficult is the obvious truth that the war in Afghanistan was doomed to fail if the goal was to instill a functioning Afghan government that could prevent the return of the Taliban without outside support.

A War was a challenging film when it came out. But watching it now, after the Afghanistan withdrawal, it has taken on a new profundity. Again, the truth that Afghanistan would never democratize does not necessarily mean that the U.S. should have withdrawn. But the fact remains that those villagers earlier in the film, terrified of Taliban retribution, had nowhere else to turn but to the Danish soldiers patrolling the area. That could only ever be a temporary solution, and if 20 years was not enough to create a viable alternative, it was never going to happen.

After 9/11, U.S. allies stepped up and shared the burden of the war in Afghanistan. In light of the contentious international politics of the Iraq War, it became easy to forget this fact. The burdens of war, and the consequences of withdrawal, are not borne by the U.S. alone. Other countries also believed that change was possible, and that a stable Afghanistan was in the world’s interest. Tobias Lindholm’s film is a fitting tribute to all who served in Afghanistan, not just those representing the Stars and Stripes, trying in vain to prevent the exact scenario that has played out over the last few weeks.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.





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