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Extempore Effusion on a Selfish Nation

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.

A Stupid American in Afghanistan, Part 2

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.

Missing The Story

Honor guard of the Afghan National Army during...

Honor guard of the Afghan National Army during the 2011 commemoration of Afghan Independence Day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Bush’s — And Obama’s — War

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

Throwing Away $100 Billion A Year

Stephen M. Walt posted a frightening blog today on Afghanistan. Specifically, he points out, as few others have, that neither of our presidential candidates this year talks much, if at all, about the nightmare taking place 9 1/2 hours ahead of us.