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 …
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 But that old concept has been replaced by the warrior ideal in the USA.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.
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.
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:
Is it a good idea to get in a trade war with China when they make all our stuff?
I thought of that again this morning as I looked at the outfit I’m wearing. LL Bean shorts? Made in China. Frye boat shoes? Made in China. Polo shirt made from organic cotton? Made in China. Brooks running shoes that I put on for my stretching routine? Made in China. My underwear? Made in Thailand. Aha! So not everything comes from China. I also note my Citizen Eco-Drive watch has a Japanese movement, but it’s unclear where final assembly took place. Any chance it might also be in China?
I just want to state the obvious here: I’m a thoroughgoing Asian man, representing China, Thailand, and Japan. Even when I don my most American-sounding brands like “True Grit,” they are most often made in China.
So, while it’s nice to hear that President Trump is calling a temporary trade and tariff truce with China, I have to say the Chinese already own us, and in more ways than one, since they also own trillions of our national debt. Meanwhile, Trump’s “tough” tactic of raising tariffs to “punish” the Chinese just passes higher costs to American consumers, so who’s really being punished?
Sadly, as I’ve said before, the only American products I routinely hear about in the news as major money-making exports are weapons of war. Bombs, missiles, guns, warplanes, and the like. America used to be the world’s merchant for all kinds of products; now we’re better known as the world’s leading merchant of death. We’re not the “arsenal of democracy,” as we were in World War II. Now we’re just an arsenal.
Isn’t it time we converted our forever war economy into one that produces products that we can wear and enjoy in everyday life?
Or am I forever fated to be a statement of Asian sartorial excellence?
Editor’s Note: Checking the news this morning, I saw the following report from Afghanistan:
“A suicide bomber blew himself up in the Afghan capital on Saturday, killing at least 15 people as voting concluded in parliamentary elections that were overshadowed by the threat of attacks and serious organizational problems.” Other attacks on a smaller scale killed or wounded dozens of others, noted the report. Meanwhile, the Taliban in Afghanistan called on people to boycott the elections.
Western efforts to bring (or impose) a semblance of democracy on Afghanistan have been deeply flawed from the beginning, notes Pamela in this article that she graciously agreed to write for this site. The Afghan people were told democracy would naturally follow from elections, but the reality has been far different and more tragic, notes Pamela based on her own experiences in observing prior elections. W.J. Astore
Today, October 20th, Afghanistan is to hold parliamentary and provincial elections which had been postponed since 2016. I’ve witnessed all the previous ones, with the local ones stirring more emotions among the population than the presidential ones.
The first one of these (in 2005) was very popular and people went to vote in droves. I worked then in Jalalabad, a rather traditional city close to the border with Pakistan. A colleague told me he was going to vote and what’s more, for a woman who had taught him in university ‘because women do not use guns to settle disputes and are not corrupted’ (the latter of course being debatable). Security was still reasonable; its abrupt decline did not start until 2006. As later became clear, however, that enthusiasm was the result of a misunderstanding.
People had been endlessly brainwashed that voting would bring ‘democracy’. And that in turn would miraculously produce the human rights, security & prosperity they were desperately yearning for after more than 25 years of wars and oppression. After all, if ‘democracy’ was to be judged by how well off its European and American adepts were, it clearly was worth voting for! Thus all these unfamiliar western concepts conflated in many people’s minds into a magic future of instant peace, security and prosperity.
It’s not like Afghans did not have their own forms of human rights and democratic ways of decision making including elected bodies who represented them, but our concepts as such were alien. Since 2005 even in rural areas the access to television and internet has increased tremendously, but in those days even in major cities electricity was rare and the internet hardly available and very expensive. Particularly illiterate persons (70% of the population) therefore had no way to supplement from public sources their limited understanding of what we proposed.
Our half-baked extension efforts led many people to believe that democracy and human rights were basically two terms for the same phenomenon and that to obtain that universal panacea, all they had to do is go and vote.
No wonder then, that by 2009 (presidential elections) and 2010 (parliamentary and provincial ones) they had realised that ‘democracy’ had not changed anything much and had not brought about the promised miracles, so enthusiasm for the elections was much less and so was turnout. Despite positive developments like more than 25 % of all seats in parliament being reserved for women, too many former warlords with blood on their hands were still ruling and there had been no accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes. Voting enthusiasm also waned because by then security had dramatically decreased as compared to 2005, so the risk of being maimed or even killed when voting for the democracy mirage was only too real. Billboards were supposed to ‘motivate’ people to go and vote in these ‘free and fair democratic elections’, as NATO was touting them.
