Ted Rall 2
Ken Gale — 26-Oct-11
The ’Nuff Said! Interview: Ted Rall
Welcome back to our “print radio” feature, the ’Nuff Said! interview.
For nine years Ken Gale, in conjunction with Ed Menje and Mercy Van Vlack, hosted and produced about 400 episodes of this comic-book themed series for New York’s WBAI radio station, broadcast from the Empire State Building and live-streamed over the Internet for the past several years of its run. Ken’s show covered all styles and all eras of comics, pointing out the diversity and richness of the art form to an audience who were often unaware of the versatility of sequential art.
’Nuff Said! ended as a regular show in 2002, but Ken has done a number of specials and guest spots on other WBAI broadcasts, continuing to show how well our art form fits in with many different, seemingly disparate topics.
The ’Nuff Said! archive, used with Ken’s full permission and cooperation, is a ‘snapshot album’ of the careers, influences, and often surprising opinions of a wide range of comics creators, several of whom, sadly, are no longer with us, and many of whom are seldom if ever interviewed by comics journalists.
This interview is the second with Ted Rall, political and editorial cartoonist, journalist and broadcaster. In the first interview, on 27th January 1997, he talked with Ken Gale about his early career and influences, the pessimistic future of political cartooning in the US, and the collective underside of the American psyche.
After a five-year gap – during which Ted became regularly syndicated in the Village Voice and a prominent radio commentator – he made a further appearance on ’Nuff Said! on 5th July 2002, talking with Ken Gale and Mercy Van Vlack about his experiences visiting Afghanistan following the events of September 11th, 2001…
Ken Gale: Today we’re talking to political cartoonist Ted Rall, who was in Afghanistan in November/December 2001, just after the war started. In his book, To Afghanistan and Back, he details his experiences there, and the differences between what went on in Afghanistan itself and what we were told by the media in the US. Ted, it wasn’t your first time there, which set you aside from almost every journalist who was there for the war…
Ted Rall: Yeah, I met a lot of journalists, I went in with a pool of 45 people in total, and I was definitely the only one who’d been there before, not just to Afghanistan, but to that part of the world, nobody ever goes to Central Asia! So I was the weirdo who knew everything…
Ken: And why did you go to Central Asia?
Ted: I’m strangely obsessed with that part of the world, though I can’t explain it. There’s no good reason; my Mom used to get National Geographic for me when I was a kid, and one time there was an article about the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, and they described it as the most remote, boring, God-forsaken place on the planet, and I thought “That looks really cool!” (laughs) so I always wanted to go there, and I finally had an excuse in 1997 when I was working for P.O.V. Magazine, which is no longer with us, but they had a lot of money at the time, and I convinced a very drunken editor to send me to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and every other -stan, to gohang out and take a look-see; it was Beijing to Istanbul, overland, and I came back and said, “That was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve ever had in my life – I’m dying to go back!” I’m just a glutton for punishment. I’ve been to Central Asia five times.
Ken: And Afghanistan how many times?
Ted: I’d have to say two and a half times. I was barely inside Afghanistan once, when I was in Taliban-occupied Kashmir; back in 1999, in August/September, the Taliban were invited to take over a third of Kashmir to fight the Indians on Pakistan’s behalf, a little detail of history that no-one knows about, except that my friend and I got dragged off a bus and threatened with execution. So we became very aware of it!
Ken: How did you manage to get through that? They had no reason to keep you alive.
Ted: I was a good talker. It was three guys, and only one of them spoke English. I couldn’t get over how great this guy’s English was, because we hadn’t encountered anyone else who could even say hello, and this guy didn’t even have an accent! So finally I asked him, while I was arguing with him about saving my life, “Where did you learn English?” And he says, “NYU, Class of ’83”! So he was the ‘hip Talib’, and it literally got down to “Who do you like better, Yankees or Mets?”… I figured the Taliban would be pro-Mets, and in fact I guessed correctly… (laughs) So for those of you travelling in Central Asia… Actually, I guess now the Yankees would be the preferred Northern Alliance team. It was definitely about talking our way out of it, of saying, “Look, we didn’t know you guys were here, if we knew we wouldn’t have come.” I just kept repeating that until they finally believed us.
