Winning the Afghan War — In Hollywood

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W.J. Astore

A new movie, “!2 Strong,” is opening on January 19th.  I’ve been seeing a lot of trailers for it while watching the NFL playoffs.  It’s being advertised as America’s first victory in the “war on terror.”  Based on a popular book, “Horse Soldiers,” it features American special operations troops charging into battle on horseback.  The synopsis of the movie (at Fandango) describes it as follows:

“12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when a U.S. Special Forces team, led by their new Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission. There, in the rugged mountains, they must convince Northern Alliance General Dostum (Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. In addition to overcoming mutual distrust and a vast cultural divide, the Americans—accustomed to state-of-the-art warfare—must adopt the rudimentary tactics of the Afghani (sic) horse soldiers. But despite their uneasy bond, the new allies face overwhelming odds: outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy that does not take prisoners.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that, despite those “overwhelming odds” and being “outnumbered and outgunned by a ruthless enemy,” U.S. troops prevail.

Watching the trailers on TV is a surreal experience.  You get the impression the U.S. cavalry sounded the charge and won the Afghan war in 2001.  You’d never know U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan in 2018, facing a “stalemate” and a resurgent Taliban that controls vast swaths of territory, and that U.S. forces face a “generational” slog to an endpoint where victory is indeed ill-defined.

Even though America is treading water in the Afghan war, Hollywood has cherry-picked an episode from the early days of that war, in the tradition of a John Wayne movie (like “The Horse Soldiers“).

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The Wild West has been reset to Afghanistan with U.S. troops as the new sheriff in town, with the Taliban serving as the “savages” in the old Western tradition.

It’s the U.S. cavalry to the rescue, in the wild Afghan mountains.  Yet highlighting this one episode in America’s quagmire war in Afghanistan is more than misleading.  It’s as if the Japanese made a film about World War II that began and ended with Pearl Harbor.

Remember when Candidate Trump boasted that, when he became president, Americans would win so much, we’d get bored with winning?  “Believe me,” he said.

Maybe this is believable … at the movies.

The Most Important Country the U.S. Military Has Conquered

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Yes, the U.S. military is involved throughout the world.  But even smart maps like this one neglect the one country truly conquered by that military: the USA

W.J. Astore

When the U.S. military boasts of “global reach, global power,” it’s not kidding.  As Nick Turse notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, that military’s Special Operations forces deployed in one way or another to 149 countries in 2017, roughly 75% of countries on the globe.  Talk about reach!  Meanwhile, those forces have more than doubled since 2001, sitting at 70,000 effectives today, the equivalent to five divisions.  (Consider it a military within the military.)  All of this has come at tremendous cost, with this year’s defense budget sitting at $700 billion–and rising for the foreseeable future.

For all the bucks, what about the bang–what about results?  Let’s just say that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Niger, and other U.S. military interventions haven’t gone well.

Yet there is one country where the U.S. military truly rules; one country which the U.S. military has truly conquered.  Where and which?  The USA, of course.  No matter its losses and frustrations overseas, the U.S. military keeps winning more money and influence here at home.  Congress loves it, presidents love it, our culture (mostly) loves it, or at least is urged to “support” it irrespective of results.

It’s not just the trillions of dollars it’s consumed since 9/11 or the extent to which retired generals rule the roost in Washington.  Think about popular culture: our sports, our toys, our TV and movies.  Kids dress up as soldiers on Halloween.  Toys are of the “Call of Duty” variety.  In TV shows like “SEAL Team,” Special Forces are all the rage.  Hollywood has embraced them too, in movies like “Act of Valor” and the upcoming “12 Strong,” about a small team of American “horse soldiers” in Afghanistan soon after 9/11, riding to the rescue like so many John Waynes.

And one more item, a vitally important one, to consider: there is no talk of peace, anytime, anywhere, in the mainstream media, hence no talk of declining military budgets.

The military has conquered us.  Indeed, global military action is a rare area of bipartisan accord in Washington, whether the commander-in-chief is Bush or Obama or Trump.

So, while it’s true the U.S. military is in an astonishing 149 countries, the one that really matters is the USA.  It may lose in Afghanistan or Somalia, but it has won here — and that’s all that really matters to the further growth and vitality of America’s national security state.