More Afghan War Lies

Like much of Biden’s face, America’s Afghan War is kept hidden behind a dark mask (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

President Biden has announced that all U.S. military combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021. That date was chosen deliberately and cynically. Recall that 15 of the 19 terrorist hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi. Recall that Osama bin Laden was Saudi. Recall that it was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban in Afghanistan, that was behind the 9/11 attacks on America. Yet America’s Afghan War has always been falsely advertised as both preemptive and preventative, i.e. America went to war to preempt another 9/11-style attack and has continued that war to prevent similar attacks coming from Afghanistan. It’s a false narrative that has largely worked to sustain the Afghan War for twenty years, and Biden is reinforcing it.

Another critical issue: What does it really mean when Biden says those combat troops will be withdrawn? What it doesn’t mean is that the war will end. Doubtless the CIA and similar intelligence operatives will remain behind, shrouded in secrecy. Doubtless some special forces units will stay. Doubtless private contractors, many of them ex-military, will stay. Doubtless America will reserve the “right” to continue to bomb Afghanistan and to conduct drone strikes from halfway across the world, ostensibly in support of the Afghan “national” government in Kabul. So is the war really ending?

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is getting what it wants: a boosted budget (even above what Trump requested) and a future defined by plans for war with China and Russia (and perhaps Iran as well). I’ve seen plenty of articles screaming that China is building a powerful navy, that China is building dangerous missiles, that China is building advanced fighter jets, and so on, which is exactly what the Pentagon wants: a “near-peer” rival to justify even more military spending, especially for big-ticket items like aircraft carriers, fighters, bombers, missile defense systems, and so on.

Biden’s linking of the failed Afghan War to 9/11 and its forthcoming 20th anniversary is yet another exercise in pernicious lying by America’s vast national security state. Once again, we’re reminded that the first casualty in war is truth. And perhaps the last casualty of the Afghan War (whenever it really ends, at least for America) will also be truth.

$6 Trillion Down the Drain

W.J. Astore

America recently marked the 18th anniversary of the Iraq War by basically ignoring it. The 20th anniversary of the Afghan War approaches, and it appears we’ll get there since President Biden is saying U.S. forces can’t leave until this November at the earliest. Apparently, our withdrawal of troops must be “responsible” and based on ever-changing benchmarks. Leaving aside the harrowing human cost, these calamitous wars have cost the American taxpayer at least $6 trillion, yet they go on and on.

One person who’s learned a lot from these wars is Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who runs the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In his latest article for TomDispatch.com, Bacevich had this to say about America’s seemingly unending pursuit of peace through war:

The longest war in U.S. history [the Afghan War] should by now have led Americans to reflect on the consequences that stem from succumbing to imperial temptations in a world where empire has long since become obsolete. Some might insist that present-day Americans have imbibed that lesson. In Washington, hawks appear chastened, with few calling for President Biden to dispatch U.S. troops to Yemen or Myanmar or even Venezuela, our oil-rich “neighbor,” to put things right. For now, the nation’s appetite for military intervention abroad appears to be sated.

But mark me down as skeptical. Only when Americans openly acknowledge their imperial transgressions will genuine repentance become possible. And only with repentance will avoiding further occasions to sin become a habit. In other words, only when Americans call imperialism by its name will vows of “never again” deserve to be taken seriously.

Bacevich is right to be skeptical. The prevailing narrative in the USA still rejects the notion of imperial wars. America’s wars are always sold as defensive. Put simply, we allegedly fight “them” over there so we won’t have to fight them over here. The Afghan War is still being sold as preventing terrorist attacks on America. The Iraq War was sold as preventing Saddam Hussein from using his non-existent weapons of mass destruction against us. In short, Americans are routinely sold a false bill of goods, and the price tag attached, $6 trillion and rising, again leaving aside the human cost, is truly prodigal to behold.

I urge you to read all of Bacevich’s article here. And I urge all Americans to think about our leaders’ imperial ambitions and their horrendous costs. Like the Romans, we are too fond of creating deserts with our weaponry and calling it “peace.” We can and must open our eyes and do better.

