This post was written one week after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Aug. 15. Another 10 days have since passed, with U.S. troops now departed from Afghanistan, after a herculean (and last-ditch) effort to evacuate over 122,000 people, including both American citizens and Afghan allies who aided the U.S. mission and thus were marked by the Taliban for death. Yet, per The New York Times, “tens of thousands” of Afghan allies remain, desperate to flee their country. In a further tragedy, 13 U.S. troops endeavoring to aid the evacuation were killed by a suicide bomber allegedly associated with ISIS-K. I post this commentary now, because its subject — the sacred vow between wartime allies — has proved an indelible theme of this war’s pullout, and because now is a more appropriate time for a noncombatant’s view. I post it with the approval of Vlado Azinovic, the “man from Sarajevo” and my partner in this tale.
Last night, at dinner — after a week of sleep-devouring agony over America’s shameful pullout from Afghanistan — I told my husband Larry: “I don’t know about you, but I feel like weeping for the world, for America. I hate this feeling of shame, of betraying” — betraying our Afghan allies: the interpreters, drivers, fixers, security guards, staff at our embassy.
Understand, please: The “what” of President Biden’s decision to end our war in Afghanistan is not the problem, not for me nor for most Americans polled. It is the “how” — the moral breach — that is causing so much upset, including, notably, among U.S. combat veterans themselves, who are speaking of their own “moral injury” at the betrayal of their Afghan allies.
While I did not serve in the military (my husband did: 32 years in the Navy), I do know a little something of what is entailed in making a sacred, life-and-death vow. This life-validating act I took during the siege of Sarajevo, 1992–96, longest siege of the 20th century.
Vlado was running Radio Zid, one of the last stations remaining independent when others had turned nationalist ugly, in the city once known as “the Paris of the Balkans.” I was put in touch with him by a Sarajevo journalist based in Washington, D.C., where we lived at the time; I wanted to give him, for broadcast, my play about a woman who tries to prevent her husband from committing a crime but finding no allies, which I felt reflected how the world was treating Sarajevo, then in its second year (1994) under fire from Serbian snipers in the surrounding hills — with no-one coming to its rescue (U.N. “peacekeepers” did nothing to keep peace).
In that first call, when I heard his teeth chattering — with no heat or lights, Vlado was sitting in the cold and in complete darkness — it was like a hook thrown into my heart. Testing me, his first words were: “Do you have some troops with you?” I passed the test when I replied, “Have you been getting many such calls?” No; by then Sarajevans felt they were the world’s “sport,” being watched on CNN running through Sniper’s Alley, dodging bullets. The second call established our bond: After transacting our business (he’d translate my play), Vlado dropped the mask. “I need to talk to you,” he said. Presuming he was suffering from trauma, I responded: “Vlado, I am not a psychiatrist.” “Don’t worry,” he laughed, “they’ve abandoned us, too!” He pressed his case: He needed to talk to me because I sounded “strong” and I sounded “normal”; I replied, “Well, people say I’m a little intense.” Vlado shot back: “Please, be intense with me!”
In that moment before I said “Deal,” I instantly “got” the terms and conditions of our pact and my vow: Understanding I was about to become a life-line that Vlado found nowhere else, I knew I absolutely could not fail him — no matter what. I could not bail, could not get tired, falter, fade. Later I told him: “However long you need me, Vlado, I will be there for you. On my honor.”
That vow I kept and our bond held throughout. When the sniping escalated sharply to shelling and the fear became palpable in his voice, our bond strengthened, became more functional. In what turned out to be a crisis point, when he told me he’d just been up on the roof, repairing the station’s generators, I gasped, “You were on the roof? Vlado, the snipers!” O.K., he wouldn’t do that anymore, he said, then fell silent: “Keep talking, I can’t anymore.” Leaning in as he fell back, a balancing that became our habit, I replied: O.K., then, we’ll need to “manufacture hope” and, someday, we will meet, have a coffee. After his escape from Sarajevo, keeping the bond and pledge became rougher, because of his guilt at leaving behind his widowed mother, his desperate need to land a job (he did finally, in Prague, at Radio Free Europe). When we finally met face-to-face, in Prague, two years after our first call, it was as old comrades. After intense conversation, tears began flowing down Vlado’s face, which he dismissed as “windburn,” to which I said, “Vlado, we’ve been sitting here for two hours.” Then it was my turn, when Vlado presented his “special thanks”: “Only an angel can get into a tomb. You are my Guardian Angel.” More windburn.
In later visits Vlado disclosed that, after two years of siege and no help from the world, he was close to insanity when I first called. I disclosed why I made that first call: In the post-Cold War era, a war America “won, with American culture becoming anything-goes I was seeking both a test of my character and a sanctity I don’t find here, and I found both in Sarajevo. Together, Vlado and I manufactured a sanctity. To this day, Vlado calls me his Guardian Angel. For myself, keeping my pledge to a man caught in a war zone is Exhibit A on my Judgment Day. (Far harder than phoning into a war zone was the journey to production of the play I wrote about Vlado and me, when our sacred bond and vow came under severe attack by producers — no surprise in a culture degrading. About our cultural degrading, Vlado, who described himself as “a recovering historian,” said, presciently: “Who knows what lies ahead for America…?”)
Sanctity of the bond and the vow between wartime allies: As powerful as it was between Vlado and me, it must go much deeper — infinitely deeper — when both parties are comrades-in-arms, on the battlefield together. It is all bound up in honor and one’s sacred word — which, if Americans are honest, are things too often mocked here and were offloaded long ago.
And it — the sacred bond and vow — is why so many American combat vets here at home have mobilized, either on their own or in ad-hoc teams, to mount a “digital Dunkirk” to save their “terps” from certain death at the hands of the Taliban. Comrades-in-arms owe their very lives to each other, in the most profound, visceral, final way. The stories of American vets fighting on to save their Afghan comrades is one of the few bright spots in this war’s sad finale (also here, here, and here). In honoring their sacred vow, these vets make something good of a war America lost. And they vow to continue their rescue mission, even after our final pullout.
Movingly, the American public implicitly recognizes that vow’s sanctity, in the powerfully strong public support — 81% — for evacuating the Afghans who aided us during the war. This public support, truly remarkable in a nation so deeply polarized, spans the political spectrum. It is a good sign, in a degrading culture, when its citizens acknowledge again, and embrace, the sacred. It bodes well for that culture saving itself.
In the beginning was the Word, as the Bible has it. In the end the word, too, prevails in human life: The vow, a holy one, between wartime allies.