Writing this story could cost me $100.
That’s the amount that I’ve pledged to donate to Ted Rall’s upcoming Afghanistan book on Kickstarter.com. As of this writing, Rall has three days to raise another $3,400 toward his $25,000 goal. The catch? Kickstarter is set up in such a way that if you don’t make your goal, your pledges are off the hook. Ironically, the Kickstarter website explains that this is to help gauge interest—something that doesn’t necessarily apply to Rall, who’s already got a publisher lined up (Hill & Wang, part of Ferrar, Strauss & Giroux), provided he can afford to make the trip to begin with.
“I think that the reason there’s a timing aspect to Kickstarter is to provide urgency, kind of like eBay,” explains Rall, whose last book on Afghanistan—NBM’s To Afghanistan and Back—was a big success in early 2002. He says that while it looked very bleak for a while there, the fundraising drive appears to be going down to the wire. Rall says that mostly he’s just surprised that people are willing to pledge donations to projects at all.
“If you pledge now, the odds are you’ll really have to pay,” Rall jokes about being so close to the goal, but concedes that the way Kickstarter is set up makes a difference. “If I get $24,999 you don’t have to pay.”
Rall is best known for his political cartoon, “Search and Destroy,” which appears in newspapers around the country. He’s the president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and the author of 14 books, most recently the autobiographical work The Year of Loving Dangerously, for which he recruited the help of Pablo Callejo on art.
The Afghan project would be his third such “travelogue”-style political comic in ten years, following the first Afghanistan book as well as the more prose-heavy Silk Road to Ruin. Rall explains that he’ll need every dollar of the proposed $25,000 and then some, and not because it’s so expensive to fly there. On the Kickstarter page, Rall explains to potential donors that “Among the expenses are internal transportation and housing, security, and bribes to corrupt local officials in order to move about unmolested. I am extremely stingy, but inflation prevails during wartime and many expenses are covered with US$100 notes.”
He confided in Newsarama, “The real cost is the bribes. That’s why it’s so expensive. If you didn’t have corruption to deal with and have to deal with basically buying your own security you could probably do this for $10,000 or less. The problem is the fact that it’s a war zone and there’s just $100 bills flying out of your hands all the time. Last time I went, I burned through $15,000 a week in cash, and my wife and I were known as the ‘stingy’ Americans. The TV [reporters] routinely go through six figures a week, no problem.” He explained that even if he raises the $25,000 fundraising goal which will allow him to make the trip, he still plans to be somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 out of his own pocket by the time he returns home.
He jokes, “Afghans don’t take credit cards, so you have to show up with cash in hand.”
The atmosphere is very different now than it was when he wrote To Afghanistan and Back, not least of which is because September 11 happened, and the United States went to war with the country, while Rall was writing the previous book, and after his trip had concluded. That said, Rall has always kept an eye on the situation in the country, and has been eager to go back and see what the war, and the fall of the Taliban as a central government, has wrought. “I can say that really back in 2001, nobody wanted to hear any opposition to the war in Afghanistan, including on the left,” Rall says of reaction to some of the comments he made while promoting To Afghanistan and Back. “Afghanistan’s always been ‘the good war’ and I think now the mere fact that it’s been going on so long, has a lot of people questioning.”
While Iraq captivated the attention of both the media and the anti-war movement for most of the Bush Administration, Rall says that he thinks it’s a fallacy to assume that when Iraq was in all the headlines, it was because the conflict in Afghanistan was under control. “I think the war has been hot for nine years. It never got un-hot; as far as I know, your odds of getting killed as a US soldier in Afghanistan are higher than getting killed in Iraq and I think that was true even in 2003 and 2004.”
He also explains that while there’s a political element inherent in these books, the central purpose is really journalistic: “I could get killed, and I wouldn’t take a chance like that unless I felt that there was something meaningful to be learned. This is really a reaction against the embedding program, which I feel is unethical and irresponsible. You should never travel as an embedded reporter. This is really about traveling as an independent and really, if the world were sane I’d be able to go to a magazine or put together a couple of newspapers to put the money together but unfortunately that’s just not true anymore so it’s kind of like, if you want to get a job done, you’ve got to do it yourself.”