William Styron’s 1979 novel “Sophie’s Choice” stands as an iconic description of a moral dilemma pushed to the furthest extreme of human cruelty and torment. A Nazi physician stands at a train station fronting massed and miserable Jews in 1943, directing some left, some right. Word has spread that one group is bound straight for the crematorium, while the other will be spared for the moment by going on to Auschwitz.
Sophie is a Polish Catholic who has landed here for smuggling a ham for her ailing mother in violation of wartime rules reserving all meat for the military. As she approaches the doctor with her young daughter and son in tow, the following conversation ensues:
Doctor: You’re so beautiful. I’d like to get you into bed with me. I know you’re a Polack, but are you also another one of these filthy communists?
Sophie: I’m not Jewish!. Or my children—they’re not Jewish either!. They are racially pure. They speak German. I’m a Christian. I’m a devout Catholic.
Doctor: So you’re not a communist. You’re a believer.
Sophie: Yes, my captain. I believe in Christ.
Doctor: So you believe in Christ the redeemer? Did He not say…”Suffer the little children to come unto Me?” You may keep one of your children.
Sophie: I beg your pardon?
Doctor: You may keep one of your children. The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?
Sophie: You mean, I have to choose?
Doctor: You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege, a choice.
Sophie: I can’t choose! I can’t choose!
Doctor: Shut up! Hurry now and choose. Choose, goddammit, or I’ll send them both over there! Quick!
Sophie: Don’t make me choose. I can’t choose.
Doctor (to aide): Send them both over there, then.
Sophie: Take the baby! Take my little girl!
The ramifications of this abhorrent, unspeakable event percolate throughout the remainder of Sophie’s life and Styron’s 515-page novel.
Now, in his own masterful 20,000-word journalistic account, headlined “The Betrayal,” of last summer’s chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan, George Packer, staff writer for “The Atlantic” magazine, raises anew, among many other topics, the specter of human beings carrying their own burdens of tortuous choice.
The entire article, discussed extensively below and no doubt destined for multiple awards, is available here.
The choices Packer describes present themselves to American military personnel and associates engaged in an exhaustive effort to get not only all Americans, but also as many Afghan allies as possible to safe havens out of the country. There is huge urgency to this effort, especially regarding the Afghans, given the lower priority they are accorded and the fat target all such translators, military aides, drivers and others will be to the Taliban, who are set to take over the country.
When they do, one of their first orders of business will no doubt be to execute or imprison and torture all “traitors” who had anything to do with the American war effort.
Suddenly, thousands of desperate Afghans under a near certain death and terror sentence from the encroaching Taliban flood Kabul Airport, the gears of the bureaucracy processing their departure an unholy, far-too-slowly grinding mess.
The problem is that the massive logistical planning required to undertake an orderly departure is woefully lacking from the Biden administration.
Dire warnings from seasoned diplomats and others about the need to support and drastically step up the evacuation and refugee resettlement program are largely ignored for months on end, and once Biden announces the American departure and its hurried-up September 11 deadline—20 years to the day of the event that set the whole bloody and costly venture in motion—the country falls to Taliban military conquests far more quickly than had been assumed.
Suddenly, thousands of desperate Afghans under a near certain death and terror sentence from the encroaching Taliban flood Kabul Airport, with the gears of the bureaucracy processing their departure an unholy, far-too-slowly grinding mess.
The result is that who gets a coveted seat on a plane and who gets left behind to fend for themselves is often determined by low level guards at gates, or by who knows someone in Afghanistan or even back in the states armed with a cell phone and in-country contacts who can help pave their way.
Other times, a simple mob surge overruns a fence, with American guards trying to fend them off (or help them; it depends…) from one direction and the Taliban merciless from the other.
Sometimes, that surge gets one person over, with children and/or a spouse still outside, lost or even crushed in the mayhem at the gates. Packer reports on “one particularly resourceful trooper in the airport who made the Afghan women his priority, bringing them in over ladders, darting outside the fence to grab a husband separated from his wife, a son from his mother.”
But there is this, too:
“Children and parents lost each other. Troops saw children trampled underfoot. A Marine saw a Talib knife a boy who was climbing over a wall. A tear-gas canister struck the side of an 8-year-old girl’s face, melting her skin. A new mother staggered through the gate with her baby, who had just died, sobbing so hard that she threw up on the shoes of a consular officer checking documents. By the East Gate, a stack of corpses baked in the sun for hours. Outside the North Gate, the crushed bodies of four babies floated in a river of sewage.”
And for some people, the only apparent option is to cling to the exterior of a large transport plane in a beyond-desperate effort, destined for doom.
