Harvard and the Serving of God and Mammon

Leafy Campuses, Ivory Towers, Leading Straight to Wall Street
Leafy Campuses, Ivory Towers, Leading Straight to Wall Street

W.J. Astore

In the 17th century, Harvard was all about preparing men to serve God. It was about educating ministers. And ministers were arguably the most deeply respected men of their day. In the 21st century, Harvard has a new god — mammon. Harvard grads today most commonly reach for the big bucks in the world of banking and finance and Wall Street. And those who succeed in their get rich quick positions are arguably the most deeply celebrated (if not universally respected) men and women of this American moment.

If you accept for the moment that America’s brightest and best attend Ivy League universities like Harvard and Princeton, what does it say that so many of our most promising young aspire as their highest cause in life to make money and lots of it by manipulating financial markets?

Ezra Klein noted the following stats for the top Ivies:

As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.

At Harvard and Yale, at least, the numbers have drifted down in recent years. Harvard’s 2008 class sent 28 percent of its gainfully employed graduates to Wall Street, while Yale sent 26 percent.

More than one-third of Princeton grads went into finance in 2010: Incredible!

As the humanities wither at our universities, the financial sector continues to grow and consume our youth with promises of mammon and “success.”

Isn’t it high time to change our national motto? How about “In Mammon We Trust”?

That Word Again: Lockdown

"Fear is the only darkness" -- Master Po
“Fear is the only darkness” — Master Po

W.J. Astore

A word that’s symbolic of our growing police state mentality is “lockdown.”  I saw today on the news that Indiana University is in “lockdown” due to a suspect on the loose with a knife.

You can lockdown a prison.  But you can’t lockdown a campus as large as Indiana University in Bloomington.  Nor is a college campus a prison.  The campus should certainly be alerted to a potentially dangerous situation, but there’s no need to apply prison terminology to the situation.

In so many aspects of our lives, Americans are being told to be afraid.  We’re told “to shelter in place,” to huddle scared like so many rabbits, until the proper “locked and loaded” authorities are deployed with their SWAT teams and armored cars.

This lockdown mentality extends to commercials.  New TV ads for ADT show parents smiling as they secretly monitor their children at home with cameras linked to their security systems and their personal laptops/iPads.  Adults attain a look of blissful contentment as they remotely arm their security systems, knowing that they’re keeping the have-nots out of their “have” communities.

Sorry, I don’t think lockdowns are the answer to danger.  And I don’t think turning your home into a prison with gates and perimeter lights and alarms and cameras is the answer to our worries about security.

We don’t need to lockdown our communities and our homes.  We need to lockdown our fear.  For as Master Po said in Kung Fu, “Fear is the only darkness.”

War! What Is It Good For? Profit and Power

Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam
Boeing B-52 bomber over Vietnam

I started writing for TomDispatch, a remarkable contrarian site founded and edited by Tom Engelhardt, a fine editor/writer and even finer gentleman, in October 2007.  My first article was on the Petraeus surge and how President Bush and his administration were hiding behind the absurdly bemedaled and beribboned uniform of that general.

Tom Engelhardt’s generous and consistent support of my writing opened new possibilities for me.  More importantly, Tom helped me to think for myself.  I’ve also met some great people through my writing, including the co-founder of The Contrary Perspective, b. traven.

I’ve greatly enjoyed the six years I’ve written for TomDispatch.  What follows is my 33rd original article (or “Tomgram,” as we like to call them) — and yes, it’s hard for me to believe that number, since I really thought I’d write only one or two.  Thanks so much Tom, Nick, and all the other editors and writers at TomDispatch.  It’s been a fun and enlightening ride.

