It’s an extraordinary story.
One that saved not only hundreds of Afghans, but some of America’s creed and honor.
Yet it has received little coverage in the press, outside of the United States.
So here it is, from my perspective—that of a French philosopher who has loved America since he was a child.
I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle.
But on Aug. 28 The New York Times published an op-ed by Elliot Ackerman, a highly decorated Marine veteran of five tours in Afghanistan who has since become a brilliant journalist and novelist.
There is also a long and detailed article, on the site of ABC News, that Tablet’s literary editor David Samuels shared with me.
And I assembled bits of information from U.S. and Afghan sources through telephone conversations that I promised to keep confidential.
The story begins with a handful of veterans who, since April, have been sounding the alarm about the danger facing translators, fixers, and other Afghan comrades in arms who, if President Joe Biden proceeds to implement Donald Trump’s pullout plan, will be in mortal danger.
Their worry only grows when, in mid-summer, it appears that the inconceivable is happening, and that units of the Afghan special forces are being handed over to the enemy, as explained subsequently by retired Lt. Col. Russell Worth Parker in an interview with ABC News.
They implore the president to put off the Aug. 31 deadline.
They explain that, for both humanitarian and military reasons, the logical sequence would have been to begin with the evacuation of allies, and that you don’t pull up the ladder, as was done in Saigon, until the evacuees are safe and sound.
They call on their senators and congressmen, not a few of whom are also veterans.
Two courageous congressmen—Republican Peter Meijer of Michigan and Democrat Seth Moulton of Massachusetts—plan a trip to Kabul and arrive with the utmost secrecy, in the middle of the pullout operations, to take the measure of the unfolding disaster.
And, faced with the chaos reigning on the runways of Hamid Karzai Airport, faced with this pre-announced defeat, without precedent in American military history, the group takes action.
From the United States, it makes contact with Afghans caught in the trap.
It organizes a network on the model of the Underground Railroad’s secret routes and safe houses by which the abolitionists sheltered escaped slaves during the Civil War.
It sets up message chains on WhatsApp and Telegram.
It reconstructs from memory—and, when memory fails, refreshes it via Google—the access route into and out of this neighborhood or that house.
And, realizing that this will be the only solution, the most daring of these veterans travel to Kabul to search, under the nose and in the face of the Taliban, for their endangered Afghan comrades.
The missions take place at night.
The main one begins on the night of Aug. 25-26, just before the suicide bombing that will cost the lives of 13 American soldiers and at least 170 Afghan civilians.
Some are carried out in cooperation with American military units fed up with seeing their allies make it to within 20 yards of the gate and not be allowed to pass through.
Most often, the veterans set out alone, like Scott Mann, the former Green Beret lieutenant colonel, who takes off in search of an Afghan comrade who is trapped in a part of the city patrolled by an especially aggressive Taliban squad.
In the coded messages that pass from one “chat room” to another, the Afghans are “passengers.”
The American volunteers who come to their rescue are “conductors.”
They are themselves guided remotely from the airport zone by “shepherds.”
The latter group depends on a handful of “engineers” who coordinate the operation from a makeshift HQ.
Sometimes the connection seems to go dead; the chat room no longer responds; and the conductor concludes that a Taliban assassin has uncovered the would-be evacuee and reduced him to silence.
But then suddenly the link goes live again, with a green light blinking on the conductor’s phone.
In response, there appears on the passenger’s phone, in the darkness of the city, a coded emoticon, a pineapple against a pink background.
The passenger is sent the GPS image of a safe itinerary; he is guided along; the guides lose contact; contact is restored; he is redirected; the guides move along ahead of him, trying to recognize him in the crowd of similarly haggard and distressed faces; and, finally, there he is, in front of Abbey Gate, armed with the precious password that he whispers to the master sergeant in order to gain entry.
I am aware that this story may appear double-edged.
It is never good when, in a democracy, retired members of the military presume to put themselves back into service.
But it was that or the horror of seeing their friends and allies lynched.
It was this cautious, careful operation, by all indications undertaken with fear and trembling, or definitive dishonor.
America today is under the shadow of this self-inflicted Saigon, this botched Dunkirk, this deep humiliation. But there are also these moments of brotherhood that make you wonder whether you’re in a Kathryn Bigelow film, or a Netflix series on the Navy Seals, or that you’re standing next to Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne; but that’s not the case! This is real life; these are everyday heroes who simply decided, out of conscience, not to let the trap door close on obscurantism and crime.
These heroes have lent, to speak like the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a “purer meaning” to the principles of “empathy” and “service,” which are those of the great American “tribe,” Democrats and Republicans alike.
These heroes are here to remind the world that the strange, nameless country made up of the United States of America remains an exceptional nation, faithful to its founding idea, whose flame may flicker but never goes out entirely.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.