"Despair in the Empire of Graveyards"
by Fred Reed, The Unz Review (August 19, 2021)
Or Gilbert and Sullivan Come to Afghanistan, Depending on Your Perspective
Saigon Evacuation, 1975. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Forty-six years ago in a previous comedy I was in Saigon, recently having been evacuated from Phnom Penh in an Air America—CIA—Caribou carrying, in addition to me, several ARVN junior officers and perhaps a dozen BUFEs (Big Ugly Fucking Elephants, the ceramic pachyderms much beloved of GIs). America had already embarked on its currently standard policy of forcing small countries into wars and then leaving them in the lurch. In Cambodia this led to the reign of Pol Pot, the ghastly torture operation at Toul Sleng, and a million or so dead. In the unending fight for democracy, casualties are inevitable.
At the time Saigon was tense because Ban Me Thuot had fallen and the NVA roared down Route One toward Saigon. To anyone with the brains of a doorknob, the American adventure in Vietnam was coming to an end, but the embassy was studiedly unconcerned. Embassies do not have the brains of a doorknob, but are keenly aware of public relations. Acknowledging the inescapable is not their way. As usual, Washington would rather lie than breathe, and did. As in Cambodia, so in Nam, and so later in Afghanistan.
Apparently a genius at State realized that a lot of gringo expats lived in Nam—the number six thousand comes to mind, but may be wrong—and that six thousand hostages taken when Saigon fell would be bad PR. So the embassy in Kabul—Saigon, I meant to say, Saigon—quietly announced that expats could fly out on military aircraft from Ton Son Nhut. They didn’t, or at least many didn’t. The NVA continued its rush toward Saigon.
The expats didn’t fly out because they had Vietnamese wives and families and were not going to leave them, period. These wives may not have had the trappings of pieces of paper and stamps and maybe snippets of ribbon. These things do not seem important in Asian war zones. But the expats regarded them as wives. Period. The family went, or nobody did. Period.
The embassy didn’t understand this because embassies are staffed by people from Princeton with names like Derek who wear pink shirts and don’t know where they are. The ambassador is usually a political appointee being rewarded for campaign contributions and probably doesn’t speak the language as few gringos spikka da Pushto or Vietnamese or Farsi or Khmer. For example, nobody at all in the embassy in Cambodia spoke Khmer. The rank and file of State are better suited to a high-end Rotarian barbecue than a Third World city teeming with strange people in funny clothes eating God knows what horrible things in winding frightening alleys. And so the State people could not understand why an American would marry one “of them,” as in the embassy I once heard a gringa put it. It was a good question. Why would a man marry a pretty, sleek, smart, self-reliant woman who wanted family and children? It was a great mystery.
The Taliban—NVA, I mean–NVA kept coming closer. A PR disaster loomed.
Meanwhile the PR apparatus insisted that the sky wasn’t really falling even as it did and no, no, no the US had not gotten its sit-down royally kicked by a ratpack of rice-propelled paddy maggots, as GIs described the opposition. Many in government seemed to believe this. This was an early instance, to be repeated in another part of Asia, of inventing a fairyland world and then trying to move into it.
Finally State faced reality, a novel concept. It allowed quietly that expats and their families could fly out, military. It was getting late, but better than nothing.
The comedic value of this goat rope grew, becoming more amusing by the hour. I was trying to get a young Vietnamese woman out as she had worked for the embassy and we suspected things might not go well with her under the NVA. Call her Linda. Linda and I took the bus to Tan Son Nhut. The Viet gate guards gave her a hard time, envying her for getting out while they could not, but we got in. I was going to tell the State people that we were married but that while I was in Can Tho, by then in VC hands, see, the marriage papers had slipped from my carrying case. This was obvious bullshit, but I guessed that if I made a huge issue of it they would bend rather than get in a megillah with a reporter, no matter how unimportant.
We found ourselves in a long line of expats with their families leading to the door of a Quonset hut, inside of which a State official was checking papers. Some of the expats had around them what appeared to be small villages of in-laws, brothers of wives, sisters, everything but the family dog. An official with a bull horn told us to write down all their names and the relationships on clipboards being passed around. Tran Thi Tuyet Lan, sister, for example.
