Trump and the Afghan War

Afghanistan
A slice of life in Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility.  The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump.  Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.

That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”

Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat.  “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?

Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.

Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.”  A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.

In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”).  Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives.  (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)

As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them.  As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue.  Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.

It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.

An Afterthought: Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war.  It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations.  This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse.  Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.

Update (6/16/17): Surprise!  News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces.  And so the “stalemate” in Afghanistan will continue.

As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:

That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.

Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York TimesAfghanistan Is Trump’s War Now.  It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it.  Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration.  Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim.  WTF, America?

Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience.  He spoke of a generational war  in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years.  Most revealing of all was the language he used.  He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan.  4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on.  But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”

Update 4 (6/17/17):  Good god.  At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war.  These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).

These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power?  Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”

If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme.  After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen …

23 thoughts on “Trump and the Afghan War

    1. Noteworthy that we don’t even bother to feign the illusion of “civilian” control of the military any more; just have double-dipping retired generals segue into the SecDef slot.

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  1. Makes me wonder (as I have for many, many years) why do we think our advisers/trainers are superior and why does anyone want our advisers. We keep getting our rear ends kicked for a variety of reasons and we still think we have advice to give. Maybe we could hire advisers from all those folks who keep kicking our rears. What a win-win, in 1st Lt. Milo Minderbinder fashion. They get money, “we” get buy in (depending on who is “we” – could sell stocks). Everybody keeps their enterprises in business (literally, ah, me thinks that is a clue). Cheery thought, that. : – )

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    1. It is not clear that anyonee does want our advisors. More a case of us inserting our “advisors” (shit-disturbers) sub rosa, then finding a local surrogate who will take credit (in exchange for significant emoluments) for having “asked” for our “advice” (direction). From there on, they surge and escalate ad absurdum.

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      1. Indeed. Not only is the value of those ‘advisors’ doubtful as such, but remember that they hail from many different countries… Just imagine US army (or local US government) units being ‘advised & trained’ by ‘specialists’ from China, Uruguay, Finland, Serbia, Congo and a few more? Each with their own background, approach, experience, not to mention language. After all English and its various pidgin versions as spoken by multi-national ‘advisors’, is a foreign language to Afghans.
        Generally in Afghanistan, we seem to be getting ever closer back to square one.
        During the first few years of the US/NATO occupation civilians killed by random shooting, speeding army vehicles etc were common. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Shinwar_shooting.
        Eventually the negative PR seemed to work and possibly military leaving for the ‘battlefield’ were less indoctrinated about how savage the country was to which they were being dispatched to heroically defend US values. The cause of civilian casualties shifted from trigger happy nervous recruits to night raids and other covert actions in remote areas where only embedded – and therefore loyal – press would be admitted – and of course Gen Petraeus’ embedded biographer, who seemed to relish in such bombing raids: http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/01/13/travels-with-paula-i-a-time-to-build/.
        Ten years later, it looks like we’re indeed getting back to square one, including those panicking army kids : http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/06/man-sons-killed-troops-nangarhar-170612083754646.html. But that should not come as a surprise. After all, thanks to Rear Admiral Greg Smith we know that the US has its own amazing interpretation of self defense: “You don’t have to be fired upon to fire back. [sic]” … http://www.rawa.org/temp/runews/2010/03/14/nato-covered-up-botched-night-raid-in-afghanistan-that-killed-five.phtml
        That this kind of ‘self defense’ only applies when we do the killing, goes without saying.

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  2. I keep wondering – what is the point of our being in Afghanistan? I think about what winning means.

    Consider for a moment the purpose of capitalism, to make a profit. Being in Afghanistan certainly brings profits not only to the the weapons manufacturers but also to the host of companies that provide services for our military there. Supporting the operation of bases, far removed from danger, doing laundry, serving food, providing supplies, driving trucks, etc. at inflated prices while employing local labor for very low pay, could business be any better? 16 years! In the States plenty of businesses can go bust over that period, but in Afghanistan, there’s business security in never-ending insecurity. It’s plain old vested interests. The Civil War and WW2 were over in a flash with epic destruction. Nobody for a moment thought about extending them! Now almost nobody dies and nothing of importance is at stake so why not let business be business?

    If the real purpose of being in Afghanistan is business profits and having a mighty footprint for empire there, then are we losing? The training mission can go on forever and with military-parasitic businesses, who cares about the Taliban running around? After all, they provide the necessary enemy, just as in other places Russia or Iran can take on the enemy role we assign them regardless of their behavior. And just maybe we do score a final business win – McDonalds and ReMax Reality in Kabul! We know from long experience in Central and South America that any government will do. As long as business is welcomed, the status of the general public isn’t of any real importance.

