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This is manifestly not Andy Rooney: A few minutes with the high cost of inaction

By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
 web posted August 23, 2021

The facts and figures cited below are only estimates. The real toll, in destruction and loss of life, is vastly under-reported.

Even as a kid I remember always wanting to watch the last segment of 60 Minutes. When I heard the words "...And now for 'A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney'", I would come running from wherever I was, to hear his straightforward words of unvarnished, uncontaminated reality. He was often humorous, irreverent, sometimes tinged with a tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, but always deadly serious. Nothing was off limits, no topic forbidden and no person beyond reproach. Even with something so mundane that most people didn't think about, he was a thought-provoking breath of fresh air and a sorely missed one, at that.

Last week when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to the growing number of comparisons to Saigon in the recent rooftop evacuations at the US Embassy in Kabul, his answer not only dismissed valid concerns, but evaded the real point of the question. We all know this is Kabul 2021, not Saigon 1975. However, recent footage of helicopters hovering over the Embassy building in Kabul where groups of people were clearly seen on the roof awaiting evacuation, provoked strong visual deja-vu for many of those who saw these events in Saigon.

President Biden, addressing these concerns earlier in July, remarked, "Absolutely not, there's going to be no circumstance where we see people being lifted from the rooftops of a US Embassy in Afghanistan."

It's not only happening, but the striking similarities to the withdrawal from Saigon 45 years ago makes the analogy viable, the outcome predictable and avoidable. When a stabilizing force is removed suddenly, their absence leaves a vacuum which is quickly filled by those with the path of least resistance. Long before US forces arrived, the Taliban held power and they've been biding their time these 20 years. Intelligence sources reported that they were gaining momentum very quickly and evacuation of civilians should be underway well before the withdrawal of military forces. The shut-down of an impenetrable airbase in Northern Afghanistan left the US-trained Afghan air force unable to access fleets of fighter jets. Though they were well-prepared to own the air and defend against the Taliban, they were left to fight, and die, without much of what they were trained to fight with. Thousands of US citizens are now stranded and an estimated 18,000 Afghans who were employed by the US government are now in danger of reprisal.

This human crisis is occurring precisely because viable information wasn't taken seriously. The very real dangers were downplayed and minimized by either ignorance or overconfidence; current reality is trivialized by clichés and benevolent phrases. That all these personnel, military and administrative, were taken by surprise at the rapidity of Taliban forces, strains incredulity to the breaking point. Several thousand US troops that were pulled out only weeks ago have been redeployed to aid rescue efforts. It would be just a monumental political embarrassment if there weren't a human toll. Over 2,000 US soldiers lost their lives in this war. Thousands of Afghan military and civilians lost their lives; in some areas, reporting casualties of war is inconsistent or absent and where there are war crimes they're often hidden. All told, the United States spent well over one trillion dollars attempting to recruit, arm and train an Afghan army strong enough to protect the populace, in addition to their attempts at establishing a solid, centralized government built on democracy. And now it all appears to have been in vain, in a bungled escape that "Is manifestly not Saigon." No, it certainly isn't; it's probably worse.

While talking with a friend who is a front-line healthcare worker in a large, regional medical center a few weeks ago, I was reminded of another human tragedy, one with neither withdrawal date nor end in sight. My friend's remarks were a wake-up call--the problem is spreading, no longer relegated to undeveloped countries and isolated, uneducated people. A major factor in its incursion is that the problem is couched in familiar benevolent phrases, obfuscated by clichés and outright lies. It advances largely unopposed into educated areas disguised as a "cultural tradition". The subject itself is generally uncomfortable to discuss for non-medical people, which further lends itself to the "silence betokens consent". If more feminist activists tackled this issue it could no longer be ignored, and activists would be backed by complete medical legitimacy. But it's neither expedient nor readily profitable--and even though the WHO has declared it "A crime against humanity and a violation of the most fundamental human rights" it continues today.

This practice is now called FGM (female genital mutilation) which is a much closer approximation than its previous name. To be fair, some groups in some areas do practice a "female circumcision" that is similar to traditional male circumcision but this practice isn't what those who promote FGM are referring to when they euphemistically call it this, and neither is it the deadly scourge that is FGM. Most countries around the globe have outlawed the practice; nevertheless it continues--not just in certain west African nations, but in Asian and Middle Eastern countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan. Those who practice this violence often simultaneously or interchangeably refer to it as a "cultural tradition" and a "religious ritual", though there isn't one mention of it in any monotheistic religious text, including Islam, Judaism or Christianity and neither is it a recognized cultural practice in the majority of the countries where it's done. Most females are "cut" before the age of 15 and though our civilization regards it as blatant human cruelty, child abuse, gender discrimination and gender violence at its worst, many turn a blind eye and would rather think of the benign, non-confrontational term "female circumcision".

The World Health Organization, Unicef and the UN estimate that over 3 million girls and women, each year, are at risk for mutilation and that at least 200 million females living now have been subjected to the practice. These same groups have also calculated the very real cost and burden of this unthinkable violence, in human terms, which they agree is likely an underestimate: Every year, healthcare costs from complications and treatment, lost wages and lost lives, amounts to well over 1.4 billion US dollars. The risks to life and health are both immediate and chronic: young girls sometimes die right away from shock and hemorrhage, followed shortly by sepsis, infections of the wounds, chronic urinary retention, stenosis and infection, severe pain, infertility, sexual dysfunction, and if they do manage to get pregnant the risks go up, with a significantly higher maternal and infant mortality rate than their "uncircumcised" peers.

It's nearly impossible to fight a war when we don't have the facts and can't pinpoint the source of the problem. The usual patterns emerge--those of disinformation, ignorance, political agenda, misdirection, miscommunication, lies, watered-down facts, misleading terms and clichés that are more publicly palatable and, of course, fear--fear of the unknown, fear of offending someone, fear of violence. But if we accept certain facts, these fears soon dissipate: It's impossible to avoid offending people, no matter how two-faced and saccharine one becomes; there's no such thing as the "unknown", only things that someone hasn't seen or experienced yet; violence is all around us, whether we've experienced it personally or know someone who did. We can live in relative safety and make wise choices but the world is still going to have a lot of violence, stupidity and ignorance. It's inevitable and ubiquitous--sort of like, well, death and taxes. ESR

Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing and has a degree in Molecular Biology. © 2021

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