Displayed on a shelf in my home office is a wool cap from Afghanistan, a pakul or kapul, depending on which regional language you choose. It’s flat on top, and the fabric is thick and coarse. It can be worn with the sides rolled up for warm weather or rolled down several inches for cold weather, of which Afghanistan has plenty. It was never intended to fit me, and it doesn’t. I keep it to honor a friend of mine and a friend of his.
It was a gift to me from a retired US Army Special Forces officer who deployed with a Utah National Guard unit to Afghanistan in the first half-decade of our 20-year presence there. It was a gift to him from the tribal leader – more governor than warlord – of a certain region in Afghanistan.
My friend spent most of his deployment leading a team of Afghan construction workers, building barracks, other buildings, and, if memory serves, a school. He was honest, friendly, and respectful with the workers, and they soon learned that he was a devout man. Word of him quickly reached the local leader, who invited this soldier to a meeting. Thus began a deep friendship.
An educated, civilized, cultured man, this Afghan leader was grateful not just for my friend’s service in his country, but also for how he treated his people. In return he saw to this American’s safety in a place filled with danger. My friend saw in this ruler a conscientious leader who cared and worked for the welfare of his people.
They met frequently after that first meeting, often over breakfast. They were both devout in their different faiths, and they admired this in each other. They discussed their respective religions at great length, and they prayed together, a Muslim and a Christian (specifically a Latter-day Saint).
My friend also had a native interpreter of whom he was very fond, a twelve-year-old boy who was fluent in several languages, including English. He expected to join the Afghan military when he turned thirteen, the minimum age.
My friend passed away a few years ago of the long-term effects of multiple wounds in the service of his country, as far back as Vietnam. He was a combat engineer there, which meant that he specialized in blowing up things others had engineered and built. He rejoiced, at the end of his military career, to be building things instead.
If he were alive this August, he’d be beside himself with anger at the US command structure, reaching all the way to the top. (He’d felt that way before, from time to time.) He’d have been that way for a while, because he would have seen it coming. Between bouts of anger, he’d have wept for the current and future suffering of many.
When I say he’d have been fit to be tied, it’s not just an expression. Unless he were physically restrained, he’d have been on his way back to Afghanistan, to help however he could. If he couldn’t get a flight all the way into Afghanistan, he’d have found another way in. He had the skills, training, and experience to come and go unconventionally. And if he couldn’t go at all, he’d have wept in frustration too, because he could not be there to help people he knew were in mortal danger.
I have never been to Afghanistan, but I have seen the land and people through his eyes, in many hours of Sunday afternoon interviews for something I hope to write properly someday. So I need not simply imagine his anger, his sorrow, or his love and concern for the Afghan people, individually and collectively. I feel some of it myself.
The Taliban Will Taliban
Lately, when I’m not marveling with the rest of the world at what has become of my country, in its official identity, in recent months especially, or what will happen in the world as a result;
(I will say here far less than there is to say of our politics and government and the long-term geopolitical implications of our dereliction. Perhaps another time.)
When I’m not mourning over images of babies caught and dying in concertina wire at the top of the airport fence, because parents couldn’t quite throw them over the fence to a chance for life, safety, and freedom;
When I’m not aghast at reports of fathers killing their daughters with a bullet to the brain, because they know their daughters otherwise face a far more brutal, prolonged death at the hands of the Taliban – who may have pinkie-sworn to play nice for once, but still act like the Taliban of two decades ago;
When I’m not incensed by accounts of US government officials at the Kabul airport gates turning away people with US passports and allowing the Taliban to turn back American women if they are unaccompanied by a man (though Taliban checkpoints allowed a suicide bomber to pass);
When I’m not recoiling from the prospect of tens of thousands of Afghan Christians being burned alive by the Taliban (their stated intent) – one’s Christianity is marked on one’s identity papers there, which alone should long since have galvanized anyone even superficially acquainted with mid-twentieth century Europe (for example);
When I’m not contemplating the likely slaughter of our friends there, and their families, because our government can scarcely get Americans out, let alone our Afghan allies — and we gave the Taliban lists of names and left them a database (the New York Times puts the number of Afghan allies still at risk about a quarter-million);
When I’m not considering the rapid descent into darkness of Afghan women who want to learn to read, let alone get a good, modern education – an offense worthy of maiming or death, when the Taliban rule;
When I’m not reflecting on fresh accounts of musicians being executed for being musicians, and gay people being tortured, chopped to pieces, and scattered in the streets for being gay;
(Do we still have the cultural capacity to call evil evil? Or do we reserve such words for our opponents in American elections?)
