Afghanistan Beginnings and Endings

As it happened, I finished Pat Barker’s 2004 novel Double Vision on the day that US forces completed their evacuation from Kabul airport last week, thus unceremoniously bringing to a close America’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan. The correspondence is interesting because Barker’s novel is the first I know of to reference post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. The novel is set in England, but features two characters linked to a third, a photojournalist shot and killed while on assignment in Afghanistan.

The circumstances of the death—the politics, rationale, and execution of the far-flung front in the Global War on Terror—are not prominently explored in Double Vision, but first is first, and the focus on the effect of war death on friends and family back home was prescient in foretelling one of the main themes of fiction, and culture, too, about Afghanistan and Iraq in the coming years.

War in Iraq is referenced in Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel Saturday, which I also just recently read, much more prominently than Afghanistan is in Double Vision. Saturday is also set in England, and in it the protagonist, a well-to-do neurosurgeon, ruminates about the brewing invasion against a backdrop of anti-war protests in London. The neurosurgeon is actually vaguely pro-war, in that he detests Saddam Hussein and thinks it is at least worthy of consideration that any pretext to remove him is a good one. As he goes about his day, some interesting thoughts cross his mind. For example, as he stares at the bustling activity in a  London public square, he speculates about its spatial dynamic in contrast to the streets that surround it. He thinks, “…this could be the attraction of the Iraqi desert—the flat and supposedly empty landscape approximating a strategist’s map on which fury of industrial proportions can let loose. A desert, it is said, is a military planner’s dream. A city square is the private equivalent.”

Later he considers the news-media environment, which seems designed to de-stabilize truth claims and make everyone nervous. As he considers a news report, he wonders:

Have his anxieties been making a fool of him? It’s part of the new order, this narrowing of mental freedom, of his right to roam. Not so long ago his thoughts ranged more unpredictably, over a longer list of subjects. He suspects he’s become a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder, opinion, speculation and of all the crumbs the authorities let fall. He’s a docile citizen, watching Leviathan grow stronger while he creeps under its shadow for protection. This Russian plane flew right into his insomnia [the novel begins with the protagonist observing in the middle-of-the-night a plane from Russia that has caught fire as it approaches Heathrow], and he’s been only too happy to let the story and every little nervous shift of the daily news process color his emotional state. It’s an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he’s contributing something, watching news programs, or lying on his back on the sofa on Saturday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them? For or against the war on terror, or the war in Iraq; for the termination of an odious tyrant and his crime family, for the ultimate weapons inspection, the opening of the torture prisons, locating the mass graves, the chance of liberty and prosperity, and a warning to other despots; or against the bombing of civilians, the inevitable refugees and famine, illegal international action, the wrath of Arab nations and the swelling of Al-Qaeda’s ranks. Either way, it amounts to a consensus of a kind, an orthodoxy of attention, a mild subjugation in itself. Does he think that his ambivalence—if that’s what it really is—excuses him from the general conformity? He’s deeper in than most. His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news “release.”  He’s lost the habits of skepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn’t thinking independently.

That’s a pretty good summation of the precarious state-of-mind that would come to govern the next twenty years, at least for many. It certainly gets to some of the ambivalence and hesitancy I felt as I watched the endgame in Afghanistan the last two weeks (even as I did everything I could to help the escape of friends and allies I knew from my own tour in 2008-2009). As new aspects presented themselves for consideration, I couldn’t find better words for my thoughts looking backward than I published here a couple of years ago following the release of “The Afghanistan Papers” detailing corruption, subterfuge, and incompetency by American war planners and the Afghan government and military. Quoting from my own recent Facebook post:

Now, as Afghanistan appears lost to Taliban rule for the foreseeable future, I’m more sanguine than outraged. It might just be the long passage of time, and perhaps I should be more upset: the year deployment unsettled my family while I was gone and when I returned in ways too painful to recount, and three good members of our advisor team didn’t even get a chance to return home at all. While in Afghanistan, we worked hard with and got to know personally many Afghans who hated the Taliban with a passion and were grateful we Americans were there to help fight them; I hate to think of what their fates might be now. On the other hand, I’m happy that I was able to help three of my interpreters reach the United States, and I would also be happy enough keeping a small American force in Afghanistan for a long time to bolster the Afghan government, if that were to be the case. It’s not, but I believe at least some Afghans will find it within themselves to mount resistance to the Taliban soon enough, or that the Taliban of 2021 is not the same Taliban as that of 1991. If there is resistance, the questions are who will comprise it, who will lead it, who will support it, and who will fight by their side?

