America’s Afghan War: Lies and More Lies

Obama
President Obama with General Stanley McChrystal in the days of the ill-fated Afghan Surge

W.J. Astore

Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War.  The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war.  Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism.  But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.

This sell/spin process was all lies, as the Washington Post revealed yesterday:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

Surprise, surprise!  Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009.  Here’s my article from that time.  Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.

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

By William Astore (April 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.

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.

Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up:

the-war-of-a-lifetime-2-6d0

31 thoughts on “America’s Afghan War: Lies and More Lies

  1. Right after posting, I saw this article by Danny Sjursen at Truthdig: “I Knew the War in Afghanistan Was a Lie,” at https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-delusion-behind-the-war-in-afghanistan/

    An excerpt:

    So, for the better part of a year, I pretended to promote “democracy” in rural Kandahar, my dense squadron commander pretended to know what that entailed, his commander pretended the endeavor was possible in the first place, and on and up it went—straight to the top, to the White House. Everyone up and down the chain of command put on a show and presented the illusion of “progress.” I knew this, viscerally, as a young captain.

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    1. Those military uniforms (i.e., outfits) in the cartoons remind me of the combat gear worn by the grunts (i.e., war-workers) in Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers. Off to fight the “bugs” there, on their home planet, so that we don’t have to fight them here, on ours. No joke. We’ve actually got a “Space Force” now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Psychopaths at the Top running this shit-show, and using these kids– the Grunts as fodder… Is this for your National Defense Service Medal…!? “How I learned to stop worrying and love the forever wars.” Stupidity reigns.

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    1. Thanks for posting! His words here are spot on:

      “But a misguided war that drags on inconclusively for more than 18 years is, I submit, a far greater crime. This is especially the case if that war has cost the United States more than $1 trillion, with 2,300 U.S. troops and more than 3,800 American contractors killed, and another 20,000 GIs wounded in action, many grievously. And that’s not counting the more than 100,000 members of Afghan security forces and Afghan civilians killed along the way.”

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  3. Nixon: “I am not a crook.” Trump: “No collusion. A perfect phone call. Phony witch hunt.” Multiple US politicians/officials: “We are NOT engaged in ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan.” At least the Russkies had the common sense to throw in the towel on Afghanistan and get the hell out!

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  4. In February 2017, I wrote a post for TomDispatch.com with the title, “In Afghanistan, America’s Biggest Foe Is Self-Deception.” Here’s the link: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176248

    In the article, I refer to an HBO documentary on the Obama surge that made it clear to me America was (still) losing. It was obvious a decade ago the war was lost, but still it goes on. Here’s an excerpt from my 2017 article:

    Consider, for instance, a 2010 HBO documentary, The Battle for Marjah. Seven years ago, in a much larger military effort than the one presently being contemplated, U.S. troops joined with Afghan forces to secure the town of Marjah in Helmand Province in the opium-growing heart of the country.
    The documentary followed a U.S. Marine unit, which fought valiantly to clear that town of the Taliban in accordance with the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine then experiencing a revival under Petraeus and McChrystal. The goal was to rebuild its institutions and infrastructure so U.S. troops could ultimately leave. As usual, the Marines kicked ass: they cleared the town. But the price of holding it proved dear, while efforts to build a local Afghan government to replace them failed. Today, as much as 80% of Helmand Province is under Taliban control.

    The documentary’s harshest lessons come almost as visual asides. While Taliban insurgents fought with spirit, Afghan government forces, then as now, fought reluctantly. U.S. troops had to force them to enter and clear buildings. In one case, a Marine takes a rifle away from an Afghan soldier because the latter keeps pointing the muzzle at “friendly” forces. We witness Afghan troops holding a half-hearted ceremony to salute their government’s flag after Marjah is “liberated.” Meanwhile, the faces of ordinary Afghans alternate between beleaguered stoicism and thinly veiled hostility. Few appear to welcome their foreign liberators, whether U.S. or Afghan. (The Afghan government units, hailing from the north, were ethnically different and spoke another language.) An Afghan shown working with the Marines was assassinated soon after the U.S. withdrawal.

    A tired Marine corporal put it all in perspective: for him, the Afghan War was a “mind-fuck.” At least he rotated out sooner or later. The Afghan people have had no such luck.

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    1. Nothing new under the sun! The US colossus, with all its “gee-whiz!” technology, cannot defeat what resembles a People’s War, a la Vietnam. I say “resembles” because the Afghans may not be thrilled with Taliban enforcement of Islamic fundamentalist laws, but I firmly believe they’re even more vehemently opposed to Yanks kicking in their doors, blowing up wedding celebrations, mutilating and posing with corpses, etc. The Afghan “allies” are dispirited excuses for soldiers? Sounds like the ARVN in Vietnam to me!! And we know how THAT tragedy/fiasco turned out, don’t we? Only a stupendous case of imperial hubris keeps the US involved in such a stupid, disastrous undertaking as this never-ending war.

