The Democrats still are trying to make something of Gov. Mitt Romney’s not mentioning Afghanistan in his RNC acceptance speech last month in Tampa. Never mind that Romney’s already doing as much as he can to alienate at least 47 percent of us voters, his opposition just won’t let him forget that he didn’t address our longest war by name during the most important speech of his life.
The petulance of the Democrats on this matter reminds me of a feud between schoolgirls. The finger-pointing self-indulgence is nauseating, the self-satisfied gloating comical, the phallic-wrestling pathetic. I half expect cheerleaders like Paul Begala to unzip their pants and pull out their Johnsons and measuring tapes.
In his acceptance speech a week later in Charlotte, President Obama does mention Afghanistan by name, but only twice, and each time in the fallacious context of victory:
“We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014, our longest war will be over.”
These references really are no better than no reference at all.
First, the president’s second mentioning of Afghanistan is factually untrue: On at least several occasions before the conventions Romney said what he’ll do with Afghanistan – cut and run, like the president.
Second, the president’s first reference to Afghanistan buries the real truth. Yes, we may withdraw our troops in 2014, but the war won’t be over, no more than it was when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, rushing over the Amu Darya in tanks and military vehicles, and in defeat. Twenty-five years later, we’ll be rushing out in C-130s, also in defeat, not victory.
And for anyone who loves Afghanistan and its people, the probable result is horrifying. A proxy war, of course, will continue and likely will be much worse than it was in the 1990s. Pakistan and Iran are going to bleed the country even more than they have already. Our proxies will be as inept and corrupt as Hamid Karzai, President Bush’s puppet, who no doubt will flee his country with our troops, unless he wants to be dragged through the streets of Kabul and hanged, like the false leaders before him. The Taliban, or something worse, will take over again and commence a reign of terror that will make Idi Amin Dada seem humane. The streets are going to run with blood. Children on their way to school, if they still have one, eventually will get used to stepping over headless bodies and seeing others hanging from arches and posts and trees.
As Bob Baer said to Anderson Cooper last night, it’s going to be ugly and terrifying. Who will weep for Afghanistan then? Will we think we’ve won then?
Baer also said, on Cooper’s 360, that he wasn’t pointing fingers at any administration, Bush’s or Obama’s. He’s more magnanimous than I am.
The anger and revenge that lead us into Afghanistan 11 years ago has, as anger and revenge often do, backfired on us. Emotion, not reason, guided our folly – and has ever since. If President Obama’s surge worked at all years later, for instance, it only worked initially, the way an extra sandbag does on a levee that’s going to burst no matter what man and the deities do.
The real problem with Afghanistan, sadly, is that we don’t have a good option. Contrary to our hubris, we can’t fix it. We’ve created our Frankenstein. Now it’s out there.
We could stay there forever, spending close to $100 billion or more a year, because we’d have to. Bush and Obama have consistently disguised that reality.
Or we can leave and usher in the chaos that will ensue. But why wait until 2014? So we can train more Afghan police and soldiers to fill the impending security vacuum? That justification has collapsed in the face of so-called insider attacks, which have crippled security training across the country. So if we’re going to leave, we should leave today. What Marine, soldier, airman or sailor wants to be the last American troop to be killed in Afghanistan, waiting for the exit?
Both of these options make me shudder, but they’re essentially the only ones we have. Negotiations are possible, but not probable, not with the likes of Mullah Omar. That would be like a liberal trying to negotiate the truth with Sean “Hysterical” Hannity.
Part of me wants to protect Afghanistan forever: to prevent groups like the Taliban from throwing acid at women just because their burqas don’t conceal their ankles, from stoning women who decline arranged marriages, from toppling stone walls on homosexuals because they’re homosexual, from torturing and killing journalists. These and similar horrors are happening today, but they will get worse after we leave. Anyone who says otherwise is deluded.
Still, America can’t, and probably shouldn’t, fight an endless war against fundamental human rights abuses – no, atrocities – in Afghanistan. That war truly would never end. Besides, we went there to uproot al Qaeda, which we accomplished before the end of 2001.
So Romney gets a pass from me over not mentioning Afghanistan in his acceptance speech.
Bush and Obama have filled us with enough nonsense.
I walked into an Introduction to Journalism class one morning and told my students an outright lie:
“Did you read a newspaper this morning?” I asked, as they had been instructed to do each day in preparation for unannounced news quizzes. “What’s the major news today? It affects you all.”
Silence. Darting looks. Involuntary swallowing. A few good guesses, had I not been lying.
“The draft has been reinstituted,” I said. “Didn’t you read that?”
You should have seen the response, especially among the young men. Before then, I was starting to wonder whether a few of them were alive.
“They can’t do that,” one of them said.
