A US Chinook helicopter transport was shot down in Afghanistan a few days ago with the loss of thirty US military personnel and seven Afghans. Much has been made of this, and in particular a poignant plea on behalf of his dead father from Braydon Nichols, a Kansas City ten year-old, has been widely circulated on the internet.
It is difficult to remain unmoved reading or viewing these accounts. I can’t. My own father, who will turn ninety next month, is a US Marine veteran of the South Pacific war. He fought on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and came literally within an inch of losing his life while storming the beach at Guam eight years before I was born. Had he died in action, I would obviously not have an opinion on the subject. Had he died when I was ten, I would have been crazed with sorrow. I do not intend anything that follows to suggest that I deprecate Braydon Nichols’ grief.
May we step away, however, from Kansas City and 2011, to a hypothetical grieving family half a world away and a quarter of a century ago? As Braydon Nichols is bereaved today, so must Vitaly Chernakov have grieved in 1986 when he learned that the Soviet “Hind” helicopter transport his father piloted had been downed with the loss of all hands by Islamic fundamentalist insurgents armed by the United States. The Chernakovs would have been assured by Russian military representatives, as the Nichols have been by ours, that the husband/father died for a good cause. Both families, I daresay, took as much comfort from these bromides as grieving survivors generally do.
As we wail and rend our garments over the Chinook downing, though, is it altogether inappropriate to note in passing that very few Americans could be found to weep over the deaths of hundreds of Soviets lost in helicopter transports downed by means of armaments thoughtfully provided to the heroic Afghan resistance by Our Tax Dollars at Work? On the contrary, every report of an episode like this was greeted on these shores with lusty huzzahs (heroic freedom fighters smite wicked foreign invader!) and nary a tear for the children and widows of the Russian troops.
And yet, and yet. What were the beastly Russians doing there? Spreading their filthy socialistic doctrines into helpless Afghanistan as the next step in their ruthless plan of world domination. What did the Soviet soldiers imagine they were doing there? Fighting bands of savage seventh-century fanatics consumed with a primitive and inhumane vision of Islamic fundamentalism. What did the Afghan resistance think it was doing? Driving out foreign invaders.
And what are we doing there today? Fuck if I know. What do we imagine we're doing? Fighting bands of savage seventh-century fanatics consumed with a primitive and inhumane vision of Islamic fundamentalism. What does the Afghan resistance think it is doing? Driving out foreign invaders.
Frankly, I think we owe the Russians an apology. We could start by respecting their example and quitting the “graveyard of empires” sooner rather than later. Throughout the entire 1980s every Soviet soldier or airman who died by force of arms provided to these same fundamentalist loonies was lustily cheered by the entire American consensus as a blow for freedom. You’ll look in vain in the reporting of the time for anything like the weeping and wailing this Chinook crash has entailed. If we want to express compassion for 10 year-old Braydon, this might be a good time to regret that out of sheer jingoism we were absolutely indifferent to 10 year-old Vitaly when his helicopter pilot father was killed by an American-supplied Stinger missile in 1986. In a world less ignoble than this one, we as a nation might be capable, looking back on our role in that stage of the conflict and comparing it to the present day, of feeling a twinge of…shame? Remorse? But no, that will never happen. We Americans are a simple, generous, impulsive, forgetful, heavily armed people. And the morning and the evening were the eleventh hour.