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.
News this week that 300 Marines have returned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan recalls the failed surge of 2009-10, when roughly 20,000 Marines beat back the Taliban in the region, only to see those “fragile” gains quickly turn to “reversible” ones (to cite the infamous terms of General David Petraeus, architect of that surge).
While fragility and reversibility characterize American progress, the Taliban continues to make real progress. According to today’s report at FP: Foreign Policy, “the Taliban controls or contests about 40 percent of the districts in the country, 16 years after the U.S. war there began.” Meanwhile, in January and February more than 800 Afghan troops were killed fighting the Taliban, notes Foreign Policy, citing a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. That’s a high figure given that fighting abates during the winter.
Besides committing fresh U.S. Marines to more Afghan security forces “training,” the U.S. military has responded with PR spin. For example, when friendly Afghan forces abandoned a district and police headquarters, a U.S. spokesman claimed it had been “repositioned.” According to FP: Foreign Policy, “U.S. forces helped in ferrying [Afghan] government troops and workers out, and American jets came back to destroy the rest of the buildings and vehicles left behind.” Literally, the old district center and its resources had to be destroyed, and a new one created, for the Afghan position to be “saved.”
Destroying things to “save” them: Where have we heard that before? The Vietnam War, of course, a lesson not lost on Aaron O’Connell, a U.S. Marine who edited the book “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.” O’Connell’s recent interview with NPR cites the Vietnam example as he explains the one step forward, two steps back, nature of America’s Afghan War. In his words:
So we’ve spent billions building roads in Afghanistan, but we then turned the roads over to the Afghans in 2013. We trained up a maintenance unit so that it could provide for road maintenance, and nothing has happened since then. Now, today, more than half of the roads are deemed unfit for heavy traffic. And as one taxi driver put it in 2014 – things have gotten so much worse, now if we drive too fast, everyone in the car dies.
So it’s – really, we have to think about the things that are sustainable.
Americans have spent an enormous amount of money in Afghanistan without thinking about how to sustain the improvements we’ve funded. Meanwhile, as O’Connell notes, the security situation (as in lack of security) in Afghanistan undermines those infrastructure efforts.
With respect to U.S. efforts to create a viable Afghan Army, O’Connell doesn’t mince words about its failings:
[T]he massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear [with their guns].
Here’s the grim reality: U.S. military efforts to take charge and win the war, as in “winning hearts and minds” (known as WHAM) in 2009-10, proved unsustainable. Follow-on efforts to turn the war over to the Afghan government (analogous to LBJ and Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy in the waning years of the Vietnam War) are also failing. Yet America’s newest commanding general in Afghanistan wants yet more troops for yet more “training,” effectively doubling down on a losing hand.
The logical conclusion – that’s it’s high-time U.S. forces simply left Afghanistan – is never contemplated in Washington. This is why Douglas Wissing’s book, “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan,” is so immensely valuable. Wissing is a journalist who embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2013. His book consists of short chapters of sharply drawn vignettes focusing on the street and grunt level. Its collective lesson: Afghanistan, for Americans, doesn’t really exist as a country and a people. It exists only as a wasteful, winless, and endless war.
What is Afghanistan to Americans? It’s an opportunity for profit and exploitation for contractors. It’s a job as well as a personal proving ground for U.S. troops. It’s a chance to test theories and to earn points (and decorations) for promotion for many officers. It’s hardly ever about working closely with the Afghan people to find solutions that will work for them over the long haul.
A telling example Wissing cites is wells. Americans came with lots of money to drill deep water wells for Afghan villagers and farmers (as opposed to relying on traditional Afghan irrigation systems featuring underground channels that carry mountain water to the fields with minimal evaporation). Instead of revolutionizing Afghan agriculture, the wells drove down water tables and exhausted aquifers. As the well-digging frenzy (Wissing’s word) disrupted Afghanistan’s fragile, semiarid ecosystem, powerful Afghans fought to control the new wells, creating new tensions among tribes. The American “solution,” in sum, is exacerbating conflict while exhausting the one resource the Afghan people can’t do without: water.
