“Biden’s Tough Words”

W.J. Astore

President Biden in Tokyo, sharing some “tough words” (NYT photo)

President Biden is at it again, and so is the New York Times. Abandoning the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” Biden vowed that America would militarily resist a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The “liberal” New York Times did its part by describing (in its “Morning” daily newsletter) Biden’s vow as “tough words.” Who cares if Biden’s words unnecessarily aggravate tensions with China and contribute to a cold war running increasingly hot? After all, Biden sounded “tough,” and that’s all that really matters here.

Consider these “tough” words from the New York Times:

“The central problem for the U.S. is that it might not be able to stop Xi if he chose to attack. The American public is tired of faraway wars with uncertain connections to national security — an attitude that limits any U.S. president’s options. China’s leaders, on the other hand, would view a conflict in Taiwan as a vital domestic matter and devote vast resources to victory.
For these reasons, the surest way to protect Taiwan is to make China’s leaders believe that even if they could win a war, it would be costly enough to destabilize their regime.”

Remarkably, the Times makes it sound like the American public’s fatigue when it comes to disastrous foreign wars that are unconnected to our national security is a bad thing. Note how this “tired” feeling is allegedly an “attitude that limits any U.S. president’s options,” as if that’s a bad thing.

Did the Times forget that it’s Congress that’s supposed to declare war? That wars should be a last resort? Anyway, so far I haven’t noticed how the American public’s tiredness has stopped any recent war. Most Americans didn’t want to invade Iraq and quickly grew tired of that war, but as Vice President Dick Cheney famously said, “So?” So what if the people are “tired”? When it comes to war, men like Cheney, Obama, Trump, and Biden do what they want. If they listened to us, the Afghan War would have been over in two months instead of persisting for two decades.

“Tough words.” Please, God, save us all from such dangerous nonsense.

Priming the Pump for More War

W.J. Astore

A reader contacted me about China, Russia, and risks for war. One thing history has taught me is to be humble about predicting anything. Here was my response:

Have to admit I don’t know what China is planning.  I understand the policy of “One China,” i.e. that Taiwan is still part of China.  I don’t know if China is planning war.  I tend to doubt it.  Unlike the U.S., China is patient and careful.  But war by miscalculation is always possible.  Just look at 1914.  Here in the USA, we keep hearing that China is our most serious potential enemy.  That kind of rhetoric is not helpful, to put it mildly.

With respect to the Russia-Ukraine war, history teaches us that war is unpredictable, even chaotic.  The war already approaches 90 days, longer than most people predicted, I think, with no clear end in sight.  Meanwhile, the USA is planning to send $40 billion in “aid,” mostly military, on top of the already $12 billion or so that we’ve sent.  This money is not intended to end the war; indeed, it can only prolong it.

So I’m not optimistic about any of this.  It all strikes me as reckless and escalatory.

If I had but one message for my country, it would be this: Reject militarism. Reclaim democracy. Reinvest in America. Restore peace.

But we’re doing the very opposite of my message. We’re priming the pump for more war. Meanwhile, more violence overseas feeds more violence at home. And the government’s response is always the same: More police internally and more troops externally. More spending on police and the military. More focus on “security” achieved through weaponry and surveillance.

To me, it’s sobering and sad how broadly yet narrowly we define “national security.” It’s broad in the sense that America seeks full-spectrum dominance of the land, sea, air, space, and cyber; that global reach, global power, and global dominance is the goal; that the U.S. military splits the globe into “commands” headed by four-star generals and admirals. Yet it’s narrow because we don’t equate security with having affordable health care, a clean environment, a quality education, safe water and healthy food, and similar, non-military essentials.

How can we be safe and secure when kids are drinking water with lead and other toxic chemicals in it? When sickness leads to personal bankruptcy? When people can’t afford to put gas in their tanks while putting food in their bellies and paying their rent? When they have to ration essential drugs like insulin?

Instead of priming the pump for more war, we should be doing everything possible to work toward peace. Ike told us this in 1953, JFK in 1963, and MLK in 1967. George McGovern in 1972 told America to come home, to reject constant warfare overseas, and to focus on healing our country and its divisions.