Those presidential elections were the ones when the US openly repudiated the increasingly critical Hamid Karzai and then had to scramble to adjust the rhetoric when in spite of that he did win anyway. Interestingly, an amazing outsider came in third, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost. Amazing, because he is from the Hazara minority which always is at the bottom of the pecking order. But he inspired confidence as an honest person above corruption, he was no ancient warlord with blood on his hands, part of ‘the usual suspects’, or compromised with foreign powers. He would travel to election meetings in distant provinces by ordinary yellow taxi, as he had no limousine or other privileges.
The next presidential election took place in the fateful year 2014 – the one in which the foreign armies were to withdraw, which prospect had in the years leading up to it caused corruption at all levels to skyrocket to cash in before the dollar manna would dry up. I only witnessed the start of the presidential campaign, but the result is well known: endless squabbling between the two ‘winners’ – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. John Kerry eventually brokered some sort of power-sharing compromise which created a government even more dysfunctional than the previous ones, which has been limping along ever since. Insecurity had again increased exponentially since 2009, which additionally demotivated voters.
As for the parliamentary & provincial elections which were scheduled for 2016, they never materialised and will be held only now (and presidential ones next year).
So now it’s 2018 and yet another round of this futile exercise, whose purpose evidently is to flatter our conscience and embellish our annual reports rather than to improve Afghan lives. The last time I was in Afghanistan was three years ago, so I cannot vouch for the opinions and feelings of the Afghans, but I do follow what is happening there. Several coordinated deadly attacks on voters’ registration centres already had severely limited the number of registered voters. Governmental attempts to inflate their number by relaxing control of voter identities additionally undermined the population’s trust in the election’s transparency.
Last minute distribution of electronic voting equipment can be expected to add to the confusion. This is a far cry from the ballot boxes which during the 2005 elections were transported under UN supervision to remote mountains areas on donkey-back.
The expanding presence of ISIL and their ruthless readiness to kill random civilians (particularly those of the Shia Hazara minority) rather than the Taliban’s usual foreign, military and governmental targets, adds to the risk of any involvement with the elections, whether by organising & securing them or as a mere voter.
Ten local candidates have already been killed in terrorist attacks, as well as many more accidental bystanders and members of the police and army when trying to protect voter registration centres and election rallies. Only yesterday, three top level authorities were killed in Kandahar, including the provincial governor and the police chief who had been fiercely anti-Taliban and had managed to introduce a modicum of security and order in what used to be the most dangerous part of the country. Therefore, the elections will be postponed for a week in Kandahar. According to the Taliban, their target in fact was General Miller – who ‘strongly denies’ this.
How many Afghans will be willing to risk their lives to vote and how many will be maimed or dead by the end of the day? And maybe most importantly, what will it change for the better for the Afghans who have lived under armed conflict for 39 years already, with no end in sight?
Update by Pamela (10/21/18): Few people are interested in Afghanistan anymore and that is understandable with Yemen and Syria being much bigger crises.
And now all are absorbed by the Jamal Khashoggi case, which has the collateral advantage to finally shine the light on Saudi crimes, but otherwise is another dreadful example of western hypocrisy. Millions of starving Yemenis could not produce the outcry that one — evidently well-connected — only mildly dissident Saudi did.
I understand that media are outraged as it concerns one of their own and journalists are threatened world-wide. But that does not apply to governments.
‘Disappearing’, torturing and killing one’s own (in addition to foreign) citizens has been done by all the countries who now sanctimoniously shed crocodile tears while silently praying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo & Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) will manage to concoct an acceptable ‘explanation’, which will allow them to keep on selling arms to the Saudis and enjoy their investments.
A good example of that is the second part of a documentary about Qaddafi’s Libya, which highlights western collusion with him which led to rendition of Libyan dissidents including pregnant wives and children. Not to mention al Libi’s rendition to Egypt where this poor guy was tortured for six months until he agreed to sign a paper which stated that he had evidence of Saddam Hussein colluding with al-Qaeda, which ‘confession’ was used to ‘justify’ the war in Iraq in 2003.