From TomDispatch this evening:  Winners and losers in the business of war American-style — William J. Astore, “The Business of America Is War, Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom” http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175762/

The Business of America Is War
Disaster Capitalism on the Battlefield and in the Boardroom
By William J. Astore

There is a new normal in America: our government may shut down, but our wars continue.  Congress may not be able to pass a budget, but the U.S. military can still launch commando raids in Libya and Somalia, the Afghan War can still be prosecuted, Italy can be garrisoned by American troops (putting the “empire” back in Rome), Africa can be used as an imperial playground (as in the late nineteenth century “scramble for Africa,” but with the U.S. and China doing the scrambling this time around), and the military-industrial complex can still dominate the world’s arms trade.

In the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, it’s business as usual, if your definition of “business” is the power and profits you get from constantly preparing for and prosecuting wars around the world.  “War is a racket,” General Smedley Butler famously declared in 1935, and even now it’s hard to disagree with a man who had two Congressional Medals of Honor to his credit and was intimately familiar with American imperialism.

War Is Politics, Right?

Once upon a time, as a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, I was taught that Carl von Clausewitz had defined war as a continuation of politics by other means.  This definition is, in fact, a simplification of his classic and complex book, On War, written after his experiences fighting Napoleon in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of war as a continuation of politics is both moderately interesting and dangerously misleading: interesting because it connects war to political processes and suggests that they should be fought for political goals; misleading because it suggests that war is essentially rational and so controllable.  The fault here is not Clausewitz’s, but the American military’s for misreading and oversimplifying him.

Perhaps another “Carl” might lend a hand when it comes to helping Americans understand what war is really all about.  I’m referring to Karl Marx, who admired Clausewitz, notably for his idea that combat is to war what a cash payment is to commerce.  However seldom combat (or such payments) may happen, they are the culmination and so the ultimate arbiters of the process.

War, in other words, is settled by killing, a bloody transaction that echoes the exploitative exchanges of capitalism.  Marx found this idea to be both suggestive and pregnant with meaning. So should we all.

Following Marx, Americans ought to think about war not just as an extreme exercise of politics, but also as a continuation of exploitative commerce by other means.  Combat as commerce: there’s more in that than simple alliteration.

In the history of war, such commercial transactions took many forms, whether as territory conquered, spoils carted away, raw materials appropriated, or market share gained.  Consider American wars.  The War of 1812 is sometimes portrayed as a minor dust-up with Britain, involving the temporary occupation and burning of our capital, but it really was about crushing Indians on the frontier and grabbing their land.  The Mexican-American War was another land grab, this time for the benefit of slaveholders.  The Spanish-American War was a land grab for those seeking an American empire overseas, while World War I was for making the world “safe for democracy” — and for American business interests globally.

Even World War II, a war necessary to stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, witnessed the emergence of the U.S. as the arsenal of democracy, the world’s dominant power, and the new imperial stand-in for a bankrupt British Empire.

Korea?  Vietnam?  Lots of profit for the military-industrial complex and plenty of power for the Pentagon establishment.  Iraq, the Middle East, current adventures in Africa?  Oil, markets, natural resources, global dominance.

In societal calamities like war, there will always be winners and losers.  But the clearest winners are often companies like Boeing and Dow Chemical, which provided B-52 bombers and Agent Orange, respectively, to the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Such “arms merchants” — an older, more honest term than today’s “defense contractor” — don’t have to pursue the hard sell, not when war and preparations for it have become so permanently, inseparably intertwined with the American economy, foreign policy, and our nation’s identity as a rugged land of “warriors” and “heroes” (more on that in a moment).

War as Disaster Capitalism

Consider one more definition of war: not as politics or even as commerce, but as societal catastrophe.  Thinking this way, we can apply Naomi Klein’s concepts of the “shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” to it.  When such disasters occur, there are always those who seek to turn a profit.

Most Americans are, however, discouraged from thinking about war this way thanks to the power of what we call “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “superpatriotism” when it applies to us, and the significantly more negative “nationalism” or “ultra-nationalism” when it appears in other countries.  During wars, we’re told to “support our troops,” to wave the flag, to put country first, to respect the patriotic ideal of selfless service and redemptive sacrifice (even if all but 1% of us are never expected to serve or sacrifice).

