Last week, at least two men fell from a U.S. military plane as it climbed into the skies above Afghanistan.
In video taken from the ground, they are so small you almost have to squint to see them. They seem roughly the size of a period, the end to some sentence no one wrote. But no, we are told those figures are Afghan men, plunging to their deaths.
One can only marvel at the desperation captured in footage of the chaos at the airport in Kabul as the United States began evacuating its personnel from Afghanistan. People climbed on a jet bridge like ants on sugar. Dozens ran down the runway alongside the taxiing plane. And then there were the men who clung to the airship as it lifted from the ground.
I know I’m supposed to think of all this in big-picture terms, to understand that while what happened was surely tragic, the real issue is what it means for foreign policy and domestic politics. But just now, that question feels greasy and unclean. Sometimes, the big picture is overwhelmed by the small one. Tiny dots of men plummeting down the sky.
It is a grisly, miserable bookend to an image that began this misadventure, 20 years ago: tiny human dots plummeting down the side of a burning New York skyscraper, collateral damage in an asymmetric war between Islamic fundamentalists and the West. Twenty years later, the people who leapt from the World Trade Center are a defining memory of that awful day. But do we remember – did we ever even know – their names?
Probably not on both counts. Individual lives tend to get ground up in the giant gears of geopolitics and history. Last week, the process was under way even before the bodies hit the ground, the punditocracy united in debating the question that, for many, was foremost in importance: Who gets the blame for this debacle?
Does it go to the Bush, Obama or Trump administrations for mishandling the war? To the Biden administration for bungling the pullout, creating a deadly calamity by misreading the speed with which Taliban forces would overrun the nation? To Afghanistan’s hapless government, which we spent over 2 trillion American dollars and over 2,000 American lives to install, maintain and defend? Should it go to the Afghan army, 300,000 men trained and equipped at a cost of $83 billion, which melted away like a sandcastle in the waves when faced with a ragtag force one quarter its size? Or to U.S. military leaders who kept assuring us things were going well when, clearly, things were not?
Well, the answer is: Yes, all of the above. The answer is also, who cares?
Not that those are not critical questions. Not that they do not demand answers and accountability. Not that there are not grave geopolitical implications here.
And yet … when you are a girl now forced at gunpoint to hide your face, your aspirations, your very self, beneath a veil to appease some fanatic’s version of faith; when you are an ordinary man stranded with your family at a Taliban checkpoint for lack of some document, while the Americans whose mission you served fly off without you; when you are chasing a transport plane on a runway; when you are tumbling through space, the ground coming up fast … yeah, the answer is also, who cares?
Our hubris and our failures, they echo. They ramify. That was the story of last week, of tiny dots that fell from a U.S. transport plane as it cleaved the sky. Reports identified them as Fida Mohammad and Safiullah Hotak.
Just so we all know: The dots had names.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, FL 33172. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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