    Looked at in this way further base and troop deployments are just fine, so on and on it goes. Has anyone read Peter Van Buren’s, “We Meant Well”? A lot of Americans cleaned up in Iraq from our involvement and look how we seem to be leaking people back in while maintaining the world’s largest mall, oops I mean embassy, there. We aren’t really, seriously at war anywhere, but the infrastructure of war everywhere pays off if you know how to play it.

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  3. The Roman Emperor Trajan is perhaps a leading candidate for the most accomplished Emperor and General in Roman History. He ended up conquering what we know today as Iraq. Hadrian, Trajan’s successor abandoned these Iraqi conquests. Modern historians acknowledge the difficulty of the conquest, but a permanent Roman garrison would have required more Roman Legions and a great expenditure. Thus, a pull back to a more rational border. Hadrian as Emperor could just give the withdrawal order, without the bother of political repercussions.

    One haunted house from our own history is the, Who Lost China blame game after Mao’s victory in China. Some histories related LBJ feared a repeat of the blame game backlash if he withdrew from Vietnam.

    If the US withdrew from Afghanistan, it probably would be only a matter of two months or so before the Taliban took over again. The fury of the Deep State would be immense. The Wars in the Mideast and Afghanistan are never, I mean never allowed to be debated as a part of the political process. The most that is said about these wars are some platitudes about how we have the best military, rah, rah, rah. Somehow the sheer sobering reality of if we have the best military, then why have we not wrapped these wars up with a victory, is not asked.

    Some stupid new or rehashed old tactical plan will be dusted off and presented as a new improved victory model.

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  4. Thanks for the great comments. Yes, war means big profits for some, even as it drains the American taxpayer. Another reason why these wars persist is that Americans are isolated from their effects. It’s an “all volunteer” military, after all, meaning no draft (and no draft protests). The media and military tell us that we must persist, else the scary terrorists will be back — that’s basically the rationale for Afghanistan — we haven’t been attacked from terrorists training in Afghanistan since 9/11, hence we’re winning the Afghan war! I’ve heard this said in Congress … no kidding.

    Orwell said all that mattered is that war should exist — it’s a great prop to authoritarian states. Madison’s quote about liberty not surviving in a state that’s constantly at war is also telling. War is also an essential part of America’s violent heritage, our culture.

    I know this is all a jumble, but when we ask why the Afghan war persists, we have to take a broad look. Profits, isolation (and ignorance), fear, war as a prop to authoritarianism and as a force against liberty, war as a part of American culture: all of these are involved, and more.

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  5. Some very good comments. I’d like to suggest some additional reading:

    (1) Why Afghanistan? Fighting a War for the War System Itself, by Gareth Porter, antiwar.com (June 14, 2017)

    (2) “The War In Afghanistan Is A Racket,” Moon of Alabama (June 14, 2017)

    (3) “When Generals Make Policies – From Tactics To Strategy To Political Decision” Moon of Alabama (June 16, 2017)

    Afghanistan means Vietnam in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains with the U.S. military doing what it does best: namely, what historian Barbara Tuchman called “working the levers” of a vast Rube Goldberg machine having no purpose other than its own careening destructiveness.

    I’d like to comment on some of this reading, but I have to go to sleep now. Perhaps tomorrow when I have enough energy to deal with the dreary, dispiriting insanity.

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    1. Mike – I followed your link to the Porter essay “Why Afghanistan” and found it excellent. Here are two excerpts that stood out…

      “…the Pentagon designed a massive $2.16 billion annual logistics contract in 2008-09 under which about 25,000 militiamen were paid by dozens of private trucking companies and security companies owned by the warlords. The warlords were paid tens of millions of dollars a year, further consolidating their hold on the society.”

      As we know from medieval European history, mercenary armies do everything they can to give the appearance of making war while in fact avoiding it. Few die and the money keeps coming in.

      and this which indicates how vested interests need not be financial.

      “…the war has continued, because it serves powerful interests that have nothing to do with Afghanistan itself: the careers of the US officers who serve there; the bureaucratic stakes of the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA in their huge programs and facilities in the country; the political cost of admitting that it was a futile effort from the start. Plus, the Pentagon and the CIA are determined to hold on to Afghan airstrips they use to carry out drone war in Pakistan for as long as possible.”