We’re discouraged from reflecting on the uncomfortable fact that, as “our” troops sacrifice and suffer, others in society are profiting big time.  Such thoughts are considered unseemly and unpatriotic.  Pay no attention to the war profiteers, who pass as perfectly respectable companies.  After all, any price is worth paying (or profits worth offering up) to contain the enemy — not so long ago, the red menace, but in the twenty-first century, the murderous terrorist.

Forever war is forever profitable.  Think of the Lockheed Martins of the world.  In their commerce with the Pentagon, as well as the militaries of other nations, they ultimately seek cash payment for their weapons and a world in which such weaponry will be eternally needed.  In the pursuit of security or victory, political leaders willingly pay their price.

Call it a Clausewitzian/Marxian feedback loop or the dialectic of Carl and Karl.  It also represents the eternal marriage of combat and commerce.  If it doesn’t catch all of what war is about, it should at least remind us of the degree to which war as disaster capitalism is driven by profit and power.

For a synthesis, we need only turn from Carl or Karl to Cal — President Calvin Coolidge, that is.  “The business of America is business,” he declared in the Roaring Twenties.  Almost a century later, the business of America is war, even if today’s presidents are too polite to mention that the business is booming.

America’s War Heroes as Commodities

Many young people today are, in fact, looking for a release from consumerism.  In seeking new identities, quite a few turn to the military.  And it provides.  Recruits are hailed as warriors and warfighters, as heroes, and not just within the military either, but by society at large.

Yet in joining the military and being celebrated for that act, our troops paradoxically become yet another commodity, another consumable of the state.  Indeed, they become consumed by war and its violence.  Their compensation?  To be packaged and marketed as the heroes of our militarized moment. Steven Gardiner, a cultural anthropologist and U.S. Army veteran, has written eloquently about what he calls the “heroic masochism” of militarized settings and their allure for America’s youth.  Put succinctly, in seeking to escape a consumerism that has lost its meaning and find a release from dead-end jobs, many volunteers are transformed into celebrants of violence, seekers and givers of pain, a harsh reality Americans ignore as long as that violence is acted out overseas against our enemies and local populations.

Such “heroic” identities, tied so closely to violence in war, often prove poorly suited to peacetime settings.  Frustration and demoralization devolve into domestic violence and suicide.  In an American society with ever fewer meaningful peacetime jobs, exhibiting greater and greater polarization of wealth and opportunity, the decisions of some veterans to turn to or return to mind-numbing drugs of various sorts and soul-stirring violence is tragically predictable.  That it stems from their exploitative commodification as so many heroic inflictors of violence in our name is a reality most Americans are content to forget.

You May Not Be Interested in War, but War Is Interested in You

As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky pithily observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  If war is combat and commerce, calamity and commodity, it cannot be left to our political leaders alone — and certainly not to our generals.  When it comes to war, however far from it we may seem to be, we’re all in our own ways customers and consumers.  Some pay a high price.  Many pay a little.  A few gain a lot.  Keep an eye on those few and you’ll end up with a keener appreciation of what war is actually all about.

No wonder our leaders tell us not to worry our little heads about our wars — just support those troops, go shopping, and keep waving that flag.  If patriotism is famously the last refuge of the scoundrel, it’s also the first recourse of those seeking to mobilize customers for the latest bloodletting exercise in combat as commerce.

Just remember: in the grand bargain that is war, it’s their product and their profit.  And that’s no bargain for America, or for that matter for the world.

William Astore, a TomDispatch regular, is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF).  He edits the blog contraryperspective.com and may be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 William J. Astore.

Old Thoughts on the Iraq War and Its Aftermath

W.J. Astore

It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)
It all seemed so promising in 2003 (Wiki)

Note to readers: I wrote these words in November 2008, just after Obama was elected President for the first time.  I’ve decided not to edit them.  Perhaps they capture the thoughts (however flawed) of one American who was trying to understand the mess we had made of Iraq.