Packer grinds no partisan axes in this account that serves as yet another indictment of America’s misbegotten effort of nation-building. For all the lessons supposedly attendant to the Vietnam debacle, here we were again, through four consecutive presidential administrations beginning with George W. Bush’s incursion into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.
Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden—all caught up in the quagmire in their own way, all searching and hoping, fruitlessly, for a mess-free way out.
But when withdrawal finally comes under Biden, there is no escaping the fact of a hugely bungled operation, along with the curious, almost inexplicable failure of him to exhibit even a modicum of the compassion he famously and repeatedly promised would be a hallmark of his administration.
Packer traces aspects of Biden’s stance all the way back to 1965, when, as a 32-year-old senator from Delaware, he refused President Gerald Ford’s request for funding to hurriedly evacuate South Vietnamese allies in a situation eerily similar to what Biden was facing more than 50 years later in Afghanistan. Writes Packer:
“He would vote for money to bring out the remaining Americans, but not one dollar for the locals. On April 23, as South Vietnam’s collapse accelerated, Biden repeated the point on the Senate floor. ‘I do not believe the United States has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals other than diplomats,’ he said. That was the job of private organizations. ‘The United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese.’”
Fast forward more than a half century:
“In late 2010, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, came into Vice President Biden’s office to talk about the situation of Afghan women. According to an audio diary Holbrooke kept, Biden insisted, ‘I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights.’ (Biden’s son Beau, a member of the Delaware National Guard, had recently been deployed to Iraq for a year.) He wanted every American troop out of Afghanistan, regardless of the consequences for women or anyone else. When Holbrooke asked about the obligation to people who had trusted the U.S. government, Biden said, ‘Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam; Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.’ During the 2020 campaign, an interviewer repeated some of these quotes to Biden and asked if he believed he would bear responsibility for harm to Afghan women after a troop withdrawal and the return of the Taliban. Biden bristled and his eyes narrowed. “No, I don’t!” he snapped, and put his thumb and index finger together. ‘Zero responsibility.'”
Much of the power of Packer’s account stems from his intimate knowledge, gleaned from many months of ongoing contact, with former military and diplomatic personnel who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan, had formed deep working and personal relationships with their Afghan counterparts, and were horrified at the prospect of America abandoning them.
Many fielded direct, desperate pleas via text message from hundreds of Afghans every day, male and female both.
These Americans were alarmed but hopeful at first, and devoted to following through on what were both implicit and explicit promises to their Afghan allies.
Now stateside, one American female captain Packer calls Alice Spence (name changed; she’s still on active duty) had trained Afghan Female Tactical Platoons (FTPs) that had combat roles in the war, a previously unheard of possibility. Texting her trainee, a brave and devoted lieutenant named Hawa, in mid-July, Spence wrote:
“Hi sweet Hawa, USA has good news and will evacuate many Afghans soon. I am still working on your application. Please stay safe and we will get you out.”
By early August, the only thing that had transpired was a definitive deterioration of the Afghan government and military position. Hawa’s commander, aware that the Taliban usually shot female soldiers on sight, told her and her fellow FTPs to go home to their families for 20 days in the interests of their own safety.
Hawa knew that effectively ended her service; there would be no call back to duty as the joint Afghan-American nation-building project collapsed around all its architects.
Soon, the Taliban would control all but the inside of the airport gates, and when Spence finally works her contacts deeply enough and settles on actionable detail to provide Hawa and other FTPs a shot at getting there, Packer sets the scene this way:
On the outer perimeter of security were Taliban guards, using whips, gun stocks, and bullets to intimidate the crowd. The middle layer consisted of a paramilitary force from the Afghan intelligence agency, which was under the command of overseas CIA agents via WhatsApp, and which was liberal with warning shots. Inside the gate, and often outside, were American troops, who sometimes used tear gas and flash-bangs for crowd control.
Now the challenge was to avoid recognition by the Taliban and get inside those gates, like thousands of others had done or were still trying to do after a 20-year campaign that had cost in the trillions of dollars and thousands of American and Afghan lives.
After nearly 24 hours of jostling, waiting in the broiling sun, running out of food and reining in a younger sister who wanted to give up and go home, Hawa finally made it inside.
“If the Taliban come to our house you won’t be able to go to school,” Hawa had told her sister.
We can only pray the girl is enrolled in school this very day, and will some day do both her birth and her adopted country proud.
“The Betrayal” reads like the most gripping of international adventure yarns, with an underlying sobering quality born of it happening to real human beings to whom we bear, any way one looks at this circumstance, a moral and humanitarian obligation.
But it also demonstrates yet again the utter capriciousness of life and death, the gross and appalling inequities inherent to where and when one is born, who one is born to, and the random bestowal of abilities, qualities and traits that allow one person to slip out from under dire circumstance and another to be crushed by it.