“I think they can,” I replied.
It went on like this for about a minute before I told them I was lying. A few of them laughed, some settled back into their chairs, a few looked back at their cell phones, and a few others, I could tell, wanted to strangle me.
But I told them the lie was part of learning to recognize and understand the emotional response to news, a lie itself, although I think it worked, if only briefly. I told them the lie was part of my ongoing edict: Just because some yahoo out there says something doesn’t make it true and doesn’t mean you have to report it. If it’s a purported fact and you can’t verify it, it’s junk.
“You guys took my word for it,” I said. “I was standing up here lying, and you believed me. Your heart rates jumped.”
More than nine years after 9/11, I still had an occasional student who believed President Bush was “behind it all.” By occasional I mean one or two a semester out of more than 50 students. They told me essentially the same thing: Mother had seen a documentary, she believed it, and so they did, too.
“I’ve seen that documentary,” I’d tell them, “and it’s laughable. Do you realize the scope of the conspiracy you’re talking about? Jesus would have to be involved.”
But I didn’t lie to my students that day specifically to teach them anything. I wanted to see, for myself, how young men and women would react to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if they thought there was a possibility that they, or someone they loved, might wind up in them. My suspicion was right: It would mean something then.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t meant much to most of us. Only a miniscule percentage of Americans have had any blood in them. Most of us have sacrificed nothing, and we haven’t been asked to. The most fortunate among us have gotten hefty tax cuts, in fact, and the stock market just keeps making more of us richer. Our stores are still fully stocked; we’re still buying gas-guzzlers – gas-guzzlers that always seem to come with an outer magnet telling us to “Support Our Troops.” We still want – and feel entitled to – cheap gas. Casualty reports from the Department of Defense should be required daily reading, but we’re fed “Housewives” and “American Idol” instead.
Our political conventions, now over, do most certainly reflect us and our self-indulgence, our overwhelming fascination with ourselves, our this and that – everything that produces our delusions and keeps us sane.
Auden was so right about us:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along …
Musee de Beaux Arts
What we were doing, for instance, when Pfc. Shane W. Cantu died of shrapnel wounds Aug. 28 in Charkh, Afghanistan? Were we sleeping, working, shopping, eating, driving, walking, talking, lying, loving, hating? Were we at a baseball game? Were we petting the dog?
Aug. 28 was a Tuesday. Afghanistan’s between 8 ½ and 11 ½ hours ahead of us, depending on where we live in the United States. So we may still have been in Monday when the first-class private took his last breath. But what were we doing at that moment?
Cantu, of Corunna, Michigan, was 20. He graduated from high school just a little more than two years ago, but he’s being buried on Monday, the day before the 11th anniversary of 9/11. He was just a little boy then.
We’re grateful for him, of course. But not enough to look at ourselves and see that we’ve enabled this horrific insanity for almost 11 years, in the face of overwhelming evidence that neither war had to be fought, that both Iraq and Afghanistan have been wars of choice, despite all the blustering and penis-challenging from the Republicans and Democrats.
We’ve enabled it because it’s been easy, as if we’ve all been lulled into some fugue state that’s turned off reason and the heart. Some of us, like Halliburton, have also made a whole lot of money.
Meanwhile, Cantu became the 2,103th U.S. troop to die in the Afghanistan campaign. He joins 4,475 of his brothers and sisters from the Iraq war. More than 49,000 others have been wounded. Thousands of coalition troops have been killed and injured. Tens of thousands of civilians – the exact number is almost impossible to know – have been killed and maimed.
But for us the horror has been hidden behind a curtain. The powers that be couldn’t have orchestrated our navel-gazing any better.
I almost feel embarrassed to say so, but I didn’t know what I was doing in Afghanistan. As a reporter and even as an editor, I had covered natural disasters – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. I had spent two days with a serial killer. I also had covered local and state politics – disasters themselves, despite the well-intentioned. But I knew nothing about dropping into a place like Afghanistan – journalism calls it “parachuting” into a country for a story – and making sense of the experience.
I read at least six books about Afghanistan and its history before I left the states, and I read another one on the way over. I knew about the country’s encounters with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, the United States, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, powerful oil companies. I knew about the country’s religions, I knew about its ethnic groups, I knew about the Taliban, about the “freedom fighters,” about the country’s kings. But I knew nothing about Afghanistan.
Nothing that helped me while I was there, anyway. I started getting smart about the place only around the time I had to leave.
Even two weeks into my, for lack of a better word, assignment, I was on the hill outside Karezi Kalan mostly because I foolishly thought a United Nations employee could get me an interview with Abdul Rashid Dostum or Atta Mohammad, powerful warlords at the time whose battles raged in the north even while, in October 2003, the U.S. government was trying to tell the world that everything was okay in Afghanistan, that “progress” was being made – a vague enough assertion to be true and meaningless simultaneously, for flushing a toilet in Afghanistan qualifies as progress. Not having to eat garbage qualifies as progress in Afghanistan, but even that measurement, sadly, was far from being met.