War is not pretty, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Anywhere

Gavin Versus Ricks: Why the U.S. Military Keeps Flailing and Failing

By Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II?  A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era.  But is it that simple?  Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others?  Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support.  White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with.  So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives?  And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war?  Read on!  W.J. Astore

A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War 

Daniel N. White 

Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause.  Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield.  Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at.  Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause.  According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us. 

Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect.  America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime.  Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II.  The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon. 

Consider World War I, for example.  The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield.  Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.   

Consider the Korean War as well.  The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again.  Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea.  Ricks doesn’t. 

The Retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea

Now let’s consider the Vietnam War.  The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause.  The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice.  Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions?  Ricks doesn’t say. 

A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978).  Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions.  The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds.  The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces. 

These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance.  Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour.  They come back to the more secure positions.  They put up a wonderful show.”  Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.” 

Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions.  In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm.  The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command.   Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258: 

      Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat.  I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers.  And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is.  It is not a personal matter.  It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army.  In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did.  We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored.  In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle.  He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King. 

There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace.  In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did.  Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them.  His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it.  Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command.  Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work.  It must be changed.  The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals.  Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.  We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.   

And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause.  The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.*  SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.

 

General Curtis LeMay, on a Navy ship, ready to observe a nuclear bomb test

SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot.  Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:  

Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were.  What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s.  Guys at wing level were scared people.  They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good. 

The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374: 

When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature.  He made them cringe and hide the truth.  He made them say,  

’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves.  They damned near destroyed the air force in the process (emphasis  mine)** 

Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders.  The choice is yours.  I’m with Gavin and Olds. 

Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here.  Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general.  A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of.  That’s simply the nature of fandom.  Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either. 

The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase.  Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military.  Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception. 

There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented.  Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.  

A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized.   An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons.  Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage.  Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history.  But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***    

Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans.  His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent.  This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.     

The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge.  America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies.  What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission,  and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it.  I defy anyone else to, either. 

The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts.  Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now. 

Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front.  Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail.  They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home).  This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.  

Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom.  Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons.  The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend. 

Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here.  The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot.  Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field.  It is all most discouraging. 

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.     

*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft.  The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes.  The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to.  LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent.  You are relieved.” 

**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days.  It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some.  There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures.  But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get.  And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead.  Most already are. 

***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco.  A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.

Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Today, I’d like to revive an article I wrote in July of 2010 about America’s folly in continuing its war in Afghanistan. Here we are, a decade later, and the Biden administration is contemplating continuing that war. Stupidity is obviously unbounded.

Anyway, as Julian Assange rots in prison for the crime of doing journalism, it behooves us to recall that WikiLeaks provided convincing evidence of America’s Afghan folly. Obviously, Assange the messenger must be shot, or at least punished severely for daring to air America’s dirty laundry.

Here’s my post from 2010. Does it make any sense in any universe to keep this going?

What WikiLeaks Reveals: We’re Playing the Fool in Afghanistan

07/27/2010

Perhaps the most predictable, as well as the most maddening, headline to emerge from the latest WikiLeaks controversy is this one from the Washington Post: “WikiLeaks Disclosures Unlikely to Change Course of Afghanistan War.”

Doubtless this “stay the course” approach will be spun as a sign of American resolve and tenacity. Of course, it was Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Naturally, there’ll be some who’ll say that Obama and General Petraeus have new cards up their sleeves, so perhaps they’re not “insane.” But they (and we) sure are looking more and more like fools.

Partly this is because President Obama and his advisors are still looking at Afghanistan as a problem to be solved, a war to be won, a situation to be handled. Or they see it as a high-stakes poker match, a deadly game of raises and bluffs, of gambling at long odds, but a match we can ultimately win as long as we keep playing and pumping in more chips.

But what if Afghanistan is none of these? What if we’re playing the fool?

Recall how proud we were, in the 1980s, at providing arms and aid to the Afghan “freedom fighters” who were then fighting the Soviets. It was the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam, we said, the final nail in the coffin of Soviet communism, and we congratulated ourselves on our own cleverness.

Fast forward two decades, and now we’re the ones bogged down in Afghanistan, yet we still think we can “surge” or escalate or otherwise rescue a faltering and untenable war effort.