Then there’s the “poo pond,” a human sewage lagoon at Kandahar Air Field that was to be used as a source for organic fertilizer. I’ll let Wissing take the tale from here:
But instead of enriching Afghan soil, the U.S.-led coalition forces decided to burn the mountains of fertilizer with astronomically expensive imported gasoline. The [U.S. air force] officer reminded me that the Taliban got $1500 in protection money for each U.S. fuel tanker they let through, so in the process the jihadists were also able to skim the American shit [from the poo pond].
Walking back, I spot a green metal dumpster stenciled with a large sign that reads, “General Waste Only.” At that moment, it seems to sum up the whole war.
Wissing’s hard-edged insights demonstrate that America is never going to win in Afghanistan, unless “winning” is measured by money wasted. Again, Americans simply see Afghanistan too narrowly, as a “war” to won, as a problem to be managed, as an environment to be controlled.
Indeed, the longstanding failure of our “answers” is consistent with the military’s idea we’re fighting a generational or “long” war. We may be failing, but that’s OK, since we have a “long” time to get things right.
After sixteen years and a trillion dollars, the answer in Afghanistan is not another sixteen years and another trillion dollars. Yet that’s exactly what America seems prepared to do in the endless war that to us defines Afghanistan.
Update (5/5/17): According to FP: Foreign Policy, “‘More conventional forces that would thicken the ability to advise and assist Afghan forces — that would absolutely be to our benefit,’ said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command who testified alongside Whelan. President Trump is attending a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, and a decision is expected by then.”
I love that word: thicken. The general refuses to say “improve.” And that’s probably because more U.S. troops really won’t improve training, in the sense of enhancing Afghan forces’ effectiveness. As FP reports, “Washington has spent about $71 billion training and equipping the Afghan army over the past 16 years, and despite that investment, the Taliban remains in control of large areas of the country and outside terrorist groups like the Islamic State have moved in.”
But not to worry: More “thickening” is coming in the form of more U.S. troops and money.
Insanity: repeating the same course of action again and again and yet expecting different results.
What if World War II in the Pacific had not ended with the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war in August of 1945? If the Manhattan Project to build atomic weaponry had failed, and if that failure had necessitated an American invasion of Japan’s Home Islands in 1946, what level of destruction would have been visited upon Japan, and at what cost to the invading Americans?
Alternative histories can be an intriguing way to highlight the contingencies of world events in a way that captivates readers. Peter Van Buren’sHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, both intrigues and captivates. Hooper’s War imagines a world in which Americans did have to launch an amphibious invasion of Japan in 1946, and that invasion is as bloody and as awful as students of history might expect.
Recall here the all-too-real bloodbaths on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Recall as well the devastating firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay against Tokyo and numerous other cities that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Now imagine if these had persisted into 1946, taking Kyoto, a most sacred place to the Japanese, with them.
The historian John Dower wrote convincingly of how the U.S. war against Japan was different in kind from its war against Nazi Germany. For Dower, the U.S./Japan war was a “war without mercy,” a war where each side demonized the other as culturally and racially inferior. Such attitudes produced the most vicious fighting and bred atrocities on both sides. Japanese warrior fanaticism, moreover, led to suicidal attacks, the Kamikazes, that sunk or damaged so many American ships.
Nothing good can come from prolonging such a war, and in Van Buren’s retelling, atrocities and tragedies occur with a frequency one would expect of a war driven by racial hatreds and profound cultural misunderstandings. Nevertheless, in the darkness he provides a ray of hope as Lieutenant Nate Hooper, the main character, becomes separated from his unit and has to deal on an intimately human level with a Japanese sergeant. I don’t think I give away much by stating their relationship doesn’t end well for all — such is the reality of a war driven by hatred. The horror of war goes deep, Van Buren shows us, but so too does the potential for mitigating and ultimately for overcoming it.
Some readers of Bracing Views will recall that Van Buren formerly worked for the U.S. State Department. His first book, “We Meant Well,” is that rare thing: an honest retelling of the failures of America’s reconstruction efforts in Iraq to which he was both witness and participant. He brings his experiences of war and diplomacy to bear in this, his latest book, enriched by the years he spent working in Japan with the State Department.