The truth is, almost all foreign reporters in Afghanistan at the time were stupid. A few – Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press and Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times come to mind – actually knew what they were doing, having been in or around the country for so many years. But most of us couldn’t have found our heads, though they so clearly were rammed up our asses.
I’m not talking so much about reporters embedded with our troops, for their mission was clear: Write press releases for the Pentagon and call it journalism. That’s what embedded reporters do, intentionally or not. That’s why military officials, apparently clueless over the meaning of their own words, have referred to embeds as “our” reporters. I’m also not talking so much about the traveling journalists, those attached to the White House or the State Department or the Pentagon, who do, perhaps, some of the most damage. With airs of authority, they make pronouncements that they’ve just been fed by whatever chief they happen to be following around, all without really stepping foot in Afghanistan, the real Afghanistan. Sure, they may be reporting from a military base in Afghanistan, they may even be reporting from Hamid Karzai’s Presidential Palace. But places like these just happen to be in Afghanistan; they are not Afghanistan at all. Swanking out at Karzai’s place probably does make things seem right; but the devil can make us love fire, even while it encircles us, as the slums of Kabul surround the Palace, breathing sorrow, disease and death.
I’m talking mostly about the reporters who dropped into the country for a few days and came out with a story, any story. I call them the isn’t-it-great-that-the-Afghans-are-flying-kites-again stories. There were multiple variations, all with the same unspoken trajectory: Ain’t America done good? Look, they’re flying kites again. (The Taliban had forbidden kite-flying, citing a prohibition against gambling, a concomitant of Afghan kite competitions.) I couldn’t write such stories, though they were plentiful. Certainly, I couldn’t after watching a little boy, perhaps three, crawling around one of Kabul’s garbage heaps, trying to tie a string to the loops of a white plastic bag, which he wanted so much to be his kite. He tried to run with it. But he stumbled and fell, stumbled and fell, and the bag barely got off the ground. No kite stories.
Ben and I talked about The Story. We knew we really had only one story, and it had to be The Story. Trouble is, neither of us knew what it was.
“I don’t know,” he’d say.
“I don’t either,” I’d reply. “We could write about the horrors, but where would we stop? Could we stop?”
In the 33 days Ben and I spent in Afghanistan, for instance, about 30,000 Afghan children under the age of five died. That’s almost 1,000 a day, mostly from preventable causes, like dysentery, measles, mumps and polio – or through child-birth complications. The trend continued in 2004, according to UNICEF, when 359,000 of these children died – again, mostly because they lacked medical care. By comparison that year, about 1,000 children under the age of five died in Australia, a coalition partner whose population is roughly the same as Afghanistan’s. Or take this comparison: It’s as if 359,000 children under the age of five died each year in Texas, about the size of Afghanistan, where one-third of the land is uninhabitable, so the deaths are much more concentrated than they seem.
We attacked this country.
It’s called the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan. But it’s also the empire of graveyards, and they’re always open.
So Ben and I came to northern Afghanistan in pursuit of whatever The Story was. We came up in a small twin-engine aircraft piloted by an American who had moved his whole family over to Kabul just so he could, he said, make a lot of money flying over Afghan mountains and deserts – a sizeable amount of international aid promised to the country, in fact, was winding up in pockets like his. A U.N. official directing the organization’s demining efforts from Kabul, Patrick Fruchet, promised an awesome view of the Hindu Kush, which we got, and a room at a U.N. compound in Mazar, which we didn’t get. The rules, we were told after we arrived in Mazar, didn’t allow journalists to stay in U.N. facilities.
Rules often change overnight in Afghanistan. Why not the U.N.?
Unless you’re a Kuchi nomad, camping out in Afghanistan isn’t an option, at least not a good one. (Recall the two German journalists who were shot and killed in 2006 while camping out somewhere around Bamiyan, made famous in 2001 after the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues.) So we spent at least a few hours just trying to find a place to stay for the weekend, shaking our heads at several places that, even the most naive could tell, weren’t conducive to survival.
We wound up at the Mazar Hotel, where we were lead to our room during a blackout, following a stranger with a flashlight. The hotel, while it couldn’t promise continuous electricity or anything but cold water and warm Cokes, at least was protected by a stone wall and had nominal guards with AK-47s at the gates.
That Friday, of course, for the most part was shot, except for dinner with Patrick and – the real reason we were here, I was starting to suspect – Patrick’s fiancée.