Straight Talk on Iraq: Of Revolutions, Surges, and Victories (2008)

As a retired U.S. military man, I’d like to see “victory” in Iraq, not only for Americans, but also for the oft-neglected and oft-misunderstood Iraqi people.  With Saddam deposed and executed and the illusory weapons of mass destruction eliminated from our fevered intelligence guestimates, one could make an argument we’ve already won.  But “winning,” of course, was never supposed to be just about eliminating Saddam or WMD; it was about creating democracy, or at least a simulacrum of democracy, in Iraq.  We aimed to inspire and sustain an Iraqi government, allied with the United States, which would give a voice to the people instead of terrorizing them into compliance and silence.  This new freedom-loving Iraq would then serve as a positive role model to other states in the Middle East.  Or so it was pitched in 2003, among those who subscribed to neo-con dreams of the unqualified benevolence and irresistible potency of American power.

Even before the war in Iraq became an occupation that degenerated into an insurgency and civil war among rival factions, even before the Iraqi people paid a terrible price in lives lost and refugees created, our new president-elect expressed his opposition to the war, calling it a mistake and couching his criticism primarily in strategic terms (as a distraction from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, for example).  Many people in the U.S. and around the world believed the war was not simply a strategic distraction—one that allowed Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders to escape from a noose tightening around them—but also an immoral one.  For them, the war was worse than a mistake.  It was a crime.

Those today who view the war as either a mistake, or a crime, or both naturally have little compunction about pulling our troops out immediately, even if it means “losing” the war.  But surely our new president-elect got it right when he said repeatedly on the stump, “We need to be as careful getting out [of Iraq] as we were careless getting in.”

The Iraqi Revolution: Made by America

Before we get out, however, we should understand what we did when we went in.  Basically, by overthrowing Saddam, disbanding the Iraqi army, and criminalizing the Ba’ath party and thus throwing most of Iraq’s professional bureaucracy out of work, we initiated a revolution in Iraq.  And revolutions, as we should know from our own history, are usually bloody, unpredictable, and run to extremes (think Reign of Terror) before they play themselves out (think Thermidorean Reaction), followed often by the emergence of a strong man (think Napoleon or Lenin; the U.S. was very fortunate indeed to produce George Washington).

Moreover, the Iraqi revolution we precipitated and attempted to negotiate was more than political and military: It was social, economic, religious, you name it.  Many of the Iraqi professional and educated elite fled the country as it degenerated into violence; a socialist economy, already weakened by more than a decade of sanctions, collapsed under U.S. bombing, Iraqi looting, and widespread corruption; a Shi’a majority, oppressed under Saddam, suddenly found itself able to settle violently its grievances and grudges against a previously overbearing Sunni minority.  Post-Saddam Iraq was a world that we turned upside down.  And our troops were in the thick of it—no longer victors, increasingly victims, whether of extremist violence or of our own leadership that failed to give them the equipment, both physical and mental, to defend themselves adequately.

Our military has its faults, but offering blunt self-assessments is not one of them.  As one Army field-grade officer put it to me recently, “We deployed an Army [in 2004-05 that was] unsympathetic to local Iraqis, sophomoric even at fairly senior levels in their approach to the fight, refusing to admit there was the potential and then the presence of an insurgency.”  His assessment squares with one made by a friend of mine assigned to the CPA in Baghdad in 2004 that the U.S. approach was “a train wreck waiting to happen, and the [Bush] administration simply refused to acknowledge it, much less do anything about it.”

And the wreck came.  An Army battalion commander told me recently of a conversation he had with a former Iraqi insurgent leader about the “hot time” of 2004-05.  “Everyone,” this Iraqi leader confessed, “had gone just a little crazy killing members of their own tribes, other sects, in addition to fighting the [Iraqi] government forces and us [the U.S. military].”  His is a painful reminder that the Bush Administration started a revolution in Iraq that they chose neither to understand nor adequately control.  More than five years later, we are still picking up the pieces.