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    2. By coincidence, I was just reading this review of “War Machine” and noted this quote:

      https://theintercept.com/2017/06/17/brad-pitts-war-machine-offers-an-absurd-and-scathing-critique-of-americas-delusional-generals/

      One of the movie’s best scenes takes place in a conference hall in Germany, where Pitt is trying to drum up support for more allied troops to fight in Afghanistan. He comes armed with a whiteboard, and he deploys a bewildering flow chart about the dynamics of insurgency and counterinsurgency, but Tilda Swinton, playing a German member of parliament, blows it all to hell. She points out that the reason for invading Afghanistan was to crush Al Qaeda, which was based there with Osama bin Laden, and was pretty much chased out of the country in the first months of the invasion. After so many years of stalemate against the Taliban, what is the purpose of continuing to fight?

      “As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check,” Swinton says. “You have devoted your entire life, general, to the fighting of war, and this situation in Afghanistan for you is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life. It is understandable to me that you should have therefor a fetish for completion, to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.”

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  6. Back in 1970 as a 21 year old grunt, on night guard duty in the bush, I had occasions to have some thoughts other than sex, drugs and rock and roll. I wondered what am I doing here. I, the singular. Why was I sitting here, and someone else was driving some general around in jeep, or shuffling papers in Bien Hoa.

    What was I fighting for?? The Army answered. We were fighting against Communism, better to fight them Reds in Vietnam. If that reason did not work. Reason # 2 was, it is your patriotic duty, just like the previous generation, or some crap like that.

    At least back in Vietnam days we had anti-war songs. “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” by Country Joe and Fish. (Selected Lyrics below)
    Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
    Uncle Sam needs your help again.
    He’s got himself in a terrible jam
    Way down yonder in Vietnam
    So put down your books and pick up a gun,
    We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

    And it’s one, two, three,
    What are we fighting for?
    Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
    Next stop is Vietnam;
    And it’s five, six, seven,
    Open up the pearly gates,
    Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
    Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

    Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
    Your big chance has come at last.
    Now you can go out and get those reds
    ‘Cause the only good commie is the one that’s dead
    And you know that peace can only be won
    When we’ve blown ’em all to kingdom come.

    Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow,
    Why man, this is war au-go-go
    There’s plenty good money to be made
    By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade,
    But just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
    They drop it on the Viet Cong.

    We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, was another popular song for us Vietnam.

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  7. Thank you for watching the David Petraeus thing on the PBS Newshour. I saw the program segment listed but couldn’t stomach the thought of actually listening to General Dave babble his perfunctory post-modern platitudes. Did he really utter the anemic phrase, “a sustainable, sustained commitment”? How pathetic. I would have suggested something like “a perpetually prolonged period of pointless parasitic profligacy periodically punctuated by predictable promotion of the professional partcipants.” When it comes to alliteration, this guy couldn’t pass the entrance examination to Poetry PreSchool. He sounds as if he has his Newspeak euphemisms and Thought-Terminating Clichés specially designed for him at the American Enterprise Insitute by neocons like Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland. As far as strategic substance goes, this fatuous fraud has nothing to offer America but more tactical ticket-punching and greasy-pole-climbing careerism perpetrated upon the taxpaying public in the form of endless Ordnance Expenditure Expeditions and Enlisted Casualty Campaigns fueled by Commendation Accumulation Syndrome. And let us not overlook the Entrenched Economic Entitlements lavished on our military’s attendant dogs-of-war mercenaries and crony-corporate camp followers. It escapes me how anyone with half a brain and the ability to spell Vietnam can stomach a minute of General Dave’s drivel.

    This whole dreary thing with the mission-creep troop reinforcements reminds me of that scene in Alice in Wonderland where the Queen shouts: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.” As applied to our mediocre generals — like Secretary of War James “Mad Dog” Mattis — the rule sounds more like “troop deployments first, a plan for what to do with them, later.” And just the other day, Secretary Mattis proclaimed that he couldn’t see any sign that Russia wanted to cooperate with the United States. I immediately thought of those Russian rockets that ferry our astronauts up to the International Space Station and back, reliably and safely, year after year. I could multiply examples, but why bother? I think that ex-general Mattis should change his nickname from Mad Dog to Mr Magoo. If he really can’t see all the ways in which Russia has cooperated with the United States over the past decades, then he really needs to pull his head out of his ass an look around at the real world inhabited by the rest of us.

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    1. “Commendation Accumulation Syndrome” — CAS for short. Love it, Mike.

      As I recall, we had CAS at the AF Academy, where it stood for Cadet Accountability System. Yes, I had to treat cadets like children, monitoring their attendance, whether they were late to class or sleepy or whatever, and punishing them in a paper-pushing bureaucratic process that belittled the cadets as well as the officers who administered it.

