Quacking toward Kandahar: War as Suburban Hobby

Harper’s, July 1987

Recently I attended a costume party of what appeared to be several hundred Republicans from the Reagan Administration, which took place in a pricey forested suburb of Washington. The guests were a mixture of Somewhat Important People and a few Very Important People, by which is meant that had they vanished without trace, nobody would ever have noticed. This is a curious aspect of importance, that it varies inversely with the damage that would follow upon one’s loss: when the plumbers strike, chaos results, but if the National Security Council ceased to come to work, nothing would happen.

Anyway, I found myself standing in a glossy kitchen covering several acres. Next to me stood an enormous pink rabbit, who perhaps devised economic policy for the nation, clutching a Heineken and chatting with the Lone Ranger, who doubtless hailed from the State Department — which would explain a lot. In the foreground, silhouetted against a writhing sea of varicolored ears, antennae, tentacles, feathers, and further Heineken bottles, was what appeared to be a male prostitute from the plummier days of the Weimar Republic. (Recent administrations have been able to achieve the overall effect without costumes.) I wrapped myself around my drink for security, like an anchovy around its caper.

A short, cherubic lady came ooching toward me through the crowd. My recollection is that she was dressed as an inflatable boat, but this can’t be right. Was it true, she asked eagerly, that I was a Military Writer? Some thought so, I replied, and others didn’t. Oh, wonderful, how very perfect, and did I know the Afghan guerrillas were her hobby? Perhaps this wasn’t her word, but it was what she meant; at any rate, the revelation did not bode well for the guerrillas. And had I heard of her scheme to help them? The idea was to fly them freeze-dried backpackers’ rations in military aircraft extorted from the Air Force under an obscure provision of the law providing for charitable flights in times of national catastrophe. Why this would have any particular effect on the war was not clear to me.

Having to say something, I said that in my estimation the proper study of Russian-kind was Russia, and that the Soviets could work much good by paddling back across the Oxus and raising goats. Or not raising them. The boat, if such she was, decided that I was a fellow spirit and bared her soul to me. In this unveiling I had no choice: she went at it with the reticence of an exotic dancer who wanted dollars stuffed into her garter. Such terrible things are happening in Afghanistan, she said, as indeed they are. The plight of the Pathans aroused her maternal instincts, she said. Soon she was cooing as if to a hurt puppy: “Oh, those poor, poor people, how I feel for them, poor dears…oh, my little fuzzy ducks.”

Her little…what? I thought about it carefully. Yes, that was what she had said. Ducks. Fuzzy ducks.

Now, I have known a good many of these guerrillas, and rather like them. They are among the few people mean enough to stand up to the Russians, being courageous, not too complex, joyfully murderous, and quite capable of skinning a prisoner this week and killing him the next. Whatever one thinks of the war, events in that somber land are not amusing, not a fit subject for dilettantes with too little to do. Perhaps a guerrilla movement is not the best focus for the maternal drives of a woman who badly needs a child or a cat.

An astonishing amount of policy in this city is made by people with the complacent arrogance of the rubber boat, by people willing to prescribe for baffling problems they do not understand in remote regions they cannot find on a map. The truth is that most people in this administration could not distinguish between a helicopter and a hand grenade with fewer than a half-dozen guesses. I am reminded of the cartoon showing an English literary fop saying indignantly to his mother, “One doesn’t write about anything, Mother, one simply writes.”

There is nothing particularly Republican about the woman’s colossal fatuity. Hobbyism runs rampant everywhere in Washington. The underlying premise here, as important in its utility in saving labor as was the cotton gin in the old South, is that at the higher levels one does not need to understand anything; indeed, the time spent in learning is better used in self-promotion.

For example, an acquaintance of mine is a catamaran liberal, the sort of Presbyterian minister who has a sailboat, believes that God is a pervasive force for community organization, and yearns to boycott South Africa, wherever it is. The man is positively Newtonian in his predictability, a boiling, narcissistic assault on the doctrine of free will. A sort of jackleg sociology I favor holds that a Methodist is a Baptist with shoes, a Presbyterian a Methodist with a Buick, and an Episcopalian a Presbyterian with a stock portfolio. Somewhere between shoes and Buick, politics tilts from right toward left. A repressed and angry vanity then discovers that celebrity is after all possible, given the proper venues of demonstration; God is quietly dropped as an embarrassment, and crusades fill the gap. Besides, it’s boring out in the suburbs. Here is the origin, and substance, of liberal religious politics.

