The Karakoram Highway (1999 Essay)

A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999: THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY: The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway by Ted Rall On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists. It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway. The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this…
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The Bad War: Afghanistan Seven Years Later

NATO came to Nurat on July 11th. There were seventy soldiers, 45 of them members of the American troop complement that has occupied Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 and 25 members of Hamid Karzai’s ragtag national army. Because the air isn’t thick enough at that altitude for helicopters to operate reliably, the men had to drag most of their gear up to their new outpost in a high valley on the border of Kunar and Nuristan provinces. There they built their small combat outpost, one of a string of such spartan facilities along the country’s remote eastern frontier with Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. Residents of the Weygal Valley did not greet them warmly. U.S. forces attached to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), sometimes deploying unmanned Predator planes, had been blowing up local civilians with seemingly reckless abandon. Seventeen Afghans, including doctors, were killed nearby a week before the establishment of the mini base at Nurat. In a country where…
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Under the Sword of Damocles (2008 Essay)

Originally published in Men’s Journal magazine in 2008: High in the remotest mountains of the remotest province of the remotest nation in central Asia, a breathtaking lake is poised to unleash an inland tsunami that could kill 5 million people. Our writer couldn’t resist being one of the first outsiders to see it on foot. By Ted Rall “Make it to the chaikhana,” I’d comforted my bleeding feet and burning lungs throughout our 14-hour trudge, “and you’ll be fine.” Turkic for “tea house,” chaikhana is the locals’ tongue-in-cheek nickname for what turned out to be a Neolithic-style campsite, a jumble of enormous boulders broken off the grey-white zigzag Pamir mountains that towered over the gorge we’d been following all day. But now, warm and dry in my sleeping bag, completely exhausted, blistering sunburn soothed with Noxzema, sleep was out of the question. Impending doom echoed off the canyon walls in surround sound. I wasn’t worried about local Taliban-trained guerillas. And…
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Book Review: “The Age of American Unreason,” by Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby The Age of American Unreason Pantheon Books, 384 pp., $26.00 “How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?” a British newspaper headline asked about the Americans who voted for George W. Bush a second time. The 2004 election returns have inspired dozens of books by authors—most of them, as even less than brilliant citizens of the world’s sole remaining superpower could guess, adherents of the political left—seeking to answer the Daily Mirror’s snotty question. The 2006 film “Idiocracy,” which extrapolated a dysgenic future caused by the ruinous overreproduction of the willfully moronic, marked the zenith of this cultural output. To be fair to our lame duck president, fear for the state of the national I.Q. predates Bush, 9/11, and the vampire-like resilience of the widespread belief (33 percent, according to the latest 2007 CBS poll) that Iraq carried out the attacks on New York and Washington. Books like “Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves…
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Book Review: “War Powers,” by Peter Irons

War Powers Peter Irons How The Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution Metropolitan Books, $25, 304 pp. The United States Constitution can be vexingly vague—the placement of a comma separates those who believe that the Second Amendment permits private citizens to own firearms from those who say it limits gun ownership to the military—but it is crystal clear on the matter of war. As every schoolchild learns, only Congress may send troops into battle. The last time this happened was some 63 years ago, the day after the Pearl Harbor bombing. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked “Congress [to] declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” Congress, minus one dissident, voted yes. We haven’t seen a declared war since FDR delivered his famous speech, yet the United States spent nearly every day of the last half of the 20th century fighting…
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Finally, You Admit We Were Right: An Iraq Victory Dance

When voters went to the polls on November 7, 1972, they possessed more than enough information to pick the right president. Republican incumbent Richard Nixon had reneged on his 1968-winning promise to withdraw from Vietnam, instead expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos and unleashing upon North Vietnam the most ferocious bombing campaign in the history of warfare. Debt from the war had triggered runaway inflation, requiring wage and price controls to stave off economic meltdown. In June Nixon’s burglars had gotten caught inside the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. Everyone knew the guy was a paranoid, corrupt, lying warmonger. His supporters simply didn’t care. Faced with this simplest of decisions, the American people screwed up—and badly so. Sixty-one percent of the electorate voted for Nixon over George McGovern, one of the most fundamentally decent candidates to have ever run for the White House and the first to propose a national healthcare plan. McGovern scored a pathetic 38…
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I Told You So: The Collapse of U.S.-Occupied Iraq

In February, before thousands of bombs bought with your payroll deductions killed thousands of Iraqis for no good reason, one Neil Pollack despoiled these pages to insult my worries about the looming war. “The lengthy shriek of a madman, but presented so authoritatively, so matter-of-factly, that you have to shrug,” Pollack declared my essay. I can’t address my sanity or my literary shrugability quotient as eloquently as Dave Eggers Lite. But: I may be nuts and I may be boring, but I was right. Postwar Iraq has deteriorated exactly as I predicted back on Feb. 6. First and foremost, I argued, we didn’t have an excuse to go to war. Poor weapons maintenance, parts shortages caused by sanctions, routine U.S. bombing sorties under President Clinton and United Nations arms inspections had rendered Saddam Hussein harmless to anyone beyond the 400-mile range of his best missiles. Iraq hadn’t attacked anyone. And there was no proof that it possessed nuclear, biological or…
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Buzkashi (2002 Essay)

The following piece was commissioned for Gear magazine—which went out of business while I was in Tajikistan doing the work. It did appear in Drill magazine, which also went under, but not before publishing it with a cool photo spread: A GOOD DAY TO DIE: The Ultimate Extreme Sport at the End of the Earth by Ted Rall A few seconds ago, you were just another dirty face in a crowd of sweaty wannabes gussied up like Hans Solo. Now you’re the center of attention. This, you know now, is a very bad thing. Two or three hundred pumped-up, pissed-off horsemen—who can count all these lunatics?—are chasing you at full gallop. You’re dragging a hundred pounds of dead goat with your left hand and pounding the crap out of your panicked horse with your right as you charge through a storm of dust in a mad dash for glory and survival. Suddenly two guys catch up, one on each side.…
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Roach Motel: Lowdown Living in California

“It’ll be temporary.” They’re the three most frightening words in the English language. Still, what did I know? My on-again, off-again girlfriend looked at me like she really meant it. So I went along while never believing a single word she said. Which is how I ended up managing the skeeviest hot-sheets motel in America for what turned out to be the longest year of my life. My alleged friends asserted that my first mistake was cheating on my girlfriend, but they were wrong. Actually, that indiscretion turned out to be tons of high-energy fun. No, the error occurred when I opted to assuage my guilt by confessing to my girlfriend. Then, to make things worse, I decided to do whatever it took to get her back, to perform whatever ludicrous act was necessary, to accede to her every request. Julie asked me to move back into her parents’ California home with her. I did. I knew I’d fucked up…
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Start-Up! Murder and Millennial Madness at a Gen X Computer Company

“Start me up.” – The Rolling Stones, 1981 It all began as an innocent attempt to while away a stormy night during midterms. According to a former classmate who, like most of the sources for this piece, declined to be identified, his friend Brian Kaufman was feeling antsy. “It happened on March 17, 1994, but I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Kaufman’s former friend recalled recently. “It was St. Patrick’s Day. Brian said he needed to get laid and puke green beer, or maybe it was the other way around. At any rate, I suggested that he check out the Pyramid Bar.” The Pyramid is a dive on the main University of Cincinnati strip where professional women desperate for sex gather on Tuesday nights, nursing two-dollar margaritas and listening to John Cougar’s version of “Twentieth Century Fox” while watching Simpsons reruns with the volume off. All of the survivors of what ultimately transpired agree on what happened next:…
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