Biden Chooses Mournful Words to End a Long Mission

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“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting to get a different result,” Mr. Biden said. There was an exasperated cadence in his voice, an exasperation sharpened, not softened, by grieving — by a president who had lost a wife and a daughter nearly five decades before and his son Beau in 2015.

“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Mr. Biden said. “Two Republicans. Two Democrats.” The bipartisan gesture was classic Biden, a suggestion that he was part of a lineage, but in his speech he also made it clear what made him different from the rest. “I am the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone,” Mr. Biden said. “Throughout this process, my North Star has been remembering what it was like when my late son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq.”

Like any televised announcement from the White House, this one contained its share of bland generalities — what the “humanitarian work” Mr. Biden promised might entail, for example, or precisely how he expects to “strengthen our alliances” and “ensure that the rules of international norms” are “grounded in our democratic values.” But when the subject turned to grief, Mr. Biden became forceful and specific. Taking a card from his jacket pocket that he said he had been carrying for the last 12 years to remind him of the number of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Biden insisted on an “exact number, not an approximation, not a rounded-off number, because every one of those dead are sacred human beings who left behind entire families.”

By invoking those families, Mr. Biden was showing how much had changed. (He gave a speech last month saying that he kept a card in his pocket with the number of pandemic deaths, too.) Twenty years ago, Mr. Bush ended his address by quoting a letter he had received from a fourth-grade girl whose father served in the military. “As much as I don’t want my dad to fight,” she wrote, “I’m willing to give him to you.”

Mr. Bush marveled at what he called this “precious gift,” but today the anecdote doesn’t sound so much heartening as heartbreaking. The girl was writing at a time when some of the people now serving in Afghanistan hadn’t even been born — a fact that Mr. Biden arrived at toward the end of his 15 minutes, when he pointed out that the war had become a “multigenerational undertaking.”

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