U.S. Folly in Afghanistan and Media Complicity

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Gen. Mark Milley argues America’s Afghan War has been “successful to date”

W.J. Astore

On NBC News today, I came across the following, revealing, headline:

The U.S. is eager to end its longest war. In interview, Taliban gives little sign it’s ready to change.

Aha!  The U.S. military is allegedly seeking an end to its Afghan war, but it’s being stopped in its tracks by stubbornly uncompromising Taliban forces.  So, it’s not our fault, right?  We’re trying to leave, but the Taliban won’t let us.

I’ve been writing against the Afghan war for a decade.  It was always a lost war for the United States, and it always will be.  But the U.S. military doesn’t see it that way, as Andrew Bacevich explains in a recent article on America’s flailing and failing generals.  These generals, Bacevich notes, have redefined the Afghan war as “successful to date.”  How so?  Because no major terrorist attack on America has come out of Afghanistan since 9/11/2001.  As Bacevich rightly notes, such a criterion of “success” is both narrow and contrived.

So, according to Mark Milley, the most senior general in the U.S. Army, soon to be head of the Joint Chiefs, America can count the Afghan war as “successful.”  If so, why are we allegedly so eager to end it?  Why not keep the “success” going forever?

Back in November of 2009, I wrote the following about America’s Afghan war.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

Pulling out an old encyclopedia, I then added a little history:

Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win.

I stand by that last sentence.  Your “successful to date” war has been nothing but folly, General Milley, a reality mainstream media sources are determined not to survey.

Iran Wants War!

W.J. Astore

You won’t see this illustration in the mainstream media:

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If the Iranians really wanted peace, they’d move their country.

In all seriousness, U.S. media talking heads, many of them retired military officers, are constantly talking about the aggression of others and their weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Never do these “experts” speak of U.S. aggression and the WMD we have in our possession.  Indeed, the U.S. maintains an earth-busting arsenal of nuclear weapons, and we remain the only country to have used atomic bombs for real (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945).  Yet we’re the ones who have to worry about Iranian nuclear weapons that don’t yet exist (and probably never will)?

Tom Engelhardt has a great new article at TomDispatch.com on how the U.S. always sees itself as the victim, as the aggrieved party, as the one who’s being threatened.  Here’s an excerpt:

So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?

What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth.  It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?

The U.S. as an aggressor?  Impossible!  Our military installations, our weaponry, even our wars are all about keeping the peace.  Right?

There was a time, almost 250 years ago, when Americans successfully fought for their independence (though quite a few “loyalists” preferred compromise with the British crown).  There was a time, 75 years ago, when Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy to defeat Nazi aggression.  But when you look at America’s long history of wars, precious few of them can be said to have been defensive in nature.  Indeed, most were acts of aggression, e.g. the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the long bloody wars against Native Americans, the Vietnam War, and more recent, undeclared, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dare I state the obvious?  Americans are generally not shy, diffident, passive people.  Ask most foreigners about Americans and you’ll hear words like pushy, outspoken, loud, and, yes, aggressive.  (Of course. not all Americans fit this description, but think of recent representatives like Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton or Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.)  Yet, with all our aggressiveness, with all our violent tendencies, why do we continue to see others as the pushy ones, the headstrong ones, the ones who want war?

A little empathy, America?  Forget about it!  Come on, Iran.  It’s time to move.  And since the U.S. dominates this planet, I have the perfect destination for you.  How about Mars?

But wait: NASA wants to launch a manned mission there!  And since Mars is named after the god of war, it’s a natural for us.  Red and fiery in the sky — how long until we build our first military base there?

A Surprise Winner in the Democratic Presidential Debates for 2020

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Bernie and Tulsi: the only candidates willing to call out the military-industrial complex

W.J. Astore

I watched the two Democratic debates this week.  Media outlets treat them as a horse race, announcing winners and losers.  So perhaps you heard Kamala Harris scored big-time against Joe Biden.  Or perhaps you heard Elizabeth Warren did well, or that Tulsi Gabbard generated lots of post-debate interest (Google searches and the like).  I will say that Beto O’Rourke was clearly unprepared (or over-prepared) and unable to speak clearly and meaningfully, so count him as a “loser.”

