At the climax of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Francis Coppola’s take on it “Apocalypse Now”, the character Kurtz (an ivory trader in the book, a renegade military officer in the movie) knows he’s about to die. Kurtz says “…in a whisper at some image, at some vision… a cry that was no more than a breath: ‘The horror! The horror!’.” It’s both Kurtz’s understanding of what’s about to happen to him but also his clear, sudden understanding of everything that brought him to this horrible moment. In the book, Kurtz is dying from natural causes, witnessed by the book’s narrator, the obsessed Charles Marlowe. In the movie, its protagonist Captain Willard, who’s been sent up the Mekong River to assassinate the renegade Colonel Kurtz is about to complete his mission. “The horror… the horror”.
It’s hard not to watch what’s happening in Kabul right now without feeling those words.
The echoes with the end of the Vietnam War are inescapable. The reason it all feels so familiar — terrible images of desperate people scrambling onto or clinging to aircraft aside — is that the reason we were there was, at its core, indefensible. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, our fear of communism caused us to make a veritable ton of bad decisions. Yes, yes, the Soviet Union was a real and dangerous nemesis. But, our black and white view of the world missed all the colorful detail that might have helped us be a little truer to our ideals and savvier on the ground. Alas, we brought a sledgehammer to a brain surgery. We’re good at capturing hearts and minds with our sales pitch, utterly awful at fulfilling the promises made.
There is a reason for that. It’s not “just because”. Nothing is ever “just because”.
The Republican Party has become in pretty much every way America’s Colonel Kurtz — a formerly respected member of the firmament gone completely renegade. If we set aside Afghanistan for the second, the GOP has disappeared upriver on virtually every other topic as well. Voting rights? The Republicans are against them. Getting vaxxed? The GOP would rather die. Literally. Racism? That’s one of the few things this “Party Of Lincoln” is good at — being racists. Then, of course, there’s the issue of Russia. Talk about “The horror… the horror”. But for Russia, Donald Trump would NEVER have become POTUS. Russia literally made Trump president with the Republican Party’s approval and active participation.
The horror… the horror.
Even as he raced to take Regeneron because, though vaxxed he came up Covid-positive, Texas governor Greg Abbott was suing school boards in Texas for insisting on mask mandates. The horror. The horror.
From the get-go, a Republican led America got Afghanistan and the Taliban all wrong. The Taliban, first and foremost are Pashtun, the largest ethnic group (at 48%) in Afghanistan. Afghanistan itself is only a country because the English drew borders around it while thinking they could fuse this intensely tribal place into their empire. Afghanistan got the better of them as it did the Russians and now us. The Taliban are Pashtuns who follow an especially stringent version of Sharia Law (the name “Taliban” means “student”). Western sensibilities dislike the Taliban’s dogmatic approach to women especially. That’s all well and good but waging culture war against other countries is tricky, dangerous and almost always doomed. Especially when you try to do it as an invader.
The Taliban are not natural allies of terrorists or terrorism. In the aftermath of 9-11, when America was saber-rattling at the Taliban’s door because the Taliban were protecting bin Laden, the Taliban were simply following a basic rule of their culture: you do not betray your guests. That’s not say you don’t deliver them to the justice they deserve if their guilt can be proven. That’s really what the Taliban were doing when we demanded the Taliban turn over bin Laden. They were doing a delicate dance, balancing their cultural against justice a thing their faith demands. The Taliban were, in fact, willing to give us bin Laden. All they wanted in exchange was satisfying proof that 1) bin Laden was guilty as charged and 2) they could therefore hand over bin Laden without damning themselves for all time.
We refused to let meet them halfway. That was because neocon chicken hawks like John Bolton wanted to invade Iraq and take its oil. Afghanistan was only ever a means to an end for the GOP. A justification to maintain America on a war-footing and in a war head space. Those things benefit defense contractors and anything that benefits a defense contractor benefits corruption.
We wasted a trillion dollars pretending we could turn the Afghani army into something it could never be: a viable democratic country with a modern economy. Hell, we haven’t yet mastered how to be a viable democratic country ourselves. Worse, we wasted that money as if were oblivious to the fact that our “enemy” was of the same nationality as our allies. Our original mission ended After we chased bin Laden from Afghani territory. Again, please remember — while we were insisting to the world that the Taliban was harboring a terrorist, in point of fact, they were doing something else entirely. They were trying to be both true to their culture and true to justice. We refused to give them any space in which to work.
Let’s also not forget that Donald Trump — working on Russia’s behalf — screwed every relationship we had in Afghanistan’s part of the world. We did not betray the Kurds, Donald Trump betrayed them — because Putin told him to. When Trump held his meetings with the Taliban, he was doing it again, this time betraying all the Afghanis who aided us. Trump set the pull out in motion. Trump set a deadline on our being there. And Trump oversaw the Afghani military’s cutting deals with the Taliban to surrender their superior forces to the Taliban. Make no mistake, the Biden Administration had virtually zero say in what’s happening. They had almost zero say in “when”. This freight train was coming at us fast. This was light at the other end of this tunnel.
The Democrats in this scenario are every bit Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard — repeatedly bumping into corruption as he heads up river to take out (what he sees as) ultimate corruption — Colonel Kurtz. Donald Trump both manifests and embodies every bit of Republican corruption. He’s greedy, cynical, power-mad and over-brimming with hate. He’s racist and bigoted and misogynistic and utterly ignorant on top of it all. He’s like a black hole sucking all the light toward his singularity — a point of such concentrated corruption that, if you were to be dragged over its event horizon, you’d vanish forever into its corrupt maw.
Our version of “taking out Kurtz” must be via criminal justice. We can’t wait for any more elections when we know the Republicans are already well down the road to tainting every election. The point of the exercise isn’t to strengthen democracy or assure any American’s right to vote. It’s to undermine our democracy’s integrity entirely. Can ya blame the Republicans? It’s hard to win elections legitimately if no one wants to vote for you or your ideas. That’s what made the GOP go renegade in the first place. For all their other flaws, their eyesight’s not bad. They could clearly see the handwriting on the wall — demographic extinction.
Virtually everything the GOP has done the past five years has been aimed squarely at ending the greatest experiment ever in human self-government. They do that as an extreme minority (and as an extremely small one) working in direct contravention of what the majority 1) want and 2) VOTED FOR.
Captain Willard understands: there’s no taking Kurtz hostage and marching him home for prosecution. We won’t have that luxury. We’ll have to keep Kurtz alive and talking until the prosecution is fully up on its feet.
It will not be easy. Or satisfying. Or even necessarily democratic.
But, damn, how we already need it.