The minister and his wife know nothing whatever about anything at all, fervently attend rallies for Nicaragua, and have all sorts of indignant bumper stickers, which I suspect they view as reference works. I once showed them some slides I had taken of the Marines in Lebanon before the advent of the unfortunate truck.* “How awful,” said the wife. “Lebanon…and what ocean is that on?” One simply writes.

Slipping toward the bar through the surging extraterrestrials, I heard someone say, “Dick Allen. Did you see Dick Allen?…Dick Allen was here, I think he left…Lyn Nofziger. Did you see Nofziger?” I didn’t have a clue who Dick Allen was, although the name Nofziger brought to mind a particular sort of beard, presumably attached to Nofziger, that I had once seen on television. It didn’t really matter who Allen was, or Nofziger. Every couple of years there is a new Dick Allen, who struts and frets, slings his arrows, and dives back into the law firm. The Dick Allens of the world are the generic debris of campaigns, the bits of wood and old bottles that float in and out on the tides of politics.

To normal people, the terrible importance of knowing Dick Allen is hard to grasp. An administration does not consist of normal people. The people who make up an administration seem to have no existence of their own, no particular qualities other than a consuming desire to be obviously important. The danger is that such derivative people, measuring themselves as they do by their propinquity to the radiant candle of the presidency, consumed by a desire not to do anything but merely to have influence or its appearance, will not make reasonable decisions. And, of course, the closer to the president they are, the better. Thus the prevalent photographs of Me in the Oval Office, shaking hands with the latest haberdasher to rule the country. Never mind that most presidents, on their merits, would seldom be invited to more than a Shriners’ barbecue.

I talked for a moment to a pleasant fellow, a giant clam, who on President Reagan’s long march from Sacramento had been a technician of some sort — an advance man, a pollster, someone in the mechanical trades. (People do not make good clams, even when they are from California. At bottom, clams do not have legs.) He was young and vivacious, pleased with his lot, and bright without having a thought in his head. I tried to talk about Nicaragua but found he knew nothing of the Third World, tried to talk of Star Wars** but found that he thought it extremely important without knowing what it was, tried…without success. “I’m just a politician, I guess,” he finally said, clearly proud of being just a politician.

He seemed quite aware of having the world by the handles, of having inexplicably but wonderfully reached the top of the heap, and he was having a lot of fun. After spending a few years as minor lawyers and politicians, such as he sweep into office on some presidential bow wave. And they make the great discovery that the exercise of power requires no qualifications. All you need is the power.

Years ago I thought of such people as being Ostrogoths, fingering with brash incomprehension the scrolls of Rome. Now I think it fairer to regard them as children who have taken over the controls of the amusement park.

It is not true that Democrats cannot be distinguished from Republicans. Republicans these days seem brighter than Democrats, and crazier, or at least crazy in ways promising a higher yield. “Don’t you think the MX is crucial?” I heard someone say at the bar.

“Why?” came the sumptuary response. “We haven’t even used the missiles we’ve got yet.”

The remark was original with John Lofton, I think, but in any event epitomized a certain outlaw brashness of the current occupiers of Washington. No Democrat would have ventured such a luminously fey thought. The reason is probably that the Democrats must genuflect to so many solemnities as to make mental movement difficult, and a decent insanity virtually impossible.

They must reverence the poor and the black while going to great lengths to avoid them; curtsy to the old, the brown, and the female; pretend insouciance with regard to money while accumulating as much of it as possible; eschew elitism while furiously practicing it; and condemn any foreign policy more virile than the international distribution of powdered milk-although, come to think of it, they are against powdered milk.*** Theirs is a hard row to hoe.

Further, I decided, a Republican always looks expensively dressed, even when disguised as an octopus. Democrats look like dope dealers.

Having made a last foray to the hors d’oeuvres tray (it is possible in Washington to live entirely on hors d’oeuvres), I left. Enough is enough, and sometimes too much. If government is not possible, I reflected, neither perhaps is it necessary. And if the citizenry knew how they were governed, and by whom, those with a sense of humor would buy radiation suits and a ticket to Switzerland and the rest would head straight for the Mexican border.

A high school student in sports jacket and bow tie got my car, looking as I suppose Christopher Buckley must. It was true, we had not yet used all the missiles we had, and there was much of worth to ponder in the ornithological interpretation of the Afghan war: all those little fuzzy ducks, grim of mien and bent under machine guns, quacking toward Kandahar.


*The truck bomb used by terrorists to kill 241 Marines in Beirut.

**Star Wars: A technologically improbable anti-ballistic-missile system proposed by Reagan and more discussed than built.

***The sale of powdered milk was much condemned because mothers in the third world watered it excessively to make it last and thus starved their offspring.

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