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.
The Afghan Papers have revealed widespread, systemic, and enduring lying about the course and progress of the Afghan War by U.S. military and civilian leaders. So, what’s the punishment for all this lying? Record-setting Pentagon budgets! The more they lie, the more money they get. Is it any wonder why these wars persist, without apparent end, when no one is punished for lies that lead to the death of American troops (not forgetting all the foreign innocents who are killed and wounded because of these lies)?
This may seem hard to believe, but “Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the U.S. Air Force. But what happens when the system is revealed to have no integrity? When the system sends young Americans to die in a lost war, a war that our most senior leaders have lied about since almost the very beginning?
I know we’re all jaded and cynical, but this is a monstrous failure, a horrendous betrayal of trust.
The entire military leadership at the top should be gutted. Anyone implicated in these lies, distortions, etc. should be cashiered. That’s what a real president and commander-in-chief would do. Heads should roll!
But the Pentagon prefers to obfuscate and pretend that the Afghan Papers are old news, and pretty much meaningless at that. Meanwhile, fake tough guy Trump (along with the Congress) kowtows to the Pentagon, giving the generals everything they want as next year’s Pentagon budget soars to $738 billion, including money for a “Space Force,” among many other boondoggles.
Endless self-serving lies rewarded by scads of money — small wonder that America’s wars persist without end.
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:
A few weeks ago, a reader asked me a fair question: Why do I continue to watch football, given my comments on violence in the sport and the militarization of the game, including camouflage uniforms (even for coaches and cheerleaders!). I could have hedged and said I don’t watch much football. I don’t watch college games, and the only NFL game I regularly watch features my home team. In short, I watch about three hours a week, and a little more during the playoffs. Nevertheless, I still watch, so why do I do it?
I wrote back and identified four reasons: Because I’ve watched football since I was a kid (habit) and I enjoy the sport. Because I put my mind in neutral during the game and just enjoy the action (a form of denial, I suppose). Because, like so many Americans, I get caught up in the spectacle of it all, its ritualistic nature. Because it’s often unpredictable and real in a way that “reality” shows are not.
After sending that answer along, another reader noted how my reasons could be made to serve as partial justification for supporting America’s wars, and to be honest the thought had occurred to me before I sent my answer. So, you could say I’ve watched wars since I was a kid and on some level “enjoyed” them (the action, the drama, the spectacle of it all, the way things are “played for keeps”). Perhaps I put my mind in neutral as well (TV trance) while enjoying the “reality” and rooting for the home team (America!). Sports and war are connected in complex ways, and I’m only scratching the surface here.
I’d like to add two more reasons why I watch football. I enjoy rooting for “my” team, and when they win, I’m pleased. When they don’t, I’m bummed. I get over it quickly (after all, it’s just a game, right?), but on some level the games have meaning to me. I identify with “my” team, simple as that.
One more reason: nostalgia. These games recall a simpler time, when we threw a ball around with friends or our dad, then quit for the day to watch a game and scream and shout at the stadium or in our living rooms. (Such nostalgia is not unknown among combat veterans, who look back on war with mixed feelings of horror but also of love, or at least attraction in the sense of a powerful camaraderie and sense of belonging shared by those who were there. It’s one reason for war’s peculiar attraction and perhaps its endurance as well.)
What say you, readers? Do you watch football and, if so, why?
Another reason for the persistence of America’s wars is captured in a speech by Chief Dan George in the movie, “Little Big Man.” We have little sense of the sanctity of life, and we treat nature like our personal trash can. As Chief Dan George says, “If things keep trying to live, White Man will rub them out.” We need a much more enlightened approach to nature — and to ourselves — but we seem content instead to become purveyors of violence even as we play down or even deny the reality of death from our weapons and wars.
Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America
Americans tend to fear death. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet death is inevitable. Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now. It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.
All is vanity, the Bible teaches. Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow. There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity. Riches that give deeper meaning to life.
Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture. We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face…