The Best Ladder and the Wrong Wall

by Guy Walker

The Afghanistan War was always supposed to be invisible. After the initial fanfare of our cimmerian payback following the 9/11 attacks, it hid away into the depths where it always meant to be. The Iraq War was the same. Remember the exuberant media coverage of the toppling of the Saddam statue, and the cheering children running after our Humvees. And then it all went away. It’s why Bush ordered the Pentagon to prevent all news coverage of the bodies of American troops being brought back from war. It’s why there was no draft—a draft would only popularize our natural revulsion to war, sending kids straight out of high school to bomb some sandbox of infinite hell, their pimples oozing larger than their undeveloped prefrontal lobes. It’s why much of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were outsourced to private mercenary armies like Blackwater. When former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, it was initially covered up to look more heroic than it was. And it largely did stay invisible.

For two decades it’s been waging on quietly, like a cancer gnawing away at the throat of American decency, our reputability pulverized into the scorched earth we’ve left behind. It’s been almost entirely removed from our daily consciousness. In 2020, between NBC, ABC, and CBS, the Afghanistan war was covered for a grand total of five minutes. For the entire year. Even when The Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers,which revealed high-ranking officials knew early on that the war was not winnable, and took great efforts to mislead the public into thinking it was moving along steadily and successfully, it doesn’t seem to have made the impact the Pentagon Papers did for the Vietnam War. In Craig Whitlock’s newest book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, he details how the US government partnered with Afghanistan, funneling billions into their coffers, funding lavish palaces of excess and glee. He explains that the Afghan population didn’t see the billions of dollars we were spending as money to spread democracy, or to legitimize some form of nation building, but rather to prop up leaders with deeply corrupt and brutal histories. In many rural Afghan communities, populations saw the Taliban as preferable to the Afghan government, who shared little historically, religiously, and ethnically with the Afghan people. Even Donald Rumsfeld’s internal memos, just six months into the war, admitted that he suspected American troops would be there forever.

Maybe there’s too much other noise in the world today. Maybe our attention spans have fully rotted through. Who knows why this war has largely stayed invisible until now. The truth is, everyone will forget about this Afghanistan story—about what permanent hell we’ve punished a nation of 35 million to. You too will forget about this episode in our miserably despondent legacy—there’ll be another election, or another natural disaster, or another cat meme or TikTok video that takes your attention for a while. You’ll go to Burning Man, do some mind expanding drugs and show the world how free spirited you are; you’ll travel to Tulum, and finally forget about all this too. Down the spiraling tangents of illiteracy, a generation consumed by their own embarrassing brutality.

Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, it was Hunter S. Thompson of all people who wrote the most prescient predictions of despair, for, of all places, ESPN.com :

“Make no mistake about it: We are At War now ― with somebody ― and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.”

I’ve never been to Afghanistan, and I’ve never been to war, so in one sense I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just ingesting content I consume mostly online and spill it out for another helping, another blog post, another diatribe about the nihilism of our politics. But in another sense, many of our instincts are correct. Why was Hunter Thompson—the wild drug and gun enthusiast—right, while almost none of the experts were? As is famously noted, none of the highjackers were Afghani or Iraqi. Fifteen of them were from Saudi Arabia, and it was planned and organized in Hamberg, Germany. Everyone, from Bernie Sanders to The New Yorker, supported the invasion of Afghanistan. It had unanimous support in the Senate, and only one dissenting vote in Congress, Barbara Lee.

So, most of us can be accused of not knowing what we’re talking about. But you can watch Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary, Bitter Lake, and realize we never would have won a war there, not if we spent five trillion, not if we instituted the draft, not for anything. You can watch Ben Anderson’s Vice documentary, This Is What Winning Looks Like, and realize that in 2012, when the documentary was made, it was clearly not winnable, and spending another nine years there was insane. You can read Stathis Kalyvas’s 2006 book The Logic of Violence in Civil War, and understand that the complexity of tribal conflict is beyond anything an American military can undermine and declare their own to fix. You can read James Bradford’s Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy, and understand that it was largely drug control policy and intervention that created the Afghanistan poppy trade what it is today. In addition to, in the documentary Bitter Lake, it explains that it was American engineers in the 1950’s who built massive dams throughout the country, thus raising the water table, and bringing salt to the surface, allowing poppies to thrive in the this new soil. You can Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, and map out our almost logical collective insanity of the last twenty years. Afghanistan just happened to be there, in the hazy midst of our madness.