Of Simplistic Narratives

When Americans bother about Iraq, they rarely think of the violent top-to-bottom revolution that we precipitated.  Instead, they usually see it in the simplistic and solipsistic terms of the presidential debates.  For John McCain, Iraq was all about staying the course to victory (however defined) and achieving “peace with honor.”  Somehow, achieving victory would redeem the sacrifices of American troops (the sacrifices of Iraqis were rarely if ever mentioned).

For Barack Obama, Iraq was all about pulling out (most) troops as expeditiously as possible, following a seemingly prudent timeline of sixteen months.  Stressing the generous American taxpayer was contributing $10 billion a month to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, while an untrustworthy and seemingly ungrateful Iraqi government continued to pile up scores of billions in unspent oil-related profits, Obama called for shifting the war’s burden to the Iraqis, both militarily and monetarily.

Thus McCain and Obama, perhaps unwittingly, essentially stressed two different sides of the old Nixonian playbook of 1969: “peace with honor” together with an Iraqi version of Vietnamization completed in lockstep with a U.S. withdrawal.  Neither candidate chose to emulate Nixon’s “madman theory”: His idea that the North Vietnamese would negotiate in better faith if he convinced them the president was wildly unpredictable and so fanatically anti-communist that he might do anything, even toss a few nukes.  (Interestingly, the candidate who came closest was Hillary Clinton in her promise to “obliterate” Iran if it ever dared to threaten Israel.)

Complicating the simplistic narratives offered in the presidential debates were certain unpleasant facts on the ground, the most recent one being the Iraqis themselves and their growing assertiveness in affirming their autonomy and sovereignty.  Their resistance to renewing the status of forces agreement (SOFA) is a clear sign of growing weariness with our military occupation.  Other annoying facts include Iranian meddling: Iran’s leaders obviously have little interest in seeing either the U.S. or Iraq succeed, unless the latter is ruled by a Shi’a party closely aligned with them.  And let’s not forget other niggling facts and factions, such as the Sunni Awakening and its disputed role in Iraq’s future; the Kurds and their contested desire for more autonomy and control over Iraq’s oil resources; various extremist factions jostling for power, such as the Shi’a JAM (Sadrist militia) and its related criminal elements; and looming humanitarian and logistical problems such as accommodating millions of returning Iraqi refugees, assuming conditions improve to a point where they want to return.

Surging to Victory of a Sort

It’s undeniable that last year’s surge orchestrated by General Petraeus helped to curb violence in Iraq, providing a glimmer of hope that a comparatively bloodless political reconciliation in Iraq might yet be possible.  Yet most Americans, conditioned by campaign rhetoric, still remain unaware of the fact that the surge was arguably not the most important factor in the decrease in violence.  Petraeus himself has testified that recent gains achieved by Iraqis and American troops are both fragile and reversible.  As one U.S. Army battalion commander recently described it to me, Iraq remains “a Rubik’s cube of cross cutting rivalries and vengeances.”  As someone who never had much luck solving Rubik’s cube, I wasn’t encouraged by his analogy.

Our military has learned the hard way that Iraq eludes simple solutions.  The immense challenge facing us in the immediate future is to build on our limited gains and to make them irreversible.  And the first step for Americans in this process is to recognize that “victory” is ultimately in Iraqi hands, not ours.  Are we finally ready to admit the limits of our military power—and to share these limitations honestly and forthrightly with the American people?  Especially those whose knowledge of the war begins and ends with “Support Our Troops” ribbons?