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  5. Another good article: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/5-infuriating-findings-in-the-afghanistan-papers/

    Its conclusion:

    It’s that after 18 years encompassing three presidential administrations from both parties, no one has been held accountable for the vast U.S. taxpayer dollars—not to mention, blood, sweat, and tears—wasted on a vast exercise for a purpose that even the principle players seem unable to identify.

    These papers show a clear attempt to mislead and deceive the American people about the extent of the administrative and bureaucratic waste and incompetence that was occurring. What these interviews reveal is mind-blowing; that no one has been unaccountable is criminal.

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  6. In July 2018, I reviewed “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan,” edited by Aaron O’Connell. Most of the authors in this book were veterans of the conflict who saw how poorly it was going. Here’s the link: http://www.miwsr.com/2018-060.aspx

    Here’s the conclusion to my book review:

    The reasons for this [general] failure [of the Afghan war] include tangled bureaucracies, erratic resourcing, over-reliance on technology to solve non-technical problems, ill-conceived progress metrics, discontinuity of command, Westerners’ sidelining of Afghans, contempt for or misunderstanding of their culture and mores, and addiction to militarizing everything. Add to these strategic incoherence, fluctuating interest from a Washington distracted by the Iraq War, and you have a recipe for the “half success” O’Connell sees as the best-case scenario for America’s trillion-dollar effort in Afghanistan.

    Many of the volume’s contributors cite parallels to America’s Vietnam experience. In both conflicts, US and Coalition forces could certainly kill the enemy but not forge a quasi-liberal democracy with a stable central government supported by capable security forces. In each case, a frustrated United States blamed its ally for alleged corruption, undependability, and ingratitude.

    “Our Latest Longest War” deserves close reading and careful reflection by anyone (in particular, US government officials with a role in national defense) wishing to learn about the Afghan War and the American way of war. Aaron O’Connell and his coauthors are to be congratulated for clarifying so powerfully the hubris and limits of American and Western power in Afghanistan.

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    1. Bill, I have to take exception to your attempted drawing of parallels with the American War in Vietnam. “U.S. and Coalition forces could certainly kill the enemy…” you state. “The enemy”? You mean the millions (a truly accurate death count will never be obtained) of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians the US murdered? And what would a “quasi-liberal democracy” look like? You mean the Vietnamese would have their very own version of Democrats and Republicans between which to choose every few years, i.e. Tweedledum and Tweedledee?? I urge you to rethink this matter!

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      1. Yes. Strike the words “the enemy” (which we often couldn’t identify, meaning lots of innocents were killed) and you get a harsher picture.

        Well, a “quasi-liberal democracy” is what American leaders said they were trying to create. What they ended up fueling were kleptocracies, much like the U.S., actually, as I wrote about here: https://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175235

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  7. An article in Counterpunch has a similar tone:

    “After conquering the country, U.S. officials installed their ideal government, one consisting of a national security state, a strong central government with omnipotent powers, no civil liberties, no due process of law, no trial by jury, no protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, no bar against cruel and unusual punishments, massive public works and other socialist programs, and a centrally managed economy. What better prescription for disaster than that?”
    https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/12/10/afghanistan-a-pentagon-paradise-built-on-lies/

    Will any of the herd of Democratic Candidates for President finally tell the American People this war is over – We are finished?? I know that will not happen. It would start the 21st Century version of Who Lost China.

    Will anyone in the House or Senate demand serious honest hearings?? Hell NO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wrote this back in 2010, ML:

      Is it any surprise then that, in seeking to export our form of government to Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve produced not two model democracies, but two emerging kleptocracies, fueled respectively by oil and opium?

      When we confront corruption in Iraq or Afghanistan, are we not like the police chief in the classic movie Casablanca who is shocked, shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s Café, even as he accepts his winnings?

      Why then do we bother to feign shock when Iraqi and Afghan elites, a tiny minority, seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the majority?

      Shouldn’t we be flattered? Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Isn’t it?

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      1. Kleptocracy indeed! I wonder in whose Swiss (or Cayman Islands, since the Swiss have supposedly tightened their bank regulation) account that $6 billion (if I recall correctly) of freshly-minted US currency flown to “the new Iraq” ended up?? Man, that’s a lot of pallets of bills, even if they were all C-notes!!

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    2. I’m confident Mr. Super-Macho Gung-Ho Military Guy ‘Mayor Pete’ won’t lead us toward peace! But he’s a long, long shot for POTUS. As for Congress, a few members (Tulsi Gabbard, if Dem. Establishment doesn’t succeed in defeating her at polls next year?) may try to take some kind of action to cut off funding for the Endless War. I say “try” because, again, the Dem. Establishment is “all in” on this nonsense. Recall how they howled in protest when Trump dropped a (hypocritical, lying) threat to pull some troops out of the shitstorm!!

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  8. Sickening. The soldiers on the front lines had the courage to face the enemy. Their leaders lacked the courage to speak the truth. Words fail me. Just sickening.