Hooper’s War is for anyone interested in World War II in the Pacific, for anyone with a yen for imaginative “what-if” histories, or indeed for anyone who enjoys a good story well-told.
Full disclosure: Peter Van Buren sent me an advanced copy of Hooper’s War, to which I contributed a well-deserved commendatory blurb.
Last week, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on the Afghan war. You can read the entire article here, but I wanted to share some excerpts and some afterthoughts.
America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015…
Afghanistan, U.S. military theorists claim, is a different kind of war, a fourth-generation war fought in a “gray zone”; a mish-mash, that is, of low-intensity and asymmetric conflicts, involving non-state actors, worsened by the meddling of foreign powers like Pakistan, Iran, and Russia — all mentioned in General Nicholson’s [recent] testimony [before the Senate Armed Services Committee]. (It goes without saying that the U.S. doesn’t see its military presence there as foreign.) A skeptic might be excused for concluding that, to the U.S. military, fourth-generation warfare really means a conflict that will last four generations…
Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham whether he could do the job in Afghanistan with 50,000 troops, which would quadruple coalition forces there, [General] Nicholson answered with a “yes”; when asked about 30,000 U.S. and other NATO troops, he was less sure. With that 50,000 number now out there in Washington, does anyone doubt that Nicholson or his successor(s) will sooner or later press the president to launch the next Afghan surge? How else to counter all those terrorist strands in that petri dish? (This, of course, represents déjà vu all over again, given the Obama surge [in 2009-10] that added 30,000 troops to 70,000 already in Afghanistan and yet failed to yield sustainable results.)
That a few thousand [additional] troops [requested by General Nicholson, the overall commander in Afghanistan] could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.
Whether Soviet or American, whether touting communism or democracy, outside troops to Afghan eyes are certainly just that: outsiders, foreigners. They represent an invasive presence. For many Afghans, the “terrorist strands” in the petri dish [a metaphor General Nicholson used to describe the AfPak theater] are not only the Taliban or other Islamist sects; they are us. We are among those who must be avoided or placated in the struggle to stay alive — along with government forces, seen by some Afghans as collaborators to the occupiers (that’s us again). In short, we and our putative Afghan allies are in that same petri dish, thrashing about and causing harm, driving the very convergence of terrorist forces we say we are seeking to avoid.
In sum, I argued that the biggest foe the U.S. faces in Afghanistan is our own self-deception. Rarely do we see ourselves as foreigners, and rarely do we perceive how pushy we are, even as we remain stubbornly ignorant or highly myopic when it comes to Afghan culture and priorities.
After I wrote my article for TomDispatch, I jotted down the following, somewhat disorganized, thoughts about ourselves and our wars.
There’s a form of war fatigue, a lack of interest, in the U.S. We treat our wars as if they’re happening off stage, or even in another universe. And I suppose for most Americans this is indeed the case. The wars matter little to us. Why? Because they are largely invisible and without effect (until blowback).
There’s no narrative thread to our wars (Afghan/Iraq), unless it’s “déjà vu all over again.” Lines don’t move on maps. Enemies aren’t truly defeated. Meanwhile, a war on terror is a contradiction in terms, because war is terror. So you have “terror on terror,” which can only propagate more war. And with President Trump throwing more money at the Pentagon, and hiring more generals and bellicose civilians, the dynamic created is as predictable as it is unstoppable: more and more war.
Trump seems to think that expanding the military will make us so strong that no one will dare attack us. But that just raises the stakes for the underdogs. More than ever, they’ll want to humble Goliath.
Here’s the thing. I’m not an expert on Afghanistan. I’ve never been there. I’ve talked to soldiers and others who’ve been there, I’ve read lots of articles and books, but Afghanistan remains an intellectual/historical construct to me. My own conceit that I can write about it with authority is my country’s conceit. Afghanistan would be better without my advice, and without our country’s military intervention.
What I do know is my own country and my own military. I know our forms of deception, our apologetics, our ways of thinking reductively about other peoples as problems to be solved with a judicious application of money or “surgical” military power.
As I write about Afghanistan, I’m really writing about my country and how it views Afghanistan. We Americans see Afghanistan through a glass darkly; even worse, U.S. generals see it through a glass bloody — forever bloodstained and blackened by war.
