Another high-flying experiment in colonialism came crashing back to earth this past week in Afghanistan. We should not be surprised. It is a story as old as The Crusades. In the short term the effort …
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Another high-flying experiment in colonialism came crashing back to earth this past week in Afghanistan. We should not be surprised. It is a story as old as The Crusades. In the short term the effort is often a success; in the long run it is always a failure.
To most Americans, the Kingdom of Jerusalem or the siege of Acre are nothing but ancient history, but the Crusades remain vivid in the collective memory of Islam. Among the sons of the Prophet, it is remembered that men came from afar with religious purpose and sanction to take up the land. It continued to be feared that one day they would come back. I suppose it inevitable that we are viewed with hostility. To them, we are just another marauding tribe of Frankish knights.
The history of colonialism shows us again and again that the governing of a geographically remote or ethnically alien culture by a distant power always comes to an end. In the modern world this end comes less as a result of the rising power of the subjugated people than of the weakening of the will of their foreign rulers. Usually, the end is chaotic and bloody, such as the British partition of India, or the French evacuation of Algeria, where whole populations were massacred or uprooted in the anarchic rush to escape. No, the only surprise is the speed with which the hapless Afghan forces fell to the Taliban. It took two years of hard fighting before the North Vietnamese overwhelmed the weak, corrupt administration in Saigon. The Kabul government fell in a matter of days. The only thing we have to show for 20 years expenditure of blood and treasure in this savage war of peace is Rudyard Kipling’s old reward of “The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.”
As an eyewitness to and survivor of the attack on the World Trade Center, I vocally supported the war in Afghanistan. For myself, and for many people younger than me at that time, the war against the Taliban became what F. Scott Fitzgerald called our “love battle.” In his book “Tender is the Night,” Fitzgerald wrote about the survivors of World War I, describing how young men of his generation found the courage to go “over the top” of the trenches and into murderous machine-gun fire for “King and Country” or “Kaiser and Reich,” describing how “this took religion and years of plenty and the tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes… You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember.”
Gertrude Stein called them a lost generation; yet, decades later, William Manchester wrote of World War II using similar terms in his memoir “Goodbye, Darkness.” He writes: “You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did … Wickedness was attributed to flaws in individual characters, not society’s shortcomings … All these and ‘God Bless America’ and Christmas or Hanukkah and the certitude that victory in the war would assure their continuance into perpetuity.”
So in the autumn of 2001 another American generation went to war armored with Christmas mornings and high school sweethearts and Saturday nights uptown and paydays. It takes 20 years, but every generation has its love battle. Mine is over, and my American flag lapel pin won’t get me into heaven anymore.
Not many people on either side of the Atlantic know that Rudyard Kipling, whose wife was American, lived four happy years in a large house he had built in southern Vermont. No one had written more about colonialism than he, no one celebrated it more powerfully, or warned more trenchantly of its dangers. Perhaps we as a nation should remember the words of Rudyard Kipling when we think of the catastrophe that is called Afghanistan:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
Dwayne Walls Jr. has previously written a story about his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and a first-person recollection of 9/11 for the newspaper. Walls is the author of the book “Backstage at the Lost Colony.” He and his wife Elizabeth live in Pittsboro.
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