Faltering? Untenable? Few people will dispute the following facts, many of which are now further supported by the WikiLeaks documents:

1. We’ve already spent $300 billion on our war in Afghanistan with very little to show for it.

2. Year after year, we’ve been training the Afghan National Army and police, with very little to show for it.

3. We’ve almost completely eliminated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the immediate cause of our intervention in 2001, yet we continue to send more troops and more money there.

4. We’ve allied ourselves with a corrupt government and leaders who are enriching themselves at our expense.

5. We pay bribes to protect our convoys, and some of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban.

6. We’re working with a regional ally, Pakistan, whose interests are often contrary to our own, and yet whose allegiance we attempt to buy with more military aid.

7. In trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, we’ve largely looked the other way with respect to the opium and heroin trade. The result? A drug-based Afghan economy.

8. In fighting an American-style war, we’ve relied on massive firepower, often from the air, that inevitably results in civilian casualties that undermine our counterinsurgency efforts.

9. At a time when we’re still trying to create jobs and pull ourselves out of a Great Recession, we continue to dedicate tens of billions of dollars to a seemingly endless war, with Congress currently preparing to approve yet another $33.5 billion for Afghanistan.

10. While largely ignoring civilian casualties in Afghanistan, we also downplay the cost of constant warfare to our troops, not just those who are killed or wounded in action (horrible as that price is), but to those who are brutalized by war, those whose families are destroyed or damaged by constant deployments, by domestic violence, and by suicides. Yet we reassure ourselves this price is bearable since our troops are “all volunteers.”

These are hard facts, and the WikiLeaks evidence has only made them harder. Only a fool refuses to face facts, and hardheaded Americans are not fools.

Or are we?

Yet Another Wartime President

Enjoy America’s De-escalatory Bombs!

W.J. Astore

Who was the last U.S. president with a reputation for peace?

By bombing Syria this week, Joe Biden has become yet another “wartime” president. Apparently Iranian-backed militias from Iraq operating inside Syria were the intended target of the bombs. Perhaps as many as 22 “militants” were killed in these attacks. Using language that would make Big Brother blush, the Biden administration claimed the attacks aimed “to de-escalate the overall situation in both Eastern Syria and Iraq.”

I’ve heard of precision bombing, but this is the first time I’ve heard of de-escalatory bombing. Naturally, Congress wasn’t consulted.

Along with this provocative and needless act of aggression, the Biden administration is currently weighing its options in Afghanistan. Three options seem to be on the table: withdrawing all U.S. troops and ending the war; prolonging the war indefinitely; and continued “negotiations” with modest increases of those troops. The last option is considered the sober sensible one by Beltway sages. Complete withdrawal after twenty years of turmoil and death is predictably seen as too risky, whereas a wholehearted commitment to generational war in Afghanistan, a la General Petraeus, is seen as politically unpopular, even if the end result of the sober sensible option is exactly that: more war fought in the (false) name of (eventual) peace.

So, under Joe Biden, we have bombing for de-escalation and more war for peace. Again, Biden deserves praise when he promised that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

If Only Americans Followed Wars Like Sports

Score! Bobby Orr! One of my bedroom wall posters

W.J. Astore

I’m a big sports fan. I grew up in the Boston area and loved my local teams. When I was a kid, I had two big posters of Bobby Orr, the famed defenseman of the Boston Bruins, on my wall. I had a Boston Red Sox uniform. When I threw a baseball around, I imagined I was Luis Tiant, the mercurial and entertaining pitcher for the Red Sox, or Dwight Evans, the team’s rocket-armed right fielder. I collected baseball cards and studied the stats on the back for hours on end.

But I was also a kid who kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I was ten years old yet I was attracted to war and its nitty-gritty details as much as I was to the sporting world. Who knows why. Temperament, I suppose. As I grew older, I built lots of military models and read more and more books about the military even as I kept an interest in sports (more as a fan than a participant, since my talent level was modest at best).