After which he was sent back to Libya where he ‘committed suicide’ in prison, four days before the US reopened a consulate/embassy there. I’ve been following these cases since long ago, but this documentary added some more info:
Eight years ago to this month, I wrote the following article for Truthout about America’s ongoing folly in Afghanistan. I was inspired by an old Look magazine from the 1960s and its coverage of the Vietnam War.
Reading old articles about the Vietnam War is sobering precisely because they read like articles written yesterday. Consider just one example. On May 30, 1967, Look magazine published a comprehensive, 25-page review entitled “USA in Asia.” The subtitle gave the game away: “Our bloody commitments in Asia horrify many Americans. But like it or not, we are irreversibly involved.”
Today, more than forty years later, many say the same of our involvement in Central Asia. Our bloody commitments continue to horrify Americans. And yet again we’re told we’re irreversibly involved. Yet if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that the “irreversible” is eminently reversible.
Historians and pundits alike can cite dozens of well-informed reasons why today’s Afghanistan is not like yesterday’s Vietnam. And they’re right — and wrong. For what remains the same is us, especially the power of our own self-regard, as well as that of our overly militarized vision, both of which must be overcome if we are ever to succeed in Asia.
Consider how Look in 1967 labeled Vietnam as “our albatross.” Yet those Americans who dared to question our country’s immense military commitment to this “albatross” were labeled as leftist isolationists, “more upset about the billions diverted to Asia than the $22 billion being spent to put a man on the moon,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, comparing Vietnam to landlocked Laos, an unnamed US official gushed that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”
So, Look portrayed “our” Vietnam either as an albatross weighing us down or as the “right place” for American power projection. That the real Vietnam was something different from a vexatious burden for us or an ideal showcase for our military prowess doesn’t seem to have occurred to an Amero-centric Look staff.
Consider as well Look’s précis of the Vietnam War in 1967 and its relevance to our approach to fighting in Afghanistan today:
“The crux is winning the loyalty of the people. We have spent billions … [on] ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘Revolutionary Development,’ and have failed to make much progress. We have had to reoccupy villages as many as eight times. There is no front and no sanctuary.”
“Our latest ploy has been to turn ‘pacification’ over to the South Vietnamese Army … Unfortunately, most of the ARVN is badly trained and led, shows little energy and is reputedly penetrated by the Vietcong …. Whether such an undisciplined army can move into villages and win over the people is dubious.
“We are trying harsher measures. We have even organized ‘counter-terror’ teams to turn Vietcong tactics against their own terrorist leaders. ‘The real cancer is the terrorist inner circle,’ says one U.S. leader. ‘These terrorists are very tough people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet.’
“We can really win in Vietnam only if we achieve the ‘pacification’ that now seems almost impossible.”
Note the continuities between past and present: the emphasis on winning hearts and minds, the unreliability and corruption of indigenous allied forces, the use of counter-terror against a “very tough” terrorist foe (with barely suppressed disgust that “our” friendly allies lack this same toughness, for reasons that are not exposed in bright sunlight), the sense of mounting futility.
Counterinsurgency combined with counter-terror, escalating US combat forces while simultaneously seeking to “Vietnamize” (today’s “Afghanize”) the war to facilitate an American withdrawal: An approach that failed so miserably forty years ago does not magically improve with age.
Look’s Asian tour concluded on a somber, even fatalistic, note: “The wind blows not of triumphs but of struggle, at a high price, from which there is no escape and with which we have to learn to live…. Men who bomb; men who are killed. Men who booby-trap; men who are maimed. And children who are maimed and who die. They are the price of our bloody involvements in Asia.”
Bloody inevitability — but was it inevitable? Was it irreversible?
So it seems, even today. Why? Precisely because we continue to look so unreflectively and so exclusively through military field glasses for solutions. As Look noted in 1967: “Our massive military presence dominates our involvement in Asia,” words that ring as true today as they did then. And as Secretary of State Dean Rusk opined back then, “It’s going to be useful for some time to come for American power to be able to control every wave of the Pacific, if necessary.”
Again, the sentiment of “full spectrum dominance” rings ever true.
But one thing has changed. Back then, Look described our “massive” commitment to Asia as a byproduct of our “might and wealth,” evidence of our “fat.” We wouldn’t be there, Look suggested, “if we were poor or powerless.”