Ken: They really thought you were some sort of spies or something?
Ted: They said, “We announced it to the world, we told everyone that American passport holders would be executed on sight, and if you guys didn’t pay attention, it’s because you’re not on the Internet, or you’re not watching the news.” I was like, “I just came from rural Western China, where there’s no radio or television or internet cafes,” and we were getting into this big argument, “Well, I heard there was a new cybercafe in Kashkar,” and I’m “No there’s not!” It’s always about rumour in Central Asia, no one ever has any reliable information. If I ever became wealthy I’d fund an independent radio network for Central Asia, just so people would know what the hell was going on…
Ken: And then they wouldn’t believe it!
Ted: Well, that’s true, because I would probably be paid off by some corrupt government official…
Mercy Van Vlack: Or the Adidas corporation…
Ted: Yeah, all the world’s sneakers are soon going to be made there, I’m sure.
Ken: So why do they hate us?
Ted: Well, why wouldn’t they? It’s a hilarious idea that we would not be hated by other countries, considering that we just love to throw our weight around and there’s nothing in it for them. Central Asia’s actually the classic example; we’ve propped up all these former Soviet dictators in all the Central Asian Republics. Practically every one is not democratically elected; it’s the former Soviet Party boss of that country, who immediately switched over in 1991 to becoming an authoritarian, pro-Free Market capitalist, but ‘Free Market’ only insofar as they practise Russian-style corruption. And we prop up these governments, and the locals know it, and when the weight and corruption of their own regime comes down on them, they know it’s really the United States’ money supporting that, and that the only reason we’re there is because of – yawn, boring – oil. It’s always about the oil, because, Kazakhstan, unbeknownst to most Americans, has the largest untapped oil reserves in the world. There’s 260 billion barrels under the Kazakh section of the Caspian Sea, and there’s only 45 billion in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producing state.
Ken: We’re talking five, six Saudi Arabias?
Ted: Two and a half times the entire global supply. This is not just another big strike, it’s the mother of all strikes, but nobody realizes that, and the problem is you can’t get the oil out, because it’s landlocked. It’s all about pipeline politics, and the shortest route is to run it through Iran, out to the Persian Gulf, but the United States won’t allow Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan, which are their allies, to do a deal with Iran. And there’s a Russian pipeline, but they tried that in 1993, and the Russians stole the oil and didn’t pay for it! There was a plan to run it through China, which would be safe, but 5300 miles too far. Too expensive. So that leaves the insane prospect of running it through a country where ten-year old boys sleep with AK-47s.
Mercy: Not very stable…
Ted: But that’s where the oil pipeline is going through.
Ken: So I would think that, that being the case, they’d want to make sure by installing their own puppet government.
Ted: That’s what the current interim regime of Hamid Khaza is. His job, before he became interim President of Afghanistan, was as a consultant for Unical Petroleum, and the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, who will become the US ambassador to Afghanistan after the interim government is replaced, is himself a former employee of Unical. That deal closed on March 7th, 2002, in Islamabad, the pipeline deal was signed between Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. You would have thought that Khaza would have had better things to do, in his first months in office, considering his country is the poorest, worst, dump on Earth, but he spent all of that time negotiating a pipeline.
Ken: Well, that’s going to help his people, isn’t it?
Ted: Oh, right. (laughs) ’Cause that always happens. Central Asia’s great, because the average person earns twenty dollars a month, and lives in absolute poverty, and every now and then they get to see a Rolls drive by in the streets!
Ken: But nobody feels hungry, you said in the book…
Ted: There’s not the kind of starvation that we Americans associate with UNICEF, there’s not the bloated bellies, flies on the kids with the vultures hovering, there’s subsistence farming throughout, but nothing more than that. Living in dire poverty, but they’re not going to starve to death. And there’s one thing that all Central Asians have, and Afghanistan in particular, is an incredibly strong family and friendship network. If you are even just pals with someone, it’s a bond more intense than many Americans have with their parents or their spouses, it’s incomprehensible to people who haven’t been there, but it’s what they have, it
keeps them going. If someone comes into a little luck, then everyone shares.
