New Year’s Resolution: End America’s Quagmire Wars

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B-52s against drug labs.  Really?

W.J. Astore

Here’s a New Year’s resolution: How about ending America’s quagmire wars?

There are many reasons why Afghanistan, Iraq, and similar countries will always be quagmires for the U.S. military.  U.S. troops have difficulty identifying friend from foe, and indeed “friendly” troops and police sometimes turn on their U.S. counterparts.  U.S. troops will always be a foreign presence, heavily armed and invasive, often (mis)guided by incomplete or misleading intelligence.  Almost inevitably, they are seen as backing corrupt and kleptocratic governments, whether in Kabul or Baghdad.  At the same time, U.S. bombing and search and destroy missions kill innocents even as they generate refugees—and new enemies.  Under such violent and tumultuous conditions, you can forget about winning hearts and minds or creating lasting political stability.

Facing this no-win scenario, savvy U.S. leaders would pull troops out immediately, but of course pulling out is never an option.  Whether it’s Bush or Obama or Trump, the preferred “solution” to unwinnable quagmires is to “surge” (more troops, more airpower, more “advisers,” more weaponry) or to dither with tactics.  Old theories are trotted out, such as pacification and counterinsurgency and nation-building, dressed up with new terms and acronyms such as asymmetrical warfare, the gray zone, MOOTW (military operations other than war), and VEOs, or violent extremist organizations, known to most people as terrorists.

The mentality among America’s generals is that the war must go on.  There must be a can-do way to defeat VEOs in the grey zone using asymmetrical warfare while engaged in MOOTW.  Thus B-52s, those venerable strategic bombers from the early Cold War era, are now being used in Afghanistan to “asymmetrically” destroy drug laboratories associated with Taliban funding, yet another instance of the U.S. military swinging a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

After 16 years, if you’re calling in B-52s to flatten small drug labs, this is not a sign of impending victory.  It’s a sign of desperation — a sign of a totally bankrupt strategy.

The same is true of the use of MOAB in 2017.  It’s not a sign of strength to use such blockbuster bombs on an undeveloped country like Afghanistan.  It’s a sign of desperation.  Of having no coherent strategy.  Of throwing munitions at the wall and seeing which one makes the biggest boom.

Of course, a key aspect of this is domestic politics.  The target of B-52s and MOABs isn’t always the Taliban and similar VEOs.  It’s American public opinion.  For Trump, it’s like, “See?  We used MOAB.  We’re using B-52s.  Obama didn’t do this.  We’re tougher–better–stronger.  We’re taking the gloves off.”

When America’s military is not taking metaphorical gloves off, it’s learning to eat soup with a knife.  That’s the title of Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl’s book on counterinsurgency, abbreviated as COIN in military circles.  A decade ago, Nagl worked with General David Petraeus to rewrite the book on COIN, which enjoyed a brief renaissance during the Iraq and Afghan surges.  But COIN methods (the idea of killing or otherwise neutralizing guerrillas/terrorists/VEOs while winning the hearts and minds of the people) haven’t worked to clean up American-made messes in those countries, a result contained within the metaphor.  For if you really want to eat soup, best to put away military knives, pick up the soup bowl, and slurp away.

But America’s warfighters, with their affinity for knives, persist in efforts to develop new and “better” ones (spoons are for wimps!) as they flail away in various soup bowls (or, if you prefer, Petri dishes, which was General John Nicholson’s, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, “bowl” of choice to describe the Af-Pak region in his testimony to Congress in 2017).

To use a different soup metaphor, too many cooks spoil the broth.  The U.S. military’s interventions—its various and varying recipes for success, the ingredients of which are almost exclusively violent—never add up to a palatable product.

William S. Smith put it well in a recent article for The American Conservative.  American military interventions, Smith notes, driven in large part by COIN theory, mostly ignore local history, religion, and culture.  The resulting quagmire, according to Smith, is predictable:

The fact is that all political order at all times and everywhere emerges from an extremely complex set of unique symbols, practices, and beliefs that are rooted in history, culture, and religion. Political order does not merely flow from safety and the protection of property but out of a cultural inheritance that provides citizens with a sense that their society embodies something larger than themselves. To them, the symbols and traditions of their society reflect a certain divine order. An invading army from a foreign civilization will always be seen as a threat to that order whether citizens embrace violence or not. Without a major revolution in culture an occupying army will be in no position to generate more than a skin-deep and transitory political reconciliation. (Emphasis added)

Call it COINfusion followed by defeat.  The U.S. military tried the “occupying army” part of this with its various surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political results were as Smith says: skin-deep and transitory.  The “new” American approach seems to be a variation of Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization policy of turning the fight over to the “indigenous” peoples, whether Afghans, Iraqis, etc. while continuing to bomb, to supply weaponry, and to provide training and “advice” with U.S. boots on the ground.  Such an approach is sold to the American people as staying the course to victory, with the exact terms of “victory” left undefined.

But what price “victory”, even an illusory one?  A staggering one.  By the end of fiscal year 2018, America’s post-9/11 wars will have cost the taxpayers nearly $5.6 trillion, notes the “Cost of Wars” project at Brown University.  With U.S. generals speaking of “generational” wars, this enormous burden will only continue to grow in the future—unless we wise up.

So my New Year’s resolution for 2018 is simple.  End quagmire wars.  Bring the troops home.  After all, what’s wrong with saving blood and treasure?

