Ken Burns and the Vietnam War: Ten Items to Watch For

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W.J. Astore

On September 17th, a new TV documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns (famous for past series on the U.S. Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz, among others) and Lynn Novick begins its run on PBS.  Airing in ten parts over 18 hours, the series promises a comprehensive look at the war from all sides, with the catchphrase “There is no single truth in war” serving as a guiding light.  Initial excerpts suggest the series isn’t looking to provide definitive answers, perhaps as a way of avoiding political controversy in the Age of Trump.

I’ll be watching the series, but I have ten points of my own to make about America’s war in Vietnam.  As a preamble, the Vietnam War (American version) was both mistake and crime. What’s disconcerting in the U.S. media is the emphasis on the war as an American tragedy, when it was truly a horrific tragedy inflicted upon the peoples of Southeast Asia (Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians). Yes, American troops suffered and died in large numbers, yet Southeast Asian casualties were perhaps 50 times as great. Along with wanton killing came the poisoning of the environment with defoliants like Agent Orange; meanwhile, mines and unexploded ordnance from the war continue to kill people today in Southeast Asia. In a sense, the killing from that war still isn’t over.

With the caveat that we should reserve judgment until we’ve seen the series, let’s keep these ten points in mind as we watch:

1. To most Americans, Vietnam is a war. And war is a distorting and limiting lens through which to view cultures and peoples. Will Burns recognize this distortion?

2. The series talks about hearing voices from all sides of the conflict. But will the Vietnamese people, together with Laotians and Cambodians, really have as much say as Americans?

3. The U.S. suffered nearly 60,000 troops killed. But Vietnamese killed numbered in the millions. And the destruction to SE Asia — the spread of the war to Laos and Cambodia — was on a scale that rivaled or surpassed the destruction to the American South during the U.S. Civil War. Will that destruction be thoroughly documented and explained?

4. Whose point of view will prevail in the documentary? What will be the main thread of the narrative? Will the war be presented as a tragedy? A misunderstanding? A mistake? A crime? Will the “noble cause” and “stabbed in the back” myths (the ideas that the U.S. fought for freedom and democracy and against communism, and that the U.S. military could have won but was prevented from doing so by unpatriotic forces at home) be given equal time in the interests of a “fair and balanced” presentation? Will these myths be presented as alternative truths of the war?

5. Which American war in Vietnam will be presented? Even when we talk of the American part of the Vietnam War, there were at least four wars. The U.S. Army under General William Westmoreland fought a conventional, search and destroy, war. The Air Force wanted to prove that airpower alone, specifically bombing, could win the war. The Marines were more interested in counterinsurgency and pacification. The CIA and special ops types were engaged in psychological warfare, assassinations, torture, and god-knows-what-else.

6. The American presence in Vietnam became so overwhelming that by 1967-68 the Vietnamese economy was completely distorted. We brought American materialism and profligacy to a nation that was, by comparison, impoverished and “backwards” (from our perspective, of course). Material superiority bred and fed cockiness.

Consider Meredith Lair’s book, “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War” (2011).  It details the non-combat experiences of U.S. troops in Vietnam.  Here’s a telling book blurb written by historian Christian Appy: “Meredith Lair’s fascinating analysis of rear-echelon life among American G.I.s dramatically challenges our most common conceptions of U.S. military experiences in Vietnam. From steaks to steambaths, swimming pools to giant PXs, the amenities provided on large bases not only belie conventional images of that war, but also stand as dramatic testimony to the desperate and unsuccessful effort of American officials to bolster flagging troop morale as the war lurched toward its final failure.”

Will this orgy of American-driven materialism be documented?

7. Anti-war protests and serious unrest within the U.S. military led to the end of the draft and the creation of an “all-volunteer” military. Has this decision contributed to a more imperial U.S. foreign policy facilitated by a much more tractable military of “volunteers”?

8. Short of nuclear weapons, the U.S. military used virtually every weapon in its arsenal in SE Asia. The region became a test/proving ground for all sorts of weapons and concepts, from “smart” weapons and electronic fences and sensors to horrendous pounding by conventional bombs to war on the environment using defoliants and massive bulldozers to … well … everything. All sorts of pacification theories were tested as well, along with COIN and “small wars” and unconventional tactics to search and destroy to Vietnamization to … well … again, everything. SE Asia became a laboratory and its peoples became lab rats. Will this reality be fully documented?

