In the past few days, we've been involved in helping some members of our community try and get a bunch of Afghan girls out of Kabul.
It's been a weirdly disorienting and heartbreaking experience to hear audio recordings of their pleas for help at the airport fence and at the same time reading the newspaper headlines describing these events in almost real time, as if they're just "news."
It's nice to think that 'maybe' some efforts from our comfortable worlds over here could make a difference over there, and at the same time it's grimly slim odds of happy endings for more than a few lucky ones.
For many people, the boy who fell from the C-130 transport plane last week offered a double whammy of traumatic imagery––scenes from 9/11 of desperate people jumping from the Twin Towers (which bookends our twenty years in that country), and also, to an older, deeper wound––of Huey helicopters leaving the US Embassy during the Fall of Saigon , with people clinging to their skids like a barrel of monkeys.
Turns out the boy who fell from the sky was a member of the Afghan national junior soccer team. Hearing tales of the Taliban's ban on his sport, he'd concluded that his life was worth risking for the chance to keep playing the game he loved somewhere/anywhere else in the world. "Today is a day to trust in God!" he told his brother on the phone as he rushed to the airport.
Archetypes happen. And when they do, they unleash all sorts of powerful and pent up emotions. We're witnessing this in real time.
But there's an additional echo here that is worth considering for a bunch of reasons––and that is the US covert involvement with the Tibetan resistance after the Dalai Lama fled Chinese occupation in the mid 1950s.
It's relevant in its own right––especially since so many Westerners have bought the easy tale of Tibetans as groovy non-violent buddhas in saffron robes (and then promptly forgotten about their struggle). But it's also a critical case study in the limits of spiritualized approaches to real world crises, and the sad and recurring patterns of US foreign policy.
You see, in the early years of the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the Dalai Lama was actually a bit of a spoiled, disinterested trust fund prince. He wasn't even that into Buddhism. (sacrilege! you say, but when you study the office of the Dalai Lama, you learn that only 7 of 14 died of natural causes, and that the first was installed as a Vichy puppet to the Mongol Khan emperors--it's a much juicier and human story). Plus it makes his adult turn towards his faith all the more meaningful.
The Tibetan's initial policy to Chinese invasion was strategic accommodationism, until it became clear that the Chinese were more like an anaconda, and every coil only tightened their death grip.
As most folks have heard, the Dalai Lama undertook a daring midnight escape from Lhasa, and a mountainous trek to find asylum in Dharamsala, India. But far fewer folks are aware of the other half of that tale––of the Khampa tribesmen left behind, who stayed to fight.
The Kham people are like the Lakota warriors of the Himalayan Plateau--raiders, traders, horseback nomads and fierce. They were unwilling to give the Chinese a free pass, and it wasn't long before the CIA saw a strategic value in funding and training them in their Cold War shell game of proxy wars.
So the spooks packed a bunch of Tibetans into a cargo plane, drugged them all with sleeping pills and flew them to Colorado––spiriting them up to Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division had trained in World War II
(in addition to guiding in Tibet, Camp Hale was where I used to lead winter courses, where our son was born, and right next to where we just held Camp Omega at the end of July--so this story has a ton of resonance personally)
The whole top secret plan nearly got busted when a bus filled with Tibetans broke down near Colorado Springs––but they kept a lid on it, and only lately, as many of those former freedom fighters are dying and their CIA counterparts have retired, is anyone telling the tale.
So take 45 minutes and check this out––Tibet's Hidden War: Shadow Circus Documentary––it's a mind blowing peek into an almost forgotten chapter of history
In one especially ballsy raid, the Tibetan resistance fighters picked off a blue satchel from a Chinese intelligence officer--and not finding anything of value in it for themselves, handed it over to their CIA handlers. Turns out it was filled with honest descriptions of the failures of Mao's Great Leap Forward, famines, production shortages, civil unrest.