America’s wars overseas are solipsistic wars. When we do think about them, they’re all about us. They’re not about Afghans or Iraqis or whomever. They are mirrors in which we see favorable reflections of ourselves, flat surfaces that flatter us. We prefer that to portals or revolving doors that we (and especially they) could walk through, that would expose us to hazards as well as to harsh truths.
Afghanistan is not a war for us to win, nor is it a country for us to make in our image. It’s a very different culture, a very different world, one that will resist American (and other foreign) efforts to remake it, as it has for centuries and centuries.
Isn’t it time to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan? To let its peoples find their own path?
In a notorious night raid near Gardez in Afghanistan in February 2010, a US Special Ops team apparently hit the wrong suspect’s house, resulting in the deaths of innocents to include pregnant women. It was further alleged that US troops dug bullets out of the bodies of these women. Jeremy Scahill’s recent article at The Intercept reviews the US military’s investigation into these allegations, an investigation that cleared the troops involved of any wrongdoing. Scahill’s article is here and warrants careful reading.
I want to focus on a piece of evidence that Scahill obtained: the U.S. military’s evaluation of the Afghan province and its after-action report about the failure of its IO (information operations) “battle.” Here is the document in question:
First, I want to focus on the BLUF at the bottom right. In the Army, it stands for bottom line up front. Most senior commanders will read this first; in some cases, the BLUF will be all they read (and remember). What does the BLUF conclude?
It says the US military “lost the IO battle in our silence,” and that it’s only getting worse as the military remains silent. It sounds vaguely reassuring: at least the military realizes it bungled the “information operations” job. But it’s a bureaucratic message in bureaucratic language. It reduces the objective to winning the “information” war, which the military says it’s not winning because of poor coordination with Afghan and other forces, lack of responsiveness, and so on.
How about some honesty? Here’s my BLUF: The US military is losing because it often misidentifies the enemy and misunderstands the culture, leading to the deaths of innocents and the estrangement of even those Afghans who are initially open to American influence. And no matter how hard you try to spin those facts, you can’t hide that cold truth from the Afghan people. (You can hide it from the American people, but that’s another story.)
As General Stanley McChrystal himself said about Afghanistan in 2010: “We have shot an amazing number of [Afghan] people [often at checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”
Tell me again how you win “information operations” by shooting “an amazing number” of innocent people?
I want to focus on a second aspect of the US military’s document from Scahill’s article: the illusion of data substituting for real knowledge. Here’s the document again:
Look at the left column. It has “atmospherics” for the province, to include percentages for literacy, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as if those are fixed in place), access to radio and telephone, and so on. Is this knowledge? Or a masquerade for it?
Interestingly, a quarter of the people are viewed as hostile to the USA. One assumes this percentage went up significantly after the raid in question.
My point is these maps and charts and slides give an illusion of data-driven competence, but when you read Scahill’s article, you realize American forces were totally ignorant of basic Afghan customs, such as rituals to prepare bodies for burial. That ignorance seems to have driven the initial confused and inaccurate account of honor killings of females, an account that was repeated widely (and wrongly) in the Western media.
Another minor yet telling point: An unnamed Ph.D. describes some of the Afghan peoples of the region as “great robbers” and “utter savages.” Think about how that description would color the attitudes of US troops assigned to the region. “Here we go, men. Time to kill us some robbers and savages.”
Scahill’s article and the document he provides is a microcosm of the wider failure of US operations in Afghanistan. The war, already in its 15th year, promises to be never-ending unless and until the US finally withdraws. In a profile not of courage but of pusillanimity, Obama has punted the decision to the next president, which doubtless means another 2-4 years of war, mistakes and misunderstandings and more deaths of innocents included.
Now in its 15th year, the US war in Afghanistan continues to go poorly. The drug trade is up, the Taliban is resurgent, and Afghan security forces are weakening. Nevertheless, as Dan White notes below, Americans are told by their leaders in Washington that progress is steady, even if the usual Petraeus caveats (“fragile” and “reversible”) are thrown in about that “progress.” White recently had the chance to hear Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the US, speak about the war and his country’s relations with the US. What he heard was not encouraging. Sadly, the policy among America’s leaders is never to hear a discouraging word – or, never to share such a word with the American people.
