Friday, November 6, 2015

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
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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
"You sent my dad to Afghanistan, you bastards!" Follow David
on Twitter at @davidholbrooke and learn more about The Diplomat at
Follow Emily on Twitter at @emspivack and on Instagram at
@emspivack. The director of 'The Diplomat,' a documentary
about his father, the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke, reflects on objects
purchased at a military convenience store in Afghanistan.

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