Evacuate Our Afghan Allies

           

About 17,000 Afghan nationals who served U.S. forces during our long military campaign in that country are still waiting for admission to the United States. Not only did these men and woman serve at great risk, but the threats to them have also actually increased with the reduction of U.S. forces. They are now being targeted for murder and reprisals against their families by members of the Taliban who see them as infidels. The Taliban know that the service of these people was absolutely vital, that many American servicemembers owe their lives to an Afghan interpreter or other associate, so now these men and women, who served us heroically under conditions of great danger, are being killed because they worked for the Americans.  When the last U.S. Forces leave Afghanistan in a few months, the only effective impediment to the Taliban reprisal will be removed, and thousands more will die, often with their families. It’s time to get them out. Now.               

The principal means under which Afghan and Iraqi nationals who served the U.S. military have come to this country is called the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. The course of applying for SIV status is extremely lengthy, taking up to five years. It has been slowed by the COVID pandemic. Many have been killed as they navigated this process, some, tragically, after having their applications approved and on the verge of leaving Afghanistan for America.  Given the available in-country resources and the difficult security situation, it strains credulity to think that the remaining thousands of SIV applicants could have their visas approved before the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces. The other option, and the best course of action at this point, is to stage a mass evacuation of the remaining SIV applicants.

             The United States has done this before. At the end of the Vietnam War and of our involvement in Kosovo we conducted evacuations of persons who had served our cause and who were at risk. U.S. forces train to conduct non-combatant evacuations. With its naval, aviation, and logistical assets it can conduct these operations on a large scale and over long distances while providing security both for its own personnel and for the evacuees.

                There are both practical and ethical reasons for the United States to conduct this operation. On a practical level, who is going to want to work with us or ally with us if we abandon our friends, especially in a moment of crisis in which they are in imminent and mortal danger? These people have demonstrated guts and resiliency in an extremely hard school. Whether their time in America is short, or whether they go on to apply for citizenship and remain, they will be an asset to our Republic. On an ethical level, we have incurred a moral obligation to the people who have risked their lives in the service of the United States. If we fail to act, we will have blood on our hands, not merely innocent blood, but that of comrades in arms.

             A successful evacuation of people in the SIV pipeline with their families could be an exercise in honor and redemption for America and the armed forces. Like Dunkirk, this could be a sorely needed victory and inspiration in difficult, confusing times, an unmistakably good action to remind us of our better angels. What kind of people are we?  I remember hearing a story from a woman who had been a refugee from her country as a little girl. American troops were on the runway on the day she left. Her father pointed to one of them and said, “That’s an American soldier. If things go wrong before we can leave, run to him. He will protect you.”  As an American and veteran, that is surely how I want people of other countries to see us, as brave, honorable, dependable. We have the chance now to show this face to the world, but the time is slipping away, and the orders must go out soon, or we will lose this chance, and fail to our loss and to our shame.                               

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters

Some time ago, I promised a more thorough post on this recent book by Kate Murphy. Other readings and writings, my family, social life and even my occasional role as activist have intervened, and I only recently finished the book. As the full title implies, Murphy is essentially making two, sometimes overlapping, arguments. First, that listening is a neglected and even a dying art, at least an art sorely beset. The book also gives examples of good and bad listening and sets down some guidelines for improved listening.

Some of the culprits in the decline in listening are fairly obvious. The cell phone comes in for some deserved blame. It is probably responsible for a decline in attention span from a reported average of 12 to 8 seconds since 2000. Not only does the cell phone distract us from in-person conversation, it offers the illusion of connection in the form of conversation that is often rushed and trivial. Phones and other electronic devices can also harm our hearing. Just 15 minutes of 100 decibel sound can cause permanent damage. It might be acknowledged that cell phones play a valuable part in the family, business, and social lives of many people. Talk on the cell phone may be better than none at all.

Some of the bad listening behaviors cited by Murphy include interrupting, responding vaguely or illogically, looking away from the speaker, and fidgeting. Murphy also cites the western (and perhaps specifically American) aversion to lapses in conversation. She points out that silence may in fact be very productive. One teacher has students stop talking for a full day as an exercise in listening to others and to one’s own thoughts. Maintaining curiosity is very important, and it may be a particular challenge in long-term relationships. Fear of hurt feelings may cause people to stop listening, as can boredom, or impatience. Murphy asks us to bear with the speaker if possible, recalling the times we may have grasped for words to describe a situation or express an idea. Some of us hesitate to ask for clarification, but it is often justified, and even well-received, since it is a sign of attention and interest. The best questions are often the most open-ended, rather than those which appear to be a disguise of a judgment or recommendation. Murphy lists some questions that are good at eliciting thoughtful responses and cementing relationships. What would constitute a perfect day? What was your favorite and least favorite part of the day you had? What three objects might you bring if traveling 100 or 200 years back in time?           

Other habits that Murphy commends as being conducive to good listening are wide reading, journaling, and paying attention to one’s inner voice, a voice perhaps inspired by a respected friend or teacher, a favorite author, fictional character or historical figure. The deficit in listening is especially detrimental because more work involves collaboration now than previously.

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book is “The Morality of Listening: Why Gossip is Good For You.” Beginning with some recollections of her highly sociable great-great aunt in Galveston, Murphy makes an argument for the importance of gossip and, more broadly, for the moral function of engaged, attentive conversation. Murphy cites a study claiming that only a very small percentage of gossip is “truly mean-spirited.” She says that “gossip contributes to our development as ethical, moral, members of society.” Gossip done well is an inquiry into standards of behavior. It can reveal as much about the speakers as the subject, perhaps at times to themselves. Murphy cites the philosopher Emanuel Levinas as saying that human interactions are the basis for ethics, and that listening gives our lives meaning and direction.

I’m almost finished reading a biography of Leonard Bernstein. One of the features of his sad decline in later years was his inability to listen or sense the impression he was making on others. Bernstein represents in larger-than-life form the egotism of our age. Americans especially tend to prize candor and outspokenness, but there are times to remain silent and let others do the talking, or to tolerate the silence that sometimes seems our greatest fear. Let me end this by expressing the hope, let us say the intention, that reading and writing about You’re Not Listening will make me a better listener.