You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.
This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir. I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.
Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War. This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.
Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.” But this belief stands reality on its head. The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam. Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly. So it went covertly. It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people. The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media. Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…
The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].
This is well and strongly put. The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough. But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie. Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.
Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy. But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.” Weapons contractors and other war profiteers. The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power. And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.
If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas. This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.
Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.
Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.
The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.
According to FP: Foreign Policy, these are the top five stories in U.S. foreign policy in 2019. I’ve inserted quick comments at the end in bold:
1. U.S. and Turkey Lock Horns Over Syria.
“U.S. support to the Syrian Democratic Forces has long angered Turkey, a NATO ally which views the Kurdish-led group as a terrorist threat … But in a fateful October phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his longtime threat to launch a cross-border invasion. This time Trump capitulated, moving a handful of U.S. troops so the Turks could begin the assault against the Kurds … Hundreds have been killed and roughly 200,000 people were displaced.”
Comment: Syria is not a vital U.S. interest. U.S. forces shouldn’t be there. And who are these “democratic forces” of Syria?
2. Trump Impeached Over Ukraine Scandal.
“Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a Democratic rival this year led to the third impeachment of a U.S. president in history, thrusting Washington’s national security apparatus into the spotlight.”
Comment: The U.S. shouldn’t be meddling in Ukraine. And we shouldn’t be sending more weapons there. I sure as hell don’t want my taxpayer dollars going to weapons for Ukraine.
3. North Korea Talks Sputter and Stall.
“The historic nuclear talks between Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 offered hope that the two countries could de-escalate tensions and prevent a nuclear confrontation. Talks stalled after the Singapore Summit in June 2018. While both sides made significant verbal commitments in 2019, the year saw a gradual deterioration of bilateral relations.”
Comment: North Korea isn’t giving up its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans saw what happened to Gaddafi in Libya when he gave up his WMD. Plus nuclear weapons and missiles are a prestige project for Kim Jong-un, who’s played Trump like a fiddle.
4. Iran Strikes Back.
“Tensions between Iran and the United States skyrocketed in 2019, as the U.S. maximum pressure campaign took effect and Tehran lashed out against harsh U.S. sanctions. (Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018.) … Attacks have ceased in recent weeks as Tehran launched a brutal crackdown on the worst political unrest the country has seen since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. But U.S. officials are bracing for another devastating strike in the region, this time perhaps targeting the region’s critical sources of drinking water.”
Comment: Harsh U.S. sanctions are an act of war — or at least we’d see them that way if the roles were reversed. And why is Iran always seen as the aggressor capable of launching “devastating” strikes?
5. Venezuela Crisis Simmers.
“Venezuela’s Russia-backed leader Nicolás Maduro clung to power this year despite an economic collapse, nationwide blackouts and fierce opposition from Juan Guaidó, who declared himself Venezuela’s interim president in January with support from the West. Tensions threatened to boil over in May, when Guaidó tried and failed to ignite an uprising. The attempted coup was seen as an embarrassing failure by the United States and particularly National Security Advisor John Bolton, reportedly the architect of multiple attempts to unseat Maduro. In addition to harsh sanctions, the United States went so far as to draw up military options, but never took any action.”
Comment: Looks like Bolton takes the fall for inept U.S. meddling in Venezuela. Guess what? It’s all about the oil — and the money.
Of course, FP: Foreign Policy missed the biggest story of 2019: Consistent, extensive, and persistent lying by U.S. leaders about the course of the Afghan War, as revealed by the “Afghan Papers” published by the Washington Post.
Readers — what do you think about this list? In the holiday spirit, I see much naughtiness here, and no niceness. Santa won’t be pleased.
Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars. So, what did his advisers talk him into? A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan. I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.
Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note. A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:
The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.
Where to begin with this CNN snippet?
The “reduction” is not a reduction but a return to previous troop levels at the end of the Obama administration.