“What the fuck, Patrick,” I said to him in the hotel garden that day. “You didn’t know U.N. rules yesterday? We were promised a room at the U.N. compound, the protected U.N. compound. Now we’re in this fucking place.”
“It’ll be all right,” he replied, clearly perturbed by my harangue. “It has guards.”
“Yeah, guards who look like their fourteen years old.”
Were I Afghan and fourteen, I wouldn’t protect the dumb ass of an American stranger. I’d say, “Here Mr. Taliban, take my rifle. He’s over there, in that room.”
But what the hell. Not as if I could have done anything about it. What did that idiot Rumsfeld say, something like you go to war with the army that you have, not the one you want (as if that excuses sending troops to Iraq without proper armament)? Well, Ben and I had come to Mazar expecting professional protection; we got pubescent boys instead. And we probably had, between us, $5,000 of afghanis strapped to our ankles and legs – it wasn’t safe to leave the cash in Kabul. Not that it was safe, anywhere.
I hung around the garden for a while after Patrick left, knowing he’d be back in a few hours to take us to dinner.
It was early November, so what may have been a sumptuous garden, bright with colors and fragrance, looked like the garden that it was, declining toward winter. Hardly a green thing in sight. The wind pushed dead vegetation along the walkways as the sky turned violet with the evening.
On barren hills outside of Karezi Kalan, a small village in northern Afghanistan near Mazar-e-Sharif, deminers pointed to human bones half-buried in unmarked graves. One in particular, seemingly relishing his role as guide, scrambled over a dusty hill to each gaping hole, gesturing downward, dirty palms open, eyes gleaming in a late-morning sun. He moved, and his shadow gave way to sunlight, illuminating the bones in the pits below. He grinned like a waiter offering up desserts.
These graves didn’t warrant the traditional shines, stones and multicolored pennants commonly granted the dead in burial sites strewn across the country, lining roads and demarcating one nearly indistinguishable earthen village from another. They didn’t mark the resting places of children or martyrs killed in violence. Nor did they denote the holy ground of a wise man. They represented the final spots – having no resemblance to resting places – for people no one seemed to know, except by rumor.
Locals believed the holes contained the remains of 14 Taliban soldiers, said to have been killed in late 2001 after the Northern Alliance pushed them back to the position and, with the help of U.S. Special Forces, radioed in airstrikes that pulverized the valley – nothing but ruined, contaminated farmland and sandy plain two years afterward. The bombing, no doubt, occurred. The place was littered with U.S. cluster-bomb fragments, the distinctive yellow parachutes that bring each canister to earth tossed into piles like deflated balloons. But no one could say for certain who had walked around on those bones, and no one could say how anyone had settled on the number 14.
Villagers, one man told me, had been digging up the hill and reburying the remains, and so presumably they were keeping count. The government had determined that they were Taliban, he said, although on what evidence he couldn’t say, except to point at the tattered scarves still wrapped around the fleshless necks. The keffiyehs, a few of which by then had congealed into the bones, didn’t do much to prove the case. Keffiyehs are as plentiful in Afghanistan as ball caps in the United States, as Razorback paraphernalia in Arkansas.
The truth is no one available to talk knew who these people had been.
“They could simply have been people who died here, and someone came along and buried them,” Mohammad Zalmai, an explosive ordnance disposal supervisor with a British demining NGO called HALO Trust, conceded after about 30 minutes of laborious questions and answers – all under a blinding, battering sun.
The remains, in fact, were not the concern in this desolate and yet beautiful place, where the wind blew cuttingly around a snow-topped mountain expanse of plains and hills, creating gusts of whirling sand that danced along the valley floor like inverted tornadoes. The deminers, dressed in light-blue protective gear and wearing helmets with blast shields, were spread out across the area in teams of three looking not for bodies, but for bombs, or the remnants of bombs, that had not exploded on impact. The remains just happened to be in the way.
But the bones lured us, perhaps in part because they broke the monotony of trying to figure out a world that had almost no resemblance to our own. We may as well have been on Mars.
I watched Benjamin Krain, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer who accompanied me to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003, lean into the holes for close-ups, snapping away as if he were covering a baseball game in Little Rock. You’ve got to love that kind of devotion to trade. But then I got superstitious, thinking about how those bones used to hold up flesh and blood; and how, if the stories were true, the people who once borrowed them spent their last moments literally digging their own graves – to avoid the bombs – in what must have been a full-throttled scramble from the darkness.
“We’re desecrating the dead,” I thought to myself. “Bad karma.”
