Cockburn at the Village Voice (Photo: Sylvia Plachy)
Several younger friends of mine have been searching for Alexander Cockburn's infamous Afghanistan column from 1980. Bits of it appear online, but no one I know has unearthed the entire thing.
Lucky for them I have a thick file of early Cockburn clips. Some are faded and frayed. A few have been nibbled by mice. A handful are in excellent shape. But the Afghanistan piece is too worn to adequately scan, so I went old school and typed it up. By hand. Word for word.
I've also included Cockburn's follow-up a week later. In full. If this doesn't show you my love, then you need extensive therapy.
January 21, 1980
Iowa and Afghanistan
by Alexander Cockburn
We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world.
I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it's Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets. and unspeakably cruel too.
As a boy I read English Victorian child's fiction. The British had a hard time in Afghanistan in the florid era of the Great Game. They rushed into Afghanistan and soon realized their dreadful mistake. Adulterers were punished by having thorns inserted in their penises, and piteous were the roars of young dragoons stumbling in agony across the mountain peaks.
Your Afghan's idea of a jolly good time is to cut off the balls of his foe, stuff them in his mouth and leave him as an object of derision in the local square. The British found this out, as they retreated pellmell across the passes, and so too has Ivan.
The worst sort of hippie globetrotter always found his way to Kabul and loitered there, mingling his own form of occidental vileness with matching oriental hospitality.
But why do the Afghans get a good press all the same? Because they are mountain folk, naturally. People who live amid mountains are always conceived of as more attuned to the mode of freedom than those who live in meadows, plains, valleys and other less craggy facilities. Mountain folk are always "fiercely independent," whereas plains or valley people tend to be "docile."
It's odd to think that these Afghans, who do not even have the skill -- despite every conceivable advantage -- to produce rivals in senility to the old men of Azerbaijan, are dictating the course of the US elections. Yet out in Iowa the politicians were talking of Afghanistan at every turn. The Belgium of our days.
But there we are. President Carter needs to win the Iowa caucuses, which means that matching funds have to go to Pakistan. The Iranian crisis would be solved tomorrow and the hostages released if the US merely indicated its interest in the possibility of a UN forum for examining the crimes of the Shah. But in the new age of guns before butter, such tractability is out of the question.
The state of the union address planned by Carter, and only by the agency of O'Neill and Byrd still scheduled for after the Iowa caucuses, will inaugurate the new era of military boondoggle, armadas speeding their way to the Indian Ocean, and the globe armor-plated in steel.
January 28, 1980
by Alexander Cockburn
Some, who have never set foot among the Pushtoons, nor rambled in the Hindu Kush, were offended by my remarks about Afghanistan last week. My observations stemmed from an impatience with the notion of "freedom-loving rebels of Afghanistan," as expressed by US politicians and journalists, combining ignorance, hypocrisy and the renewed cold war fever.
But never go for irony. People take you seriously. For the record, there are good Afghans as well as bad ones, and many of them were behind Taraki in 1978. There was even a good Afghan king, Amanullah, an excellent emblem of progress in the 1920s, who declared back then that "the keystone of the future structure of the new Afghanistan will be the emancipation of women" and whose wife Soraya was the first urban Afghan woman to appear unveiled in public. He was deposed in 1929 and ended his days in exile in Italy in 1960.
Fans of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica should know that Sir Henry Yule was far more intemperate than I. But then he presumably supported the disastrous British expeditions. He wrote, with considerable emotion: "The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner. Nowhere is crime committed on such trifling grounds, or with such general impunity, though when it is punished the punishment is atrocious. Among themselves the Afghans are quarrelsome, intriguing, and distrustful; estrangements and affrays are of constant occurrence; the traveler conceals and misrepresents the time and direction of his journey. The Afghan is by breed and nature a bird of prey. If from habit and tradition he respects a stranger within his threshold, he yet considers it legitimate to warn a neighbor of the prey that is afoot, or even to overtaken and plunder his guest after he has quitted his roof. The repression of crime and the demand of taxation he regards alike as tyranny. The Afghans are eternally boasting of their lineage, their independence, and their prowess. They look on the Afghans as the first of nations, and each man looks on himself as the equal of any Afghan."
Thus an old imperial Britisher. We progress of course . . . to Emmett Tyrrell in The American Spectator: "On November 4, the Rev. Mr. Ruhollah Khomeini returned to the TV screens of America. Life in old Qom can grow tedious, especially if one is surrounded by idiot mullahs and the abysmal yokels who aspire to mullah-dom, so the Holy Man set his bovine followers upon the U.S. embassy . . ." This passes for Menckenesque wit.
The trouble is that Carter and the Rev will soon be allies, which will call for a dressing of the epithets. Perhaps we should be that the hostages will be freed by the Persian New Year, on March 21. Today's fanatic is tomorrow's friend.
Item of curiosity: Newsweek, this week at least, is more restrained and even moderate than Time, which has reverted to true Fifties form. Read, too, Hugh Sidey and marvel that human hands could type such tripe. Monkeys could not do it.
Such is the state of the union, message and all.