The U.S. “has maintained a solid presence”? Good god. You’d never know about all the bombing, droning, and killing the U.S. has done over the last 18+ years. Or is that the “solid presence” we’ve been maintaining?
The troop “drawdown” as a “concession” to the Taliban? Guess what: The Taliban aren’t going anywhere, and they’re winning. A few thousand U.S. troops, either as a “plus-up” or “drawdown,” have had and will have no impact on the reality on the ground.
Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or do both. Perhaps my dad put it best: “We laugh to hide the tears.”
Update (12/17): Speaking of laughing to hide the tears, the Pentagon has responded to the systematic lying revealed by the so-called Afghan Papers. It won’t surprise you the response consists of three artless dodges:
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:
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I look afresh at the many reasons why America’s wars persist — and why the “war train” is soundin’ ever louder across America and indeed much of the world.
Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire article at TomDispatch.
Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?
If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.
War, Its Uses (and Abuses)
A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.
As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.
And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.
In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”
What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:
The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.
All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.
This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come. This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.
Thomas Paine would not have been happy. Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.
“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”
Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”
Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!
Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it. Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom? Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?
Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home. Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:
“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”
Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?
But Paine wasn’t finished. He made a dire prediction:
“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”
No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars. Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.
In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?
End the wars, America. Bring our troops home. And restore freedom to our land.
(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)
Last night witnessed another scrum among the top twelve Democratic challengers. It wasn’t really a debate since each candidate only had a minute or two to respond to questions. I’ve seen headlines describing the debate as “the moderates versus the progressives,” with the usual scorecards about which candidates “won” and “lost,” but I don’t think any candidate “won.” And it was the American people who clearly lost.
First, what was missing. There was no serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy, of America’s military-industrial complex and colossal “defense” budgets, or of climate change. The situation in Syria was discussed in the context of President Trump’s alleged betrayal of the Kurds, but that was all. There was no discussion about nuclear weapons and their proliferation (and America’s decision to “modernize” our arsenal at a cost of at least a trillion dollars). There was no discussion of America’s overseas empire of 800 military bases. There was no serious discussion about ending the Afghan War, or the enormous cost of America’s wars since 9/11.
So, what was discussed? Trump’s impeachment, of course. Medicare for all versus “choice.” A woman’s right to control her own body (obviously a very important subject). How and whether to change the Supreme Court. Taxes. Guns. Tech monopolies. Opioid abuse and holding drug companies responsible for the same. Even Ellen’s friendship with George W. Bush.
CNN and the New York Times sponsored the debate, hence they controlled the questions. The initial goal seemed to be to get Elizabeth Warren to admit she’d have to raise taxes to pay for her Medicare plan. She largely ducked the issue, insisting the rich and corporations would pay for it. Another question raised the specter of Bernie Sanders’s health after his recent heart attack, and also of Joe Biden’s age, i.e. that if he’s elected, he’ll turn 80 while he’s in office. It was that kind of “debate.”
Speaking of Joe Biden, he didn’t perform well in this debate. He often misspoke and his answers drifted off course. I can see why the smart money is gravitating toward Elizabeth Warren.
Another person who suffered from the debate format was Tulsi Gabbard. Few questions were directed her way, and she was often ignored or cut off as she tried to speak. Her attempt to challenge Elizabeth Warren on her qualifications to be commander-in-chief went unanswered as CNN cut to commercials. Nice try, Tulsi, but CNN was having none of that.
With respect to Trump and Syria, only Tulsi Gabbard attempted to explain the long history of U.S. involvement in the area, which was, in essence, a regime-change war directed against Bashar al-Assad. (Recall that President Obama in 2015 said that Assad had to go.) But again CNN was having none of that, and Tulsi’s point was left hanging as other candidates babbled about not serving the agenda of Vladimir Putin.
And there you have it: yet another debate from which the American empire and the military-industrial complex emerged as the clear victors.