When the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers” a couple of years ago, I wrote the following, which goes into a little bit more detail about my impressions and thoughts looking backward:

“Corruption, rules-of-engagement, conflicting chains-of-command, stupid reporting and briefing requirements, Pakistan aiding and abetting the insurgents (and sometimes helping fight them), green-on-blue incidents, friendly fire incidents, dealing with special operators with different agendas, balancing military missions with nation-building programs, trying to figure out who was enemy and who wasn’t.… It was all part of the operating environment, and that was before the bullets, mortar rounds, and missiles started flying and the IEDs began exploding. You had to be pretty nimble to deal with it all and keep going. If you let things overwhelm you, you weren’t going to be of much use to anyone, though you could certainly use your dismay and anger to build a righteous argument that it was all stupid and worthless.

“Strategically and structurally, my biggest gripe were the unit rotation policies and practices, which never kept units and key leaders in place long enough to become truly effective. My advisor team, for example, was rotated out of Khost Province at the seven-month mark of our deployment, just when we were really beginning to build trust with our Afghan counterparts and understand the lay-of-the land. Also, during my time I served under nine different chains-of-command due to constant task organization changes. Though it was kind of neat to be have been able to wear any one of nine “combat patches” representing the different units I belonged to over the course of a year, the problems with so much change are obvious.

“To have complained about it at the time would to have been labeled a whiner, a naysayer, and a foot-dragger. It would have meant being fired immediately, as (among other things) it would be insubordinate to the chain-of-command, and ruinous for troop morale and unit cohesion, which was solid at the time and by all accounts remains strong. Besides, we were all volunteers, right? and no one told us it was going to be easy. We did the best we could, and though our best really wasn’t all that good, we kept trying and hoped for a very limited and temporary effectiveness.

“However small our results may have been, I’ve always held that advisors at least felt like we were doing the most good, compared to other Americans. I also felt like we had the highest regard for Afghans and had mostly funny or warm-hearted stories about working with them. That’s not saying much, because the soldiers in the line-force units in our area-of-operations distrusted Afghans and wanted to spend as little time around them as possible. Continually dwelling on corruption and making blanket statements and assumptions about incompetent, unreliable Afghans is definitely off-putting to me. In my experience, if that was your attitude going in, or a “fact” “proven” to you by your suspicions and initial encounters with Afghans, well then everything that followed was going to confirm that. The Afghans we worked with made distinctions, and they sensed quickly if an American was predisposed to be snoopy and judgmental about them. If so, they pretty much acted to type. If the opposite, then they were great partners, eager to please and amenable to suggestions and direction. Negative comments about Afghans seem to have been written by people who may have worked or fought side-by-side with Afghans once or twice, but never day-in, day-out for seven months in Khost and five months in Paktya, where Afghans did much to try to do as I asked or suggested and most of all protect me.”

Not entirely reassuring, I’m sure, or beyond critique, or free of self-justification, but those were my thoughts then and they mostly remain the same now.

Of the many opinion pieces and personal reflections recently published by veterans and media commentators, I was most struck by a short piece written by a former infantryman in Afghanistan who now plays guitar in a heavy-metal band. Dustin Tooker’s comments about his service in Afghanistan seemed sensible, even shrewd, and he touched on an aspect relevant to Time Now’s purpose: the influence of war on subsequent art. Here Tooker speaks of his music, but his ideas are relevant going forward for all artists and writers:

As a musician I draw from my past and use it as inspiration for my art. These recent events have changed how those experiences and memories sit in my soul. I know it will show in the music I create and if you listen close, I think others will be able to tell I just got a little darker. It’s likely you’ve gotten a bit darker as well.

A truism often expressed about war in Afghanistan is that the most telling novel about it couldn’t be written until we knew how it ended. Without historical closure, how could there by narrative closure, the sentiment goes. I’ve never been too sure about this truism; novels it seems to me can be written and get written in real time all the time as they will without waiting for real-life finality, and their quality and significance take care of themselves. But surely Tooker is on to something. The futility, guilt, disappointment, and outrage expressed in Afghanistan (and Iraq) war art and fiction, already present in published works so far, can only intensify as veteran writers and artists, as well as interested civilian artists and writers such as Barker and McEwan, reckon with how badly it turned out and their own stake in the outcome.

Pat Barker, Double Vision. Picador, 2004.

Ian McEwan, Saturday. Doubleday, 2005.

2 thoughts on “Afghanistan Beginnings and Endings”

  1. Pete, I found the article by Dustin Tooker powerful. You highlighted one quote, Id like to highlight two others.

    “…I used all the good things we did over there for the Afghan people to mentally balance all the dark things that had to be done”
    ” We all know what needs to be done now. Let’s move on from the blame, get our people out of there while they are still alive, and learn from this.”

    I worry that the learning will turn out to be the hard part.

    Thanks for pointing out this article for us.

    1. I too found Tooker’s comments really perceptive and thoughtful, even moving, and really grounded in his experience as an infantryman. Thanks for bringing a couple more of the good ones to the fore.

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