Gregor Samsa, the general counsel of an exterminating company, was in New York on business when he was hit on the head by a flowerpot (geraniums) being watered by one Dorothy Obdean three floors above street level. This happened in 1970. Samsa went into a coma from which he awakened only last week. Almost immediately, he read the major newspapers with astonishment. "For some reason, they've changed the name of Vietnam to Afghanistan," he said.
Samsa read on. Other than the name change and some other minor differences, he noticed that everything else was the same. Some military officers he had never heard of, preternaturally trim and so smart that he had to wonder why they had chosen the business of killing in the first place, were predicting the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning or some such thing. He looked for the phrase "light at the end of the tunnel," but inexplicably it was gone.
Samsa turned the page. There, as he expected, he found that the battle of Marja, which was once going to be the "turning point" of the war, was now seesawing back and forth. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times had reported — in the words of the Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran — that the Taliban has "regained momentum in recent weeks, despite early claims of success by U.S. Marines." Samsa visibly relaxed. Now he was sure they were talking about Vietnam.
Samsa kept reading. Elizabeth Rubin reported in Foreign Policy that the leader of the former Vietnam was acting bizarrely. The leader had an odd name for a Vietnamese person: Hamid Karzai. He had fired his director of intelligence and his interior minister not, as he had said, because they had failed to prevent a recent rocket attack but because he thought they were in cahoots with the Americans. Karzai believed the Americans were trying to intimidate him. Maybe Westmoreland can settle him down.
The president's brother, meanwhile, apparently objected to a long-planned assault on Kandahar, and it has been delayed for that reason. The brother — actually the half-brother, and we all know from Psych 101 what that means — is a very powerful warlord or something. He is also as corrupt as your average Chicago alderman or, as Samsa was quickly learning, virtually any member of the New York state legislature. For literally years, there had been reports that the Americans or his (half) brother or maybe the Mossad would get rid of him, but he was still in power. The fact that nothing had changed was oddly reassuring to Samsa.
The war, Samsa was learning, was now in its eighth year. My God! How had this happened? LBJ was always promising an end to it all. Nixon said he had a secret plan. Samsa had once supported the war, but eight years seemed to him to be enough. What had gone wrong? It seemed the more troops the United States put into this place now called Afghanistan, the more casualties it took and the less progress it made.
The New York Times was reporting that military intelligence was spending an increasing amount of time ferreting out corruption as well as trying to determine what the enemy was up to. Corruption appeared to be rampant. No one could be trusted. It seemed that yes meant no and no meant yes and it all meant maybe. This was the way it always was in Vietnam. Call it Afghanistan, call it Ishmael for all Samsa cared. It was still good old Vietnam.
Samsa read that every month this year had produced more American casualties than the same month a year earlier. He read that additional troops were on the way. He read that Karzai reportedly doubted that America would win and wanted to make peace with the Taliban, which was what the Viet Cong was now apparently calling itself. He read that the United States was going to start pulling out anyway in a bit more than a year. Meanwhile, Americans would die. All the enemy had to do was wait. They're already "in country."
Samsa appreciated Karzai's concern. The enemy was ruthless, barbaric. In 1996, the enemy had tortured and castrated a former president of the country before killing him. Still, if the war could not be won — not that anyone much knew what comprised winning — then it ought to end. The situation saddened the newly awakened Gregor Samsa. Then he brightened.
A Democratic president would end it all, he thought.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.