Ken: Do you think those bonds would stay – I mean, you mention in the book that people of different ethnic groups are friends, neighbours, they hang around together, they –
Ted: They intermarry.
Ken: Do you think that bond would remain if the United States came in, wouldn’t they do this divide and conquer thing so it’s easier to control?
Ted: Based on what I saw, I have to say that I don’t think the United States has a damn clue about Afghanistan or Central Asia. They don’t know what they’re doing, so I don’t think they’re in a position to properly exploit the country, or to screw it up in any meaningful way!
Let’s face it, the conventional wisdom that prevailed on September 11th 2001 still prevails today, which is that if you install a dominant Tajik/Darii government, which is what was done in Kabul, they are presiding over a country that is 51% Pashtun, and Pakistan, which is the neighbouring power in the region, is predominantly Pashtun also. So, the majority is out of power, it’s essentially an apartheid state, and when you have the vast majority of people unable to get the new Government jobs, unable to get the new connections in the Militias, it’s going to disintegrate – in fact, already has disintegrated – into civil war.
Ken: Well, then, those bonds can be divided…
Ted: The divisions already existed, and what has been exacerbated by the US presence is Islamic fundamentalism. This is backing up everything that the Taliban always said and always warned, that the US were only interested in coming in and oppressing Muslims, and Afghans in particular. The Taliban are a club that no longer meet, but that same strain of Fundamentalist hard-right Islamist culture, with every woman in a burqua and the weekly stonings at what I used to call the Talidrome, the former soccer stadium in Kabul, at 3 o’clock on Friday afternoons, that goes on…
Ken: They actually used to schedule it? 3 p.m. stonings, every week?
Ted: Well, there’s not a lot to do in Kabul, and it’s pretty entertaining, so… that has not stopped. Sharia laws. Stonings, amputations, the occasional toppling of a wall over on a homosexual if they can find one.
Mercy: So, cutting your hand off if you steal something, they still do that?
Ted: They still do that. It has not changed. Adulterers are still executed by stoning. I was just laughing about the ‘reforms’. After the Northern Alliance, they said, “Well, we are liberalizing. We used to hang the bodies in the square for three days, and now it’s just fifteen minutes!” It’s a kinder, gentler Afghanistan…
Ken: Awww, that’s so sweet…
Mercy: Only lightly killed…
Ken: It was amazing, having read your work all these years in The Village Voice and Comic Relief, I find you to be one of the most cynical cartoonists I’ve ever read…
Ted: Thank you!
Ken: And yet, in the last two chapters of To Afghanistan and Back, you paint this rosy picture of this war-torn area, where everyone are friends, nobody goes hungry, there are no orphans because people take the kids in, there are no homeless children, and you really portray a wonderful spirituality there.
Ted: Well, this is my Mom’s fault, so – Hi Mom, this is your fault – I called her on a satellite phone and asked her, from Afghanistan, “What do you think of what I’ve written?”, and she said, “You’re just like everyone else, you’re writing about all the negative crap, about how everything sucks.” And I’m, “But everything does suck!”, and she said, “Surely, if you think about it, there’s positive aspects to life in Afghanistan”, and it’s true, there are these – I mean, everything does suck, but because everything sucks, in a way, people pull together in a way that’s so extreme because their conditions, their circumstances, are so extreme. My work is characterised by internal conflict. People write to me and say, “Your work isn’t consistent.” – OF COURSE NOT! I tend to look at issues in several different ways, I’m not a doctrinaire person, life is very confusing and difficult to figure out, and I think most people feel that way, they can’t honestly say, “THIS is how it’s supposed to be!”. Afghanistan’s like that; if and when they were to recover – which isn’t going to happen any time soon – but if they were ever to get a real economy there, and get on their feet, just survive – they’re going to lose something very important, that we Americans lost hundreds of years ago, the sense of intimate community and loyalty.
Ken: You mentioned that all of the ethnic groups can speak the language of the other ethnic groups –
Ted: They have to.
Ken: – and I was reminded of India, where that tends to be the case, largely due to intermarriage, the groups accumulated each other’s languages. However, I’m told that in the last ten to fifteen years, that has changed, and that people, instead of learning each other’s language, learn English.