Humans have been hammering out their quarrels in Afghanistan for at least 50,000 years, one of the oldest agrarian civilizations in the world. There’s an almost rugged transcendence in knowing our sprawling tantrums of tribal adolescences began there. It was controlled by the Medes, of the Iranic tribe, between the Nuristani and Indo-Aryan groups, until Darius the Great took over with his Persian army, establishing the Achaemenid Empire. It changed hands constantly, from Darius III to Alexander the Great, to Seleucid Empire, to the Grego-Bactrian Kingdom, leaders from Chandragupta Maurya, eventually defeated by Seleucus I Nicator. Islam only became dominate in the 7th century, a blink of an eye on an earthly cosmological scale. Before that, it was of course sects of Hinduism and Buddhism, but also myriad forms of Paganism, Zoroastrianism, and Surya worship. 

History is a funnel of distilling complexity down to our more modern brutish monotonies. We condense religion and language and wild species and tribal sects and everything else down to an abbreviated worship of banality, organizing our lives like accruements lined up neatly on a mantle. Our congratulation is being one of seven billion pawns rummaging through the wreckage. History is digested almost as a fiction, in order to convince ourselves that this ephemeral polemic of subjectivity actually matters. We are the conjugated feral beasts of someone more interesting, hammering through made-up diatribes and reality tv dramaturges of self-importance.

Religions—like that of the Zarathustra—, empires like that of the Median, bubble out of the muck of our ancestors, throwing their fits of rage for a while, until they burn out and evaporate into whatever’s next. What’s next is just marginalia. If you read the ancient history of Afghanistan, you’re tempted to accept that our cimmerian and spiteful installment of the last two decades of war is just another footnote in their sprawling episodic tapestry of turmoil. But it’s still unconvincing. Everyone seems to be up in arms about our American reputation: We pulled out too quickly, abandoning girls and women to the mercy of the Taliban. We abandoned interpreters and translators who sacrificed themselves and their families. These things are important, no doubt, and our legacy is justifiably embarrassing and brutal because of it. But by focusing only on those issues, it presumes the war was justified, and could have succeeded if we only did it differently.

In retrospect, it’s easy to be smug about our failure there. It’s been called the graveyard of empires for a reason. The British lost there in the First Anglo-Afghan War—or as the British call it, the Disaster of Afghanistan—fought between 1839 and 1842. The Soviets fought a nine year war alongside the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, eventually being defeated by the Afghan mujahideen (the precursor to Al Qaeda, and heavily funded and trained by the CIA), as well as other Shi’ite and Maoist rebel groups. Operation Cyclone was one of the most expensive covert CIA operations, lasting from 1979 to 1989, funneling $630 million to the mujahideen in 1987 alone. Reagan welcomed the Mujahideen leaders into his Oval Office in 1983, as pictured at the top of this article. The divisive partisan milieu of our body politic wants to criminalize the whole Afghanistan catastrophe as party issue. It’s Reagan’s fault, or Bush’s, or Obama’s, Trump’s, and now Biden’s pullout method. As if our collective dementia has clogged our memories all along. 

But this is not the correct thinking. The defense budget was and is the only thing both parties continue to agree on. Matt Taibbi emphasizes this in a column on his sub stack, quoting Chuck Shumer in 2018: “We fully support President Trump’s Defense Department’s request” of a $160 billion increase for 2017-2018. So who cares if our exit strategy wasn’t tidy. It’s a distraction from the real politics of war. On September 14th, 2001, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson to vote against Afghanistan War, receiving thousands of death threats as a result of her vote. The entire war, from the beginning, was a deliberate siphoning of domestic wealth into the coffers of defense contractors and their rubble-cathedrals abroad. Since WWII, our intervention has never been good. Clinton said his biggest regret of his precedency was not intervening in Rwanda. That seems fair, but who knows what the result would have been if we did. That’s the problem with only knowing the results of our actions now, in this exact weave of reality: we have no alternative to compare it to. These types of exercises merely comprise encyclopedias of hypotheses. The state of our present-day horror, however, demonstrates a complete failure in military and political prudence.