      No wonder we’re losing …

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      1. For “belittled,” I meant “diminished.” The whole process of policing cadets made me feel like a teacher at kindergarten. I’m sure it made the cadets feel like children.

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  8. Guardian has an article today, ‘The war after Isis’: has Trump opened the door to conflict with Iran? I gather our Military and Political apparatus is preparing to announce another premature “victory” once Mosul and other cities are turned into dust and debris.

    The Trump administration says it is still reviewing Iran policy but secretary of state Rex Tillerson told the Senate last week the US would “work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition”. (Side Bar Satire- perhaps this is what the Russians were doing in our election.)

    The emphasis was on peaceful change but to Iranian government ears, that sounded like a reversion to the spirit of regime change of the Bush era and even more distant memories, of a CIA-engineered coup in 1953. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/18/donald-trump-syria-iran-isis-james-mattis

    SNAFU or FUBAR is a better more accurate description of our strategy. Next week on CNN, MSNBC and FOX the “news” will be dominated by more endless speculation on Trump-Russia, Russia and Trump. Wolf Blitzkreig, Anderson Cooper, Rachael Maddow, Chris Matthews and the FOX Five will never leave their air conditioned studios and go to the front lines in Afghanistan, or the Middle East and report. No Ernie Pyles or Bill Mauldins in our media today.

    Congress will have no open hearings on our world wide wars. No generals or senior political types will be called to task on why they have failed. If there are any public hearings it will be a demonstration of boot licking by our elected officials.

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    1. Combat boot licking — great point.

      I recall watching generals testify before Congress — and each member of Congress took his or her turn to praise the military and “our” troops before tossing mostly softball questions to the brass. So much for Congressional oversight.

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      1. Speaking of those farcical “Congressional oversight” — i.e., Military Idolatry — rituals, see:

        Why Does Congress Accept Perpetual Wars? To exercise real oversight, our representatives must take ownership of unpopular foreign entanglements, by Andrew J. Bacevich, the American Conservative (February 17, 2017 )

        And another piece to go along with the one above:

        The Never-Ending War in Afghanistan, by ANDREW J. BACEVICH, New York Times (March 13, 2017)

        The late Sri Lankan Ambassador Ananda W. P. Guruge certainly had it right when he told me once why his government had refused America’s offer of military aid against the Tamil insurgency in that little island country: “If the Americans come, they will just draw an arbitrary line through a temporary problem and make it permanent.” Rest in peace, Dr. Guruge, and thanks for the timeless wisdom.

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      2. Mike: Guruge’s comment is spot on. I know you’ve cited it before, and it’s worth citing, again and again, because it remains true.

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  9. The name J. William Fulbright came to my mind. Fulbright had his faults, but he was right on about some issues.

    In his book, The Arrogance of Power, Fulbright offered an analysis of American foreign policy:
    Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But… when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.

    Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations—to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God’s work.
    ==================================
    Fulbright’s quote on Power is a near perfect description on what we now know as American Exceptionalism, the exercise of power without virtue, morals or constraints.

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    1. I still cringe whenever I think of that rhetorical motor-mouth Barack Obama claiming “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” For eight long years I waited for at least one sentient carbon-based life form in the press corps to ask him: “Well, then, Mr President: would you tell us how many fibers your being has? I mean, since you know every one of them, surely you know their number.” But I waited in vain. It seems that the tolerance of the American people for vapid verbal diarrhea knows no limit. I even wrote a few terza rima stanzas on the subject matter quite some time ago:

      A Disassembled Dialectic
      (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

      The mawkish milquetoast mavens mildly moan
      And mumble mealy mouthfuls of their mush
      Mellifluously masking grammar’s groan

      As if our very words they wish to crush.
      Beneath a fog dispensed to hide the stink
      Of language that would make Rasputin blush,

      They make it near impossible to think,
      But praise with faint damnation published loud.
      In weakly written, waffling wretch-stained ink,

      They preach their penchant for pedantry proud.
      Their panchromatic paradigm of gray
      Describes in blended black and white the cloud.

      The metaphysics of the middle they
      Debate with dialectical dismay.

      They start assuming what they wish to know
      These salesmen of the syllogism flawed
      Then postulate the hope it may be so

      Whatever frozen fact they have unthawed
      They legislate a logic lunatic
      Inductive inference they have outlawed

      Whatever both implausible and thick
      They fantasize as fabric for their fraud
      And then segué to sell the simply sick:

      Suggestions subtle as a cattle prod
      Designed to stir stampede instead of thought
      They bask in their own bombast overawed

      With what their obloquy has sold and bought
      They premised nothing and concluded naught

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010

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