Then a genius at the embassy or Foggy Bottom realized that something resembling a third of Viet Nam was about to come out, listed as in-laws. Policy changed, at least in Washington which was as usual blankly ignorant of reality on the ground. At Tan Son Nhut this meant telling men that they had to leave parts of their families behind, which they weren’t going to do. This would not look good above the fold in the Washington Post. Dozens of Americans taken captive because the State Department would not let their families out.” All was confusion because the US had spent years telling itself that the disaster couldn’t happen. What to do?
American ingenuity kicked in. At the Quonset hut the guy with the bullhorn announced, “From now on, all mothers-in-law are mothers, all brothers-in-law are brothers. Change your forms.” All along the line, magic markers went through “in-law.” This meant that some women had two mothers, but this under the circumstances seemed a minor biological quibble. The guy with the bull horn was at most three feet from the guy in the Quonset hut who was certifying papers as valid. He solemnly looked at the papers with their strike-through’s, certified them as correct, and that was that. A field expedient.
Hours and hours went by. Night came. Tempers frayed. Nobody seemed to have planned how actually to get these people out. Nobody seemed to have planned anything. Finally a 130 howled in. This was the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop cargo bird and a magnificent plane. It taxied over. The engines did not shut down. The prop wash was strong and hot. The tail ramp dropped. The waiting mob were rushed aboard without ceremony. There were no seats in the dark cavern of the fuselage. That would have required planning, which no one in Washington had thought of. The air reeked of burned aviation kerosene. We squatted on the cargo deck while an Air Force guy with a bullhorn warned, “Keep the kids’ hands out of the expansion slots, you’ll lose them.”
The real-world Air Force didn’t have people named Derek in pink shirts and if you told it all rules off, get the job done, it did. Ramp up, fast taxi, takeoff run, tight corkscrewing climb with the engines running at power I didn’t know they had. The NVA and VC were now very close due to incompetent planning (have I mentioned incompetent planning?) and might have SAM-7s so it wasn’t a good idea to fly over territory they now controlled. Cutting and running from a stupid war run by generals as clueless as they were careerist, with Saigon spinning below, seen through open doors amid tightly packed peasants going they had little idea where. Days later when we got to San Fran on a chartered airliner, hundreds of refugees were dumped into the main concourse, no immigrations, customs, or paperwork.
And now we have done it all over again in Kabul, complete with helicopters over the embassy and a panicked evacuation undertaken way too late and sudden concern for turncoat Afghans who made the mistake of working for the US. There is talk of importing 20,000 Afghan refugees to America. I find it amusing that many conservatives, who thought the war was peaches because it was about democracy and niceness and American values, now object to importing people their dimwitted enthusiasms put in line to be killed. Use and discard. Countries and people.
There was the now-traditional underestimation of the speed of the insurgent advance, the predictable deprecation of the “good” Afghans for not fighting with sufficient enthusiasm for the Empire: If they didn’t care enough to defend their country, Biden would say with earnest cluelessness, what could we do?”
So why did this happen? Why another rush to the exit as the world laughs? Which the world is doing. In a sentence, because if you do something stupid and it doesn’t work, it probably won’t work when you do it again.
The psychological explanation is slightly more complex. Vietnam is a good example. America invaded a country of another race, utterly different culture, practicing religions GIs had never heard of, speaking a language virtually no Americans spoke, a country exceedingly sick of being invaded by foreigners, most of them white. In Afghanistan the designated evil was terrorism, in in Viet Nam communism, but the choice of evils doesn’t matter. You have to tell the rubes at home something noble sounding.
Then the Americans did as they always do, training the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, to fight the communists to impose democracy, which the Viets had not asked them to do. But when you ask some Viets (Bodes, Laos, Iraqis, Afghans) to fight other Viets (Bodes, etc.) to kill their own people for the benefit of the invaders, they are not greatly charmed. With a predictability that makes sunrise seem chancy, they desert, fight lackadaisically, with officers charging the US pay for soldiers who do not exist, and probably go over to the other side en masse when the collapse comes. Which latter the Afghan army just did. Duh, as the kids say.