Looming Failure in the Afghan War: It’s All Out in the Open
A story from some actress about marriage and divorce always stuck with me, even if the actress’ name hasn’t. She talked about how if you are head over heels in love with someone, or if you are pissed off at them and divorcing them, you still see everything about the person, good and bad. Your vision doesn’t change with emotion, she said. The only thing that changes is which aspects of that person you bring into focus. Everything is out in the open for you to see, and you just choose what you want to focus on. She’s right about that. Not just in love, but in world events, too.
The Current Official Word (COW) from the Washington Beltway is that things are going as well as can be expected in Afghanistan. That’s the official spin, and it hasn’t changed since the war began. But other things are out there, in the open, and it’s high time we focused on them.
Afghanistan’s former Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad, gave a speech on “America’s Longest War: The Afghan Perspective” on April 5th at UT-Austin, at a Strauss Center for International Relations/LBJ School event. Attendance at North America’s second-largest college campus for this event was about sixty; half the attendees were students while the rest were local residents, mostly affluent social security age or thereabouts. (Rather piss-poor attendance for a war America’s leaders are calling “generational.”)
I talked briefly to the Ambassador beforehand—he was friendly and approachable, always good for a diplomat. We talked about a book I was carrying, David Talbot’sThe War Without a Name, which is the best book written in English to date about the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria, 1954-62. This book was worth around $200 on Amazon back in 2004 or so, but I’d picked it up at the Half-Price slushpile for $2 the other day, and that fact probably showed something about how serious America was these days about wars, counterinsurgencies, and learning from history. Ambassador Jawad nodded politely. He declined my offer of the book as a gift; perhaps he knows the subject too well.
The Ambassador spoke for about 40 minutes. His PowerPoint presentation wasn’t working; it is somewhat disturbing that the Ambassador has become a slave to PowerPoint like everyone in the US government nowadays. I wasn’t expecting him to say much (the usual diplomatic discretion before an American audience combined with Beltway conformity). But if you were paying attention, the Ambassador let drop in the forefront, in easy camera range, some things that normally stay in the deep dark background.
Ambassador Jawad was as upfront as a diplomat can be about Afghanistan’s complete dependence on US military and political support and his expectations that it would continue at the current level for the next several years. This despite pronouncements from Official DC about our doing the contrary. He mentioned several times that ISIL pays its soldiers about three times what his government pays theirs, and how this was a major factor in ISIL’s success. Hmmm—I guess the three to one pay advantage trumps his army’s six to one numbers advantage. The former Ambassador also complained about Pakistan’s providing sanctuary for the enemy forces, and expressed a desire that the US would pressure Pakistan to stop doing so. Saudi Arabia came in for its licks too, and the Ambassador urged that the US pressure the Saudis into doing something to stop the financial support their citizens (and government too, Mr. Ambassador?) are giving to ISIS/ISIL. The Ambassador used the term ‘realistically’ several times about various actions Afghanistan or the United States could, and should, do.
One fact got dropped that I should have heard before, and that is that this past year was the bloodiest ever for the Afghan National Army and security forces. This was the first year ever that the war did not go into hibernation for the winter; it ran the whole year round. Ambassador Jawad said that there were 7000 government forces killed this past year and that current losses ran 16 KIA (killed in action) daily. I’d never heard this one before. 7000 KIA means a minimum of 21,000 WIA (wounded in action), a total of 28,000 casualties a year. The Afghan National Army has an official strength of around 150,000 (actual troop strength is a different smaller number due to potted plant soldiers) with roughly 150,000 auxiliary/police.
Losses at this level are militarily unsustainable for very long. I doubt anyone militarily knowledgeable would give the Afghan national forces more than two years before they collapse from losses at this rate. This means things are going to fall apart there in Afghanistan like they did in Iraq, and soon. There was not a sign of anyone in the audience catching this. If they did, they were too polite to say anything.
The Q&A came up, and again I wasn’t picked for a question (actually, I was ignored, a story for another day). Several faculty asked mostly pointless questions, and the student questions were wonkish policy-adjustment ruminations hewing to the Beltway line. No sign of intelligent life there, Scotty.