The current brouhaha in the U.S. Senate (and the larger neocon community) over President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria is a repeat performance of the passion play that the same actors performed earlier this year when Trump first announced his intention to make good on his campaign promise to get our country out of its endless wars. In the leading role for the neocons last time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a speech on the Senate floor on January 19, 2019 excoriating Trump for doing what he told the electorate he would do if he was elected president.
Having been an interloper in our country’s national security state, I know how things work in Washington and the tactics the pro-war political establishment uses to sell the public on its interventionist foreign policy and endless wars. I wrote a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) on this subject based on my personal experiences.
As this drama plays out again, I’ve excerpted passages from my book that reveal the modus operandi the neocons used last time for overruling President Trump in determining U.S. military policy. My critique of Senator McConnell’s speech is as pertinent now in exposing the fallacious thinking underlying the neocons’ current “stay forever” battle cry for Syria as it was in the brawl Trump lost to the neocons earlier this year when he wanted to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan after 18 years. Let’s hope the president learned from that defeat.
It’s now “game on” in round two of this battle. The same players are back. Senator McConnell is even using the word “precipitous” again. Get your popcorn out and let’s see who wins this round in this heavyweight bout.
We’ve already seen [earlier in my book] how the national security state sandbagged a Democrat president in his role as Commander-in-Chief in the conduct of the Afghan war. Let’s now see how Washington elites are trying to sandbag a Republican president in his attempt to end this 18-year long war – despite President Trump’s vow in his presidential campaign and strong public support in the polls for getting all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
The neocon foreign policy establishment used three of its most prominent members to maintain their control over national security matters: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; President of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Richard Haass; and James Dobbins, Senior Fellow at the Rand Corporation. Mr. Dobbins was the lead author of the 15-page Rand Report dated January 7, 2019, Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Take note of the word “precipitous” in this title.)
For those who don’t recognize the name, Rand Corporation is a charter member of the national security state insiders’ club. Military history buffs might recall Rand wrote the Pentagon Papers for the DoD in the late 1960s. They were the War State’s obvious go-to think-tank for this important assignment on Afghan war policy.
First, let’s see what Senator McConnell had to say about President Trump’s decision to start pulling U.S troops out of Afghanistan and Syria. Below are remarks Senator McConnell made on the Senate floor on January 31, 2019.
“Simply put, while it is tempting to retreat to the comfort and security of our own shores, there is still a great deal of work to be done,” McConnell said. “And we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities.”
The United States is not the “world’s policeman,” it is the “leader of the free world” and must continue to lead a global coalition against terrorism and stand by allies engaged in the fight. He also stressed the importance of coordination between the White House and Congress to “develop long-term strategies in both nations, including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”
“My amendment would acknowledge the plain fact that al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their affiliates in Syria and Afghanistan continue to pose a serious threat to our nation.” McConnell said his amendment “would recognize the danger of a precipitous withdrawal from either conflict and highlights the need for diplomatic engagement and political solutions to the underlying conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan.”
Notice the word “precipitous” in the Leader’s remarks. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the title of the Rand Report is Consequences of a Precipitous U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan? Obviously, Mitch got the memo from neocon headquarters.
He even got in the “we’re not the world’s policeman” line. In Washington-speak, this is called “a non-denial denial.” It translates to: “I’m really doing what I say I am not doing, but I can’t admit it, or you would catch on to how duplicitous I am.” I’ve hung around with Washington swamp creatures too long to know that this professed denial is really an affirmation.
The line “we know that left untended these conflicts will reverberate in our own cities” is also classic neocon-speak. It’s meant to scare the public. But what it really does is reveal the flawed logic in their interventionist foreign policy doctrine. The U.S. builds military bases around the world, starts wars, deposes governments, and occupies other countries – this is the interventionist foreign policy Senator McConnell champions as the head neocon in the U.S. Senate. But the local nationals affected by this U.S. militarism don’t like a foreign power meddling in their part of the world, changing their governments, and interfering with their way of life. (Who would?)
