In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they’ve brought home from their travels. Here, the filmmaker David Holbrooke—director of the new HBO documentary The Diplomat, about his late father, Richard Holbrooke—explains how he came home from Afghanistan with this curious item that reminds him of his dad.
We kind of got detained in December of 2013 when we were filming at the International Forces military base in Kabul. I’ll put “detained” in air quotes because it was the loosest, lamest way to be detained. We had been walking around the base, filming, with an American soldier accompanying us. At one point, our executive producer took a photo of the runway, which wasn’t allowed. Some French soldiers saw him do that and one said, “You are all coming with us.”
The American soldier we were with said to the French soldiers, “It’s cool. I’ll just have him delete the photo. Relax.” But the French soldiers were having nothing of it so the U.S. soldier had to get his supervisor. When he arrived at the room where we were being held and saw us, he gave the French a look like, “Really? Really? You were detaining these guys?”
They let us go and the American sergeant, lieutenant, or captain—whoever he was—was friendly and apologized. He asked how much longer we were in Afghanistan. “We have two more days out of a nine day trip,” I told him. And he said something that stayed with us the rest of the trip. He said, “Remember, you’re not out until you’re out.” After he said it, we kept on saying it amongst ourselves because anything could happen in Afghanistan. We were aware of that. It was our mantra. Even at the airport, we were saying it—“We’re not out until we’re out!”—because even getting out of the country at the airport was hairy.
Right before we were held by the French officers, we had gone to the PX [or Post Exchange, a convenience store on the base], which is where I got this patch of Homer Simpson saying, “You sent my dad to Afghanistan, you bastards!” I have always loved PXs. I’d go to them with my dad wherever he was based. This one was full of appropriated American symbols. For one of my daughters, I bought a beach towel that said “Afghan Girl” with the Playboy logo. Classy, I know. For my other daughter, I got this “Starbuckistan” towel designed with a Starbucks logo, which we now use to wipe our dogs’ feet. There were also engraved Zippo lighters, T-shirts with what looked like the Taliban in crosshairs, and vicious-looking hunting knives (advertised with a cardboard cut-out of a bikini-clad woman holding a knife and saying something like, “My favorite knife is this knife.”). Some of the stuff was really intense. The patches were cheap and easy so I bought a few to bring back home, and the Homer Simpson one has always stuck with me.
When I first read the patch, it was like, “Yes, you did send my dad to Afghanistan—as the special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan—and you didn’t let him do his job. You asked him to do something that was essentially impossible, without the tools he needed to do what he had been asked to do. It would have been barely possible in the best circumstances, and they made it the worst circumstances. It was just so ill-conceived—that’s what frustrates me.
I’ve met President Obama twice. I think he’s been a really capable president. I give him a lot of credit. Look at what he’s done with Iran, Cuba, and Myanmar. But Afghanistan is still a mess. What I can never understand or accept, really, is why he never let my father at least try to lead a way out. Who knows if my father could have done it—he didn’t have a magic formula, but he had a track record and a vision. Instead they undercut him because they didn’t like him. They marginalized him. They sent him to Afghanistan and made an impossible job harder. And that to me is bad governance, bad leadership, bad management. And ultimately, bad for our country. “You sent my dad to Afghanistan, you bastards!”