“Great men are almost always bad men.” That’s the tagline to the wonderful play, Blood and Gifts, about US involvement in Afghanistan from 1981-1991. I’ve just seen it.
That depressing opening sentence is also the missing third line from the famous and much cited quotation from Lord Acton (aka John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton):
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
I’m not sure it’s the appropriate label for this play. Something about the road to hell being paved with good intentions might be nearer the mark.
The drama, written by J T Rogers, puts the current conflict in Afghanistan in an interesting context. It’s one of those stories where “I wouldn’t start there if I were you.” The tale is packed with whataboutery (also explained here) – as in: “Yes, OK, that’s true, but what about before that when you yadda yadda yadda…”
So, according to Blood and Gifts, the answer to the question, why is America in Afghanistan, is definitely not because of 9/11. But nor is it because the United States backed, funded, armed or helped develop radical Islamist groups.
The historical window of the action doesn’t permit Osama Bin Laden to be accorded chief baddie status. His time has not yet come. The play nods to the likes of him only at the end (the brief and less convincing conclusion to a very very strong drama).
Instead fundamentalist Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a malign presence offstage) and a Pakistani military intelligence colonel (modelled on Hamid Gul perhaps, the head the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence) vie for the title of local villain.
So – go back further. To the Soviet invasion perhaps? Back to Soviet influence was still spreading and Communism was a threat. Arguably the CIA wanted not necessarily to defeat the Soviets, but to make them bleed.
No, don’t start there. Keep going back. And shift the focus west a bit. A bit more. Over the border into Iran and the fall of the Shah. The CIA character James Warnock (beautifully played by Lloyd Owen) is partially driven by the guilt he still feels at abandoning to torture and execution his informants and friends in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. He resolves to not let down his Afghan connection in the same way – regardless of the political consequences.
Just think. If the Shah had manged to hold on a couple more years, American-supplied weaponry might have been slipping into Afghanistan over the Iranian border instead of through the Khyber Pass.
Is that where it all began then? At the failure to effectively prop up the Shah? Or was US support for a Pahlavi regime which maintained control through torture and fear was the real first misstep on the road to Kabul?
Nearly there – and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Kind of.
One more step back in time and one more government overthrown – this time a democratic one. They do occur occasionally. We’re all the way back to 1953 and the overthrow of the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the CIA-backed Operation Ajax. The progressive social reforms he introduced were one thing, but wen he moved to nationalise the country’s oil industry… Well, he was asking for it , wasn’t he?
So there you go. The answer is oil.
But the good news – if you’re American – is this. As well as pointing the finger of blame the Russians for invading, the Pakistanis for intriguing and the Islamists for radicalising – let’s not overlook who it was actually asked you to get rid of the democratically elected PM of Iran back then.
It was the “Little Satan” to your “Great Satan”, Perfidious Albion. So there you go – blame the British. The Iranians do.To be fair, Blood and Gifts does not go quite that far. And it’s far more than a mere history lesson. It’s moving, funny, full of 80s fashion and music. A mujahideen envoy to Washington (played by Philip Arditti) tries to woo a Congressional staffer by speaking to her the lyrics of Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Danny Ashok brings the qualities of a perky meerkat to his portrayal of a delightfully amusing and sycophantic Pakistani military clerk. And the CIA and KGB find common ground as they flee from a St Patrick’s Day party in Islamabad to escape the unquenchable Irish ballads.
There’s an element of central casting about some of the characters – the exasperated drunken MI6 man Simon Craig (played by Adam James) who wants to bugger Margaret Thatcher for starving him of funding, and his wily convivial KGB counterpart Dmitri Gromov (played by Matthew Marsh).
But Lloyd Owen gives a towering performance in the central role as the CIA agent struggling to balance family, job and ideology. He’s almost continually onstage.
I saw Blood and Gifts at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. This world premiere run finishes on November 14th. I recommend you see it while you can – or watch out for future performances in your part of the world, perhaps the Lincoln Center Theater in New York which commissioned this full-length play.
If that’s not enough for you, read what these guys say about it: Michael Billington in the Guardian – four stars, Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard, the If I Chance To Talk A Little Wild, Forgive Me blog – and less wholehearted – the Jewish Chronicle (still 4 stars though), Charles Spencer in the Telegraph – three stars, TheatreGuideLondon Review and Broadway World.
For other visions of Afghanistan, try these: