CANONSBURG, PA. – Every year Eric Miller brought his son Aidan to the famous Canonsburg 4th of July parade, an hour-long procession that draws tens of thousands of spectators.
Aidan had felt the excitement of patriotism since he was 5 years old and longed to put on a uniform. Mr. Miller didn’t want his son to sign up. He feared, as only one parent can, that Aidan would be sent into a combat zone.
But immediately after graduating from high school, Aidan fulfilled his dream in this patriotic city south of Pittsburgh, where sharp American flags stand in front of the municipal building around memorials to veterans. Today, Aidan is 20 years old and with the Army in Kentucky. And last week, his father let out a deep breath of relief when President Biden announced that American troops would be coming home from Afghanistan.
“I’m not a Biden fan, but I am in favor of getting the troops out of there,” said Mr. Miller, 46, a salesman. He rejected the arguments made by some Republican officials and military leaders that Taliban extremists would overrun the country as soon as the Americans left. “We can’t babysit everyone,” he said.
Mr Biden’s announcement of his impressive 9/11 withdrawal deadline opens the way for a reckoning of how the war ends and how Americans will feel the next time military intervention is on the table. Even in a place as proud of America and its military as Canonsburg, many people had really gotten into conflict: tired of the war and worried about the troops, but also concerned about the consequences of a complete withdrawal.
“It’s a very complicated question,” said Rick Palma, who was standing in front of McGrogan’s Tap Room pondering Mr. Biden’s decision. Mr. Palma is a retired manager at a United States steel mill in nearby Clairton. This is the fictional setting for “The Deer Hunter,” the 1978 film that was very reminiscent of working class communities whose young men went to Vietnam.
“Is it time to take her home? Maybe, ‘said Mr Palma, a former army officer. “If you bring them back all the way, there is a chance al-Qaeda will regroup.”
These mixed sentiments reflect pretty well the enigma the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have faced over the past 12 years. All three presidents wanted to end the war in Afghanistan, but saw clear risks and uncertain public support: only a minority of Americans were in favor of full withdrawal when former President Donald J. Trump first proposed it in 2019 Survey.
At the same time, the conflict is no longer a priority for most voters in the recent elections. Some have advocated the idea of ”ending wars forever”, but many just don’t think about Afghanistan. Mr. Biden’s determination to leave seems to epitomize the current mood of many Americans centered on their own lives, the pandemic, and the economy, with little energy left to worry about foreign conflict.
This view of a Democratic president in a deeply partisan era is widely shared by the people of southwest Pennsylvania – a region generally hostile to the Democrats, but where even voters who opposed Mr Biden’s election approved his withdrawal plan .
Larry Maggi, a Washington County commissioner, which includes Canonsburg, said southwestern Pennsylvania most likely has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country.
“I work with veterans, I ride bikes with veterans, I drink beer with these guys,” said Mr. Maggi, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam era. Regarding Afghanistan, he said, “The general consensus is, what the hell are we doing over there?”
It begs the question of whether the country is entering a phase that mirrors the 1970s “Vietnam Syndrome,” which made Americans skeptical of foreign intervention and turned their focus inward.
“The real problem here is that we can’t be isolationists,” said Howard Dean, the Democrat who ran a 2004 presidential campaign as an early opponent of the Iraq war. He suggested a number of excruciating questions that Americans may face in the near future when using military force: What if China invades Taiwan? What if Russian tanks roll through Ukraine?
Along Pike Street in Canonsburg, the route of the famous Independence Day parade considered the largest in the state outside of Philadelphia, there was almost no support for sending American troops into such hypothetical conflicts. Mr Biden’s decision to withdraw most of the remaining 2,500 American soldiers from Afghanistan had solid support, though not universal support.
Canonsburg, a town of 9,000 people that was once a center of coal and steel, is filled with closely spaced houses, many with wide verandas rising over steep hills. In front of the town hall is a clock from the Italian-American Association and a statue of Perry Como, who cut his hair as a hairdresser in the city before he became famous as a pop singer in the 1950s. On Thursday, the busiest businesses on Pike Street were a thrift store, a church-run grocery bank, and Fix ‘Ur Cat, a nonprofit storefront that neutered and neutered cats.
Kathleen Pallatto, who served as an army nurse, and her husband Robert, a retired correction worker, received a free coronavirus test in a tent in the parking lot of a nearby mall. Both are conservative and suspicious of authorities; Neither of them planned a Covid-19 vaccine.
Ms. Pallatto, 59, said Mr. Biden should not have announced a withdrawal deadline. “They are televising to the Taliban that by this point we will be completely gone,” she said. America’s Afghan partners will not be able to stand alone, “and we will end up there again,” she said.
But her husband, 63, disagreed. He advocated full withdrawal and rejected the argument that American efforts to advocate democracy and protect the rights of women and girls could be lost.
“These countries have been run like this for hundreds of years,” he said. “The United States thinks they’re going to send our troops in and make them a democratic system – they’re killing a dead horse.”
Doug Scott, 44, a veteran of three tours in Iraq, agreed that American forces are unlikely to change illiberal attitudes and ethnic hostilities that have led to generations of conflict in Afghanistan. But he argued that the United States should keep its footprint for an inevitable flare-up in the country.
“A complete withdrawal would be disastrous,” he said.
Not everyone on Pike Street was aware of the president’s decision to leave Afghanistan. This reflects how the protracted conflict with relatively few American casualties has gotten off the headlines. Only 12 percent of Americans said in an Associated Press / NORC poll last year that they closely followed the events of the war.
Katherine Roddy, mother of two young children, said she was unaware of the announced withdrawal when she walked to her door. She and her husband, an academic, had lived in Egypt while he was studying Arabic and she sympathized with the plight of women in Muslim countries but said it was time to leave Afghanistan.
“I heard that the social situation in Afghanistan is devastating,” she said. “It’s hard to keep it that way, but I think it’s probably about time.”
At Magenis Fine Cigars, proprietor Brian Magenis was watching the History Channel from a couch in his department store that was furnished like a retiree’s living room, which, in a way, is Mr. Magenis. After a career as a nuclear engineer, he opened the cigar shop.
“I am really in favor of stopping the United States from going abroad and waging wars,” he said. Although Mr. Magenis originally supported the invasion of Afghanistan 100 percent, the conflict was far from him. “I was really just thinking about it recently when Biden said he was withdrawing the troops,” he said.
Another person who saw the withdrawal as news was Bridget Laero, the 37-year-old manager of Nice Ink, one of the two tattoo parlors on Pike Street. She said she has many customers who are veterans. Her taste in body art extends to “traditional” subjects – “eagles, flags, things like that,” Ms. Laero said.
“To hear that sounds stupid,” she said of the president’s decision on Afghanistan. “Personally, I think our troops there helped, and it will just open up more time and space for more war, more chaos.”
For others, Mr. Biden’s decision adds a punctuation mark to an era that began with a nation firmly united by the need to go to war after an attack on American soil, and with much of the country in one Anti-war mood ends. but with little unity about everything.
Hal Gollos, an Army veteran stationed in South Korea in the 1970s, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but last year he thought “the wheels would come off” and swung to support Mr. Biden. He approved the president’s decision.
“Twenty years in one country,” he said, “is long enough.”