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I nursed a Calvados at a café across from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, disconsolate after a vain attempt to gain access to the sewers of Paris. The Musée des Égouts de Paris, the Paris Sewers Museum, provided the only access to the secret passageways that led into the secret ossarium of the Carthusian monks where once I conjured the ghost of Cardinal Richelieu.
Under Richelieu, the evil genius of the Thirty Years’ War, France defeated the Austrian and Spanish Empires with twice its population and many times its wealth, killing two-fifths of the population of Central Europe.
But the museum was shut due to the pandemic, as was most of the city. I had no problem finding a table opposite the cathedral. But how to find the Cardinal? My assignation would have taken me past centuries-old brickwork through narrow winding staircases to the ancient rock until I reached the small chamber where the bones of the Carthusian dead sat arrayed in pyramids. But the path was blocked.
My reverie soon was interrupted. “I hope you haven’t forgotten me,” said a voice that sounded like a 78-rpm recording of Maurice Chevalier. I would have recognized it anywhere: It was the Cardinal! But I saw nothing.
“Do not be alarmed,” the Cardinal said. “If you will be so kind as to provide an appropriate libation, I shall become visible presently.”
“Waiter,” I cried, “A magnum of Chateau Petrus!”
“Oui, Monsieur,” the waiter stood to. “With one or two glasses?”
“A spittoon, if you please,” said I.
The waiter looked at me doubtfully.
“An empty ice bucket, then.”
Demanding and receiving payment in advance, he bustled off.
I poured the aromatic Bordeaux into the ice bucket and a gurgling sound presently arose. The old necromantic rite still worked. Starting with the tips of his boots, and rising through his legs, doublet, beard and hat, the Cardinal turned visible by degrees.
He still looked like the portrait by Philippe de Champaigne at the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Strasbourg, at least in profile – but when he turned towards me he seemed more like Charlton Heston in The Three Musketeers.
“Are you pressed for time?” I asked. In the ossarium the necromancy had kept him materialized for barely 10 minutes.
“I have the whole evening free,” the Cardinal replied.
“But how did you escape your old haunts?” I asked.
“Ghosts walk abroad tonight,” replied the Cardinal. “The ghosts of empires past.”
It was true; the twilight had descended suddenly, and at the next table I discerned the translucent outline of General Gamelin, the commander of the French forces when they fell to Germany in only six weeks of the spring of 1940. Napoleon the Third turned circles on roller skates.
The statue of Pope John Paul in front of the Cathedral changed into a figure that I took to be Nicias, the Athenian commander at the Syracuse debacle of 413 BCE.
Across the street, the shade of Anthony Eden, Britain’s prime minister during the Suez disaster, walked his dog Nipper. Admiral Rozhestvensky, the Russian commander at the Battle of the Tsushima Strait in 1905, sat motionless on a park bench.
“We all get a day pass when a great empire falls,” Richelieu said cheerfully. This was my fourth séance with his spirit and I had never before seen him in such an expansive mood.
“You are talking about the fall of Kabul,” said I.
“Bingueaux!,” said the shade. “It is America’s Tsushima Strait, its Syracuse, its Fall of France.”
The informality of our meeting on a café terrace emboldened me. Deep down in the Paris catacombs, I would have shown more reverence. “But Afghanistan is of no strategic importance to the United States,” I protested. “It’s a humiliation to be sure, but surely it looks worse than it is. The American public wrote off Afghanistan when it elected Donald Trump years ago.”
“You are as dense as always, Spengler,” Richelieu replied. “What use have you made of the advice I gave you at our last encounter? An intact empire can come back even from the greatest disaster. Russia recovered from its initial defeats in 1941 to crush Germany after Stalingrad. Rome raised new armies after Cannae and crushed the Carthaginians. The Protestants in the Thirty Years War – with more than a little help from me – arose from 14 years of Imperial victories to defeat Wallenstein at Lützen and turn the tide.”
“But why can’t America do the same now?” I demanded.
“What the fall of Kabul revealed is that the American military, and the political institutions behind it, are thoroughly rotten – as rotten as France in 1940. America set out to create a modern democracy out of a tribal society, an enterprise as likely to succeed as the attempt to breed a griffin by mating a lion with an eagle. It poured US$2 trillion into Afghanistan, or one hundred times the country’s gross domestic product. It paid Afghani politicians, generals and warlords to play-act at democracy in a revolting, silly masquerade.
“Whatever was not corrupt before America came in became corrupt in the maelstrom of American money. Meanwhile, American soldiers and bureaucrats made fortunes as consultants, contractors, sutlers and armorers to the dream palace of Afghan democracy.
“Because the entire project was a monstrous hoax to begin with, everyone associated with the project lied – lied about the state of Afghan government forces, lied about the disposition of the Taliban, lied about the robustness of supplies to Afghan troops, lied about their dependence on airpower.
“Afghan officials lied to their American paymasters, American commanders on the ground lied to their superiors and American generals lied to the politicians. The key to promotion, and to wealth, lay in perpetuating the ridiculous fiction that motivated the occupation of the country in the first place.
“Where did $2 trillion go? The Taliban offensive began in April after the Americans announced their intent to depart. No one fought for Afghanistan because there was no Afghanistan to fight for. Within weeks the Afghan army had no ammunition, no food and no air support. Whoever could steal from the Americans did so. The Afghanistan government collapsed in a matter of days because it was never there to begin with.
“Empires, mon ami, fall not because they suffer setbacks – even terrible ones – but because no one cares whether they survive or not. It is not only the Afghan army that panicked and ran before a rag-tag militia, but all of America’s critical institutions starting with the military itself.”
I listened in silence to the Cardinal’s diatribe. “What will happen now, Eminence?” I asked when he paused.
“America has no strategy, no direction, no strategic purpose,” he said. “The revolting spectacle at the Kabul Airport will serve as a warning that it is dangerous to be a friend of the United States. China and Russia will pick up the pieces in Central Asia. India will quietly make its accommodation with China. The Germans will do whatever they must to avoid conflict with Russia. The Saudis will rely more on Russia for their own security – after all, Moscow hates the idea of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Riyadh as much as do the Saudi monarchs.”
The last rays of sunlight disappeared beneath the horizon. Rozhestvensky banged the table and demanded vodka. General Gamelin began to shout at Napoleon the Third. Nipper slipped his leash and Eden chased madly after him. Nicias jumped down from his pedestal and ran madly around the little plaza. Richelieu began to sing, “Thank heaven for little girls,” and the street filled suddenly with spooks – Thracians, Phrygians, Mauryas, Guptas, Hellenes, Babylonians – as well as generals and statesmen of defunct civilizations whose names are lost beneath the sands of time.
A terrible dread came over me, and I stood up to leave, but the crowd of defeated spirits was closing in around me.
I woke up just before dawn next to an empty Calvados bottle and a copy of Gibbon.