The skulls, the leg and arm bones, the tattered scarves around fleshless necks – they got to me. I didn’t grieve for the dead so much as I wondered who was grieving, if anyone, and then whether any of us deserved grieving (a dark thought, I admit). The thought took hold of me as we moved around, gingerly, for the deminers hadn’t yet cleared the whole hill: Areas marked with white rocks meant they had; those with red rocks meant they hadn’t. Sometimes the distance between a white and a red rock was barely a foot.
Looking out across the expanse, the Hindu Kush framing my view, my heart beat loud into my neck, silenced only by periodic bursts of wind.
For Hussman, Smith, Bailey and Krain
Periodic Memory Dumps
To be continue ….
To pick up from yesterday’s post, Fox News’ response to Afghan civilian casualties wasn’t an anomaly.
CNN’s chairman in 2001, Walter Isaacson, told his reporters in a memo “to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it ‘seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan,'” Howard Kurtz reported in the Washington Post.
“We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people,” Kurtz wrote, quoting the memo, written before an accurate account of 9/11 deaths. The final number came in just under 3,000. But, really, one was enough.
The dead Afghans were “innocent,” too, but that didn’t matter. It also didn’t matter that no reporter at that time had confirmed that the Taliban were “using civilian shields.” The American press just took that on faith from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld. (To this day, I don’t think the human-shield line has been independently proven.)
Isaacson told Kurtz, “I want to make sure we’re not used as a propaganda platform,” even while he trumpeted U.S. government propaganda, as Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting has noted.
Newspapers got in line, too. They almost never ran a photo of a dead Afghan — man, woman or child — from U.S. bombing.
Jim Romenesko gave us this memo from the News Herald in Panama City, Fla.:
DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like…. DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children.
PLAY DOWN CIVILIAN CASUALTIES, DO IT. Unless we kill 20. Check that: hundreds. I feel so sorry for the people at the News Herald, especially if they’re still working for the spineless propaganda whore who wrote that memo.
Sadly, propaganda still is alive and well in the American press. After Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly Carlos Leon Bledsoe, shot up a military recruiting station in Little Rock in 2009, killing one young man and wounding another, the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg, wrote in the Jewish World Review:
In the end, the explanation for this long, long war — which grows longer — doesn’t lie in anything we’ve done but in who we are: a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Has there ever been a doctrine more subversive to the despotisms of the world?
What we in the West do, right or wrong or neither, is but an excuse for the war being waged against our civilization by a rapacious enemy.
The message: We can do whatever we want. It’s not our fault some people retaliate. We kill for lofty reasons; they do it because they hate our way of life. They hate our freedom.
That’s not to say Abdulhakim shouldn’t have gotten what he so rightly deserved: a life sentence. That’s not to say that Osama bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed. Amen that he was. That’s not to say the Taliban don’t deserve a special place in hell. They do. (Not in May 2001, though, when our own State Department gave them $40 million.)
It’s to say that we deny, or hide, our sins at our own peril. And at the peril of innocents.
Americans, we freedom-loving people, are drunk on our collective avoidance of our own atrocities.
I leave you today with a reminder:
At around 1:00 am, I heard the noises of warplanes and helicopters and
then numerous explosions within the village. After the planes and
helicopters left the area, I came out of the house and saw that my
cousin’s house was completely destroyed. I ran screaming and shouting
towards the house and searched for survivors. In the second room
I saw blood on the bricks and found Zarghona in the rubble, the four year
old daughter of my cousin. She was dead. All the villagers came to help
search for survivors. In the rubble of the third room we found the nine
year old son of my cousin. The explosion severed his head from his
body. All people were shouting and screaming. We then found the dead
body of his mother next to him, her face was completely destroyed. I
could not continue.
The UN report comes from a relative of 18 civilians killed in a June 6, 2012, airstrike in Logar Province, Afghanistan.
Man, did I bury this?
The first book of The Iliad teaches us, among other things, that war erupts sometimes simply because people can’t stop being children. And as children, they just don’t consider the consequences. Nor do they want to. What Achilles says of Agamemnon – “He lacks the sense to see a day behind, a day ahead” – surely applies to him as well.
Homer’s Achilles, “doomed to the shortest life of any man on earth,” is the quintessential child. He may fight better than anyone. But when his feelings are bruised – when he has to give up Briseis, his captive slave-woman, to Agamemnon – he goes to momma.
And Thetis, wondering why she ever bore this child of doom (Roe v. Wade hadn’t been adjudicated back then), goes to Zeus to plead his case; and then Hera, Zeus’ sister and wife, gets jealous and pleads Agamemnon’s case; and all Zeus wants is to be left alone. At one point he threatens to “throttle” Hera if she doesn’t suspend her “eternal suspicions.”
Then the first book ends in what has to be the most brilliant and incomparable example of foreshadowing:
And Olympian Zeus the lord of lightning went to his own bed
where he had always lain when welcome sleep came on him.