After the event, I spoke to the Ambassador again. He was apologetic about not selecting me for a question, delicately deferring blame, with much justification, to his host Robert Chesney. I dumped the question I had in mind to ask during the Q&A and instead I asked him this, something that had bubbled up from deep inside me:
Mr. Ambassador, I’ve already pointed out to you the story of this book and how its cratering in price shows something about how much interest the US has in its war in your country. Doesn’t this also show a distinct lack of competence in the US ruling elites, that they choose to remain ignorant about the biggest counterinsurgency war in the 20th Century, after this many years of failed wars?
And speaking of just how much real interest my country and countrymen have in your country and people, just look at the foreign aid amounts we’ve given to your country, a desperately poor country in dire need of everything, every last god-blasted handiwork of man there is, after four decades of war and devastation. It took us five years before we gave your country five billion dollars in aid. That’s peanuts and you know it. You also have to know that it took us another three years more before we hit ten billion dollars in aid. And certainly you have to know that aid like this is absolutely critically necessary and desperately time-sensitive for successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency, and doesn’t the fact that we cheaped out and didn’t deliver this militarily essential aid in anything near a timely fashion show again the incompetence of this country’s military and political ruling elites?
Doesn’t it also again show how little regard we here have for your fellow countrymen and their problems? Just look at our aid to Ukraine, instead. We officially spent five billion up front, unofficially twice that, on the latest color revolution there, and that was all money going to white European politicians for them to piss away on parties, bribes, and Swiss bank accounts. Doesn’t that show, decade and a half long war or not, just how little your country, its people, and our war there matter to the DC crowd?
Mr. Ambassador, you talked several times today about ‘realistic’ and ‘realistically’. Shouldn’t you be more realistic about the fact that there’s been a decade and a half for us to pressure the Saudis and Pakistanis to cooperate and we haven’t ever yet so realistically that just isn’t going to ever happen? Realistically shouldn’t you and your country adjust your policy plans and expectations to reflect this fact instead of calling still again for them? Shouldn’t you and your fellow countrymen be more realistic about this country of mine and its government and peoples and its profound indifference to you and your war and our rather gross and obvious failings as a nation and as a people by now?
The Former Ambassador listened to all this politely, and then gave a little speechette about how America was a great country full of great people who could do anything they put their minds to. I thanked him and left.
So just like that actress said, it’s all out in the open, and it’s just a question of if you want to focus on it and see it. We don’t, it doesn’t look like the Afghans do either, and we all will act surprised when the big crackup in Afghanistan happens soon. Our surprise will be genuine because our profound blindness certainly is.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
I lived and taught in a rural and conservative area in Pennsylvania for nine years, an area that’s “flyover country” for Beltway elites. Back in 2008, I remember how the locals went gaga over Sarah Palin’s visit to the area, and how crestfallen so many people were when Barack Obama was elected president. I remember how people sported Bush/Cheney stickers on their cars and trucks (even the faculty at the largely vocational college at which I taught), long after these men had left office. Sadly, I also recall a lot of Confederate flag license plates, especially on trucks, but there were also people who flew them at home from their flagpoles. This was not about “heritage,” since Pennsylvania was Union country in the Civil War. No – it was about being a White “redneck” and taking the country back from, well, the “other” – Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, anyone considered to be an outsider, anyone part of the “influx,” a racially-loaded word that referred to outsiders (where I lived, mainly Blacks from Philadelphia and its environs).
Rural PA, previously Sarah Palin country, is now Trump country. In the recent presidential primary, fifty thousand Democrats in PA changed party affiliation so they could vote Republican. An educated guess: they weren’t switching parties to vote for Kasich or Cruz. They were caught up in Trump hype about making America great again!
That’s a slogan to be reckoned with. Some say it’s a racist dog whistle. Those with ears attuned to the frequency hear the message as “making America great again by making it White again.” There’s truth to this, but the message is also one of nostalgia. Trump, like many of his followers, has recognized that the USA is no longer NUMBER ONE in all things, and he’s got the balls (as his followers might say) to say it plainly. No BS about America being the exceptional nation, the bestest, the kind of nonsense that flows freely from the mouths of most U.S. politicians. America is acting like a 99-pound weakling, Trump says, and he’s the Charles Atlas to whip us back into shape.