A Tocqueville Thing
(I should probably finish that eight-paragraph incomplete sentence.)
Strange as it may sound, when I’m not thinking of those things, I’m relieved to see new, abundant evidence that the American spirit is not dead among Americans at large. The developing mass human tragedy in Afghanistan is a catastrophic failure by a United States government which has unmoored itself from American ideals; it is not a failure of those ideals.
Big State, Big Tech, Big Media, Big Money, Big Ed, Big Culture, etc., may assert their collective entitlement to rule our lives comprehensively, but they are not America. At least they are not America’s heart. Many Americans — including many in government — are still proudly and stubbornly American, even if prominent parts of our government aren’t.
To introduce the latest evidence of this enduring American spirit, let’s briefly look back almost two centuries.
In the mid-1830s, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the United States with a question. Why did our Revolution lead to freedom, while France’s revolutions largely did not? He observed a French tendency to turn to government when things needed to be done and problems solved, in contrast to the American tendency to address such matters in the private, non-governmental sphere.
“Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types — religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to . . . found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape that way. . . . If they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government … in the United States you are sure to find an association.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Ed. J. P. Mayer. Tr. George Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969, p. 513, emphasis added.)
He foretold a future loss of American liberty in similar terms:
“The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle. … The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would be in as much danger as its commerce and industry if ever a government wholly usurped the place of private associations” (515).
Americans to Admire
Here’s the connection I see to Afghanistan.
Faced with the United States government’s conspicuous, chaotic, catastrophic failure in Afghanistan, numerous private American organizations and individuals are responding. They’re using every available means to rescue not only our friends and allies in Afghanistan, but also educated women who are in peril and Afghan Christians who are marked for death. Some of what these private rescuers do is at great risk to themselves.
A large group of retired military volunteers has conducted dangerous operations to bring some of our imperiled friends to safety.
Glenn Beck’s Nazarene Fund estimated it would cost $20 million to rescue a certain number of Afghan Christians who face execution if caught. So that’s what he asked of his audience — who gave over $30 million in less than a week. As of a few days ago, they’ve rescued at least several thousand.
A full list of private rescue missions would be much longer; you can find more if you look.
Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan (under the Obama administration) Ryan Crocker observed, “Everybody who has any connection anywhere, there’s a whole lot of folks who are nongovernmental who are busting their butts to get people out, because it doesn’t look like the government is going to be able to do it.” (On Bill Bennett’s podcast, starting about 11 minutes in. The entire episode is highly recommended for its information and perspective.)
He called Afghans “a tough, smart, resilient people.” My late soldier friend might have emphasized another attribute. He told me he was unprepared, when he arrived in country, for how kind the Afghan people were.
Granted, this landlocked variation on Dunkirk isn’t precisely what Tocqueville describes. It’s not people seeing a need and crafting a response themselves, rather than turning to government to do it for them. It’s a matter of a people’s government failing, and the people themselves jumping in with what help and money they have to give, in many cases at their own physical peril, to organize, pick up the pieces, and clean up, as far as possible, the mess their government left.
Some details differ, but I see here the same spirit and tendency of a free people which Tocqueville saw. Clearly Americans care about the people of Afghanistan.
Yankee Doodle, keep it up.
US Government vs. Americans
Alas, I should mention one shameful facet of this silver lining’s dark cloud. There are accumulating reports of the White House and US State Department refusing to do the simplest, smallest bureaucratic things to facilitate this mass, private rescue effort, and in some cases actively undermining it. No doubt the effort embarrasses and angers them, given their official line that however little we’ve done, and however badly we’ve done it, we’ve done all it was humanly possible to do, heroically and with unequaled success. But when you will not lift a bureaucratic finger to help the people who are fighting against obvious, present, aggressive, large-scale evil, and when you even pick up the phone to obstruct those efforts …
Thank heaven some Americans are actively unwilling to sell a historically beleaguered people to the darkest bidder for incremental political convenience.
God have mercy on the good people of Afghanistan and their many rescuers — and especially the men, women, and children we cannot rescue, who are most of a nation.
I haven’t posted much here in recent months. I wish life at present — including other writing — allowed time for writing here. Or maybe it does, and I need a greater capacity to finish and post, not just write and revise.
In any case, this is not the essay with which I hoped to return. But I’ve been thinking a lot about my soldier friend. He and his service, like the Afghan people he loved and served, deserve something more than my silence. This is one of the things I can give.
This bears repeating to all of you: thanks for reading!
And to those of you who keep asking when I’ll post my thoughts about <insert topic here>, thanks also for wanting to read.
Thanks for reading!
Comments are always welcome, within the bounds of common civility and relevance.
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