There he climbed and there he slept and by his side
lay Hera the Queen, the goddess of the golden throne.
(Book I, 732-35, Robert Fagles translation)
In other words, war’s afoot. So is all that comes with it. All’s been settled by a night of spooning gods.
Homer, an enigma to literary scholars and historians, knew people. The scholars think they know that sometime between 725-625 B.C., his hexameters were composed, derived from an oral tradition that went back many years. (Hey, it’s hard to be a scholar of the most important work of art on Earth.) But while Homer the person, historically, may be hard to legitimize, his words aren’t. And they are timeless.
John Krakauer borrowed Homer’s words for his great book Where Men Win Glory (Book I, 584), an account of former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman and the Bush administration’s lies about his death from friendly fire in Afghanistan (I thought Christians weren’t supposed to lie), all to push its odious propaganda war, ala Joseph Goebbels. If you’ve read the book and aren’t disgusted – and as angry as a cornered possum – lying to Tillman’s mother about how her son died is unforgiveable – you’re lost.
But propaganda works, even while it rots the soul, the heart, the mind.
Some people have asked me why I don’t go back to newspapers, and I always resist telling them. I envision the same response I got from my CO in the Navy when I refused to pray with him and my shipmates back in the 70s: “You’re a godless communist, aren’t you, Seaman Wigginton. Clean the shitters with your toothbrush, then brush your teeth.”
Truth is, I don’t and won’t go back to the American press, print or otherwise, because newsrooms are the playgrounds of the status quo, wrapped up in propaganda. The powers that be may say they want and encourage input from their subordinates, may say they want great journalism, but they really don’t. As a result, most stories are thinly disguised pieces of PR — a dance of embedded stenography.
So I’d rather cut grass and paint houses for a living – though my brother tells me I’m so-so slow – than step into another American newsroom, places that literally make me ill.
I could blame this on Afghanistan, because I just couldn’t come back and believe in what I was doing anymore. As much as I tried, I couldn’t. It’s hard to transition from seat-of-the pants life or death to some school-board meeting. The movie The Hurt Locker is absurd in many ways, but it does get some things right: When Jeremy Renner finds himself in that grocery-store isle, looking at all those cereal boxes and not knowing what to do, that’s real. I’ve been there. I know exactly what’s going on in that troubled head.
But Afghanistan isn’t to blame. I started questioning my involvement with the American press shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
Dan Rather telling Dave Lettermen that he was, essentially, a soldier for President Bush made me ashamed: Real journalists have no country.
But it got worse, culminating on Fox News on the night of Nov. 5, 2001. That was the beginning of the end for me.
On that night, Brit Hume and his Fox News reprobates argued, like Homeric children, that American journalists shouldn’t be driven by the deaths of Afghan civilians.
It was a bad night for journalism.
It was a bad night for the heart.
It was a bad night for truth.
I ask you, reader, to be patient as I provide the transcript of the exchanged between Hume, Mara Liasson, Michael Barone and Mort Kondracke, responding to news reports about Afghan civilian deaths from U.S. bombs. Wordsworth told us about moments in our lives that stick, because they reveal the deepest meaning. He called them “spots of time.” Here’s one of mine:
HUME: If you listened to the Pentagon briefings in the past week, watched ABC News in the past few weeks, or CNN to some extent as well, you’ll know that civilian casualties has emerged, at least in those venues, as a major story line of this war. And the question I have is, civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they’ve been — Mara?
LIASSON: No. Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable. Now, I think there’s this notion that we have precision weapons and we can actually choose who we want to kill. I don’t think that’s correct. I do think what’s been missing, in a television war where the opposition, your enemy can take reporters to show them purported civilian casualty areas, has been a message from the U.S. government that says we are trying to minimize them, but the Taliban isn’t, and is putting their tanks in mosques, and themselves among women and children.
HUME: Well, we first heard that from the Pentagon. It was Rumsfeld who came out and said that.
LIASSON: Yes, but I don’t think that’s been repeated over and over again in a way that would counter the Taliban message.
KONDRACKE: Well, the Pentagon puts out these pictures which show us hitting a tank or hitting a truck. And one gets the impression that every shot is a perfect shot, which it clearly cannot be. You know, some percentage of shots are going to miss. And it should be clear, but it’s got to be emphasized repeatedly, that the United States is not trying to kill civilians. I mean, if we were, we would carpet bomb Kandahar, which we are not going to do. But it’s hard to know whether ABC and CNN broadcast this because they are offended that we are causing the civilian casualties, or because they’re trying to show us what Al-Jazeera is likely to be showing in Pakistan and elsewhere. If that’s the case, then American people should know, at least, that there are civilian casualties that are being exploited.