Ted: Ah, now that’s really depressing.
Ken: I was wondering if you thought Afghanistan was going to go that way…
Ted: Well, English has roots in Afghanistan, because of the huge Pakistani influence. In Pakistan, all the signs are in English; because of that, ethnic Pakistanis have their storefront signs in English. But I don’t think the American troops are much of a cultural influence in Afghanistan, because nobody sees them. They don’t stay in town, they stay in camps in the middle of nowhere, and even when they travel they take the back roads, and they have their subtly tinted SUVs, and they really don’t talk to ordinary people, which is why they don’t know what the hell is going on. Which also minimises the negative impact, I guess.
Mercy: One of the cartoons in To Afghanistan and Back, every time I look at it I get chills, it was wonderful. It was just after 9/11, and you had the people in the building doing their daily thing, and it began, “If you haven’t heard from someone in a reasonable time, can you assume they’re dead?” You captured what everyone was going through at the time so elegantly, particularly in the final panel when the guy’s just sitting there, typing away, and there’s the plane outside his window, that was incredible.
Ted: Thank you. I obviously had my share of controversy about 9/11-related commentary, and I kind of felt that the early stuff I did straight after 9/11 might let people know that my heart was in the right place. It didn’t really work, (laughs) but I’m glad you noticed!
Mercy: Your cynicism kicked in a little, because there was a lot of weird stuff…
Ted: It wasn’t my cynicism, it was the Bush administration’s cynicism, because I would be all for the United We Stand, flag-waving, “We’re all in it together” stuff, I really would be, but it’s Bush who blew that in my opinion.
Ken: In what way?
Ted: By immediately trying to use the knee-jerk popularity increase that he had and turning it into political capital, turning it into tax cuts, pushing through a partisan, right-wing, G.O.P. political agenda. It just wasn’t the time, it wasn’t the place, and I don’t know what the hell he was thinking.
Ken: And yet when you criticise him, of course, you became the object of –
Ted: “You’re not loyal, you’re Anti-American!” BUSH is anti-American! I mean, that guy’s not even the President! He was installed!
Ken: He got 100% of the black vote! (laughs) That one guy!
Mercy: It’s like when the Mayor was everywhere; he was seen clapping people on the back, and giving them coffee, and then he wanted to run again, and it’s like, “Wait a minute!” (laughs) It’s scary; get away from me…
Ted: That’s exactly it – Guiliani was the same thing, he couldn’t leave well enough alone, he couldn’t go out with a little bit of class, he was like REM when they promised to break up a few years back, and I was so happy with that, and then it turned out to be a lie!
Mercy: (laughs) How many times have we been to “the last Who concert”, right? There’s been just a couple of those…
Ken: When you were on ’Nuff Said! last, a few years ago, you mentioned that for somebody your age, political cartooning is a dead-end profession; do you still feel that way?
Ted: Oh yeah, there’s no doubt about it, I’m 38 and it’s depressing – it’s Tom Tomorrow and me; we’re the last of the Mohicans. There are younger cartoonists out there in their twenties, some of them have even landed jobs, but they’re not doing anything new and different; they’re drawing the way their grandparents would have if their grandparents had been political cartoonists! Stylistically, the form has become incredibly moribund. Political cartooning, as comics fans know, is just not where the interesting stuff is going on. Professionally, because there are so few papers that are hiring, there are so few places buying syndicated work, there’s fewer outlets. There’s only around eighty guys – and I have to say ‘guys’, because I think there are only three women doing editorial and political cartooning professionally – so there are, what, seventy-seven guys and three women who do this nationally and make a living at it. There were well over three hundred editorial or political cartoonists twenty years ago, and there were over twelve hundred a hundred years ago! Looking at the declining numbers, you have to think, “Well, this is like haberdashery, it is not a job for the future!” I just got in under the wire, and I’m really lucky. I’ve edited a book called, Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists, and it’s got the ‘alt.weekly’ political cartoonists, folks like Tom Tomorrow, Ward Sutton, Ruben Bolling, Don Asmundsen, and that book is my effort to say, “Look, there is interesting political cartooning going on, it’s just not going on in the daily paper!”