All that said, the clear winner wasn’t on the stage; it wasn’t even among the 20 debate participants.  The name of that clear winner: America’s military-industrial complex and its perpetual wars.

Sure, there was some criticism of the Afghan and Iraq wars, especially by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.  But there was no criticism of enormous “defense” budgets ($750 billion and rising, with true outlays exceeding a trillion a year), and virtually no mention of Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen.  (Tulsi briefly mentioned the Saudis and was shut down; Bernie mentioned the war in Yemen and was ignored.)

The only direct mention of the military-industrial complex that I recall hearing was by Bernie Sanders.  Otherwise, the tacit assumption was that soaring defense budgets are appropriate and, at least in these debates, unassailable.

Bernie and Tulsi also mentioned the threat of nuclear war, with Bernie making a passing reference to the estimated cost of nuclear forces modernization (possibly as high as $1.7 trillion).  Again, he had no time to follow up on this point.

NBC’s talking heads asked the questions, so blame them in part for no questions on the MI Complex and the enormous costs of building world-ending nuclear weapons.  Indeed, the talking heads were much more concerned with “gotcha” questions against Bernie, which attempted to paint him as a tax-and-spend socialist who doesn’t care about diversity.  Yes, that really was NBC’s agenda.

Always, Democrats are asked, “How will you pay for that?”  You know: “extravagances” like more affordable education, better health care, a tax cut that helps workers, or investments in job training programs and infrastructure.  But when it comes to wars and weapons, there are never any questions about money.  The sky’s the limit.

A reminder to Democrats: Donald Trump won in 2016 in part because he was willing to denounce America’s wasteful wars and to challenge defense spending (even though he’s done nothing as president to back up his campaign critique).  We need true Peace Democrats with spine, so I remain bullish on candidates like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.

Hopefully, in future debates Bernie, Tulsi, and others will call for major reforms of our military and major cuts to our bloated Pentagon budget.  But don’t count on that issue being raised by the mainstream media’s talking heads.

Bonus Winner: I can’t recall a single mention of Israel and the Palestinians, not even in the context of framing a peace plan.  No mention of America’s role in Venezuela either.  The imperial and aggressive neo-con agenda on foreign policy went almost unchallenged, but kudos to Tulsi Gabbard for calling out the “chickenhawks” (her word, and the right one) in the Trump administration.

Can we be a superpower morally and ethically?

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With Scott Carrier (left) at Woods Hole

W.J. Astore

I recently did an interview with Scott Carrier that I greatly enjoyed.  Scott’s site is “Home of the Brave” at http://www.homebrave.com.

My interview, just under 20 minutes, is available at http://homebrave.com/home-of-the-brave//lets-talk-about-not-going-to-war

In the interview, Scott and I talk about war, military service, America’s intoxication with violence and power, and how we can chart a new way forward.

Thanks so much for giving it a listen.  And check out Scott’s other podcasts.  He’s done amazing work.

 

Random Thoughts, Mostly Military

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Lady Liberty?

W.J. Astore

Doing some housecleaning of the mind, so to speak:

  1. I recently read a book that argued the U.S. military loses its wars due to poor strategy and lack of understanding of “limited” war. It was a sophisticated book that cited the usual suspects in classical military theory, like Clausewitz. And it got me to thinking.  I don’t think the U.S. loses wars because of poor military theory or improper applications thereof.  And I don’t think the U.S. can win wars by better/smarter theory.  Rather, the wars the U.S. has been fighting since Korea should never have been started or joined to begin with.  Whether it’s Vietnam in the 1960s or Afghanistan and Iraq today, these are and never were “winnable” wars.  Why?  Because they were unnecessary to U.S. national security.  And the only way to “win” such wars is to end them.

