Yet Another U.S. Surge in Afghanistan

W,J. Astore

The news out of Washington, D.C. is that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent to help stabilize and reverse the “stalemate” in Afghanistan.  The commitment, relatively small in the number of troops, is open-ended in duration, and of course the numbers could (and likely will) rise.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com, urging then-President Obama not to give in to the “urge to surge.”  Of course, America did surge in Afghanistan in 2009-10, but that surge, roughly ten times larger than the mini-surge of this moment, failed to alter the fundamentals on the ground.  Indeed, the Taliban and related insurgent forces in Afghanistan have only grown stronger in the aftermath of the failed Obama surge.

Perhaps the new motto of the U.S. military should be: If at first you don’t succeed, surge, surge again.

*****************

Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President

By William Astore (written in 2009)

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

marymccarthy460
Mary McCarthy

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.

Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?

2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”

Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.

Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?

4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?

5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.

Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks”for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?

6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”

Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?

7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”

Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?

One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”

Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.

Copyright 2009 William Astore

Happy 4th of July! And a Global War on Something

sunset july 2014 061
Author’s photo.

W.J. Astore

I live in a fairly posh area of America.  A place where people have vacation “cottages” with pools, a “destination” place for some, especially in July and August.  July 4th is hopping in these parts, with parties and parades and fireworks and trips to the beach and barbecues.  It’s summer, it’s warm and sunny, it’s time to relax with family and friends and enjoy life.

And then I read headlines like this today (from FP: Foreign Policy): “U.S. Troops in the Thick of it in Mosul and Raqqa.”  And this story about U.S. Marines deploying yet again to Helmand Province in Afghanistan:

Helmand. The commander of 300 Marines newly deployed to Helmand province recently told FP’s Paul McLeary he already has the full authority to get his troops out and about with Afghan troops in the fight. “So far we really haven’t seen much of a need to do it,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, “but if there’s a need to be somewhere we have the authority and capability and capacity to be where we need to be.” 

He also advocated for a larger American footprint, in keeping with reported Pentagon plans to add 3,000 to 5,000 more troops in the coming months. “With a little bit larger force over here we would be in a position to have more flexibility” to do some of the advising he believes would help the Afghan forces push back against two years of Taliban offensives. 

And I think of that “Groundhog Day” movie with Bill Murray in which he repeats the same day, again and again, with only minor changes.  If you’ve seen the movie, Murray finally breaks out of what appears to be an infinite loop only when he changes his ways, his approach to life, his mentality.  He becomes a better person and even gets the girl.

When is the USA going to break out of its infinite loop of war?  Only when we change our culture, our mentality.

A “war on terror” is a forever war, an infinite loop, in which the same place names and similar actions crop up again and again.  Names like Mosul and Helmand province. Actions like reprisals and war crimes and the deaths of innocents, because that is the face of war.

Speaking of war crimes, another report today from FP: Foreign Policy:

[A] new Human Rights Watch report signals trouble ahead: witnesses in Mosul say that “Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.”

When will it end?  Freedom includes freedom from forever war.  Yet Americans continue to be told that the price of freedom is having U.S. troops deployed everywhere — the projection of power in 100+ countries.  And some consider it patriotic to support those commitments without question, since to question it is seen as not supporting the troops. Which is nonsense, since our troops fight, at least in theory, to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which, among other rights, enshrines freedom of speech and the right to dissent.

Can we contemplate a future Fourth of July in which American troops are no longer stuck in an infinite loop, fighting yet again in the blasted streets of Mosul or on the dusty plains of Helmand province?  A day of independence from war?

That would truly be a day to celebrate with parades, parties, and fireworks.