Today, a slimmer America (at least in terms of budgetary strength) nevertheless persists in making massive military commitments to Asia. Again, we say we’re irreversibly involved, and that blood is the price of our involvement.
But is Central Asia truly today’s new “right place” to project American power? In arresting the spread of a “very tough” terrorist foe, must we see Afghanistan as a truly irreversible — even irresistible — theater for war?
Our persistence in squinting at Asia through blood-stained military goggles suggests that we still have much to learn from old articles about Vietnam.
I’ve watched the first three episodes of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick series on the Vietnam War, which take us from the French colonial period beginning in the 19th century to the end of 1965 and a mushrooming U.S. military commitment. The narrative thread, it seems to me, is the notion of the war as a tragic mistake, most especially for the United States.
The series begins with a voice-over that suggests the war was begun in good faith by America, even as other American voices in the series suggest otherwise. I kept a notebook handy and jotted down the following notes and thoughts as the series progressed:
There were divisions among the Vietnamese people, but they were more or less united by one idea: resist the foreign invaders/occupiers, whether that foreign presence was French, Japanese, the French again, American, or (both earlier and later) Chinese. And there’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh would have won a democratic election, as promised at Geneva. Which is exactly why that election never came.
As one American admitted, the U.S. totally misread the situation in Indochina after the French defeat in 1954. The Cold War and Falling Dominoes dominated the thoughts of Americans, obscuring the reality of a powerful and popular anti-colonial and nationalist revolt that tapped Vietnamese patriotism.
When not fearing Falling Dominoes, U.S. officials were far more concerned about their own prestige (or political fortunes) than they were with the Vietnamese people.
U.S. officials recognized South Vietnam was a fiction, a puppet government propped up by American money and power, and that they had “backed the wrong horse.” But they came to believe it was the only horse they had in the race against communism.
U.S. presidents, stuck with a losing horse of their own creation, began to lie. As president, Kennedy said he hadn’t sent combat troops; he had. As president, Johnson tried to obscure both the size and intent of the U.S. military’s commitment. These lies were not done to deceive the enemy — they were done to deceive the American people.
After backing the wrong horse (Diem and his family), American leaders conspired to eliminate him in a coup. When Diem was assassinated, matters only grew worse. Left with no horse in the race and a “turnstile” government in South Vietnam, the U.S. began to bomb North Vietnam and committed combat units beginning in March of 1965.
More duplicity by U.S. officials: Battles such as Ap Bac and Binh Gia, which revealed the “miserable performance” of the South Vietnamese army (ARVN), were reinterpreted and sold as victories by senior U.S. military leaders.
Both JFK and LBJ had serious reservations about going to war in Vietnam. However, domestic political concerns, together with concerns about containing the spread of communism, always came up trumps. For example, the series quotes Kennedy as saying he believed America couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t win the 1964 presidential election if he withdrew U.S. advisors from Vietnam. LBJ was similarly skeptical but took a tough line with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which saw his approval rating on Vietnam soar from 42% to 72%, ensuring his electoral victory over Goldwater in 1964.
One of the more compelling sound bites comes from then-Major Charles Beckwith, who is at pains to praise the fighting quality of Viet Cong/NLF forces, their total commitment to the struggle. If only he had (Vietnamese) troops like them to work with, says Beckwith.
To summarize: the series provides evidence of U.S. dishonesty and duplicity and showcases the mistakes generated by hubris when aggravated by ignorance. Yet, the overall message is one of sadness about a “tragic mistake” committed by decent men who were overwhelmed by fears of international communism.
Final points: As we watch the series, we follow individual Americans, and hear American commentators, far more than we hear Vietnamese voices. Also, while the series shows U.S. bombing from afar and mentions Agent Orange, the effects of this destruction haven’t yet been shown in detail. (A telling exception: a young Vietnamese women joins the communist resistance after U.S. bombing destroys a center for senior citizens near her home.)
In short, the Burns/Novick series privileges the American experience, suggesting that U.S. troops of that era fought courageously as a new “greatest generation,” even as senior U.S. leaders spoke privately of an unwinnable war.
Is killing millions of people in a lost cause merely a tragic mistake? Or is it something far worse? More to come as the series continues to air on PBS.
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.
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 Times: Afghanistan 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 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.
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.