This was on my mind this AM as I read a detailed article on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, whose stellar career was cut short by injuries. The article focused on whether Pedroia deserved election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.* Highly detailed, well written, and showing an estimable command of statistics, the article impressed me even as it got me to thinking. What if Americans examined wars like they studied sports? What if Afghanistan was covered with the same detail as the forthcoming NFL draft? What if there was a channel like ESPN devoted to wars 24/7 rather than to sports? And what if the reporting was objective and honest?

You can’t fool a sophisticated sports fan with a bunch of home-team boosterism that’s disconnected from the facts on the ground (or on the baseball diamond, the football field, the ice hockey rink, etc.). Why are so many people so easily fooled about the need to continue the Afghan War, which is now in its 20th year and where the U.S.-led coalition is losing more than ever?

If the Afghan War were a U.S. sports team, it would be a team that spent more money than any other team even as it lost more games, cycling through a new losing coach every year and an unmemorable cast of players that changed each season. Despite the hiring of much-hyped “coaches” like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, despite promises of pennant-winning “surges” by team presidents like Barack Obama, our imaginary Afghan War sports team was and remains a cellar dweller, forever mired in last place.

What red-blooded American sports fan would tolerate more of the same from such a loser team? What fan would keep cheering for such a team? What fan would say, “let’s stay the course,” even as more and more losses piled up?

Consider this article from yesterday’s New York Times:

*****

The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink

The Taliban have positioned themselves around several major population centers, including the capital of Kandahar Province, as the Biden administration weighs whether to withdraw or to stay.

*****

What should Team Biden do? “To stay” is to stay on the same losing course we’ve been on for 20 years. “To withdraw” is a new course that has the virtue of ending the bleeding (at least for the U.S.). Which action would you choose?

Any sports fan worth his or her salt would know the answer here. Call withdrawal a “rebuilding” year and most sports fans would accept it. It’s a far better choice than staying and losing with the same old tactics and cast of characters.

Just about every American sports fan has heard the saying: Winning isn’t everything–it’s the only thing. Well, we’re not winning in Afghanistan and we never will. So the only smart thing left to do is to leave.

*Pedroia gets my vote for the Hall of Fame. It’s not simply about stats. Pedey was a winner, a leader, a gutsy overachiever who played the game the right way. Rookie of the year, MVP, World Series winner, he gave it his all on every play. Sometimes, the so-called intangibles matter.

Telling War Stories

There I wasn’t: The Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, August 2009 (Wikipedia)

W.J. Astore

Combat myths matter to more than just military members. So do their ramifications.

I don’t have any personal war stories to tell.  In my twenty years in the U.S. Air Force, I never saw combat.  I started as a developmental engineer, working mainly on computer software, and morphed into a historian of science and technology who taught for six years at the USAF Academy.  I worked on software projects that helped pilots plan their missions and helped the world to keep track of objects in Earth orbit.  I taught military cadets who did see combat and served as the dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where I saw plenty of young troops cross the graduation stage with language skills in Arabic and Pashto and other languages as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  But no combat for me.

I got lucky.  As one friend, an Army colonel, told me: any day you’re not being shot at is a good day in the Army.  The result, however, is that I can’t tell exciting war stories that begin: “There I was” in Baghdad, or Kandahar, or Fallujah, or the Korengal Valley.

But I was involved in computer simulations (“war games”) at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado near the end of the Cold War.  The one I remember most vividly ended with a Soviet nuclear missile strike on the United States.  As I watched the (simulated) missile tracks emerge from Soviet territory, cross the Arctic circle, and terminate in American cities, I had a momentary glimpse of nuclear terror.  What if I ‘d just witnessed the death of millions of Americans on a monochrome computer screen?  That’s a “war story” that’s stayed with me, and so I’m a firm supporter of eliminating all nuclear weapons everywhere.

That’s my “there I sorta was” story.  Yet, whether you’ve served in the military or not, all Americans tell themselves war stories, or rather stories about America’s wars.  The basic story most tell themselves goes something like this:

America is a good and decent country, our troops are heroes, that we wage wars reluctantly and for noble causes, and that our wars are almost exclusively defensive or preventive.  We tell ourselves we don’t want to be bombing and killing in Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere, but we have to be.  Bad people are doing bad things, and we need to fight them over there else we’ll have to fight them right here.

