The Price of Passage: Restrepo and Corruption in Afghanistan

Today the term "Silk Road" conjures a romanticized history of fine garments being transported on camels across long stretches of desert from Mediterranean cities throughout Asia. In reality, there was little pleasurable in the journey. Walking through the American Museum of Natural History's "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World" exhibit, there was much more than silk being bartered, including spices, medicines and slaves. If rigorous external conditions weren't enough to dissuade merchants, tribal groups demanding payment for passage was certainly a deterrent.

Cultures are comprised of such habits. America has long been criticized for the makeshift nature of our culture, one that plundered pre-existing societies and never slowed to see what was created in the process. While this country has been a consistent innovator in numerous ways, history remains something we're not comfortable with--hence the current revisions of "Constitutional truths" and championing biological impossibilities in classrooms. We want to rewrite history as we engage the future every step of the way. The problem is that we fail to look at the present moment, forcing us to create utopias of every other time but now.

There is arguably little Edenic in modern Afghanistan. One particularly enlightening scene appears in Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's documentary film, Restrepo, in which the journalists spent a yearlong assignment in the Korangal Valley following one platoon's day-to-day activities. Three village elders arrive at the American army's base to complain that a cow was killed after being tangled in a wire fence erected by the soldiers. They required compensation of $400-$500. Cut to the commander on the phone requesting these funds, only to offer a barter of sugar and rice. The elders balk and walk away disgusted.

Credit Junger and Hetherington for bringing out the humanity of these situations. Whatever your feelings on the war in Afghanistan, they have captured perhaps the most important footage Americans have seen. There is no politicizing, no big idea commentary in any of these 96 minutes. The story focuses on what the men go through on a daily basis, and you have to recognize the lengths these soldiers went through making amends with villagers. Credit also the filmmakers for sheer bravery--this is a place few journalists, myself included, would have the courage to even entertain the notion of entering. Like the soldiers, their lives were on the line every minute of their assignment.

So you can't be angered by the platoon leader's inability to raise those funds. He tried his best. What you do not see is where the failure happened on the other side of that phone call. Somewhere in the chain of command, the price of passage was not paid, which could at least in part be why US forces had to pull out of the Korangal Valley in April, 2010, with 42 dead, hundreds injured and no Taliban trophies.

The real issue arises watching another journalist in Afghanistan uncovering a different piece of this frustrating puzzle. Rachel Maddow arrived with the same intention as Junger and Hetherington, to offer a direct media outlet to soldiers. Walking with NBC News's Chief Foreign correspondent Richard Engel through a recently developed Kabul neighborhood, Engel pointed out streets of million-plus dollar homes built by government officials using American aid money. These officials rented these buildings out for between $10,000-$25,000 a month to foreign companies and contractors, while simultaneously refusing to pay property taxes--hence, no paved streets or sanitation system. These buildings, some housing up to 25 bedrooms, are side income for these politicians, who live far away from the war in Dubai and Islamabad.

Whatever noble intentions soldiers have for being in Afghanistan get lost while watching footage like this. Somewhere along the line someone has to live up to refusing a few hundred dollars to make amends for a lost bovine in a politically troubled village while aiding political figures that are building expensive rentals. I'm sure this is not the war that these soldiers signed up for.

The question remains: What culture are we currently creating? As war journalist Chris Hedges notes in his 2002 book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, "tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning." While most of us are not these soldiers or the journalists brave enough to venture there, we are doing ourselves, as well as all of them, a disservice if we avoid such a question.