Yet the pacific wisdom of leaders like Ike, JFK, MLK, and McGovern is being repressed in America today. If Ike gave his 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech today, explaining how weapons spending represents a theft from the American people, he’d be dismissed as muddleheaded and misguided. If JFK gave his 1963 speech calling for peace with the Russians, he’d be called a Putin puppet. If MLK gave his 1967 speech about the evils of militarism, materialism, and racism in America, he’d be called unpatriotic and even traitorous. (As he pretty much was in 1967, but that’s another story.) And McGovern and his principled anti-war stance? He’d never get near the Democratic nomination as a presidential candidate. (Indeed, that’s why the DNC invented super-delegates.) Doubtless he’d be smeared as an isolationist, as a Russian (or Chinese) agent, as an idealistic dupe or a useful idiot for America’s alleged enemies.

So we keep priming the pump for more war. And I have some experience priming a hand pump for water. Keep cranking that handle (war rhetoric), keep adding some water (more and more weaponry and troops), and soon enough the water starts gushing out.

When will war start gushing out for America? Don’t events at home and abroad suggest it’s already beginning to flow?

Fox News and The New York Times Agree: America is Weak!

W.J. Astore

Did you know that the world’s lone surviving military superpower, the one that spends more than a trillion dollars yearly on all things military, is weak?

Fox News would have you think that. And so too would the New York Times (NYT).

Over at Fox News, the headline suggests Biden’s weakness is inviting “the next Pearl Harbor,” even as the article focuses mainly on alleged weakness vis-a-vis Russia-Ukraine and China-Taiwan. Meanwhile, my daily summary from the NYT agrees that “U.S. weakness emboldens Moscow and Beijing.” So what does the NYT suggest America should do to show strength?

With respect to Russia and Ukraine, this is the sage advice of the New York Times:

On its own, Ukraine’s military seems outmatched by Russia’s. And a full-scale U.S. military response seems doubtful, given a weariness of foreign wars that Biden and many American voters share.
But Biden still has options. The U.S. can increase its military support to Ukraine, which could make a potential invasion look bloodier and more costly for Russia. (The U.S. is pursuing a related strategy in Taiwan.)
Biden can also threaten sanctions on Russia, as he did on the call with Putin yesterday, according to Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. “He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” Sullivan told reporters. If Russia does attack Ukraine, Biden said that the U.S. would react more strongly than it did to the 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula.
But sanctions might not be enough to deter Putin.

In sum, here’s the tough-minded advice of the “liberal” New York Times: Sell more expensive weaponry to Ukraine (as well as Taiwan). Threaten the most violent economic warfare possible. And, since sanctions “might not be enough” to deter Russia or China, there’s more than a hint that America may need to go to war, despite “weariness” of wars allegedly shared by Biden and “many American voters.”

A show of hands here: How many Americans think it’s wise to risk nuclear war if Russia attacks Ukraine or China attacks Taiwan?

Even if the risk of nuclear war is discounted (which it shouldn’t be), how many Americans think it’s wise for the U.S. military to get involved in a land war in Asia or against Russia in Ukraine?

Maybe patient diplomacy is the answer here? After all, what does the “defense” of Ukraine or Taiwan by U.S. forces have to do with defending our country and our constitution?

America doesn’t lack toughness — it lacks smarts. Selling more weapons to Ukraine or Taiwan isn’t the answer. Nor are constant threats.

Sun Tzu taught that the best way to win is when you can achieve your objectives without even having to fight. Guile is not weakness, nor is restraint. But Fox News, joined by the New York Times, would have us think that toughness is mostly about weaponry and a willingness to wage war. Because, you know, it’s worked so well for America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places around the globe.

The Biggest Threat to America

W..J. Astore

Aside from climate change (Armageddon in slow motion) and nuclear war (Armageddon in the blink of an eye), the biggest threat to America is perpetual war and preparations for war driven by threat inflation. We’re witnessing it now, before our very eyes, with America’s increasingly polarized relations with China, notes David Vine in his latest effort for TomDispatch.com. Both parties, Republican and Democratic, accuse the other of being “soft” on China, even as the U.S. “defense” budget (meaning the war and weapons budget) soars with bipartisan support in Congress.