The speed of the Taliban advance took Americans by surprise because officers are liars and had been hiding the deplorable state of the “Afghan” army, its numbers, morale, degree of training, and phenomenal rates of desertion. Often the American officer corps thinks that if it can just have a little more time, they can win, so lying is a part of the war effort. Biden bought into this, announcing that the Afghan army vastly outnumbered the Taliban and was better armed and trained and the insurgents couldn’t possibly do what they proceeded to do.
Another reason is that the American style of war recruits its enemies. Soldiers are not the Boy Scout defenders of civilization that so many like to imagine. They kill a lot of civilians, many tens of thousands in the bombing of cities such as Baghdad and Hanoi. Ground troops come to detest the natives whom they designate gooks, zipperheads, sand niggers, camel jockeys, and the like. They commit war crimes that, when discovered, are called “isolated incidents,” when in fact they are common.
Fragmentation bombs produce such things as a little girl crying with her belly torn open and intestines falling out while her mother goes stark raving bugfuck mad watching her daughter bleed to death and she can do nothing about it. But it is for democracy and American values, and anyway the ragheads breed like flies, and besides, CNN won’t air it. Today drone strikes hit weddings and other gatherings. When you kill people in a village, the young men join the insurgents, wanting revenge. When a few thousands were killed in Nine-Eleven, Americans exploded in rage. Three thousand is a small fraction of the numbers killed in, say, the attack on Baghdad. The Iraqi soldiers killed in a hopeless attempt to defeat the Americans were sons, fathers, husbands, brothers of other Iraqis. How much love do we think it engendered in Iraqis? This seems not to occur to Washington.
Militaries at bottom are amoral. Afghans know of the torture operations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Americans seem to dismiss such things as minor. They are not. Afghans seeing Moslems lying in pools of blood at Abu Ghraib, or being paraded around naked in hoods, are going to want to kill someone. Guess who.
American wars last a long time because no one has an incentive to end them. American casualties are low, especially now with the killing mostly done from the air against peasants with no defenses. No important American ever gets killed. American wars are all class wars, with the dying being done by blue-collar suckers from Kansas or the deep South, not by Bush II, Hillary, the other Clinton, Bolton, Bannon, Obama, Blinken, Biden, Cheney, Kamala, Trump, and the rest of those not required to fight. The US public has little idea of what goes on in its wars because the corporate media hide them. the Pentagon having learned that the media are their worst enemy, not the Taliban. It would not surprise me if one unfettered camera crew, filming the corpses and mutilated children and devastation, could force an end to such a war.
Americans are not heartless but calculatedly uninformed. Wars are also extremely profitable for those who provide the bombs, fuel, vehicles, and so on. If the US loses a war, the contracts stop, and equally if it wins. Keeping it going for decades provides a steady revenue stream. What’s not to like?
Finally, or as much as I am going to worry about, there is the 1955 Syndrome, the engrained belief that America is all powerful. This is arrogance and self-delusion. In the Pentagon you encounter a mandatory can-do attitude a belief that the US military is indomitable, the best trained, armed, and led force in this or any nearby galaxy. In one sense this is necessary: You can’t tell the Marines that they are mediocre light infantry or sailors that their aircraft are rapidly obsolescing, their ships sitting ducks in a changing military world, and that the whole military enterprise is rotted by social engineering, profiteering, and careerism.
But look around: The US has failed to intimidate North Korea, chase the Chinese out of its islands in the South China Sea, retrieve the Crimea from Russia, can’t intimidate Iran, just got run out of Afghanistan, remains mired in Iraq and Syria, failed to block Nordstream II despite a desperate effort, and couldn’t keep Turkey from buying the S-400. The Pentagon plans for the wars it wants to fight, not the wars it does fight. The most dangerous weapons of the modern world are not nukes, but the Ak-47, the RPG, and the IED. Figure it out.
And now the US comes home, leaving Afghanistan in ruins for decades. Use and discard.