The Endless, Victoryless, Afghan War

250 000 dollar - 50
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?

 

 

The Afghan War: Questions Unasked, Answers Unsought, Victory Unattainable

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Said Jawad, formerly Afghan Ambassador to the US

Daniel N. White.  Introduction by W.J. Astore

Now in its 15th year, the US war in Afghanistan continues to go poorly.  The drug trade is up, the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghan security forces are weakening.  Nevertheless, as Dan White notes below, Americans are told by their leaders in Washington that progress is steady, even if the usual Petraeus caveats (“fragile” and “reversible”) are thrown in about that “progress.” White recently had the chance to hear Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the US, speak about the war and his country’s relations with the US.  What he heard was not encouraging.  Sadly, the policy among America’s leaders is never to hear a discouraging word – or, never to share such a word with the American people.

Looming Failure in the Afghan War: It’s All Out in the Open

Dan White

A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t.  She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad.  Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said.  The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus.  Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on.  She’s right about that.  Not just in love, but in world events, too.

The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan.  That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began.  But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.

Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event.  Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social security age or thereabouts.  (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)

I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat.  We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’s The War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62.  This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history.  Ambassador Jawad nodded politely.  He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.

The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes.  His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays.  I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity).  But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.

Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years.  This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary.  He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success.  Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage.  The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL.  The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.

One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces.  This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily.  I’d never heard this one before.  7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year.  The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.

Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long.  I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate.  This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon.  There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this.  If they did, they were too polite to say anything.

The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day).  Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line.  No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.

After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again.  He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney.  I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:

Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country.  Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?

And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation.  It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid.  That’s peanuts and you know it.  You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid.  And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t  the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?

Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems?  Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead.  We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts.  Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?

Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’.   Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen?  Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them?   Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?

The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechette about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to.  I thanked him and left.

So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it.   We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon.  Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

Understanding Donald Trump’s Appeal

Trump runs over GOP

W.J. Astore

I lived and taught in a rural and conservative area in Pennsylvania for nine years, an area that’s “flyover country” for Beltway elites.  Back in 2008, I remember how the locals went gaga over Sarah Palin’s visit to the area, and how crestfallen so many people were when Barack Obama was elected president.  I remember how people sported Bush/Cheney stickers on their cars and trucks (even the faculty at the largely vocational college at which I taught), long after these men had left office.  Sadly, I also recall a lot of Confederate flag license plates, especially on trucks, but there were also people who flew them at home from their flagpoles.  This was not about “heritage,” since Pennsylvania was Union country in the Civil War.  No – it was about being a White “redneck” and taking the country back from, well, the “other” – Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, anyone considered to be an outsider, anyone part of the “influx,” a racially-loaded word that referred to outsiders (where I lived, mainly Blacks from Philadelphia and its environs).

Rural PA, previously Sarah Palin country, is now Trump country.  In the recent presidential primary, fifty thousand Democrats in PA changed party affiliation so they could vote Republican.  An educated guess: they weren’t switching parties to vote for Kasich or Cruz.  They were caught up in Trump hype about making America great again!

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It says so on his hat!

That’s a slogan to be reckoned with.  Some say it’s a racist dog whistle.  Those with ears attuned to the frequency hear the message as “making America great again by making it White again.”  There’s truth to this, but the message is also one of nostalgia.  Trump, like many of his followers, has recognized that the USA is no longer NUMBER ONE in all things, and he’s got the balls (as his followers might say) to say it plainly.  No BS about America being the exceptional nation, the bestest, the kind of nonsense that flows freely from the mouths of most U.S. politicians.  America is acting like a 99-pound weakling, Trump says, and he’s the Charles Atlas to whip us back into shape.

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Trump’s vulgarity, his elaborate comb over, his tackiness, the shallowness of his knowledge (especially on foreign affairs), have contributed to the establishment’s ongoing dismissal of him.  A recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani documented the many dead certain (yet dead wrong) predictions of Trump’s imminent demise, even as he was winning primary after primary and gaining in the polls.  The establishment elites just couldn’t believe that a man not vetted by them – a man best known for bloated casinos and lowbrow reality TV – could be a viable candidate for the presidency.  And indeed they continue to predict his imminent demise at the hands of one of their own (Hillary Clinton) in the fall.  Yet as I wrote back in July 2015, Trump is not to be underestimated.