There is a lot of talk about women and girls, and how they will now be treated under Taliban rule. Just the other day, a report came out that a Taliban leader pleaded with women to stay indoors because his men hadn’t been trained on how to treat women and girls. The Taliban just killed a pregnant policewoman. These shouldn’t be brushed off, of course. But you have to ask yourself why everyone cares all of a sudden. What about the night raids and drone strikes we conducted that killed countless innocent civilians? When U.S. and Afghan forces conducted night raids, in one remote village after another, capturing and killing whoever they deemed guilty, they turned entire villages against them in a matter of moments. Jeremy Scahill’s book and subsequent documentary Dirty Wars, covers these night raids extensively, highlighting a family celebration in a small village when American forces conducted a night raid, killing young men, pregnant women, young girls. Admiral William McRaven returned later to the village, offering the family a goat as an apology.

When the military whistleblower Daniel Hale revealed that ninety percent of deaths from drone strikes are deemed collateral damage, thus innocent civilians or noncombatants, no one seemed to care then. Or at least, it wasn’t covered on the nightly news. In fact, Daniel Hale was recently sentenced to four years in prison for leaking these classified documents. So, yes, I too fear the future for women and girls under a Taliban rule. But I’m not convinced that the nightly chorus of pundits trembling about their well-being is at all genuine. They never seemed to care before. It’s our war that we failed to stop, and it’s our war that we will all be involved in, in some way, for the rest of our lives.

Elem Kilmov’s masterpiece Come and See, which is far and away the best war film ever made, is about a boy in a Belarusian village, conscripted to join the Soviet partisan forces and fight against the Nazi German occupation. He is a bright-eyed, blonde-haired boy who thinks he’s headed out for a great adventure. But as he experiences the murderous reality, the piles of bodies surrounding him, the rape and torture and defeating bombs, he deteriorates into a withered shell of himself—an adolescence cannibalized by trauma and revolt, irreversible decay as the horror swells all around. We’re entering a new era impregnated by a similar horror. Though most of us have not seen war up close, we all are affected by the collective madness that has conquered us all. 

The young actor had to be hypnotized in order to perform the roll, as the director knew no one could realistically play someone who had seen such profane quantities of evil. This is true for the whole lot of us. Most of us can look back at our hazy origins of innocence, when swimming pools and backyard barbecues would progress without too many ripples. There’s footage of British teenagers marching off to fight WWI, believing it would be merely a patriotic duty of a couple or few weeks. And it’s sad in a way, because you know many of them will soon be crawling around the muddy, blood-filled trenches, crying for their mothers. The first twenty years of this millennium has been entirely consumed by this same ruptured innocence, a generation cursed by illiterate trauma that coats every normal interaction.

It’s always there, wherever you go. At backyard barbecues, the air is choked with knowing there’s fires in Siberia and Greece and Algeria and Canada and California, and hurricanes and floods, and it’s only going to get more histrionic and hellish as the years go on. At beach parties, when you should be relaxing, drinking a piña colada, looking at the women in bikinis from behind your sunglasses, you know this is an ephemeral and illusory frame less meaningful than a cozy dream. We spent $2 trillion—or $300 million a day, every day for twenty years—on a war that should never have been waged, shoveled off into the volcanoes of misery. It’s impossible to emphasize how much we actually wasted: how much human life we mutilated, the massive defense contracts, this twenty year machine consuming and killing everything in its wake. And then the Taliban took everything back in two fucking weeks. This ontological a priori death drive is more expansive than a singular private momentum that Freud went on about. Our death drive is wholly collective and entropic, consuming us en masse until we’re all out there in the desert together, gnawing at the last turds of existence.

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