Unnecessary wars persist for many reasons.  A big one is profit, as in Ike’s military-industrial complex.  Perhaps as well these wars are sustained by a belief the U.S. military could win them if only the generals hit on the right strategy.  But there is no smarter way to win dumb wars.  You win them when you end them.

  1. War criminals. There’s been talk lately of President Trump wanting to pardon war criminals and how this would jeopardize order and discipline within the U.S. military.  But let’s leave aside low-level offenders (your sergeants and captains) and talk about high-ranking war criminals.  Indeed, what about the men who chose to go to war under false pretenses in the first place?  If you choose not to prosecute men like Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, why pursue and prosecute the little guys?

I once read that the guilt for war crimes is greater the further you are from the crimes you effectively ordered.  Adolf Eichmann didn’t dirty his own hands; he was a deskbound murderer. And perhaps that’s the worst kind.

Historically, we recognize the moral and legal culpability of high-ranking murderers like Eichmann.  Should America’s top leaders be held responsible for the murderous results of wars that they launched?

  1. Lady Liberty Locked and Loaded. The U.S. routinely brags of having the best military ever while leading the world in weapons sales while professing to be an exceptional bastion of liberty.  And most Americans see no contradiction here.  Simultaneously, men like Trump continue to vilify brown-skinned immigrants as bringing violence to America.  Lady Liberty, in short, no longer lights her torch for the huddled masses.  If we (or the French?) were making her today, she’d carry a .44 magnum (or an assault rifle?) in place of a torch.  Do you feel lucky, immigrant punks?

Coincidence: A friend just sent me the Global Peace Index for the world’s 163 countries.  The USA ranks #128.  (Iceland is #1, followed by New Zealand at #2.)  USA!  USA!  USA!

  1. A friend of mine sent along a campaign ad for a woman running for Congress in Texas. Kim Olson is her name, and she has some good ideas.  But the ad itself is telling for different reasons.  A retired Air Force colonel, Olson appears in her military-issue flight jacket, complete with her rank, wings, and command patch, as she talks about being a “warrior.”

I have nothing against Colonel (retired) Olson.  She’s gutsy and committed to public service.  But enough of the “warrior” talk and enough with the military uniforms!  You didn’t see Ike campaigning for president while wearing a jacket with five stars on it.

  1. Readers of this blog may know that I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years. Impressive?  Not according to the Secretary of the Air Force.  In her words: “We are now boarding and recommending people for instructor duty and you’re not going to be able to do it unless you’re the best of the best. Historically, we didn’t value instructor duty. If you taught at Lackland or at the Air Force Academy or ROTC…that was kind of because you couldn’t get a better position and it was kind of a dead end. So now we’ve flipped that.”

I’ve changed my call sign to William “Dead End” Astore.  It has a nice ring to it.

In all seriousness, the military has always favored doers over thinkers.  Nowadays, you’re supposed to be a warrior, constantly doing…well…something.  So we’ve been doing something, usually the same thing, repeatedly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, regardless of results.  And history?  Who cares?  America’s military members barely know their own history, let alone the history of foreign peoples and cultures.

Incredibly, the military’s push for better education (defined as “intellectual overmatch,” I kid you not) is couched in terms of out-thinking the Russians and Chinese.  In other words, we’re doomed.

As I put it to a friend, “The services need to develop senior officers with depth and breadth of vision, but the system is designed to produce narrow-minded true believers.  It’s a little like trying to reform the Catholic church and its hierarchy of conservative, insular, cardinals and bishops.”

Or, as one of my Air Force friends put it, waxing satirically: “But you know, the problem really is that we don’t award enough ribbons, haven’t changed the uniform in a few years, and are allowing transgendered to serve while violating the rights of commanders by not allowing them to share [with subordinates] their [conservative Christian] faith.”

That’s enough random thoughts for this Thursday.  What say you, readers?