Trump’s vulgarity, his elaborate comb over, his tackiness, the shallowness of his knowledge (especially on foreign affairs), have contributed to the establishment’s ongoing dismissal of him. A recent article by Glenn Greenwald and Zaid Jilani documented the many dead certain (yet dead wrong) predictions of Trump’s imminent demise, even as he was winning primary after primary and gaining in the polls. The establishment elites just couldn’t believe that a man not vetted by them – a man best known for bloated casinos and lowbrow reality TV – could be a viable candidate for the presidency. And indeed they continue to predict his imminent demise at the hands of one of their own (Hillary Clinton) in the fall. Yet as I wrote back in July 2015, Trump is not to be underestimated.
What exactly is the appeal of Trump? Speaking his mind is one. Yes, he’s vulgar, he’s boorish, he’s ignorant, he’s sexist. Just like many of his followers. In a way, Trump revels in his flaws. He has the confidence to own them. Many people are attracted to him simply because (like Sarah Palin) he’s not a typical mealy-mouthed politician.
Another obvious appeal: He’s a rich celebrity who acts like a rube. Indeed, he acts like many regular folks would if they’d just won a Powerball jackpot. He’s got the trophy wife. He’s got a lot of pricey toys (How about that Trump jet?). He doesn’t have much class, but so what? Trump is Archie Bunker with money, a blowhard, an American classic. What you see is pretty much what you get. And that’s a refreshing feature for many of his followers, who have little use for complexity or nuance.
For all that, let’s not ignore Trump’s positions (such as they are) on the issues. He’s against a lot of things that many Americans are also against. He’s critical of immigration. He’s more than wary of Muslims. He despises “political correctness.” He’s against trade deals (so he says). The Chinese and Japanese come in for special opprobrium as trade cheaters. “And China! And China!” Trump declaims as he launches another round of attacks on the Chinese for stealing American jobs. Trump’s followers believe they’ve finally found their man, someone who will stand up to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Muslims, and all those other foreigners who are taking their jobs and hurting America.
Trump is a master of scapegoating. But more than this, he takes positions that show a willingness to depart from Republican orthodoxy. He’s expressed support for Planned Parenthood (except for its abortion services) because of the health care it provides to women. He’s outspokenly critical of U.S. wars and nation-building (as well as Bush/Cheney and company). He wants to rebuild America’s infrastructure. He wants to force America’s allies to pay a greater share of their own defense costs. He’s not slavishly pro-Israel. He’s not enamored with neo-conservative principles and the status quo in U.S. foreign policy. He wants to put “America first.” As far as they go, these are respectable positions.
Yet I’ve not come to praise Trump but to explain, at least partially, his appeal and its persistence. Trump’s negatives are well known, and indeed I’ve written articles that are highly critical of him (see here and here and here). Most of Trump’s supporters are aware of the negatives yet plan to vote for him regardless. Why?
Desperation, to start. Americans are drowning in debt. They’re scared. Not just the lower classes but the middle classes as well. Just consider the title of a recent article at The Atlantic: The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans: Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. Times are far tighter for ordinary Americans than Beltway elites know or are willing to admit.
In tough times an unconventional candidate like Trump (or Bernie Sanders) offers hope – the promise of significant change. What does Hillary Clinton offer? So far, more of the same. But scared or desperate people don’t want the same, with perhaps a few more crumbs thrown their way by establishment-types. They want a political revolution, to quote Bernie Sanders. They want freshness. Authenticity.
Strangely, despite all his flaws and insults and bigotry, or rather in part because of them, Trump seems more genuine, more of a candidate of the people, than does Hillary. Bernie Sanders, another genuine candidate with big ideas, beats him handily in the fall, I believe. But Bernie is being elbowed out by the establishment powerbrokers in the Democratic Party. The big money (of both parties) is pegging its hopes on Hillary. It’s already predicted her sobriety and “experience” will triumph over Trump’s wildness and inexperience.
Given the record of “expert” predictions so far in this election, as well as Trump’s own track record, I wouldn’t be too confident in betting against The Donald.