What exactly is the appeal of Trump?  Speaking his mind is one.  Yes, he’s vulgar, he’s boorish, he’s ignorant, he’s sexist.  Just like many of his followers.  In a way, Trump revels in his flaws.  He has the confidence to own them.  Many people are attracted to him simply because (like Sarah Palin) he’s not a typical mealy-mouthed politician.

Another obvious appeal: He’s a rich celebrity who acts like a rube.  Indeed, he acts like many regular folks would if they’d just won a Powerball jackpot.  He’s got the trophy wife.  He’s got a lot of pricey toys (How about that Trump jet?).  He doesn’t have much class, but so what?  Trump is Archie Bunker with money, a blowhard, an American classic.  What you see is pretty much what you get.  And that’s a refreshing feature for many of his followers, who have little use for complexity or nuance.

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Not presidential?  He already has his own “Trump Force One”

For all that, let’s not ignore Trump’s positions (such as they are) on the issues.  He’s against a lot of things that many Americans are also against.  He’s critical of immigration.  He’s more than wary of Muslims.  He despises “political correctness.”  He’s against trade deals (so he says).  The Chinese and Japanese come in for special opprobrium as trade cheaters.  “And China!  And China!” Trump declaims as he launches another round of attacks on the Chinese for stealing American jobs.  Trump’s followers believe they’ve finally found their man, someone who will stand up to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims, and all those other foreigners who are taking their jobs and hurting America.

Trump is a master of scapegoating.  But more than this, he takes positions that show a willingness to depart from Republican orthodoxy.  He’s expressed support for Planned Parenthood (except for its abortion services) because of the health care it provides to women.  He’s outspokenly critical of U.S. wars and nation-building (as well as Bush/Cheney and company).  He wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  He wants to force America’s allies to pay a greater share of their own defense costs.  He’s not slavishly pro-Israel.  He’s not enamored with neo-conservative principles and the status quo in U.S. foreign policy.  He wants to put “America first.”  As far as they go, these are respectable positions.

Yet I’ve not come to praise Trump but to explain, at least partially, his appeal and its persistence.  Trump’s negatives are well known, and indeed I’ve written articles that are highly critical of him (see here and here and here).  Most of Trump’s supporters are aware of the negatives yet plan to vote for him regardless.  Why?

Desperation, to start.  Americans are drowning in debt.  They’re scared.  Not just the lower classes but the middle classes as well.  Just consider the title of a recent article at The Atlantic: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans: Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency.  Times are far tighter for ordinary Americans than Beltway elites know or are willing to admit.

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In tough times an unconventional candidate like Trump (or Bernie Sanders) offers hope – the promise of significant change.  What does Hillary Clinton offer?  So far, more of the same.  But scared or desperate people don’t want the same, with perhaps a few more crumbs thrown their way by establishment-types.  They want a political revolution, to quote Bernie Sanders.  They want freshness.  Authenticity.

Strangely, despite all his flaws and insults and bigotry, or rather in part because of them, Trump seems more genuine, more of a candidate of the people, than does Hillary.  Bernie Sanders, another genuine candidate with big ideas, beats him handily in the fall, I believe.  But Bernie is being elbowed out by the establishment powerbrokers in the Democratic Party.  The big money (of both parties) is pegging its hopes on Hillary.  It’s already predicted her sobriety and “experience” will triumph over Trump’s wildness and inexperience.

Given the record of “expert” predictions so far in this election, as well as Trump’s own track record, I wouldn’t be too confident in betting against The Donald.

Might Makes Right: An American Tradition

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W.J. Astore (also posted at History News Network)

To hear Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk, almost any act of violence is justifiable to defeat the enemy. Trump talks of torture, far worse than waterboarding, and total destruction. Cruz ups the ante, speaking of carpet bombing and making the sand glow, apparently via nuclear weapons. Both appear to treat the enemy as inhuman.

Sadly, for America this is nothing new. Just read Bernard Fall on America’s war against Vietnam. In an article for Ramparts (“This Isn’t Munich, It’s Spain”), Fall wrote late in 1965 that the American military strategy in Vietnam was based on massive killing through overwhelming firepower:

The new mix of air war and of land and seaborne firepower in Vietnam is one of technological counter-insurgency — if you keep up the kill rate you will eventually run out of enemies. Or at least armed enemies. Of course, the whole country will hate you, but at least they won’t resist you. What you will get is simply a cessation of resistance — an acquiescence in one’s fate rather than a belief that your side and your ideas have really prevailed.