William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

William Westmoreland (“Westy”) looked like a general should, and that was part of the problem.  Tall, handsome, square-jawed, he carried himself rigidly; there was no slouching for Westy.  A go-getter, a hard-charger, he did everything necessary to get promoted.  He was a product of the Army, a product of a system that began at West Point during World War II and ended with four stars and command in Vietnam during the most critical years of that war (1965-68).  His unimaginative and mediocre performance in a losing effort said (and says) much about that system.

I had these thoughts as I read Lewis Sorley’s devastating biography of Westy, recommended to me by a good friend.  (Thanks, Paul!)  Before tackling the big stuff about Westy, the Army, and Vietnam, I’d like to focus on little things that stayed with me as I read the book.

  1. Visiting West Point as the Army’s Chief of Staff, Westy met the new First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. Westy thought this cadet wasn’t quite tall enough to be First Captain. It made me wonder whether Napoleon might have won Waterloo if he’d been as tall as Westy.
  2. Westy loved uniforms and awards. Sporting an impressive array of ribbons, badges, devices, and the like, his busy uniform was consistent with his concern for outward show, for image and action over substance and meaning.
  3. Westy tended to focus on the trivial. He’d visit lower commands and ask junior officers whether the troops were getting their mail (vital for morale, he thought).  He’d ask narrow technical questions about mortars versus artillery performance.  He was a details man in a position that required a much broader sweep of mind.
  4. Westy liked to doodle, including drawing the rank of a five-star general. He arguably saw himself as destined to this rank, following in the hallowed steps of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley.
  5. Westy never attended professional military education (PME), such as the Army War College, and he showed little interest in books. He was incurious and rather proud of it.

Interestingly, Sorley cites another general who argued Westy’s career should have ended as a regimental colonel.  Others believed he served adequately as a major general in command of a division.  Above this rank, Westy was, some of his fellow officers agreed, out his depth.

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Sorley depicts Westy as an unoriginal and conventional thinker for a war that was unconventional and complex.  Bewildered by Vietnam, Westy fell back to what he (and the Army) knew best: massive firepower, search and destroy tactics, and made-up metrics like “body count” as measures of “success.”  He tried to win a revolutionary war using a strategy of attrition, paying little attention to political dimensions.  For example, he shunted the South Vietnamese military (ARVN) to the side while giving them inferior weaponry to boot.

Another personal weakness: Westy didn’t respond well to criticism.  When General Douglas Kinnard published his classic study of the Vietnam War, “The War Managers,” which surveyed senior officers who’d served in Vietnam, Westy wanted him to tattle on those officers who’d objected to his pursuit of body count.  (Kinnard refused.)

Sorley identifies Westmoreland as the general who lost Vietnam, and there’s truth in that.  Deeply flawed, Westy’s strategy was fated to fail.  Yet even the most skilled American general may have lost in Vietnam.  Consider here the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the middle of 1964.  He told McGeorge Bundy “It looks to me like we’re getting’ into another Korea…I don’t think it’s worth fightin’ for and I don’t think we can get out.  It’s just the biggest damn mess…What the hell is Vietnam worth to me?…What is it worth to this country?” [Quoted in Robert Dallek, “Three New Revelations About LBJ,” The Atlantic, April 1998]

McGeorge Bundy himself, LBJ’s National Security Adviser, said to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that committing large numbers of U.S. troops to Vietnam was “rash to the point of folly.”  In October 1964 his brother William Bundy, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, said in a confidential memorandum that Vietnam was “A bad colonial heritage of long standing…a nationalist movement taken over by Communism ruling in the other half of an ethnically and historically united country, the Communist side inheriting much the better military force and far more than its share of the talent—these are the facts that dog us today.”

Not worth fighting for, rash to the point of folly: Why did the U.S. go to war in Vietnam when the cause was arguably lost before the troops were committed?  Traditional answers include the containment of communism, the domino theory, American overconfidence, and so forth, but perhaps there was a larger purpose to the “folly.”