If, as one U.S. Army commander puts it in plain-speak, a “shit storm” comes to Iraq despite our best efforts to head it off, are we honest enough to admit our culpability and the limits of our own power to remake the world?  Or will we once again play the blame game, and ask, “Who lost Iraq?”  And if we insist on asking, will we remember to look back to the huge blunders committed in 2003-04 by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Bremer before rendering a final verdict?

Just before I retired from the Air Force in 2005, I shared a few words of goodbye with an Iraqi-American officer in my unit.  After consenting to sharing kisses with him (a sign of affection and honor in Iraqi culture, and the first time I’ve kissed a scraggly cheek since I was a kid), he left me with an optimistic message.  I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that although things in Iraq looked dire, ordinary, decent Iraqis would eventually come to the fore and renew the country of his birth.  His guarded optimism reminded me that there is hope for Iraq, and it resides in the Iraqi people themselves.  And as we slowly withdraw our combat forces, let us do whatever we can to support and preserve the spirit of peace-loving Iraqis.

Uncle Sam Wants You, Stars of Stage and Screen and the Sporting World

Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart (for real)
Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart (for real)

The tradition of the citizen-soldier is still alive in this country — just look at our National Guard units. But the burden of military service is obviously not equally shared, with the affluent and famous tucked away safely at home. How many people remember that Jimmy Stewart, legendary Hollywood actor, flew dangerous combat missions in the skies over Europe during World War II? Stewart didn’t flaunt his combat service; in fact, playing against type, he stayed home as the unhallowed George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, a movie that celebrated the heroism of the ordinary citizen. In the movie, Stewart’s quiet, home-based heroism, his powerful sense of fairness and decency, is even allowed to overshadow that of his younger brother, who returns from war with the Medal of Honor.

There’s an interesting lesson there. In World War II, celebrities often risked life and limb in real military service, then after the war played against type to celebrate the virtues of a homespun heroism. Today’s celebrities avoid military service altogether but play tough in action films where they pose as “heroes.”

Other than Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising NFL football career to join the military after 9/11, I can’t think of a single celebrity who answered the call to arms as a citizen-soldier.

Then again, that call was never issued. After 9/11, President George W. Bush famously told us to keep calm and carry on — carrying on shopping and patronizing Disney, that is. He did so because he already had a large standing professional military he could call on, drawn primarily from the middling orders of society. This “all volunteer military” is often described (especially in advertisements by defense contractors) as a collection of “warfighters” and “warriors.” In the field, they are supplemented by privatized militaries provided by companies like Academi (formerly Blackwater/Xe), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp International. In a word, mercenaries. These bring with them a corporate, for-profit, mindset to America’s wars.

If we as a country are going to keep fighting wars, we need a military drawn from the people. All the people. As a start, we need to draft young men (and women) from Hollywood, from the stage and screen. And we need to draft America’s sports stars (I shouldn’t think this would be an issue, since there are so many patriotic displays in favor of the troops at NFL stadiums and MLB parks).

Jimmy Stewart served in combat. So too did Ted Williams. So too did so many of their Hollywood and sporting generation.

Until today’s stars of stage and screen and sports join with the same sense of urgency as their counterparts of “The Greatest Generation,” I’ll remain deeply skeptical of all those Hollywood and sporting world patriotic displays of troop support.

If this whole line of argument sounds crazy to you, I have a modest suggestion. Rather a plea. If our celebrities who profit the most from America are unwilling to defend it the way Stewart and Williams did, perhaps that’s not just a sign of societal rot. Perhaps it’s a sign that our wars are simply not vital to us. And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we end them? Now?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

Remember Color-Coded Threat Warnings?

Hsas-chart

W.J. Astore

Back in the ancient time of 2007, you may recall that color-coded threat warnings were constantly appearing on our TV screens.  Those “Homeland Security threat advisory ratings” fluctuated between yellow (elevated) and orange (high).   With the lone exception of the State of Hawaii in 2003, the threat ratings never dropped to blue (guarded) or (heaven forbid) green (low).