Ken: In other words, you’re contradicting yourself again!
Ted: (laughs) There you go! It’s life, it’s inherently contradictory! It’s like George Bush, I hate him but he seems like he might be a pretty nice guy…
Ken: Well, he’s a baseball fan… Now, has the whole Art Spiegelman controversy followed you around, or has it died down by now?
(Note: In the Village Voice of July 28th–Aug 3rd, 1999, Rall’s column assailed Art Spiegelman’s position as the definitive authority on all things comics-related in the eyes of the world’s media, and challenged ‘accepted wisdom’ by stating that nothing in Spiegelman’s CV came close to the quality of Maus, strongly implying that Spiegelman’s reputation was largely undeserved. In subsequent weeks, a controversy arose in the Voice’s lettercolumn elsewhere, with heavy hitters such as Harvey Pekar, Steve Breen, Chris Ware, Tony Millionaire, and designer Chip Kidd taking sides, some praising Rall’s courage for taking on the apparently untouchable Spiegelman, others claiming that the article was overtly personal and essentially nothing more than an example of ‘sour grapes’ from a less successful artist. – WM)
Ted: (sighs theatrically) There’s always some controversy… It’s so hard to keep track of them all…
Ken: But does one replace the other, or do you still have people attacking you because you dared to criticise Art Spiegelman in public?
Ted: The mistake that I made in writing that piece for the Voice was in thinking that, coming out of the world of editorial cartooning, we really rip each other apart all the time, we have slideshows where we show each other’s cartoons from the previous year and make fun of them, frame by frame, while the person is there being ridiculed and they have to laugh along… We write vicious reviews of each other’s work, and that’s the culture I come from; we dish it out, so we ought to be able to take it. I’ve certainly had terrible reviews of my work, and I can take it. So when I did that piece about Art, I didn’t realise it was going to have the huge impact that it did, and it’s still dogging me; there are cartoonists who will not speak to me because they’re friends of Art, and they consider me disloyal to him, even though they’ve never met me.
Ken: Does Art speak to you?
Ted: Oh no. It’s kind of a problem, because I’m on the Board of Directors of this Comic Arts Museum, but you know there are people like Art Spiegelman and his friends who are obviously incredibly important artists, who should be involved, and they’d be more than welcome, but they’re pissed at me. And so, because of an article, written in August of 1999…
Mercy: Wow. They’re still clinging to it…
Ted: I don’t think anything I wrote was wrong, but I do feel badly that they’re so angry about this. It’s also weird, because Art’s been very mean to people like Crumb.
Ken: Yeah, but he’s still friends with Crumb, and people kind of know that…
Ted: Yeah, but just because Crumb’s a wuss… (laughs)
Ken: It’s supposed to be okay to be mean to friends, because that’s joking around, but you’re not supposed to insult strangers…
Ted: Yeah, but he called Crumb a racist, that’s not joking around, that’s really not cool… unless it’s true! It’s just a different world. I don’t know where those guys are coming from, I’ve never met either, so… yeah, to that extent it’s still following me around, and that sucks, but I don’t regret it.
Ken: My first thought about it was that in America, we put people on pedestals and then we start knocking them down, and – you were doing the knocking them down part!
Ted: Well, I think the pedestal was a little too high; there’s a book that influenced me which came out a few years ago, called The Winner Take All Society, about the phenomenon that, for example, if you win three Gold Medals in the Olympics, you need never work again for the rest of your life, due to commercial endorsements, but if you win a Silver Medal, you’re still an amazing athlete, you came in 1/100th of a second afterwards, but you know what you are? You’re a loser! You’re the guy who sat home drinking beer instead of getting off your butt and going and training! And I think Spiegelman benefited from that, to an extent, in the cartoon world, where he’s just the one name that editors could remember to call.
Ken: Art Spiegelman said that he would not have won the Pulitzer if the subject matter had been something else; it wasn’t just the writing and art…
Ted: Spiegelman strikes me as an incredibly intelligent guy, everyone I’ve interviewed about him, who knows him, there’s no doubt that he’s a smart, self-aware individual. He’s knows what’s up; the Pulitzers are BS, when you win or when you lose.