“The difference between the damned and the saved came down to three factors,” Packer writes. “The first was character—resourcefulness, doggedness, will. The second was what Afghans call wasita—connections. The third, and most important, was sheer luck.”
That “luck,” such as it was, included the assistance of beleaguered soldiers and officials on the ground and hundreds of often sleepless Americans stateside trying to help their Afghan brethren in an overwhelming, constantly fluctuating circumstance from halfway across the world.
All of them realizing that they had unwittingly come into the role of playing God in determining the fate of those who depended on them.
In a situation where the sheer numbers of people needing help and the difficulty of providing any help at all radically exceeds the helpers’ capacity, two lines inevitably form, though not in a semi-orderly fashion under the batons of Nazi guards in a train station.
But the stakes are largely the same: Who will live, and who will die or suffer the darkest oppression?
“To avoid the besieged gates, U.S. troops brought women and children over the 16-foot blast wall using ladders under cover of darkness. They paid Afghan paramilitaries and even American Marine guards in cigarettes to let people through. They had to make up their own priority list and find immediate grounds for saying yes or no to the immense volume of equal desperation on their phones: military women, then interpreters, then male commandos, then embassy staff. Women, but not men; families, but no children over 15. ‘It’s an awful thing to make a decision about,’ one soldier told me.”
Captain Spence describes a similar sentiment:
“At first I said yes to everyone. Then I started to say no to men; to people without docs; to people with docs but not for their families; to people writing me really long messages, because I didn’t have time to read them. If it was a single woman, I would be more apt to talk to them. And then it was, honestly—it’s really terrible—if a photo spoke to me, if their words spoke to me, if their English was good, if I sensed this person would be responsive and could get their stuff together.”
Packer then adds this: “She called it ‘a really terrible Sophie’s Choice situation.’”
I have not even yet mentioned the suicide bomber who killed nearly 200 people outside the airport gates as the days for departure wound down. What kind of God decided whether he was going to live or die—or whether he could take so many with him?
Absolute evil has a way of blasting through all windy explanations and rationales for why horror happens.
That said, much as we all pine from infancy to be lords and masters of our own little universe, that will to power is eventually thwarted by parents, other authority figures, and what most people come to know as the responsibility to one’s relationships and community.
Sometimes that pull requires more of us than we can fathom or want, but we find it within ourselves to respond nevertheless.
And sometimes that response involves a terrible choice.
It thus stands to reason that anyone with a shred of sense runs as far from the role of God as possible. Who would seek out such burdens?
Yet in a powerful sense, we all play God every day in what we choose to do and not do. Thankfully, most of us are spared being confronted with desperate people at fortified gates in a time of war. But it is also true that we could save someone, or at least enhance their life, this very day, by giving them a dollar, a meal, a warm coat, a smile.
Maybe two or five or even ten people, if we so choose.
But we can’t help everyone, and someday, the demand will exceed our capacity or willingness to do without for our own needs and desires, and we choose to say, “I will do thus and such, but I will not do this.”
This is a choice, and its very own form of godly power and self-determination. God, in the ways such an entity is generally described as all-powerful and omniscient, makes such choices as well, the difference being that an actual lord and master of the universe could save everyone—but chooses not to.
Perhaps it is this very self-limiting of the notion of God that provides a model and rationale (and forgiveness?) for our own determinations to help some in need but not others, to give to this worthy charity but not the equally worthy one next door.
If that’s how God herself operates, then maybe we can rest a little easier when confronting our own limitations, self-imposed or not.
Help whom we can help, for the reasons that make sense to us, giving as much as makes sense to us, and accept with equanimity the choices we make.
Having a choice is usually framed as freedom, as the diabolical doctor on the train platform tries to tell Sophie. In that extreme circumstance, she immediately grasps the horror such choice entails.
But in another sense, all choice excludes something or somebody else that may have held value in multifarious ways but is diminished or silenced by not being chosen.
It is Robert Frost’s road not taken, full of the unknown, the unlit road toward a future that will not be.
In the extreme circumstances of war and atrocity, famine and privation, the choices they beget can be particularly excruciating, as so many whose lives intersected with the war in Afghanistan—all wars, really—come to discover.
Grave circumstances often bring us face to face with astonishing capacities we perhaps never dared to previously explore, but they also, inevitably, reveal our limitations, and the true cost of choosing one thing, letting the other(s) go, and hoping our lives and dreams will not be haunted by the decision we have no choice but to make. (Because even a decision not to decide is a decision, too…)
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Afghan woman from stock photography
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Flowers in snow by Renate Bomm, Köln, Germany https://www.flickr.com/photos/felana/