It’s folly, of course, and dangerous folly at that. China has roughly four times as many people as the U.S. and a vibrant economy; China is also a leading trading partner and owner of American debt. China, in short, should be a friend, or friendly rival, or a competitor worthy of respect. What China shouldn’t be in American eyes is a manifestation of a new “Yellow Peril,” an inscrutable foe, a soon-to-be enemy. Anything that tips us in that direction is truly folly, since any war with China could end in nuclear catastrophe. And even if such a catastrophe is avoided, war, even a “cold” one, will destroy any chance for concerted action against climate change, imperiling the very planet we live on.

If we want to avoid Armageddon, whether the one in slow motion or the one in the blink of an eye, the USA needs good relations with China, based again on mutual respect and a cooperative spirit. What should unite us (working to mitigate climate change and reduce the threat of nuclear war) is far more important than what is allegedly dividing us.

But threat inflation works, especially for the military-industrial-congressional complex, to justify colossal war budgets to the American people. Here’s the problem, though: When you inflate the threat, in some way you also create it. You instantiate it, at least in your own mind. You give it more and more substance.  And the more weapons you build to meet the threat you created, the more likely it becomes that you’ll choose to use those weapons when push comes to shove — and Americans sure do a lot of shoving in the world.

I just hope the Chinese are wise enough to see that America’s national security state is indeed a big threat — to America.  So they’d be wisest to stand back and let America defeat itself with debilitating wars and profligate spending on costly weaponry.  Meanwhile, they can use their strong economy to dominate trade.  While we build weapons and fight wars, China will defeat us — at capitalism!  Ah, the irony, comrade.

Yet even as China wins the new cold war, the planet itself will lose. Anything that distracts humanity from facing climate change together is folly. It may not seem so at this moment, but check back with the planet in 2031. Another decade lost to military folly is another nail in the coffin to efforts at preserving and restoring life on our planet.

So, as David Vine asks in his article, Do you want a new cold war? Anyone with any sense knows that “No!” is the only possible answer.

Destroying the Village in Vietnam

W.J. Astore

One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”

It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.

At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”

It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth, who later became a major general, “really sick” and “very bitter” about his role as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War. Later, in an oral interview, he admitted “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much.” One can understand why.

At the time, Hildreth brought his concerns to General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, but Momyer offered only platitudes, saying that Hildreth was “doing some good, somewhere,” by dropping bombs and napalm and other ordnance on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

We know this story only because Cotton Hildreth was willing to share it after being retired from the Air Force for fifteen years. A few days before this village was obliterated, Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, had been ordered to destroy the village with napalm. They refused to do so after making low and slow passes over the village, only to be greeted by children waving their arms in friendship. In “The Wingman and the Village,” Hugh Turley’s article about this in the Hyattsville Life & Times (July 2010), Hildreth admitted his wingman had dropped napalm away from the village first, and Hildreth then did the same. The wingman in question, old for a pilot at age 48 and a grandfather, had seen a woman running with two children from her hut. He’d made a snap decision to disobey orders.

As the wingman told Hildreth when they returned to base: “Sir, I have three small grandchildren at home, and I could never face them again if I had followed those orders.” The unnamed wingman was later reassigned to a non-combat role.

When Hildreth was asked later if he’d have destroyed the village if he’d been flying an F-105 “Thud,” which flew higher and much faster than the A-1 Skyraider, he admitted he likely would have, because “you don’t see the people.”

What can we learn from this story? This atrocity? That it’s very easy to kill when you never see the people being killed. That it’s easy to follow orders and much harder to disobey them. That the Air Force brass at headquarters knew they were complicit in mass murder but that it meant more to them to keep one South Vietnamese provincial commander happy than it meant to keep 1200 innocent people alive.

One day in a long and atrocious war, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman decided they’d put humanity first; that they wouldn’t destroy a defenseless village despite orders to do so. It didn’t matter. That village and those people were destroyed anyway a few days later. It was just another day in a war allegedly fought to contain communism but which instead led to uncontained barbarity by a so-called democratic alliance.

“We had to destroy the village to save it” is a catchphrase from that war that is of course a contradiction in terms. Destruction is destruction. Death is death. No one was saved. Small wonder that Hildreth was so sick, so bitter, and spoke so rarely of his experiences in Vietnam.