Ken: A lot of people say that when you’re up for awards like that, it’s better to be nominated and to lose than to win, because people are jealous, or angry, or whatever…
Ted: Actually, my wife’s theory is that in most awards when there’s a ‘runner-up’, the runner-up tends to be someone who is pretty good, but is maybe too strident or outspoken or outrageous to really get the awards committee to agree to give them first place. She’ll look at a list of Oscar Nominees for Best Film, versus the actual winners, over the years, and there’s no denying her theory when you compare the lists like that.
Ken: Well, Faith Hubley was nominated for an Oscar in Best Animation seven times, and she won three times, and she said it’s much better to lose than it is to win, because people stop giving you work if you win!
Ted: They can’t afford you.
Ken: Or they think they can’t afford you, that you’d be too expensive now, or that they think you wouldn’t be available. But she said, if you lose, all of a sudden you get all these offers of work, everybody telling you should have won – much better for your career to be nominated and then lose!
Ted: The year that I was nominated as one of the finalists for the Pulitzer, it was widely considered that I had been robbed, which was very good for me. Let’s face it, awards suck, they should be outlawed! Anybody who proposes a new award should be stoned in Kabul!
Ken: How’d you come to know Bill Maher, who did the foreword to To Afghanistan and Back?
Ted: I was on his show, Politically Incorrect, I guess it was in October before I went to Afghanistan. They’d had political cartoonists on the show before, and I was the first, to my knowledge, after the whole post-9/11 hoopla, who dared to remind people on national television, that George W. Bush is an illegal, impostor, loser, non-existent, unemployed President who should get out of Al Gore’s house right now! And of course, I talked about the oil connection in Kazakhstan, and why we were really bombing Afghanistan. After that appearance, which was suitably controversial, I went to Afghanistan, came back, and as I was working on the book, it occurred to me that I really needed an intro. And I’ve always thought it was really boring to do an intro where someone’s sucking up to you, and I remembered that Bill had really lambasted me, totally disagreed with me, and I thought it would be much more fun for me, as a leftie, to get some Libertarian, patriotic, pro-Bush dude to write the intro. I like conflict, and I thought it would be more fun to have an introduction by someone who doesn’t really like your work, so I asked him, and I was shocked when he said yes.
I think I also took a lot of the heat away, because I appeared on the show just a few days after he made that statement, which he got a lot of criticism for, that the terrorists had a lot of guts, because I said on the show, “You were right, Bill.” I knew what he meant… he wasn’t endorsing what they’d done, but it takes a lot of cojones to drive into a building and not pull up at the last minute! It’s something that I could not do; you have to really believe in your cause. He wasn’t condoning it, it was just an observation.
Mercy: One of the things that comes across in To Afghanistan and Back, which I think is important for people to realise, is the way these people live; that they have barbed wire around their houses, that they’ve been at war for over twenty years, they live in a desert – the bombs are going off so often that they get used to it! You even said that you got used to it…
Ted: What I was trying to present is the odd sense of how human beings adapt to any situation. The first two days that I was there, I was more depressed and shell-shocked than I’ve ever been in my life – and I’ve had some really bad times in my life! My wife and I couldn’t believe it, we couldn’t talk for hours at a time, we’d just be sitting in a room, agape. We couldn’t believe it. We’d break into tears for no reason. Well, for plenty of reasons, too many reasons.
Then on the third morning, we woke up, and thought, “Okay, this is where we are; it’s screwed up, but let’s go to the market, let’s get a driver and go to the front, let’s do this thing, because this is where we are and what it is.” There were fleas eating us alive, it was freezing cold inside – I don’t think it was something most Americans can understand, this feeling of never being able to get warm, the temperature was in the teens or twenties at night, and indoors, you never fully warm up. You feel your body weakening, your immune system vanishing, you’re not eating much if at all, there’s no water so you’re drinking soda if you can get it, you feel your body pulling in.But then you decide, “Okay, this is our story.”