9. It’s essential that people realize President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, knew the war was a lost cause no later than 1969. (Their conversations on tape prove this.) All they were looking for was a “decent interval” between a peace treaty (“peace with honor”) and what they saw as the inevitable collapse. They got that (in)decent interval of roughly 2.5 years. The Congressional decision to cut off funding to South Vietnam was convenient for the Nixon/Kissinger acolytes, since it allowed them to shift the blame for South Vietnam’s collapse in 1975 to Congress as well as to the usual “suspect” elements in American society, i.e. the peace movement.

Will the duplicity and hypocrisy of Nixon/Kissinger be adequately documented?

10. Finally, an important aspect of the Vietnam War was the breakdown in discipline within the U.S. military, which helped to drive the eventual elimination of the draft. Part of this breakdown was driven by drugs, a trade in which the CIA was implicated. At The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill interviewed Alfred McCoy, who wrote the book on this drug trade. Here’s an excerpt from their recent interview:

Alfred McCoy: And in 1970 and ’71, there were rumors that started coming back from Vietnam, particularly 1971, that heroin was spreading rapidly in the ranks of the U.S. forces fighting in South Vietnam. And in later research, done by the White House, [it was] determined that in 1971, 34 percent, one-third of all the American combat troops fighting in South Vietnam were heavy heroin users. There were, if that statistic is accurate, more addicts in the ranks of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam than there were in the United States.

And so what I did was I set out to investigate: Where was the opium coming from? Where was the heroin coming from? Who was trafficking it? How is it getting to the troops in their barracks and bunkers across the length and breadth of South Vietnam? Nobody was asking this question. Everyone was reporting on the high level of abuse, but nobody was figuring out where and who.

So I started interviewing. I went to Paris. I interviewed the head of the French equivalent of the CIA in Indochina, who was then head of a major French helicopter manufacturing company, and he explained to me how during the French Indochina war from 1946 to 1954, they were short of money for covert operations, so the hill tribes in Laos produced the opium, the aircraft picked it up, they turned it over to the netherworld, the gangsters that controlled Saigon and secured it for the French and that paid for their covert operations. And I said, “What about now?” And he said, “Well I don’t think the pattern’s changed. I think it’s still there. You should go and look.”

So I did. I went to Saigon. I got some top sources in the Vietnamese military. I went to Laos. I hiked into the mountains. I was ambushed by CIA mercenaries and what I discovered was that the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, was flying into the villages of the Hmong people in Northern Laos, whose main cash crop was opium and they were picking up the opium and flying it out of the hills and there were heroin labs — one of the heroin labs, the biggest heroin lab in the world, was run by the commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army, a man whose military budget came entirely from the United States. And they were transforming, in those labs, the opium into heroin. It was being smuggled into South Vietnam by three cliques controlled by the president, the vice president, and the premier of South Vietnam, and their military allies and distributed to U.S. forces in South Vietnam.

And the CIA wasn’t directly involved, but they turned a blind eye to the role of their allies’ involvement in the traffic. And so this heroin epidemic swept the U.S. Army in Vietnam. The Defense Department invented mass urine analysis testing, so when those troops left they were tested and given treatment. And what I discovered was the complexities, the complicity, of the CIA in this traffic and that was a pattern that was repeated in Central America when the Contras became involved in the traffic.

These ten items highlight just some of the complexities of the Vietnam War and its effects throughout Southeast Asia.  How many of these will be tackled honestly in Ken Burns’s new series?  We shall see, beginning in two weeks.

Trump and the Afghan War

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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 …

Memories of War

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Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

America’s Endless Afghan War

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The rugged face of Afghanistan (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

News this week that 300 Marines have returned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan recalls the failed surge of 2009-10, when roughly 20,000 Marines beat back the Taliban in the region, only to see those “fragile” gains quickly turn to “reversible” ones (to cite the infamous terms of General David Petraeus, architect of that surge).

While fragility and reversibility characterize American progress, the Taliban continues to make real progress.  According to today’s report at FP: Foreign Policy, “the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began.”  Meanwhile, in January and February more than 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, notes Foreign Policy, citing a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction.  That’s a high figure given that fighting abates during the winter.

Besides committing fresh U.S. Marines to more Afghan security forces “training,” the U.S. military has responded with PR spin.  For example, when friendly Afghan forces abandoned a district and police headquarters, a U.S. spokesman claimed it had been “repositioned.”  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “U.S. forces helped in ferrying [Afghan] government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.”  Literally, the old district center and its resources had to be destroyed, and a new one created, for the Afghan position to be “saved.”