In other words, America sought to bludgeon the Vietnamese into compliance, rather than winning their hearts and minds through ideas or ideals.

“But what I really fear most,” Fall continued, “is the creation of new ethics to match new warfare. Indications are that a new ethic is already being created, and such influential men as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson have begun to provide its intellectual underpinning.”

Fall cited a speech at Amherst College in 1965 in which Acheson declared:

The end sought by our foreign policy . . . is, as I have said, to preserve and foster an environment in which free societies may exist and flourish. Our policies and actions must be decided by whether they contribute to or detract from achievement of this end. They need no other justification or moral or ethical embellishment. . .

To keep the free world free, America was justified to do anything it desired, irrespective of ethics and morality. Acheson’s words in 1965 have become the essence of U.S. foreign policy today as advanced by men like Trump and Cruz. In short, the end (a “free” society) justifies any means (torture, carpet bombing, perhaps even nuclear weapons) to preserve it.

Fall went on to cite a Pastoral Letter from French Cardinal Feltin in 1960 during France’s war with Algeria. In that letter to French military chaplains, Cardinal Feltin noted:

There cannot be a morality which justifies efficacy by all means, if those means are in formal contradiction with Natural Law and Divine Law. Efficacy, in that case, goes against the very aim it seeks to achieve. There can be exceptional laws for exceptional situations. . . there cannot exist an exceptional morality which somehow takes leave of Natural Law and Divine Law.

Too often in the past as well as today, U.S. foreign policy has taken leave of natural and divine law. The ends do not and should not justify the means, especially when the means (torture, carpet bombing, and the like) contravene the end (a “free” society based on ethical and moral principles).

Rather than posing as protectors of the free world, people like Trump and Cruz should admit their own amorality. They should admit they see the world as a brutal place, occupied by brutes, and that only by slaying those brutes in a brutish way can America preserve its dominant position as chief brute.

Doubtless many of their followers would still salute them for this view. But more reflective souls would see the honesty of Pogo’s famous insight that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


World War I: The Paradox of Semi-Modern War

British Machine Gun Team in World War I
British Machine Gun Team, 1916

Dennis Showalter.  Introduction by William Astore.

Over the next four years, historians around the world will grapple with the meaning and legacies of the “Great War” fought one hundred years ago (1914-1918).  An epochal event in world history, World War I has as many meanings as it has had historians.  Among those historians, Dennis Showalter is one of the very best.  In this article, Showalter argues that the war was, in many ways, not “modern” at all.  The enormity of the war, to include its enormous wastage, generated primitivism as much as it stimulated innovation.  On the Western Front, site of industrialized mass destruction, troops fought with modern machine guns and chemical weapons even as they revived maces and mail armor of medieval vintage.

Most remarkable, as Showalter notes, was the resilience of home front support.  As dreams of quick, decisive battles turned into long, murderous slogs of nightmarish proportions, control of events was ceded to military men who saw only one way to victory — exhaustion through attrition and economic warfare.  When Germany finally collapsed near the end of 1918, few people were as surprised as the victors or as shocked as the losers.  As the victors exulted, the losers licked wounds — and vowed vengeance.

So it was that the “war to end all wars” became just one major act in a never-ending tragedy in a century dominated by war.  Even today, warfare in places like the Middle East reflects the poor choices and conflicting promises made during the Great War by the major powers.  In fact, what was perhaps most “modern” about World War I was the blowback that plagued its putative victors.  Consider, for example, France’s decision to ignore requests in 1919 by a young Ho Chi Minh for greater autonomy to be granted to Vietnamese in French Indochina.  France had leaned on Vietnamese labor during the Great War (with as many as 140,000 Vietnamese doing grunt work such as digging trenches), and the Vietnamese expected something in return.  They got nothing, a decision that set the stage for Vietnam’s revolt and France’s eventual defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  W.J. Astore

Dennis Showalter on the Paradox of World War I: A Semi-Modern War

The looming centennial of the Great War has inspired a predicable abundance of conferences, books, articles, and blog posts. Most are built on a familiar meme: the war as a symbol of futility. Soldiers and societies alike are presented as victims of flawed intentions and defective methods, which in turn reflected inability or unwillingness to adapt to the spectrum of innovations (material, intellectual, and emotional) that made the Great War the first modern conflict. That perspective is reinforced by the war’s rechristening, backlit by a later and greater struggle, as World War I—which confers a preliminary, test-bed status.

