Things to be thankful for: red rocks, animal cultures, and leaving Afghanistan
by Rob Tiller
I took these pictures a couple of weeks ago in the Four Corners area, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah come together. With a group of photographers led by a master photographer, Joe Brady, I explored Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods, Goosenecks State Park, Mesa Verde, and other remarkable areas. We didn’t see much wildlife, but there were epic rocks and scraggly plants that manage to survive in the red rocky desert.
But animals were on my mind, as I finished reading Carl Safina’s new book Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace. The book has three main sections concentrating on species we may feel like we know something about: sperm whales, scarlet macaws, and chimpanzees.
Safina shows the beauty and intelligence of these creatures, and provides a window into their complex social lives. “Animal culture” is not a well-settled concept, but Safina demonstrates that these species all have developed elaborate systems that they use to regulate their social lives and teach to their young. He thinks we can learn from them.
Apropos of lessons that might be learned, I also finished reading Craig Whitlock’s new book, The Afghanistan Papers. The book is largely based on a secret U.S. government study regarding what went wrong in our longest war. In the study and in later interviews, various generals, civilian defense officials, diplomats, and soldiers described what they experienced, and what conclusions they drew.
I took away two main points. First, the U.S. government lied over and over about what was happening in Afghanistan. Generals and presidents alike kept saying that the situation was improving, that we were turning the corner, and we would win. However, from early on, the situation in most of the country was a hopeless quagmire, and those with the relevant information knew it.
Second, and even more disturbing: almost no one involved in making decisions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan knew or cared to know much about the country’s history, politics, and culture. Those in charge reduced the situation to simple black and white — good guys and bad guys — and vaguely imagined that success consisted of removing the designated bad guys.
The long American tradition of seeing violence as an all-purpose solution, rather than a deep problem, accounts for some of the tragedy of our misadventure in Afghanistan. Our cultural blinders contributed to our collective self-deception, and extended it over two decades.
Even now, it appears that many people know nothing about how we worsened the violence and corruption in Afghanistan, and think we should have stayed the course for additional decades. It is ironic and disturbing that an act of true political courage by President Biden — confronting our entrenched collective delusion and stopping our part of the war — has few defenders.
With so many pressing political and social issues at hand, it’s unlikely we’ll have a quiet period of collective reexamination of lessons to be learned from our Afghanistan mistakes. We may never get to a remorseful pledge to never again inflict so much death and chaos on another unfortunate country. But hope springs eternal, and so I recommend Whitlock’s book, which is quite readable. Here are some other thought-provoking recent articles with useful perspectives on the disaster:
Michael Massig in the New York Review of Books: The Story the Media Missed in Afghanistan. Massig points up the role that a compliant mainstream media played in creating the widespread delusion that the war was worthwhile and successful.
Fintan O’Toole in the New York Review of Books: The Lie of Nation Building. As part of a review of Whitlock’s book, O’Toole argues that the Afghanistan experience was a dark mirror showing deep flaws in American democracy. The trillions of U.S. dollars spent on the war created new frontiers of kleptocracy and corruption in Afghanistan, not to mention new fortunes in the American military-industrial complex. O’Toole doesn’t go into all this, perhaps because it’s obvious: this wasteful disposal of mountains of taxpayer money also meant lost opportunities for addressing American inequalities and improving our healthcare, education, transportation, and other systems.
Anand Gopal in The New Yorker: The Other Afghan Women. In this extraordinary piece, Gopal takes us into the world of some rural Afghan women, including those who found the brutality they experienced from the Taliban less abhorrent than the brutality of the local warlords who the U.S. brought on as proxies.