KABUL’S CALVARY by Steve Davis
When I first started teaching at North Harris County College (later to become Lone Star) in the mid-1980’s, one of the books I assigned in the second semester of US history was A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, a work I still consider the best of the Vietnam memoirs. Caputo, fired by the idealism of President Kennedy’s call to service, joined the Marine Corps after earning a degree in English at Chicago’s Loyola University. As a member of the 1st Marine Division, he was among the first American ground troops to be sent to Vietnam when LBJ escalated the war in the Spring of 1965. Lieutenant Caputo learned the hell of combat firsthand, an experience totally out of whack with the impressions he had gained from movie treatments like John Wayne’s “Sands of Iwo Jima.” By the end of his tour, Caputo had concluded that the war was unwinnable given a South Vietnamese government run by corrupt warlords and the lack of motivation of that country’s troops whom he described as the “worst soldiers in the world.”
I thought of Caputo this week as I watched the coverage of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. Caputo returned to Vietnam as a journalist in 1975, compelled to witness the war’s conclusion as the Communists prepared to roll into Saigon. He covered the frenzied evacuations and departed by helicopter along with South Vietnamese whose lives were now forfeit to the enemy. From the safety of an American naval vessel in the South China Sea, Caputo reflected on the end of an era as the United States had now lost its first war. Read his book. You can’t help but be impressed by the power of Caputo’s style and by his timeless lessons about the military experience. The parallels to Afghanistan’s collapse are obvious. The arrogance of our power led us into an untenable situation in that country as well, caught between contending native factions. Just as we refused to take heed from France’s debacle in Vietnam, we ignored the embarrassment of the Soviets in Afghanistan at the hands of the same fanatical elements in the last phase of the Cold War. To quote the Kingston Trio’s folk hit from the early 1960s, “When will they ever learn?”
By an accident of timing, I’ve seen the footage of Afghanistan’s fall at the same time I’ve been immersed in the first two seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” That series debuted in 2017 just after Trump’s shock troops hijacked the presidency. I knew back then of the program’s timeliness and critical acclaim, but it had been heretofore off-limits for viewing due to my lack of a HULU subscription. Then in a true act of social democratic sharing, my daughter gave us her passcode a few days ago. “Handmaid’s” depictions of female subjugation would have been depressing enough without now thinking of the fate that awaits women in the Taliban’s new (actually very, very old) Afghanistan. Seeing the bearded thugs who occupied the streets of Kabul brandishing their whips and assault weapons gave me a nightmarish vision of what our own country would look like with the Proud Boys in power. The Taliban militants would resemble the same loathsome element if they sported tattoos and MAGA caps and spent serious time in the weight room. All this reminded me of a Lone Star colleague named Marc Nekhom who retired years ago. When he was an eight-year-old in Paris in 1940, he remembered going out one day and seeing the German army at the end of his street. It’s practically impossible for most Americans to imagine the horror of that. But there are plenty of such scenes in “The Handmaid’s Tale” of the armed soldiers of Gilead lining the sidewalks to keep the population cowed.
Early in Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a reference to a deadly attack on the Capitol. No one could have dreamed of the January 6 assault when that episode aired in 2018. A bit later comes a scene at Boston’s Logan Airport (from which two hijacked airliners departed nearly twenty years ago) of Americans desperately trying to leave the country. The Christian fascists have seized power and there is a mad rush to escape to havens like Canada. Just as in today’s Kabul, proper documentation is no guarantee of access to a plane. One family is separated permanently as their same-sex marriage is now deemed invalid by the callous ICE agent who processes their papers. One can imagine the fate of “gender-traitors” at the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists now in the saddle in Afghanistan. One image that will forever stay with us from this week’s terror is the sight of bodies plummeting hundreds of feet from a plane already in the air. That instantly evoked the horror of 9/11. See the sickening photo entitled “The Falling Man,” in which a waiter jumped from the 106th floor of the blazing North Tower rather than succumb to the flames. In a moment of horrific artistry, the camera catches his upside-down body perfectly aligned with the framework of the doomed building. Referencing 9/11 takes us back to the genesis of the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, an initial incursion indeed justified by the Taliban’s protection of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The going-in was easy; it was the extrication that proved so tragic.
In the next days, I’ll certainly keep watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” along with the news from Afghanistan. The latter will continue to be heartbreaking as we commiserate with the suffering people of that bedeviled country while Trump and his rotten battalions try to wring all the political advantage they can from the catastrophe. As for the HULU series, I’m hopeful as multiple seasons await. There’s plenty of time for its writers to deliver the just desserts that Aunt Lydia, Commander Fred Waterston, Serena Joy, and their evil minions richly merit. And where art goes, let’s hope that life surely follows.
Houston New Social Democrats FC
August 21, 2021