Homeward bound troops pose on the ship's deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card ("AZO") stock. Public Domain
Homeward bound troops pose on the ship’s deck and in a lifeboat, 1919. The original image was printed on postal card (“AZO”) stock. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In point of fact, the defining aspect of World War I is its semi-modern character. The “classic” Great War, the war of myth, memory, and image, could be waged only in a limited area: a narrow belt in Western Europe, extending vertically five hundred miles from the North Sea to Switzerland, and horizontally about a hundred miles in either direction. War waged outside of the northwest European quadrilateral tended quite rapidly to follow a pattern of de-modernization. Peacetime armies and their cadres melted away in combat, were submerged by repeated infusions of unprepared conscripts, and saw their support systems, equine and material, melt irretrievably away.

Russia and the Balkans, the Middle East, and East Africa offer a plethora of case studies, ranging from combatants left without rifles in Russia, to the breakdown of British medical services in Mesopotamia, to the dismounting of entire regiments in East Africa by the tsetse fly. Nor was de-modernization confined to combat zones. Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and arguably Italy, strained themselves to the breaking point and beyond in coping with the demands of an enduring total war. Infrastructures from railways to hospitals to bureaucracies that had functioned reasonably, if not optimally, saw their levels of performance and their levels of competence tested to destruction. Stress combined with famine and plague to nurture catastrophic levels of disorder, from the Armenian genocide to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Semi-modernity posed a corresponding and fundamental challenge to the wartime relationship of armed forces to governments. In 1914, for practical purposes, the warring states turned over control to the generals and admirals. This in part reflected the general belief in a short, decisive war—one that would end before the combatants’ social and political matrices had been permanently reconfigured. It also reflected civil authorities’ lack of faith in their ability to manage war-making’s arcana—and a corresponding willingness to accept the military as “competent by definition.”

Western Battle Front 1916. From J. Reynolds, Allen L. Churchill, Francis Trevelyan Miller (eds.): The Story of the Great War, Volume V. New York. Specified year 1916, actual year more likely 1917 or 1918. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The extended stalemate that actually developed had two consequences. A major, unacknowledged subtext of thinking about and planning for war prior to 1914 was that future conflict would be so horrible that the home fronts would collapse under the stress. Instead, by 1915 the generals and the politicians were able to count on unprecedented –and unexpected–commitment from their populations. The precise mix of patriotism, conformity, and passivity underpinning that phenomenon remains debatable. But it provided a massive hammer. The second question was how that hammer could best be wielded. In Russia, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, neither soldiers nor politicians were up to the task. In Germany the military’s control metastasized after 1916 into a de facto dictatorship. But that dictatorship was contingent on a victory the armed forces could not deliver. In France and Britain, civil and military authorities beginning in 1915 came to more or less sustainable modi vivendi that endured to the armistice. Their durability over a longer run was considered best untested.

Even in the war’s final stages, on the Western Front that was its defining theater, innovations in methods and technology could not significantly reduce casualties. They could only improve the ratio of gains. The Germans and the Allies both suffered over three-quarters of a million men during the war’s final months. French general Charles Mangin put it bluntly and accurately: “whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.” In contemplating future wars—a process well antedating 11 November 1918—soldiers and politicians faced a disconcerting fact. The war’s true turning point for any state came when its people hated their government more than they feared their enemies. From there it was a matter of time: whose clock would run out first. Changing that paradigm became—and arguably remains—a fundamental challenge confronting a state contemplating war.

Dennis Showalter is professor of history at Colorado College, where he has been on the faculty since 1969. He is Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Military History, wrote “World War I Origins,” and blogged about “The Wehrmacht Invades Norway.” He is Past President of the Society for Military History, joint editor of War in History, and a widely-published scholar of military affairs. His recent books include Armor and Blood: The Battle of Kursk (2013), Frederick the Great: A Military History (2012), Hitler’s Panzers (2009), and Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century (2005).

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