Voice Crying in the Wilderness

In the course of centuries of geopolitical maneuverings there have always been winners and losers. And betrayals and failures of resolve, dressed up in obfuscating political rhetoric. Afghanistan is merely the most recent example. Often lost in the furor are the sacrifices of those who tried to do the right thing.

I was reminded of this by an Associated Press news story out of North Ogden, Utah highlighting a single human tragedy associated with catastrophic events surrounding the humiliating American surrender to the Taliban.

“It’s heartbreaking. I don’t know if there’s another word for it,” said Jennie Taylor, a Gold Star widow whose husband was killed by a turncoat Afghani in 2018. But she was adamant that, just because U.S. politicians abandoned a twenty-year push to promote democracy, does not mean sacrifices like her husband’s were in vain. Her words reminded me of the legendary voice crying in the wilderness. A Greek long ago offered cold consolation for the bereaved, saying all Earth is the grave of heroes. Of Lost Causes an English poet, Mathew Arnold, wrote:

Creep into thy narrow bed,

Creep, and let no more be said!

Vain thy onset! All stands fast.

Thou thyself must break at last.

Let the long contention cease!

Geese are swans, and swans are geese.

Let them have it how they will!

Thou art tired: best be still.

They out-talked thee, hissed thee, tore thee?

Better men fared thus before thee;

Fired their ringing shot and passed,

Hotly charged and sank at last.

Charge once more, then, and be dumb!

Let the victors, when they come,

When the forts of folly fall,

Find thy body by the wall!

The Forts of Folly unfortunately seem secure in Afghanistan, bolstered by heavily armed fanatics, many of whom cannot read but seem well-versed in the manual of arms for captured American weaponry they relish displaying to the cameras.

“Does it all work out right in the end?” Mrs. Taylor said. “Not always. Sometimes the bad guy wins. But what if men and women weren’t willing to fight that fight? The price of freedom is immeasurably high.”

The U.S. went into Afghanistan after an enemy that had created a safe haven for fanatics whose sneak attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon echoed Pearl Harbor. Stayed to free a people from radical Dark Ages fundamentalism, and offer a glimpse of human freedoms taken for granted in the West. Young girls went to school. Elections were tried. Public utilities and schools were built, and functioned. Health care improved. Meanwhile the Taliban, sheltering in Pakistan, assayed bloody guerrilla raids — evil never sleeps — while Americans held them at bay.

Some Americans like Major Taylor paid the ultimate price. Many more brought their now-familiar PTSD home at the end of their tour. Protected by American arms, Afghan children grew into educated women with dreams. Cities flourished. The brutish, ugly rule of the Taliban receded in collective memory. But newly-in-power Afghans succumbed to the siren song of endemic corruption and personal gain, and failed in their duty of care to their country. The single-minded fanatics sensed their opportunity, and came roaring back. Resistance crumbled.

The choice America faced was simple: kick the Taliban’s ass again, or give up and run away. Politicians Right and Left chose capitulation and flight. Trump’s “peace treaty” with the Taliban mimicked Anthony Eden kowtowing to Hitler. Biden’s fumbling of the panicked wholesale retreat is a tragic clown-car show “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’” in the sarcastic words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

News feeds abound with words of bitter armed-forces veterans saying death of their comrades was all for nothing. The Utah war widow, Mrs. Taylor, bristled at this. Of her husband and others she said “they died trying to defeat that enemy, knowing the enemy might not be defeatable. But that doesn’t mean they backed away and said, ‘Nah, it’s not worth it.’

“The biggest heartache for me is to see other Gold Star families or other surviving military personnel saying, ‘Was this all in vain? Was this all a waste?’ And I have to say absolutely not…We can’t say it’s a waste to fight for freedom or it’s a waste to try to share democracy or it’s a waste to fight for women’s rights. We can’t ever say it’s a waste to lay down your life for the greater good of humanity.”

A lone voice, crying in the wilderness. Soon to be lost in the general hubbub of the next crisis, as so many voices have been before. Sometimes only poets can offer a modicum of comfort and perspective. Mathew Arnold again:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.