Sean Thomas Sean Thomas

We need to find the muscle memory of western greatness

John Moore/Getty Images

Like millions around the world, I have spent recent days watching – sometimes forcing myself to watch – these images coming out of Afghanistan, as the nation has fallen to the triumphant warriors of the Taliban with their untamed beards and M4 rifles. 

They are the kind of images that come along once in a generation, but remain seared in the collective memory for decades. Many have compared these scenes of American defeat to the famous choppers-on-the-US-Embassy images of Saigon on 30 April 1975. And there are obvious, uncanny echoes.

For me, however, the better comparison is with the fall of Phnom Penh (which happened just two weeks before the collapse of Saigon), when the rural Maoists of the Khmer Rouge marched into the Cambodian capital, ready to inflict their atavistic communism on a roiled and helpless country.

A few brave photographers lingered in Phnom Penh that first appalling day, and what they captured, above all, was the growing, bewildered terror of many Phnom Penh citizens (and trapped westerners). And that is exactly what we are seeing in Kabul: the Afghan parents so desperate to save their children they hoist a baby into the arms of an unknown soldier. Or the crush of Afghan and western escapees at the airport perimeter, broiling in the sun, and slain by Isis bombers, or by simple dehydration.

Above all, I have been hypnotised by one extraordinary sequence: the young men who desperately jumped on the wheels of that speeding C17 cargo plane, and then, inevitably, fell to their deaths moments later, as it ascended. And the reason these particular images strike me is that I cannot easily explain them.

That is to say: I can certainly see why you would flee to an airport from an advancing army.

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