And you get used to the rules, the new rules, like for instance, 5 p.m. make sure you’re back in the compound with the bullet-proof gate locked, because that’s when the gunmen are running around in the streets looking for people to rape and rob and kill. You just get used to the fact that the bombings are from 6.30 to 9.30 at night, because all the Americans obviously want to fly back to base in time to have a few beers before they go to sleep. You get used to the fact that when you go to the market, guys are going to grab and pinch you; it’s all the details of everyday life.
The dust is one of those things that are indescribable. A friend of mine who’s a geologist tells me it’s called glacial powder, and it’s really fine, and it gets into everything, it’s like flour. Everybody’s breathing this crap all the time – everyone’s a de facto smoker in Afghanistan, after a day we were all gasping and wheezing, it’s horrible. These were the things that I didn’t see written about by the mainstream media, and of course, I learned why when I met these guys from CNN or ABC News; they were all staying in the Northern Alliance with the warlords, living large with electricity and heat and even real toilets!
Ken: And you had trouble finding any kind of power to send your stories…
Ted: Power was an obsessive quest. The satellite phone is very greedy for power, it only runs about 45 minutes and I needed it for 45 minutes a day to do my radio show for KFI in LA. KFI paid my way, so I hadto get that thing powered up, plus I needed it for emergencies, and I had a laptop that I needed to operate to write my pieces, and you have to load the stuff onto the Internet at 1200 bauds per second, so it was – you’re obsessively fixated on, “How do I get power?” I’d pay $150 to some dude to plug into his car, so I could charge up the Sat-phone.
Ken: Did the fact that you’d been there before help?
Ted: Well, it saved money! Most of the foreign reporters did not know how much things should cost in Central Asia, which is basically almost nothing – a meal should be forty cents! And these guys were paying $200…
Ken: What does that do to the economy?
Ted: It’s War Inflation. The currency – they don’t have a Central Bank there, there’s a number of notes that were left over in ’96 when the old regime was kicked out…
Ken: So it’s money that’s not backed by anything?
Ted: It’s backed by the cost of the paper it’s printed on, which is why they want American dollars.
Mercy: So if people knew that Americans were carrying around thousands of dollars, would they shoot some people to get their money, break into the places they were staying…?
Ted: I was carrying eight thousand when I went in, and the average person makes a dollar and twenty cents per month in Afghanistan, so if someone had shot me and taken my money, they probably wouldn’t have had to work for the rest of their very short lives. The average life expectancy is something like 45 years. Yes, some Western journalists were killed for their money.
There were definitely some horrible moments. Everything they say about the landmines is true. We saw children blown up. There was a time when a Taliban prisoner pulled a grenade on himself in the back of an ambulance in front of me…
Ken: You didn’t have pieces of the ambulance go into your body?
Ted: Fortunately, it didn’t even blow up the ambulance; it only cracked the windows! A vehicle’s not going to make it in Afghanistan unless it’s sturdy, they only have about five paved roads – and I use the term ‘paved’ very lightly – in the entire country, which is the size of Texas! All the roads have been bombed, cratered, screwed up, mined… it’s insane. It’s just absolutely a place where human beings are not supposed to be.
Ken: The Taliban was trying to kill you while you were there, and the US Military, which was fighting the Taliban, didn’t want you there either.
Ted: Because we were telling the truth.
Ted: That was a horrible thing. A guy got shelled at the front, and a bunch of us reporters went down to meet with the Northern Alliance ministry, and we ran into some Special Forces guys who were liasing, and they had choppers going back empty every few hours to Tajikistan to resupply. So they’re flying back empty, and we said, “Look, we’ll use our satellite phone, we’ll have our friends go to the airstrip in Tajikistan and pick the guy up, you don’t have to do anything, you can leave the guy on the airstrip if there’s no-one there to pick him up, just get him out of here.” And they wouldn’t. Donald Rumsfeld had given strict orders that there would be no help whatsoever for Western journalists. And people died because of that decision, which in my view is a war crime.
Ken: But the Taliban were also trying to kill the western journalists?