Yet what if the stories we tell ourselves are all wrong?  What if we are the bad people, or at least the ones doing much of the bad things?  And, even if those stories aren’t always wrong and we aren’t always bad, what are the costs of permanent war – all those “bad things” associated with war – to our democracy, what’s left of it, that is? 

A book I return to is Every Man in this Village is a Liar: An Education in War, by Megan Stack.  Stack was a war correspondent who witnessed the effects of war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  She focuses not on strategy or tactics or weaponry or combat but on the impact of war on people.  And in her chapter on “Terrorism and Other Stories,” she reaches this powerful conclusion:

It matters, what you do at war.  It matters more than you ever want to know.  Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are.  The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again.  They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf… 

We may wish it were not so, but action amounts to identity.  We become what we do.  You can tell yourself all the stories you want, but you can’t leave your actions over there … All of that poison seeps back into our soil.

Nothing has changed since Stack’s book was published a decade ago.  U.S. forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, still fighting that word, terrorism, even as there’s renewed talk within the Pentagon of a new cold war against Russia and China.  A reboot of that Cold War I thought I’d witnessed the end of thirty years ago.  (I even got a certificate signed by President George H.W. Bush thanking me for helping to win that war.) Could it be that real enemy doesn’t reside in Moscow or Beijing, but in us?  As Stack continued:

And it makes us lie to ourselves, precisely because we want to believe that we are good … we Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators.  And we say this word, terrorism, because it has become the best excuse of all.  We push into other lands, we chase the ghosts of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our own hearts and blood is on our hands.

As Americans we need to stop telling ourselves self-serving war stories and start telling much tougher ones about working for peace.  We need to stop telling (and selling) stories about a new cold war and stop “investing” a trillion dollars in new nuclear bombers, missiles, and submarines.  I’ve seen those simulated nuclear missile tracks crossing the pole and ending in American cities; that was scary enough. The real thing would be unimaginably terrifying and would likely end life on our planet.

What mad story can we possibly tell ourselves to justify the continued building of more ecocidal and genocidal weapons?

We humans are great storytellers but we’re not smart ones.  Perhaps it’s the power of our stories that has led us to be the dominant and most destructive species on this planet.  The problem is that we still tell far too many war stories and value them far too highly.  Peace, meanwhile, if mentioned at all, is dismissed as fantasy, a tale to be told to children alongside stories of unicorns and fairies—which, to the first generation of voting age adults never to have known it, it sort of is.

Unless we smarten up and grow as a species, our collective war stories will likely be the death of us.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

On War, Trump Has Largely Been an Appeaser

W.J. Astore

For all his tough-guy posturing and his attempts to pose like Winston Churchill, President Trump has largely been an appeaser to the military-industrial complex and its insatiable appetite for wars and weapons sales.

Trump, frowning (he thinks) like Churchill

Yes, it’s good news that Trump is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, though roughly 2500 troops will remain in each country when Joe Biden takes office in January. In short, Trump isn’t ending these wars; he’s merely reducing the number of boots on the ground. His Acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, described it as a “repositioning of forces from those two countries.”

Repositioning! Perish the thought that the U.S. military might retreat or even withdraw. The answer is to “reposition” those deck chairs on the USS Titanic and its imperial wars, never mind the sinking feeling you may be experiencing.

Meanwhile, Trump recently announced more weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 fighter-bombers and Reaper drones, worth $23 billion to U.S. weapons manufacturers. When it comes to empowering merchants of death, the United States is indeed number one.

Throughout his four years of office, Trump courted the Pentagon and the Complex by throwing money at it. He hired Complex functionaries like General (retired) James Mattis and General H.R. McMaster and Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper to run things for him. The result was predictable: more of the same, such that Trump never kept his campaign promise to end America’s wasteful wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Perhaps this was because Trump didn’t want to be blamed if things went south (as they probably will) if he’d ordered all U.S. troops out of these countries. Trump, like most Americans, hates to be labeled a loser. But what he needed to be reminded of was that these countries were never ours to win to begin with. The answer to “Who lost Afghanistan?” is not the president who finally “repositions” all U.S. troops from that country. The answer is Bush/Cheney, Obama/Biden, Trump/Pence, and, assuming they keep the war going in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), Biden/Harris.