What was that larger purpose?  I recall a “letter to the editor” that I clipped from a newspaper years ago.  Echoing a critique made by Noam Chomsky,** this letter argued America’s true strategic aim in Vietnam was to prevent Vietnam’s independent social and economic development; to subjugate and/or subordinate Vietnam and its resources to the whims of Western corporations and investors.  Winning on the battlefield was less important than winning in the global marketplace.  Vietnam would send a loud signal to other countries that, if you tried to chart your own course independent of American interests, you’d end up like Vietnam, a battlefield, a wasteland.

For sure, Westy lost on the battlefield.  But did U.S. economic interests triumph globally due to his punishment of Vietnam and the intimidation it established?  How compelling, how coercive, were such interests?  Think of Venezuela today as it attempts to chart an independent course.  Think of U.S. interest in subordinating Venezuela and its reserves of oil to the agendas of Western investors and corporations.  There are trillions of dollars to be made here, not just from oil, but by preserving the strength of the petrodollar.  (The U.S. dollar’s value is propped up by global oil sales done in dollars, as vouchsafed by leading oil producers like Saudi Arabia.  Venezuela has acted against the petrodollar standard.)

Westy was the wrong man for Vietnam, but he was also a fall guy for a doomed war.  He and the U.S. military did succeed, however, in visiting a level of destruction on that country that sent a message to those who contemplated resisting Western economic demands.  Westy may have been a lousy general, but perhaps he was the perfect message boy for economic interests that prospered more by destruction and intimidation than by traditional victory of arms.

**For Chomsky, America didn’t accidentally or inadvertently or ham-fistedly destroy the Vietnamese village to save it; the village was destroyed precisely to destroy it, thereby strengthening capitalism and U.S. economic hegemony throughout the developing world.  As General Smedley Butler said, sometimes generals are economic hit men, even when they don’t know it.

As a general rule, it’s a lot easier in U.S. politics to sell a war as containing or defeating communist aggression (or radical Islamic terrorism in the case of Iran, or ruthless dictators in the cases of Iraq and Libya) than it is for economic interests and the profits of powerful multinational corporations.  For the average grunt, “Remember Exxon-Mobil!” isn’t much of a battle-cry.

Wikileaks and America’s Boorish, In Your Face, Diplomacy

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With the recent arrest of Julian Assange in London with the goal of extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges, I thought I’d revive this article that I wrote back in 2010.  Assange and Chelsea Manning helped to reveal war crimes by the U.S. as well as a pattern of boorish, imperious, “in your face” behavior by its officials and diplomats.

George W. Bush claimed that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms — but maybe they simply hate us for our behavior?  If we ride roughshod over the “little people,” they might just remember — and bite back.

Anyway, the main sin of Assange and Manning was embarrassing the powerful while shedding light on their behavior.  And the powerful know how to hang on to a grudge…

Written in 2010:

Boorish, “in your face” behavior is everywhere. Most of the time, I’m able to avoid it, or walk away from it.  Nevertheless, afoot in America is an astonishing sense of imperious entitlement. People are told they can have it all – heck, that they deserve it all – and to hell with anyone who raises an objection. Rugged individualism is not enough; roughshod individualism is the new American ethos.

Now, what has this to say about WikiLeaks? Take a close look at many of the State Department cables and tell me how you would feel to be on the receiving end of roughshod American imperiousness. So what if we kidnap the wrong German citizen and torture him? Not only do we have no need to apologize: We’ll even bully the German government into silence. And we can bully Spain too, if need be, to inhibit Spanish attempts to prosecute Americans for torture or murder. Need more information about the United Nations and its diplomats? Let’s not only spy on them in traditional ways, but let’s steal their passwords, their biometric data: Heck, let’s even take DNA samples from them. If they complain, too bad: They shouldn’t have taken a drink from the cup we offered them. And the list goes on: We’ll even strike secret deals with Britain to hide our cluster bombs.

In these memos, it never seems to be America’s fault. Being a loud and boorish and imperious American means never having contritely to say you’re sorry.

Are we oblivious? Do we just don’t care? Neither question will matter if the resentments we breed overseas find their way to America’s homeland.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com.