Ted: We weren’t real popular! (laughs) The Taliban thought that we weren’t reporting the truth about civilian casualties, which from their point of view, if they watched the news, was true. Of course, we were filing the news, but it wasn’t making it to publication. So they were angry at us, thought we were a bunch of American lying-dog lackeys, which I guess some of us were, but most weren’t, and the Northern Alliance didn’t take any steps to protect us. They viewed us as cash cows, to be robbed and shaken down for money. And the Americans, apart from not wanting to help us, routinely bombed our positions and bombed towns that had been firmly in Northern Alliance control for weeks.
It’s hilarious, because I expected some lies – all this stuff with the pinpoint bombings with the cameras on the missiles – but what they said was not even close to being the truth. No one in Afghanistan has ever seen one of the food relief packets. I wanted to buy one as a souvenir, there were none! People who had been all over the country, none of them even knew what the hell I was talking about. In terms of civilian casualties, at the time the media were talking about “ten, possibly twelve dead” in Afghanistan, there was one bomb in one town that killed 420 people! They dropped twelve thousand bombs on Afghanistan during that war! I’m not saying every bomb killed 420 people, but logically, common sense dictates that we were just being lied to wholesale, and yet after 9/11, it’s as if we feel we have the moral high ground… But now that our government is back to its usual genocidal Gulf war, Vietnam, you-name-it kind of crap, we know it’s going on, but we don’t want to believe it; we’re in total denial.
Ken: How would you say Afghanistan has changed from the time you were there before the war, and how it is now?
Ted: I haven’t been back since; I’m working on that. But I went to Tajikistan. I went there to write an article on Bushkashi, which is this horse polo that they play with this headless goat! I wrote it for Gear magazine. It’s an amazing thing, the annual Bushkashi tournament, March 21st, not to be missed, if you like extreme sports; last year twenty-two guys died during this! Anyway, it was interesting because we stayed in the same exact hotel, and back in November it was Journalism Central, you’d walk down the floor that I was on, and there’d be stickers for all the major US and European TV and Radio networks, major newspapers, on the doors of the hotel rooms, and now there’s tumbleweeds rolling down the all, no-one’s there except 200 French troops, who are building a secret Allied base south of Tushanday, which nobody’s supposed to know about, but you can’t hide 200 heavily-armed French dudes!
Ken: I wish we had more time, because there are so many things I want to go into from your book, like the ducks in the drinking water…
Ted: (laughs) Yeah, we were always on the quest for food, especially since it was Ramadan, so there was no food to be had during daylight hours, and as Westerners, we can’t be out at night, so you do the math – there’s NO FOOD! So, I was in the street one day and I spotted a couple of really plump ducks hanging out at the side of the road in some water, and I was like, “Hey, not normally on my menu, but let’s talk about those bad boys!” and my translator turns to me with shock and says, “You would eat a duck? No Afghan would ever eat a duck! The ducks keep the channel water clean!” The channel is the gutter on the side of the road! But the Afghans bathe in that water – they drink it too, as I found out later, and I’d been drinking it too! The tea they
were serving was made from gutter water… and of course, you’re violently ill the entire time…
Ken: Okay, we really are out of time… the book we’ve been talking about is To Afghanistan And Back, it’s both comic strips and prose, with photographs. It’s a very haunting book. Our guest has been Ted Rall – thank you!
Since this interview, Ted Rall has remained a leading figure in the field of political cartooning, syndicated in more than 100 newspapers, and a focus of controversy.
He has to date published four cartoon collections: Waking Up In America, All The Rules Have Changed, Search And Destroy, and America Gone Wild; four graphic novels: Real Americans Admit - The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done, My War With Brian, 2024, and The Year Of Loving Dangerously; and seven collections of prose and essays: Revenge Of The Latchkey Kids, Gas War, To Afghanistan And Back, Wake Up – You’re Liberal!, Generalissimo El Busho, Silk Road To Ruin, and The Anti-American Manifesto.
His activites can be followed in his frequently-updated blog – http://www.rall.com/rallblog/ – and he is currently working on a new graphic novel, The Year Of Chris, a sequel to The Year Of Loving Dangerously.
Interview by Ken Gale & Mercy Van Vlack;
transcription & framing text by Will Morgan.