One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”
It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.
At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”
It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth, who later became a major general, “really sick” and “very bitter” about his role as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War. Later, in an oral interview, he admitted “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much.” One can understand why.
At the time, Hildreth brought his concerns to General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, but Momyer offered only platitudes, saying that Hildreth was “doing some good, somewhere,” by dropping bombs and napalm and other ordnance on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.
We know this story only because Cotton Hildreth was willing to share it after being retired from the Air Force for fifteen years. A few days before this village was obliterated, Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, had been ordered to destroy the village with napalm. They refused to do so after making low and slow passes over the village, only to be greeted by children waving their arms in friendship. In “The Wingman and the Village,” Hugh Turley’s article about this in the Hyattsville Life & Times (July 2010), Hildreth admitted his wingman had dropped napalm away from the village first, and Hildreth then did the same. The wingman in question, old for a pilot at age 48 and a grandfather, had seen a woman running with two children from her hut. He’d made a snap decision to disobey orders.
As the wingman told Hildreth when they returned to base: “Sir, I have three small grandchildren at home, and I could never face them again if I had followed those orders.” The unnamed wingman was later reassigned to a non-combat role.
When Hildreth was asked later if he’d have destroyed the village if he’d been flying an F-105 “Thud,” which flew higher and much faster than the A-1 Skyraider, he admitted he likely would have, because “you don’t see the people.”
What can we learn from this story? This atrocity? That it’s very easy to kill when you never see the people being killed. That it’s easy to follow orders and much harder to disobey them. That the Air Force brass at headquarters knew they were complicit in mass murder but that it meant more to them to keep one South Vietnamese provincial commander happy than it meant to keep 1200 innocent people alive.
One day in a long and atrocious war, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman decided they’d put humanity first; that they wouldn’t destroy a defenseless village despite orders to do so. It didn’t matter. That village and those people were destroyed anyway a few days later. It was just another day in a war allegedly fought to contain communism but which instead led to uncontained barbarity by a so-called democratic alliance.
“We had to destroy the village to save it” is a catchphrase from that war that is of course a contradiction in terms. Destruction is destruction. Death is death. No one was saved. Small wonder that Hildreth was so sick, so bitter, and spoke so rarely of his experiences in Vietnam.
A Note on Sources:
Oral interview with retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth on 9/19/96. Hildreth recounts his experience beginning at the 21-minute mark of the interview.
I first learned of Hildreth’s interview from David Martin, who wrote about it here in 2015, calling it the largest single known atrocity of the Vietnam War. Such atrocities were commonplace, given the wanton use of destructive power by the U.S. military in Vietnam. This is a theme developed by Nick Turse in his book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” (2013)
Hugh Turley, “The Wingman and the Village,” in “Hugh’s News,” Hyattsville Life & Times, July 2010.
Hildreth’s story is consistent with what Bernard Fall saw in Vietnam, which I wrote about here.
Threat inflation is always a lead feature at the Pentagon (how better to justify enormous budgets?), and just today I caught this story at FP: Foreign Policy.
At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific.
China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imageryanalyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.”
The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy.
What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.”
China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years.
PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.”
Aha! The Chinese are just like us! “Confrontational.” They’re building a navy that’s all about “projecting power,” perhaps even beyond the Pacific. How dare they! I wonder what the U.S. should do in response? Perhaps build even more aircraft carriers and an even bigger “blue water” navy? I wonder…
The U.S. Air Force is getting into the threat inflation act as well. I saw a report that suggested China is building sites (possibly dummy ones) for nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Guess which service has its own plans to build new ICBMs? Yes, it’s the U.S. Air Force, and the Chinese “threat” is being used to justify the huge expense of new, stationary, nuclear missiles based on land. (Those ICBMs, if deployed, will probably end up costing at least $100 billion, and perhaps double that.)
I have a perfect strategy for China to win any struggle against the U.S. Make noises about something that you know will set off America’s military-industrial complex, such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, even ambiguous plans about attacking Taiwan. Then watch as America’s military wets its pants before Congress, calling desperately for money and weaponry to meet the Chinese threat. A few billion spent here and there by China should goad America’s military enthusiasts into spending trillions to meet the threat that, to be frank, they very much want to see from China. It’s truly a win-win for China, and perhaps a win as well for America’s military-industrial complex, but it’s a huge loss for the American people.
Speaking of Taiwan, I’ve even heard talk of the U.S. Army getting into the act by basing “tripwire” forces there, much like our “tripwire” forces in South Korea, the idea being if Mainland China dares to attack Taiwan, they know it’ll be a cause for war as they’ll have to “trip” over, and presumably kill, U.S. troops. What a comforting thought.
Chinese hysteria is reaching its peak in America, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com, so much so that strategic miscalculation is more possible than ever as both sides–but especially America–see hostility as the other side makes moves to counter perceived aggression.
I know the title of my article is “Beware of China,” but of course my real message is beware of America, specifically its military leaders and corporate profiteers who are always happy to exaggerate threats in the cause of securing more money and power.
“Only Americans can hurt America,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. We had best keep that in mind as various men in uniform hyperventilate about China and the threat it poses over the next few years or decades. Indeed, as Andrea Mazzarino noted in a fine article at TomDispatch.com today, the cancer of never-ending war is killing our democracy. Forget about being afraid of China. It’s time to be afraid of our leaders and all their democracy-killing schemes.
At his first presidential press conference yesterday, Joe Biden had this to say on China: “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
Sorry, Joe, it’s happening and it’s partly your fault.
Here’s a symbol for you. I have an American flag t-shirt. It’s made by a company called “True Grit” (John Wayne!) and the label says “Authentic California.” But was the shirt made in California? Ha ha! It was “Made in China.”
Why is China ascending while the USA descends? Here are five reasons:
America’s wasteful war on terror has cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 trillion with nothing to show for it.
Politicians like Obama/Biden prefer to bailout Wall Street and the banks rather than ordinary Americans. For example, the bailout of Wall Street in 2008 was a trillion-dollar mess, Matt Taibbi notes.
The Covid Bailout passed by the Trump administration in 2020 (the CARES Act) funneled $2.3 trillion mainly to the banks and corporate America, with a surge option of $4 trillion for big business, notes Matt Taibbi.
Bad trade deals like NAFTA, advanced by Democrats like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, ensured that American jobs would go overseas to countries like China having much lower labor costs.
Tax cuts for the richest Americans under the Trump administration starve the government of funds, ensuring little investment in the homeland even as the rich get richer.
Now, imagine if this money had been invested in America. We’re talking $10-12 trillion for infrastructure, essentials like roads, bridges, dams, high-speed rail, renewable energy, better schools, and so on. Imagine how much more advanced and healthy America could be if our priorities changed.
Our government has been captured by the special interests, specifically corporations, banks, and the military-industrial complex. It’s socialism for the rich and dog-eat-dog capitalism for the poor. The plutocrats, kleptocrats, and militarists are cashing in even as America hollows out.
What we need is a true Marshall Plan — for America. A reinvestment in ourselves. What this means is an end to forever wars, major cuts in military spending, higher taxes on the plutocrats and corporations, and a focus on putting Americans back to work and with a living wage. A green new deal could and should be one aspect of this.
We need to show some “true grit” again, America; not grit that’s “Made in China.”
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.