A Note on Sources:

Oral interview with retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth on 9/19/96. Hildreth recounts his experience beginning at the 21-minute mark of the interview.

I first learned of Hildreth’s interview from David Martin, who wrote about it here in 2015, calling it the largest single known atrocity of the Vietnam War. Such atrocities were commonplace, given the wanton use of destructive power by the U.S. military in Vietnam. This is a theme developed by Nick Turse in his book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” (2013)

Hugh Turley, “The Wingman and the Village,” in “Hugh’s News,” Hyattsville Life & Times, July 2010.

Hildreth’s story is consistent with what Bernard Fall saw in Vietnam, which I wrote about here.

James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth. (Photo from North Carolina Digital Archive)

Beware of China!

W.J. Astore

Threat inflation is always a lead feature at the Pentagon (how better to justify enormous budgets?), and just today I caught this story at FP: Foreign Policy.

At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. 

China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imageryanalyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.” 

The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy. 

What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” 

China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years. 

PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.” 

Aha! The Chinese are just like us! “Confrontational.” They’re building a navy that’s all about “projecting power,” perhaps even beyond the Pacific. How dare they! I wonder what the U.S. should do in response? Perhaps build even more aircraft carriers and an even bigger “blue water” navy? I wonder…

The U.S. Air Force is getting into the threat inflation act as well. I saw a report that suggested China is building sites (possibly dummy ones) for nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Guess which service has its own plans to build new ICBMs? Yes, it’s the U.S. Air Force, and the Chinese “threat” is being used to justify the huge expense of new, stationary, nuclear missiles based on land. (Those ICBMs, if deployed, will probably end up costing at least $100 billion, and perhaps double that.)

I have a perfect strategy for China to win any struggle against the U.S. Make noises about something that you know will set off America’s military-industrial complex, such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, even ambiguous plans about attacking Taiwan. Then watch as America’s military wets its pants before Congress, calling desperately for money and weaponry to meet the Chinese threat. A few billion spent here and there by China should goad America’s military enthusiasts into spending trillions to meet the threat that, to be frank, they very much want to see from China. It’s truly a win-win for China, and perhaps a win as well for America’s military-industrial complex, but it’s a huge loss for the American people.

Speaking of Taiwan, I’ve even heard talk of the U.S. Army getting into the act by basing “tripwire” forces there, much like our “tripwire” forces in South Korea, the idea being if Mainland China dares to attack Taiwan, they know it’ll be a cause for war as they’ll have to “trip” over, and presumably kill, U.S. troops. What a comforting thought.

Chinese hysteria is reaching its peak in America, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com, so much so that strategic miscalculation is more possible than ever as both sides–but especially America–see hostility as the other side makes moves to counter perceived aggression.

I know the title of my article is “Beware of China,” but of course my real message is beware of America, specifically its military leaders and corporate profiteers who are always happy to exaggerate threats in the cause of securing more money and power.

“Only Americans can hurt America,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. We had best keep that in mind as various men in uniform hyperventilate about China and the threat it poses over the next few years or decades. Indeed, as Andrea Mazzarino noted in a fine article at TomDispatch.com today, the cancer of never-ending war is killing our democracy. Forget about being afraid of China. It’s time to be afraid of our leaders and all their democracy-killing schemes.

OMG! China might be building silos! You know, those things we’ve had for 60 years? Take cover!

Is China Winning? It’s Our Own Fault

W.J. Astore

At his first presidential press conference yesterday, Joe Biden had this to say on China: “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Sorry, Joe, it’s happening and it’s partly your fault.

Here’s a symbol for you. I have an American flag t-shirt. It’s made by a company called “True Grit” (John Wayne!) and the label says “Authentic California.” But was the shirt made in California? Ha ha! It was “Made in China.”