It was like we were in an old Star Trek episode with Captain Kirk, stuck on a bridge that’s constantly on Yellow Alert, phasers and photon torpedoes locked on target.

Thankfully, the Department of Homeland Security finally ditched the color-coded warnings.  But have we ditched the mentality that drove them?  Are we not encouraged still to be afraid?

Yes, terrorism remains a threat.  I’m sure there’ll always be terrorists of some sort who seek to harm us.  But we’ve made a lot of progress in the so-called global war on terror.  We killed Osama Bin Laden.  We devastated Al Qaeda.

Indeed, as we teeter on the brink of national financial default, one of the bigger threats we seem to face is our own divided and ineffectual government.  While it appears a last-minute deal is in the works, it’s one of those “solutions” that just kicks the can down the road a few months.  We’ll doubtless be dealing with the same governmental gridlock — the same hostage-taking — after the New Year.

Hmm: Maybe we should revive that color-coded warning system.  But let’s apply it, not to the terrorists outside our borders, but to our own politicians who continue to threaten us with financial default and societal ruin.

If they continue to insist on taking our government hostage, throwing people out of work, and threatening us all with financial collapse, I’d say that rates at least an “orange” rating.  And if they persist in shooting the hostage (that’s us), I’d say that counts as a “red.”

Come on, Homeland Security!  Protect us from those who’d destroy our government.  Or are you shut down too?

Iraq and Afghanistan Are Not Rubik’s Cubes

A Rubik's Cube
A Rubik’s Cube

W.J. Astore

A few years ago I was talking to an experienced U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a battalion commander in Iraq.  He compared the Iraqi situation to a Rubik’s Cube – a puzzling array of shifting loyalties, interconnected tribes, and religious sects.  At the time, I thought it was a telling metaphor.

But the metaphor was misleading.  A Rubik’s Cube can be solved.  Iraq couldn’t.  Not by the U.S.  Why?  Because Iraq was and is an Iraqi problem, not an American puzzle.  The more we twisted and turned the Iraqi cube, the more we avoided the reality that the heavily militarized U.S. presence in Iraq was a large part of the problem.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an Afghan problem.  Our long-term, heavily militarized, presence there is ultimately not in the best interests of the vast majority of Afghan people.  Nor for that matter is it ultimately in the best interests of America.

This conclusion may seem deceptively simple, even simple-minded.  But it isn’t.  It requires us to be humble.  It requires us to recognize that other countries and people are not problems for us to solve.  And American officials are loath to do that.  They are loath to admit any limits either to their power or insight.

This ham-fisted puzzle-solving mentality was endemic to the American presence in Vietnam.  In a probing book review of Carl Oglesby’s Ravens in the Storm, Dan White cites Oglesby’s experiences talking with the Vietnamese journalist Cao Giao.  One passage in particular caught my attention:

“You Americans [Cao Giao said] like to say the Vietnam problem is complex.  But this is only an excuse to not face the truth.  The truth is that the Vietnam problem is not complex at all.  It is only impossible.  Do you see?  If it was complex, you could try to solve it.  But it is simple because it is impossible.  Because it is simple it cannot be solved.”

Iraq and Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Syria) are not complex puzzles.  They’re not Rubik’s Cubes to be flipped and turned and massaged until we get all the colors to line up for us.  They’re impossible.  They’re impossible for us, that is.  We can’t “solve” them, no matter how many billions of dollars we spend, no matter how many troop brigades we send, no matter how many weapons we sell to them.

The simple truth (that U.S. officialdom seeks to deny) is that we consume our own myths of global reach, global power, and global goodness.  In the process we reduce other peoples and nations to puzzles.  We play with them until we “solve” them to our satisfaction.  Or we grow bored and tired and throw them away like yesterday’s toys.

Other nations and peoples are not toys.  Nor are they complex puzzles.  Nor should it be puzzling when the peoples we’ve flipped and spun like so many Rubik’s Cubes seek redress – and revenge.