Destroying things to “save” them: Where have we heard that before?  The Vietnam War, of course, a lesson not lost on Aaron O’Connell, a U.S. Marine who edited the book “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”  O’Connell’s recent interview with NPR cites the Vietnam example as he explains the one step forward, two steps back, nature of America’s Afghan War.  In his words:

So we’ve spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 – things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.

So it’s – really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable.

Americans have spent an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan without thinking about how to sustain the improvements we’ve funded.  Meanwhile, as O’Connell notes, the security situation (as in lack of security) in Afghanistan undermines those infrastructure efforts.

With respect to U.S. efforts to create a viable Afghan Army, O’Connell doesn’t mince words about its failings:

[T]he massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear [with their guns].

Here’s the grim reality: U.S. military efforts to take charge and win the war, as in “winning hearts and minds” (known as WHAM) in 2009-10, proved unsustainable.  Follow-on efforts to turn the war over to the Afghan government (analogous to LBJ and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy in the waning years of the Vietnam War) are also failing.  Yet America’s newest commanding general in Afghanistan wants yet more troops for yet more “training,” effectively doubling down on a losing hand.

Wissing
Required reading for those with eyes to see and ears to hear

The logical conclusion – that’s it’s high-time U.S. forces simply left Afghanistan – is never contemplated in Washington.  This is why Douglas Wissing’s book, “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan,” is so immensely valuable.  Wissing is a journalist who embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013.  His book consists of short chapters of sharply drawn vignettes focusing on the street and grunt level.  Its collective lesson: Afghanistan, for Americans, doesn’t really exist as a country and a people. It exists only as a wasteful, winless, and endless war.

What is Afghanistan to Americans?  It’s an opportunity for profit and exploitation for contractors.  It’s a job as well as a personal proving ground for U.S. troops.  It’s a chance to test theories and to earn points (and decorations) for promotion for many officers.  It’s hardly ever about working closely with the Afghan people to find solutions that will work for them over the long haul.

A telling example Wissing cites is wells.  Americans came with lots of money to drill deep water wells for Afghan villagers and farmers (as opposed to relying on traditional Afghan irrigation systems featuring underground channels that carry mountain water to the fields with minimal evaporation).  Instead of revolutionizing Afghan agriculture, the wells drove down water tables and exhausted aquifers.  As the well-digging frenzy (Wissing’s word) disrupted Afghanistan’s fragile, semiarid ecosystem, powerful Afghans fought to control the new wells, creating new tensions among tribes.  The American “solution,” in sum, is exacerbating conflict while exhausting the one resource the Afghan people can’t do without: water.

Then there’s the “poo pond,” a human sewage lagoon at Kandahar Air Field that was to be used as a source for organic fertilizer.  I’ll let Wissing take the tale from here:

But instead of enriching Afghan soil, the U.S.-led coalition forces decided to burn the mountains of fertilizer with astronomically expensive imported gasoline.  The [U.S. air force] officer reminded me that the Taliban got $1500 in protection money for each U.S. fuel tanker they let through, so in the process the jihadists were also able to skim the American shit [from the poo pond].

Walking back, I spot a green metal dumpster stenciled with a large sign that reads, “General Waste Only.”  At that moment, it seems to sum up the whole war.

Wissing’s hard-edged insights demonstrate that America is never going to win in Afghanistan, unless “winning” is measured by money wasted.  Again, Americans simply see Afghanistan too narrowly, as a “war” to won, as a problem to be managed, as an environment to be controlled.

Indeed, the longstanding failure of our “answers” is consistent with the military’s idea we’re fighting a generational or “long” war.  We may be failing, but that’s OK, since we have a “long” time to get things right.

After sixteen years and a trillion dollars, the answer in Afghanistan is not another sixteen years and another trillion dollars.  Yet that’s exactly what America seems prepared to do in the endless war that to us defines Afghanistan.

Update (5/5/17):  According to FP: Foreign Policy, “‘More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,’ said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.”

I love that word: thicken.  The general refuses to say “improve.”  And that’s probably because more U.S. troops really won’t improve training, in the sense of enhancing Afghan forces’ effectiveness.  As FP reports, “Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in.”

But not to worry: More “thickening” is coming in the form of more U.S. troops and money.

Insanity: repeating the same course of action again and again and yet expecting different results.

Hooper’s War: An Imaginative Retelling of the End of World War II

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W.J. Astore

What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945?  If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?

Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers.  Peter Van Buren’s Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates.  Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.

Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.  Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.

The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides.  Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.

Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings.  Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant.  I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred.  The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.

Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department.  His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant.  He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.

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Peter Van Buren

Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.

Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.

The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

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Money isn’t always the answer …

W.J. Astore

Last week, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on the Afghan war.  You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.

Some Excerpts

America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history.  The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation.  Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban.  Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama.  To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…

Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee].  (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.)  A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…

Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure.  With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge?  How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish?  (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)

That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] 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.

Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners.  They represent an invasive presence.  For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us.  We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again).  In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.

In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception.  Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.

After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.

Some Afterthoughts

There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S.  We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe.  And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case.  The wars matter little to us.  Why?  Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).

There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.”  Lines don’t move on maps.  Enemies aren’t truly defeated.  Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror.  So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war.  And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.

Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us.  But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs.  More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.

Here’s the thing.  I’m not an expert on Afghanistan.  I’ve never been there.  I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me.  My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit.  Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.

What I do know is my own country and my own military.  I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.

As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan.  We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.

America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars.  When we do think about them, they’re all about us.  They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever.  They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us.  We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.

Concluding Thought

Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image.  It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.

Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan?  To let its peoples find their own path?

A Few Comments on Jeremy Scahill’s Article on the Attack Near Gardez

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W.J. Astore

In a notorious night raid near Gardez in Afghanistan in February 2010, a US Special Ops team apparently hit the wrong suspect’s house, resulting in the deaths of innocents to include pregnant women.  It was further alleged that US troops dug bullets out of the bodies of these women.  Jeremy Scahill’s recent article at The Intercept reviews the US military’s investigation into these allegations, an investigation that cleared the troops involved of any wrongdoing.  Scahill’s article is here and warrants careful reading.

I want to focus on a piece of evidence that Scahill obtained: the U.S. military’s evaluation of the Afghan province and its after-action report about the failure of its IO (information operations) “battle.”  Here is the document in question:

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First, I want to focus on the BLUF at the bottom right.  In the Army, it stands for bottom line up front.  Most senior commanders will read this first; in some cases, the BLUF will be all they read (and remember).  What does the BLUF conclude?

It says the US military “lost the IO battle in our silence,” and that it’s only getting worse as the military remains silent.  It sounds vaguely reassuring: at least the military realizes it bungled the “information operations” job.  But it’s a bureaucratic message in bureaucratic language.  It reduces the objective to winning the “information” war, which the military says it’s not winning because of poor coordination with Afghan and other forces, lack of responsiveness, and so on.

How about some honesty?  Here’s my BLUF:  The US military is losing because it often misidentifies the enemy and misunderstands the culture, leading to the deaths of innocents and the estrangement of even those Afghans who are initially open to American influence.  And no matter how hard you try to spin those facts, you can’t hide that cold truth from the Afghan people.  (You can hide it from the American people, but that’s another story.)

As General Stanley McChrystal himself said about Afghanistan in 2010:  “We have shot an amazing number of [Afghan] people [often at checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”

Tell me again how you win “information operations” by shooting “an amazing number” of innocent people?

I want to focus on a second aspect of the US military’s document from Scahill’s article: the illusion of data substituting for real knowledge.  Here’s the document again:

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Look at the left column.  It has “atmospherics” for the province, to include percentages for literacy, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as if those are fixed in place), access to radio and telephone, and so on.  Is this knowledge?  Or a masquerade for it?

Interestingly, a quarter of the people are viewed as hostile to the USA.  One assumes this percentage went up significantly after the raid in question.

My point is these maps and charts and slides give an illusion of data-driven competence, but when you read Scahill’s article, you realize American forces were totally ignorant of basic Afghan customs, such as rituals to prepare bodies for burial.  That ignorance seems to have driven the initial confused and inaccurate account of honor killings of females, an account that was repeated widely (and wrongly) in the Western media.

Another minor yet telling point: An unnamed Ph.D. describes some of the Afghan peoples of the region as “great robbers” and “utter savages.”  Think about how that description would color the attitudes of US troops assigned to the region.  “Here we go, men.  Time to kill us some robbers and savages.”

Scahill’s article and the document he provides is a microcosm of the wider failure of US operations in Afghanistan.  The war, already in its 15th year, promises to be never-ending unless and until the US finally withdraws.  In a profile not of courage but of pusillanimity, Obama has punted the decision to the next president, which doubtless means another 2-4 years of war, mistakes and misunderstandings and more deaths of innocents included.

When will the madness end?