Fighting needless and wasteful wars on the periphery of empire makes sense only to weapons makers and warmongers. Ditto making massive weapons sales, especially to unstable areas. The “Made in America” label used to be seen proudly on everything from clothing and shoes to engines and steel; now it’s affixed mainly to weapons and wars.

Before he took office, Trump promised a new approach, an America First approach, that would end the folly of perpetual wars that cost trillions of dollars. In this he failed. Because when it came to the Pentagon and to weapons makers, Trump chose appeasement rather than confrontation.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.

A Typical Democratic Official on the Pentagon and War

Jeh Johnson with Biden and Obama, 2013 (White House photo)

W.J. Astore

Jeh Johnson, formerly homeland security secretary under President Obama, showed how a typical Democratic official approaches the Pentagon and war as he spoke on ABC’s This Week on Sunday (11/15).  For Johnson, the Pentagon “is typically an island of stability” in the U.S. government, but President Trump was destabilizing that island because of recent changes to Pentagon personnel.  Trump’s changes could be driven by his desire to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, speculated Johnson, which was not a good thing:

“If he [Trump] wants troops out of Afghanistan, as I know most Americans do, we have to do it in a way that makes sense, in an orderly manner, and that comports with battlefield reality … in trying to strike a deal, you don’t unilaterally surrender your greatest point of leverage by unilaterally withdrawing troops before the Afghan government and the Taliban have stuck a deal. So this is very concerning and if I were in the Biden transition team right now, I’d be very focused … on restoring stability in our national security.”

We can’t surrender our “leverage,” those thousands of U.S. troops that remain in harm’s way in an unnecessary war that was won and then lost almost two decades ago, because it’s that “leverage” that will compel the Taliban, who have already won the war, to strike a deal with an Afghan government that exists mainly because the U.S. government props it up.  Makes sense to me.

By the way, only “most Americans” want our troops to come home?  Where are all the other Americans who want them to stay there indefinitely?  Within the Washington Beltway, I’d wager.

The Afghan war has always struck me as nonsensical.  Yes, some kind of response to the 9/11 attacks was needed, and initial U.S. military strikes in 2001-02 succeeded in toppling the Taliban, in the sense they saw no reason to stand and fight against withering fire.  At that moment, the U.S. military should have declared victory and left.  Instead, the Bush/Cheney administration decided on its own disastrous occupation, extended another eight years by Obama/Biden, even though we knew full well the extent of the Soviet disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The Afghan war has lasted so long that I’ve been writing articles against it for more than a decade.  You’d think any sensible and sane Democrat would love to see U.S. troops withdrawn and the war finally come to an end.  Not so.  The war must continue in the name of “leverage” and “stability.”

I like Johnson’s truly absurdist reference to “battlefield reality,” which, if we’re being real for a moment, reflects a Taliban victory.  Unless the U.S. wants to occupy Afghanistan forever, with hundreds of thousands of troops, that victory is not about to be reversed.  And what kind of “victory” would that be? 

“Stability” is not preserved by fighting unwinnable wars on the imperial periphery, unless you’re talking about the stability of Pentagon finances and corporate profits.  Johnson’s wiki bio does mention he’s on the boards of Lockheed Martin Corporation and U.S. Steel, which certainly hints at a conflict of interest when it comes to offering advice on ending wars.

In the meantime, we probably shouldn’t tell our troops, whom we’re supposed to love and support, that we’re keeping them in Afghanistan for “leverage” until the “battlefield reality” is more in our favor.  That’s truly a recipe for endless war in a place that well deserves its reputation as the graveyard of empires.

Finally, a reminder to Democrats: your Pentagon is an island of stability, and your troops are creating the leverage that allows democracy to flourish everywhere.  If this makes sense to you, and if this is the guiding philosophy of Joe Biden’s national security team, we’re truly in deep trouble.

Bonus Lesson: The Pentagon is an “island” of government only if that island is roughly the size of Pangaea.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.