At the time, the US had almost no reliable intel on Stalin or Mao, and were terrified that these communist juggernauts were unstoppable. That Blue Satchel was the single largest intelligence coup for the CIA in the Cold War, and the US had the Khampa warriors to thank for it.
But by 1969 and into the early 70's, US strategy towards China was shifting, (the era of Forrest Gump going to make friends and play ping pong) and Nixon and Kissinger changed tacks. The Chinese laid out as preconditions––no discussion of Taiwan or Tibet––and with that, the US began cutting off funding for the freedom fighters.
The movement met a tragic end when the Nepali Gurkhas and Chinese army pinned the remaining Tibetans down in a mountain pass. While waiting for US air support that never came, the Khampa warriors were cornered in an ambush. Rather than surrender, several of their leaders cut their own throats, or flung themselves into the river to drown.
And we got prayer flags, the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere (and by a contorted origin story I still can't quite wrap my head around, butter in our coffee!)
So what's the point?
1) Same As It Ever Was. Real Politik is a cold blooded game, and "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" leads to a bunch of broken friendships. Henry Kissinger won the Nobel prize while Tibetan independence was sacrificed to US policy. So as we try to take in what's happening today just down range of those same Himalayan peaks, as fierce tribes fight to protect their homelands from invaders (this time, the Taliban, but before that the US, Soviets, British, Sikhs and Greeks)––we'd do well to look to history for our cautionary tales (and karmic debts).
2) Physics Trumps Metaphysics: So many folks in the new agey/Conchi scene like to imagine that the cure for a world in crisis is more meditation and cacao, and that if someone insists on nittier or grittier realities or solutions, that "they're just bringing down the vibration, or inviting in negativity." But 3D matters too, (which anyone living outside the Bougie West could readily tell you). And the Tibetans offer a stark case study––even the most enlightened lamas couldn't stop a bullet from a rusty AK47 fired by a 17 year old Han Chinese soldier. Physics trumps metaphysics. Nearly every single time.
3) Safe Spaces: There's been an on again/off again shit show in the US about how many avowedly liberal campuses (like Bryn Mawr and Princeton) aren't actually "safe" for students who might experience trauma if they're exposed to careless pronoun abuse and being forced to read Plato. This feels patently absurd and massively devalues the very real traumas of people for whom those degrees of free speech, personal safety and liberal values are pipe dreams.
Let's keep working on our society, by all means, but let's not forget that no matter how intersectionally righteous our grievances are, if we're rage tweeting about them on thousand dollar smart phones––we're ALL part of the top 1% of privileged humans who have ever lived on this planet.
4) Fight For Your Rights: It's super easy to get sucked into an Orientalist vision of Dalai Lama's non violence––in part because it is a "turn the other cheek" level of compassion and long term wisdom we could all do with. But also, because it conveniently lets us off the hook for outrage, resistance or activism. "If he's cool with it, I guess we get to be too?"
But in reality, the Dalai Lama is half of a shifting dialectic between passive and active resistance that's always been true. From Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, to the Lama and the Khampas––it's never been cut and dried which approach is the best in a given moment or movement. King's march to Selma and Gandhi's march to the sea worked because they were appealing to the conscience of civil society's that had already avowed (at least in principle) to human rights and shared dignity.
Try that with Hitler, Stalin, Custer's Cavalry, the CCP, or the Taliban, and you're just making it easier to cut you down without a second thought. Sometimes violent evil must be resisted violently.
And if you've only been vaguely hearing about China's next effort to eradicate a people, after Tibet, check this long form essay from a Uyghur poet and his terrifying escape to the US. Or this North Korean woman's escape from that totalitarian hell hole.
So that's all for today––no pithy or punchy sign off or "what's it all mean" digest. Just a general bearing witness to humanity, to courage, to persistence, to resistance, and to the neverending story of Good going head to head with Evil, a little bit, everywhere, always. On our relentless road to redemption...
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