My t-shirt label says it all

Why is China ascending while the USA descends? Here are five reasons:

  1. America’s wasteful war on terror has cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion with nothing to show for it.
  2. Politicians like Obama/Biden prefer to bailout Wall Street and the banks rather than ordinary Americans. For example, the bailout of Wall Street in 2008 was a trillion-dollar mess, Matt Taibbi notes.
  3. The Covid Bailout passed by the Trump administration in 2020 (the CARES Act) funneled $2.3 trillion mainly to the banks and corporate America, with a surge option of $4 trillion for big business, notes Matt Taibbi.
  4. Bad trade deals like NAFTA, advanced by Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, ensured that American jobs would go overseas to countries like China having much lower labor costs.
  5. Tax cuts for the richest Americans under the Trump administration starve the government of funds, ensuring little investment in the homeland even as the rich get richer.

Now, imagine if this money had been invested in America. We’re talking $10-12 trillion for infrastructure, essentials like roads, bridges, dams, high-speed rail, renewable energy, better schools, and so on. Imagine how much more advanced and healthy America could be if our priorities changed.

Our government has been captured by the special interests, specifically corporations, banks, and the military-industrial complex. It’s socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the poor. The plutocrats, kleptocrats, and militarists are cashing in even as America hollows out.

What we need is a true Marshall Plan — for America. A reinvestment in ourselves. What this means is an end to forever wars, major cuts in military spending, higher taxes on the plutocrats and corporations, and a focus on putting Americans back to work and with a living wage. A green new deal could and should be one aspect of this.

We need to show some “true grit” again, America; not grit that’s “Made in China.”

Because China

Why will this man be happy when Trump vetoes the NDAA?

W.J. Astore

President Trump says he will veto the NDAA that funds the Pentagon at $740 billion for FY 2021. Congress appears to have the votes to override his veto.

What caught my eye was part of Trump’s rationale for the veto: China. China will apparently be outraged when Trump vetoes the bill. Here’s the report (from the Guardian):

Trump says he will veto defense bill

Donald Trump once again said he intends to veto the annual defense authorization bill, setting up a potential veto override by Congress.

“I will Veto the Defense Bill, which will make China very unhappy,” the president said in a tweet. “They love it. Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands. Thank you!”

We just witnessed four years of red-baiting by the Democrats against the Republicans and Trump (“Moscow Mitch”?) with Russia as the Bad Red Guy. Prepare for four years of red-baiting by Republicans against the Democrats and Biden (“Hunter, Made in China”?) with China as the Bad Red Guy. The winner: the military-industrial complex. The loser: the American people, and perhaps the world.

Actually, Trump has a point about the NDAA inhibiting his ability to pull troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s too bad he didn’t focus on that and the issue of bipartisan support of endless wars.

But he had to hit the China gong, and it will resound loudly in the coming years. You know what they say about payback, Democrats …

In the year 2049 …

Marching ahead to 2049?

W.J. Astore

Who says Americans can’t plan ahead? According to the Pentagon, China may exceed the U.S. military in reach and power in the year 2049. As debatable as that prediction is, you can be sure it’s fodder for officials to clamor for high “defense” budgets, if only to stay ahead of the allegedly surging Chinese.

Speaking of the defense budget, it would be an amazing thing if that budget was truly based on the defensive needs of the USA. But we Americans love NFL football and that sport teaches us “the best defense is a good offense,” which makes some sense in the NFL but not so much in war.

Defense, to my mind, is best provided by citizen-soldiers. But that old concept has been replaced by the warrior ideal in the USA. Today’s military is increasingly detached from the people even as it’s celebrated as a band of noble heroes. “Support our troops!” read the bumper stickers. But are they really “ours” if they self-identify as warriors who see themselves as something better and apart from the rest of us?

Even as Americans tend to glorify the military (as in sports, movies, and TV, among other venues), we speak with our tax dollars, giving the Pentagon vast sums of money in the name of “defense.” It’s really militarism in disguise. “Our” military is not defensive — it’s offensive and configured that way. Indeed, it’s potentially world-destroying even as its vision is world-dominating.

If that isn’t militarism I don’t know what is. It’s also the honest definition of American exceptionalism. Consider again the Pentagon’s worry that in 2049, China might — just might — have a military that’s roughly equal to the U.S. military. Parity cannot be tolerated! The U.S. military must be the world’s strongest, the most dominant, the one best able to project massive power. Why? Because we’re exceptional. And we’re exceptional because of that same military.

Something tells me that in the year 2049, China’s military will be the least of America’s problems.

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:

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