Kipling’s Lament

Kabul International Airport – August 2021

I admit that I am transfixed by the events now unfolding in Afghanistan.

Seeking some elusive perspective, I just re-read Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Young British Soldier,” which was based on the English storyteller’s experiences reporting on failed British Army campaigns in Afghanistan during the latter part of the 19th Century.  The gruesome ending to Kipling’s poetry — sad advice he gives to soldiers finding themselves isolated on the battlefield — tends to get most of the attention (you’ll have to Google the poem to read that part).   However, I believe that the following verse captures more aptly how some U.S. military personnel might be feeling right now as they continue to serve our nation at the frayed end of a strategic tether, thousands of miles away from home:

If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white,

Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight:

So take open order, lie down, and sit tight,

And wait for supports like a soldier.

Wait, wait, wait like a soldier.

Clearly, our U.S. soldiers, marines, and airmen, who have remained in Afghanistan or have just been redeployed to it, are doing their level best to extract their fellow Americans, NATO allies, and Afghanis during this crisis.   Viewing yesterday’s YouTube footage from Kabul of the turbulent “fog of war” (as 19th Century military theorist Clausewitz would put it), I keep thinking that at least some of these Taliban-surrounded Americans may be experiencing the same sense of fear, disappointment, and lament as expressed in Kipling’s sobering poem from 130 years ago.

I couldn’t help but reflect as well upon my own experiences during an analogous air evacuation of U.S. personnel and allies decades before.  Together with a subsequent stint as a combat support group commander, managing airlift operations from the tarmac, I’m sitting here imagining all the complex tasks and herculean strain that our people must be experiencing at this moment in time.  The teams now working around the clock in Kabul are no doubt facing challenges exceeding those described below.     

It seems like yesterday, but 46 years ago, I played a minor part in flying approximately 1,000 Vietnamese orphans & civilians and dozens of State Department personnel, in six plane loads out of Saigon.  During an additional evacuation flight, we were forced by small-arms fire, surface-to-air missiles, and the enemy siege of the airport to abort our mission and return empty handed to our departure base back in the Philippines. 

During the last few sorties flown into Saigon before North Vietnamese artillery chewed up the runway, we encountered thousands of civilians on the tarmac attempting to climb onto the aircraft as we started our engines and taxied out for take-off – just like the scene in the above photo taken at Kabul airport.

For the operation in Saigon in April 1975, we removed passenger seats from the aircraft in order to cram as many evacuees as we could into the cargo hold of our large C-141 transport.  We secured these mostly unscreened passengers with tie-down straps pulled snugly across their legs, as the oft sandal-footed refugees sat down on the cold metal flooring. You could feel the uneasy mixture of their trepidation and relief.   

Saigon – April 1975

To deal with the potential of uncontrolled Vietnamese rushing the aircraft — or with a terrorist attack by a lone Vietcong infiltrator — each crewmember was issued a Smith & Wesson revolver, which was loaded with three rubber bullets and three hard-point rounds.  The weapons were to be used in the event that any individual posed a hazard to our departure.  Clearly, the revolvers would have proved insignificant had we needed to repel a large angry mob or thwart an organized attack. 

Fortunately, of the hundreds of flights flown by the Air Force, Marines, and Army to transport thousands of our Vietnamese allies out of harm’s way, I don’t recall hearing of any crew member having to discharge his sidearm at an unruly evacuee.  Crowd control was accomplished through old-fashioned American persuasion, calmness, and confidence.       

Improvised during a three-week period by those military and State Department personnel who remained in Vietnam during the late Spring of 1975, the much larger air evacuation of Saigon, for all its missteps and faults, seems to have been a far less chaotic operation than the one now taking place in Kabul.

I should pause here to say that the purpose of my sharing of these perspectives is not to assess which Administration bears the greater responsibility for the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan or which actions might have precipitated the events we are now witnessing.  The finger-pointing has already begun and will continue until sober mainstream military historians sort it all out many decades from now. After 46 years, we still haven’t come to an agreement about the Vietnam War!

By comparison with the events of 1975, it seems safe to say that Washington was caught flat-footed by the swiftness of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.  As always, it is now up to U.S. aircrews, ground troops, and diplomats in the combat zone to react and improvise, as they always have done, in order to pull this chestnut of an unexpected “Dunkirk” out of the fire and return safely home to their families.  I am certain they will make us proud.      

May God protect our young, extraordinary American men and women, who are courageously hanging on in Afghanistan during this particularly hazardous moment in U.S. history.  And Godspeed to our Afghan friends and allies – all too few now to whom we can extend wings of salvation.

. . . wait for supports like a soldier.

Wait, wait, wait like a soldier.

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One thought on “Kipling’s Lament

  1. Harry Merritt

    Thanks for the USAF evacuation dejavu exercise. I was part of a similar event in 1967, Operation Bonny Birch. We pulled Belgian nationals out of the eastern Congo during an uprising in that part of the world. Again we ran tie downs the width of our C-130 to accommodate our many passengers. Thirty years later by happenstance I shared a flight with one of those passengers on a trip to NATO. Small World.Thanks for sharing. Regards H. Merritt

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