BARONE: Well, Mort, I think people do understand that these things don’t hit target 100 percent of the time. A population that’s got cell phones and laptop computers knows that machines don’t always work, even though they’re pretty miraculous when they do. I think the real problem here is that this is poor news judgment on the part of some of these news organizations. Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news. The fact is that they accompany wars. What’s newsworthy here is that the United States taxpayer and the United States military has spent billions of dollars to develop these precision weapons, which most of the time hit a very precisely defined military target. They get much more bang for the buck and much more bang for each (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And we very seldom do it. So I think a lot of these stories are holding us to a standard. And the tone and the structure of the story almost suggests that the United States is committing some kind of a war crime when there is a civilian damage or a collateral damage on the side. I think that’s a very wrong judgment of what the rules of war are about. And I think this is very poor news judgment, because civilian casualties are really not news.
It’s still hard to read this without crying. The words reflect the darkest season of the human soul.
Utterly illogical in so many ways, however, these words typify the American character post 9/11.
Denial in Afghanistan
NATO’s response to Monday’s rocket attack on Bagram Airbase, injuring two and damaging the C-17 transport aircraft used by U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, underscores why we are losing and will lose the war in Afghanistan.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in his bunk sleeping when the rockets hit the base late Monday, according to Reuters.
“He was nowhere near the aircraft. We think it was a lucky shot,” NATO senior spokesman Colonel Thomas Collins said in the Reuters report by Rob Taylor.
A lucky shot?
This is a typical response from our military, which now includes NATO, whenever the so-called insurgents, or the Taliban, embarrass us by showing they know what they’re doing in battle. They’re either lucky or they’re cowards because they just won’t come out and fight us, as if they should be good little redcoats constrained by 18th century military tactics. As if we’re still crossing the Delaware in boats, freezing our limbs off.
The response, of course, is laughable. And counterproductive. And counterintuitive. And behind it lies unspoken anxiety, the kind that shuns reality. It’s called denial, one powerful demon.
The Reuters story, in fact, belies the thoughtless response by pointing out that the base is occasionally rocketed and mortared, as is the airbase in Kandahar. In other words, the Taliban gets lucky time and time again.
The landscape outside Bagram elicits Shakespearean foreboding, the Hindu Kush to the north with reminders of a deadly past, the Somali Plains to the south with echoes of horror, the road to Bagram still littered with the death of empire. The people living there, and into the Panjshir Valley, are some of the poorest on the planet, but they know how to survive, and they have for thousands of years. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets – they all met demise in the area. Eisenhower – how we need him now – landed there in the 1950s after the U.S. basically built the airbase, only to have it commandeered by the Soviets from 1979-89 – all for naught.
The airbase essentially embodies history that keeps repeating itself, as if the universe has marked it as a spot for episodic human folly and human evil. It’s hard to imagine a worse place – except, perhaps, an Oprah Winfrey audience.
No, Monday’s attack had nothing to do with luck. The reporter should have pushed the Public Information Obstructer on this matter, rather than slop his mindless crap to the public. The attack actually follows a long string of them, including one in 2007 when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting the base. That attack, by a suicide bomber out for Cheney, killed around 20 and injured 20 others.
To his credit, the reporter mentions the 2007 attack, but only in passing, and he doesn’t mention the casualties. He also apparently doesn’t, as he should have, push the PIO on his notion of “luck” and report the man’s response.
The PIO basically gets a free lie, and then the reporter quickly turns his focus to the general and why he came to Bagram, to discuss “green-on-blue” attacks that, so far this year, have killed 40 coalition troops, most of them Americans.
Then the story gets funny. Intended or not, Dempsey comes off like a certifiable idiot, praising his Afghan counterpart for raising the “green-on-blue” matter before he did.
“In the past, it’s been us pushing on them to make sure they do more,” the story quotes him saying. “This time, without prompting, when I met General [Sher Mohammad] Karimi, he started with a conversation about insider attacks – and, importantly, insider attacks not just against us, but insider attacks against the Afghans, too.”
That’s supposed to be a good sign? Afghan soldiers and police are killing coalition troops regularly, and Dempsey’s pleased that Karimi brings up the subject without prodding. What did he expect from Karimi, a refusal to talk about “green-on-blue” attacks, now dubbed “insider attacks” by our Orwellian Pentagon, even though he knew that’s why Dempsey came to Bagram?
Dempsey clearly doesn’t understand Afghans or their hospitality tradition, which amounts to a religious and ethical law, derived from the centuries-old concept of Pashtunwali:
“Honor the guest, O son,” one Afghan proverb goes. “Even though he be an infidel, open the door.”
Another, my favorite, goes something like this: “You can rent an Afghan, but you can’t buy him.”