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  9. Excellent point made here about “our” unaccountable government:

    “Julian Assange once said “The overwhelming majority of information is classified to protect political security, not national security,” and we see this tacitly confirmed by the US government in its massive backlogs of unanswered FOIA requests, illegitimate refusals, unjustifiable redactions and exploitation of loopholes to retain as much security as possible. As one Twitter follower recently put it, “The FOIA was enacted in 1966 to make legally compulsory the opening of government activities to ‘sunlight’. Fifty-three years later, the government has learned how to neutralize the law and once again hide their misconduct. Classifying everything is one way, requiring an expensive ‘lawsuit’ is another.”

    It shouldn’t work this way. People shouldn’t have to count on immoral plutocratic media institutions to get their government to tell them the truth about what’s being done in their name using their tax dollars. A free nation would have privacy for its citizenry and transparency for its government; with the growing increase in surveillance and government secrecy across the entire US-centralized empire, what we’re getting is the exact opposite.”

    https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2019/12/11/the-most-significant-afghanistan-papers-revelation-is-how-difficult-they-were-to-make-public/

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  10. And the lying & spinning continues even as we comment the previous lies. Today’s attack on Bagram base was apparently a huge truck bomb to force entrance and then a long gun battle, finalised, how else, the Amrican way : airstrikes.
    But US army and NATO want us to believe that the attack was aimed at a civilian hospital being built near the base (incidentally, a textbook human shield) :
    “Resolute Support in a statement said that “Enemy forces conducted an attack on Bagram airfield this morning, targeting a medical facility being constructed to help the Afghan people who live near the base.”
    That empty medical facility under construction, near the base, not on it, apparently was where the attackers hid after the blast and from where they engaged in a fire fight. It was not the target of the attack.
    Long live Sopko, the only decent person I’ve managed to discover in that outfit.

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    1. “This just in”: Today (Dec. 11, 2019) the majority [I assume, not having studied the vote in detail] of Dems in House of Reps signed off on a Pentagon spending bill that places no curbs whatsoever on the Endless War AND, for a dandy bonus, greenlights creation of Trump’s “Space Force”!!! What a collection of worthless turds, these Democrats!!

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      1. Buy some Republicans, they’ll shout “GAWD Bless!”
        Rent a few Democrats, they’ll lose for less.

        Or, as the Democrats like to join with their fellow right-wing Republican congress-persons in swearin their true allegiance each morning of the few days each week when they actually pretend to do any “work”:

        Oath of Avarice

        I pledge allegiance to the corporation:
        A “person” as the judges have proclaimed,
        And place this “him” or “her” above my nation
        Whose Constitution “he” or “she” has maimed
        Pursuant to no legal obligation
        Except immunity, however named,
        For those investors in their campaign suites
        Who’d rather that we call them our “elites.”

        Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2014

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks.

            As Mark Twain gets credit for observing: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I especially like that one.

            But on the other hand, Karl Marx said that “History repeats itself twice; the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.”

            Personally, I like to combine those point of view into: “History endlessly repeats itself as criminal farce which only a sense of tragedy can make rhyme.”

            Poetry makes nothing happen,” said W. H. Auden, who meant his remark in the political context of a disappointed crusader. That characterization of political impotence certainly does ring true in my case, although I only started composing rhymed verse later in life after Deputy Dubya Bush and Sheriff Dick Cheney brought Vietnam back to me while calling it superficially different names like “Afghanistan” and “Iraq.” My fellow Vietnam veteran Daniel Ellsberg didn’t fall for the cheap word-magic, though, and when someone pompously said to him, “Iraq is not Vietnam,” he acidly replied: “Yeah. In Iraq its a dry heat, and the language our diplomatic and military personnel don’t speak is Arabic instead of Vietnamese.” So the names change but the awful reality persists while growing ever more transparently venal and bogus. Just grab the oil and anything else of pecuniary value. “To the vicious belong the spoils,” as I believe President Donald Trump recently meant to say.

            For his part, W. B. Yeats did something else with Auden’s simple submissive sentence, in part:

            For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
            In the valley of its making where executives
            Would never want to tamper, flows on south
            From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
            Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
            A way of happening, a mouth.


            Poetry certainly seems to make nothing happen in a political sense, true enough, especially in the United States. Nonetheless, I feel somewhat better after composing even a few lines of accumulated bile that rhyme or match formal accentual structures. So something therapeutic came of all the resentment and rancour. Not much, perhaps; but we all have to die of something, so why not go down singing?

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          2. Twain is one of my huge favorites, but I’m not sure the bit about history rhyming really came from his pen. Haven’t encountered that yet in his authentic works. No biggie, I guess. We have certainly moved into the realm of ceaseless tragic farce, all right.

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  11. Addendum: And the name of this ceaseless farce is Representative Jim Jordan, of Ohio!! At this point in the impeachment proceedings, I can’t even stand the sound of his voice!

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    1. “This just in” (CNN online headline late Sat. night, Dec. 14, US Eastern Time): Trump again claims he’ll soon withdraw “thousands” of troops from Afghanistan. No indication if they’d simply be shuffled over to Syria or Iraq. I think this is a rather blatant (desperate) attempt to divert attention from impeachment. And above all, we cannot believe a single word this sociopath utters, on any topic.

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