The obvious way to avoid blowback “in our cities” is for the U.S. to stop intervening in centuries-old ethnic, religious and territorial disputes in other parts of the world. Not realizing this cause and effect (or simply ignoring it), Senator McConnell’s solution is to “stay the course.” In neocon-speak, this means sending in more troops, intensifying bombing, and increasing extrajudicial drone killings. These actions only worsen the conflicts, causing the U.S. to sink deeper into quagmires.
Predictably, Senator McConnell’s amendment passed the Senate on a 63-28 non-binding vote, proving that bipartisanship isn’t dead in Washington when it comes to authorizing endless wars. This vote just shows how out of touch our elected officials are with the electorate as well as the power of the pro-military and pro-war lobby in Washington.
The other character on the neocon’s tag-team to undercut the President on his Afghan exit plan is Richard Haass, CFR President. Mr. Haass was a senior State Department official in the first term of the Bush administration when the Iraq war began. He’s one of several media savvy spokespersons for the national security state who apparently was charged with getting the word out on the Rand Report and endorsing its conclusion.
On the day after the report came out, Mr. Haass tweeted to his 150,000 followers:
“This report has it right: winning is not an option in Afghanistan (nor is peace) but losing (and renewed terrorism) is if we pull out U.S. forces any time soon. We should stay with smaller numbers and reduced level of activity.” Twitter, January 18, 2019.
In sum, even though there’s no chance of winning, America needs to keep fighting. How do they sell this nonsense?
This was a three-step process. First, the “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” doctrine was composed by Mr. Dobbins in the Rand Report. It was next preached by CFR President Haass. And finally, it was ordained by Senate Majority Leader McConnell in his speech on the Senate floor with the hallelujah chorus being the 63 “yes” votes for his resolution.
Picking up the trio’s “let’s stay in Afghanistan forever” cue, guest op-eds and editorial board columns appeared in the usual pro-War State newspapers advocating the neocon position. Media talking heads – as semiofficial spokespersons for the Washington national security state – echoed the neocons’ talking points on this issue.
This modius operandi for keeping the national security state in charge of foreign and military policy – and its untouchable $1-trillion-plus/year War State budget– has been going on since the Kennedy presidency. Michael Swanson documents how this takeover evolved in his book War State. Most times, the story being sold (e.g., keep U.S. troops in Syria; stay in NATO after it became obsolete; continue the DoD’s $300-billion unworkable missile-defense program) is a front for the national security state’s real objectives (e.g., maintain U.S. influence in the Middle East to keep Israel’s supporters happy; keep the Cold War alive with Russia as an adversary; and fund make-work projects for defense contractors).
This duplicity is how business is done in Washington. It’s an insiders’ game where what’s good for the American people and U.S. national security is, at best, a secondary consideration. Among the Washington ruling class, what counts most is retaining power by keeping big donors happy. And if that means endless wars, so be it.
Mr. Enzweiler, who served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, has lived and worked extensively in the Middle East, serving seven years (2007-2014) as a field-level civilian advisor for the US government in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now retired, he has written a book (When Will We Ever Learn?) that critiques US foreign and military policy.
As the Trump administration prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to serve the needs of Saudi Arabia, I got to thinking about America’s forever wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Back on August 17th, I clipped an article from the New York Times entitled “Debate Flares Over Afghanistan as Trump Considers Troop Withdrawal.” I noted the usual “arguments” presented by U.S. military leaders and chickenhawks of both parties. That withdrawals would constitute a “retreat” that would be “premature” and “reckless.” That U.S. troops had to remain to counter “an enduring terrorist threat.” That the Taliban enemy had perfected “weasel language” that would allow them to win any peace treaty. Making his usual appearance was General (retired) David Petraeus, who warned ominously that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan “would be even more ill-advised and risky than the Obama administration’s disengagement from Iraq.” Petraeus, of course, has argued for a generational commitment to Afghanistan that could last as long as seventy years.