Pashtunwali also demands bravery, or tureh, which calls on all Afghans to resist, to the death, all invaders.
Tellingly, Dempsey left Afghanistan on a different aircraft.
Of the roughly 10.5 million people considered pure refugees worldwide in 2009, nearly half of them were Afghans and Iraqis, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Afghanistan accounted for 2.9 million, Iraq 1.8 million. Percentage wise, that’s comparable to about 30 million Americans having to leave their homes (roughly three North Carolinas) because of some form of persecution, which doesn’t include natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
We’ve done such a swell job in both countries, in other words, that about 10 percent of their populations just can’t hang around anymore.
In Afghanistan, of course, those numbers don’t include at least another 500,000 men, women and children who are considered Internally Displaced Persons, or people who are so damned poor that they can’t afford to leave. So they get packed into squalid, disease-ridden camps, where life truly is a miserable contest to live day to day, moment to moment.
These numbers are roughly the same as they were when we started dropping bombs Oct. 7, 2001. In other words, all we’ve done is get about 7,000 of our troops killed, kill thousands of innocents, and spend about $1 trillion we don’t have.
Meanwhile, Augusta National has invited two women, including war-monger-criminal Condoleezza Rice, to become members of Bobby Jones‘ place. The Voice of America reassures us that we’ve made progress in Afghanistan, citing military officials who obviously are smoking some good stuff; NATO says the country won’t slide into civil war once troops bug out in 2014, as if the country isn’t involved in civil war now; and America’s top general landed at Bagram Air Field today to discuss the upsurge in “green-on-blue” attacks, as if he couldn’t have phoned in his pointless advice.
Finally, today Mitt Romney said something about Afghanistan. Actually, he didn’t, but the corporate, obsequious press, like dogs sniffing butts, managed to get a few headlines out of Romney not saying anything.
The Wall Street Journal: “The decade-long and deeply unpopular Afghanistan War re-entered the political limelight Monday when Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, vowed to provide troops with whatever necessary to complete their mission there.”
From whom have we heard that before? Bush. Obama.
Read the story closely and it becomes clear Romney’s got a helluva credibility problem. On the one hand, he complains that Obama, who has no credibility on this matter either, hasn’t been upfront about America’s mission and so we don’t know what we’re doing there. On the other hand, he says he’ll give the troops whatever they need to accomplish the aforesaid unknown mission.
Of course then he trots out the great lie: We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here. This is Bush’s lie and Obama’s lie. Same old lie. Does anyone seriously believe that?
The Los Angeles Times and USA Today basically wrote the same story/non-story. It’s enough to make you want to jump off a bridge, reading this drivel that passes as journalism, this tedious horse-race stenography, this reporter-embedded nonsense.
Once again, The New York Times buries the real news out of Afghanistan. In a story this morning that meanders pointlessly until the last several paragraphs, when the real news emerges, we learn that U.S. and NATO officials don’t have a clue as to why there has been an increase in so-called “green-on-blue” attacks. That ignorance — call it a known unknown, in RumsfeldSpeak — says a whole lot about our presence in the “graveyard of empires.”
But what does the Times do with it? That information is relegated to the end. And I wonder how many readers got there, because the first half of the story is so bland and poorly written.
Here’s how the story opens:
After months of military leaders’ attempts to tamp down worries over the killings of American and NATOtroops by the Afghan forces serving beside them, Gen. John R. Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, called an urgent meeting of his generals last Wednesday to address the escalating death toll.
In journalism, this is what’s know as a topic lead. These leads, almost without exception, signal that the reporter doesn’t know his subject, doesn’t know the point of his own story. They are fatally dull. They get this universal response: So?
In this case, the reporters actually have a great, revealing story; but neither they nor their editors knew how to structure it. The last two paragraphs nail the real point:
But despite intensified efforts to thwart attacks, some officials say the military is realizing that it ultimately does not fully understand what is driving the attacks, said one American security official in Washington.
Everyone is a “bit desperate,” the official acknowledged. “It’s not that the problem is new — it’s been a problem, we know — it’s that idea of what is driving it that is right at the top of what people are looking at.”
Here’s the real headline: : Officials ‘desperate,’ befuddled over ‘insider attacks’
Of course that would require a whole new trajectory for the story, one that actually tells the truth. And some morons think the Times is liberal.
Davids S. Cloud of The Los Angeles Times reports this morning that, “The Obama administration plans to double the size of a rural police force in Afghanistan and arm it with heavier weapons to fight insurgents as U.S. troops withdraw, despite Pentagon and Afghan government concern about the village self-defense units becoming predatory criminal gangs or defecting to the Taliban.”
The Obama administration clearly has given up and is throwing whatever crazy idea it can at a problem the U.S. created and the president himself exacerbated.