A few points to make here:
1. A U.S. withdrawal wouldn’t be “premature.” Rather, it’s at least seventeen years overdue.
2. Terrorist threats are nothing new (I was reading about them on active duty in 1985). Moreover, they are often fed by the presence of U.S. troops and bases as well as by “kinetic” actions, i.e. killing people, especially innocent civilians.
3. It’s funny that the Taliban can’t be trusted for its “weasel” language, whereas Americans always negotiate in good faith.
4. Why is Petraeus, a man who disgraced himself by illegally sharing classified information with his mistress, always the go-to guy for advice on any military situation?
Speaking of “premature withdrawals,” Tom Engelhardt noted how these same “arguments” were used to support the Iraq War in 2010. The war song always remains the same: any military withdrawal is “premature” without total U.S. victory (whatever that may mean).
I swear if the U.S. military had had its way, U.S. forces would still be in Vietnam, and generals would still be arguing that withdrawal from Southeast Asia is “premature.”
In 2016, then-Candidate Trump deplored America’s dumb and costly wars, yet as President he now embraces the same tired tactics of the generals and their neo-con enablers. All these men have a great fear of premature withdrawal — are they confusing it with premature ejaculation?
Even as America’s leaders boast about having the world’s greatest and most powerful military, their actions betray fears of defeat, of a lack of potency, and a concern they’re being played (i.e. those “weasel” words). And indeed they are losing, they are showcasing their own impotence, they are being played, as long as these disastrous wars persist.
I recently read an article on Rocky Bleier’s return to Vietnam, the subject of a documentary on ESPN.
Rocky Bleier played on the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the 1970s, when the Steelers were at their finest. Before that, he was drafted into the Army and was wounded in combat in Vietnam. Doctors thought he’d never play football again, but Bleier proved them wrong, helping the Steelers to win four Super Bowls.
Bleier’s return to Vietnam was emotional and revealing, but in a way that is one-sided, privileging the American experience of that war. Franco Harris, another famous football player, puts it succinctly: “It’s a tragedy, I wish the war [Vietnam] had never happened.” But was America’s war in Vietnam simply a tragedy? Or was it more of a crime? What was America after in Vietnam? And at what cost to the peoples of Southeast Asia?
As Bleier puts it, “All of a sudden I had an overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness. Why did we fight this war? Why did we lose 58,000 soldiers and in all honesty for what? Maybe for first time I can understand on a slight basis the impact that our soldiers go through and maybe just a little what post-traumatic stress might be and how the body reacts to all the emotions.”
Those are important words. But what about the millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed in that war? What about their war burdens? What about the suffering that is still ongoing in Southeast Asia today due to chemical defoliants, unexploded ordnance, land mines, and the like?
In this article on Rocky Bleier, the Vietnamese people make an appearance, but nothing is said of their suffering. Instead, they are presented as entirely pro-American:
“Everyone we met [in Vietnam] was pro American. There is a whole generation that the war is for the history books and not an experience they were a part of. The viewpoint has changed,” Bleier said.
The “viewpoint” that’s changed isn’t specified, but I assume Bleier is saying the Vietnamese used to be anti-American (I wonder why?), but are now pro-American in spite of the enormous devastation America inflicted on Vietnam.
Again, it’s good to see a prominent American sports figure talk about the tragedy of Vietnam and the pointlessness of that war. But, as with many other documentaries about Vietnam, including the Ken Burns series in 2017, it’s always all about us, and the tragedy is almost exclusively presented as an American one.
That bias may be predictable, but it’s no less pernicious for being so.
Update: Here’s the short version of the ESPN documentary. It features one Vietnamese soldier who fought for the Americans; he is allowed a statement about the general waste and horror of war. No other Vietnamese are shown, and no other opinions are solicited.