The Afghan War Isn’t a Stalemate: It’s a Defeat

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My old chess clock.  Time has run out, America.

W.J. Astore

Stalemate: That’s the word of choice being used by U.S. generals to describe the Afghan War.  What, exactly, is a stalemate?  I played chess at an early age, caught up in the Bobby Fischer craze of the early 1970s, and I still play occasionally.  In chess, a stalemate is a special kind of draw, and an often frustrating one.  Put concisely, “Stalemate is a situation in the game of chess where the player whose turn it is to move is not in check but has no legal move.”

For example, I may be winning decisively, with only my opponent’s king left on the board.  But if I carelessly put my opponent’s (unchecked) king in such a position that his only move is into harm (or “check”), the position is stalemated.  My decisive material advantage makes no difference: the game is over, it’s a draw.  In effect, given my material advantage, it’s a win for him and a loss for me.

Is the Afghan War “stalemated”?  Not according to the U.S. military, since it believes the “stalemate” can be reversed, that the U.S. can still “win.”  Indeed, President Trump has already gone on record last week as saying his administration is winning in Afghanistan.  No stalemate here.

A stalemated chess match is simply a bad metaphor for the Afghan War.  It’s not that one side can’t make a legal move, therefore the game is over.  (Would that the war could end so easily and cleanly!)  The situation today in Afghanistan is that the Taliban continues to tighten its grip on the country, or, in chess terms, it’s enlarging its span of control over the board, even as U.S. and Coalition forces send more troops, expend more munitions, and issue more reports about how they can still win — as long as U.S. generals get exactly what they want.

So, if stalemate is the wrong word, what is the right one?  I have one: defeat.  U.S. and Coalition forces have been fighting the Afghan War for 16 years.  Surges have come and gone.  More than a trillion dollars has been spent.  Yet the enemy retains the initiative and largely dictates the terms of the conflict.  Whatever this is, it isn’t “victory”; it’s not “progress”; nor is it “stalemate.” It’s a lost position, a defeat, pure and simple.

There’s nothing wrong with defeat.  The very best chess grandmasters lose; and when they do, they almost always tip their king and resign before they’re checkmated (defeated utterly).  By doing so, they conserve their energy for the next opponent, even as they study the lost game so they can learn from their mistakes.

Isn’t it time the U.S. did the same in the Afghan War?  Admit a lost position, resign, and withdraw?  Then learn?

Trump, of course, says he’s all about winning.  He’ll continue to push pieces about the board, despite the lost position.  This is not reversing a stalemate (which, by the rules of chess, can’t be done).  It’s only delaying defeat – at a high cost indeed to all those “pieces” being shunted about and sacrificed on the chessboard that is Afghanistan.

Business as Usual at the Pentagon

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It keeps spinning and spinning …

W.J. Astore

The revolving door between major defense contractors and the Pentagon is spinning ever more rapidly, notes FP: Foreign Policy.  Here’s a telling report from last week:

McCain says enough, but does he mean it? During a hearing Thursday to vet several Trump administration nominees for top Pentagon jobs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was tired of seeing defense industry executives go to work in the Pentagon.

But he indicated he’ll support the Mark Esper, chief lobbyist for for Raytheon — the fourth largest defense contractor in the United States — for secretary of the Army, telling Esper his concerns “grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominations, including yours.” McCain added that “it was then that I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background, beyond those we had already discussed.”

Lots of defense industry execs already at work. But at least one more will soon pass through McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee, however. At some point in the coming weeks, John C. Rood, senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International will testify for the under secretary of defense for policy job, the third highest position in the Defense Department.

The Senate has already approved former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary — the second highest position in the Pentagon — and Ellen Lord, the former chief executive officer of Textron Systems, to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

In short, there are no fresh thinkers at the Pentagon: just men and women drawn mainly from the corporate world or from the ranks of military retirees (or both).  They’re hired because they know the system — but also because they believe in it.  They’re not going to rock the boat.  They believe in “staying the course.”

The result is a system with no new ideas.  Consider Afghanistan.  Sixteen years after the initial invasion after 9/11, American forces are still bogged down there.  As FP: Foreign Policy reports today, we finally have an official number for the latest mini-surge orchestrated by retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis:

We have a surge number. After months of tapdancing around exactly how many more U.S. troops are are heading to Afghanistan, Monday’s request asks for $1.2 billion to support an additional 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Somehow, a few thousand extra U.S. troops are supposed to reverse the growth of the Taliban while improving Afghan security forces and reining in Afghan governmental corruption.  In short, sixteen years’ experience has meant nothing to U.S. decision makers.

It puts me to mind of a great description of military thinking from C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a remarkable novel about British generalship in World War I (and one of General John Kelly’s favorite books).  Here’s what Forester had to say about the persistence of military folly among the generals planning major offensives in that war:

“In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Forester goes on to write that:

“The Generals round the table were not men who were easily discouraged–men of that sort did not last long in command in France. Now that the first shock of disappointment had been faced they were prepared to make a fresh effort, and to go on making those efforts as long as their strength lasted.”

That’s the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a nutshell: fresh efforts, but no fresh thinking.  How could it not be so?  The same generals are in charge, men like Mattis and Kelly, who led previous “surges,” backed by civilian leaders drawn from private military contractors, whose main priority it is to spend this year’s massive defense budget while ensuring next year’s budget will be even more massive.

There’s no incentive in the system for fresh thinking, and certainly none for saving money.  Instead, it’s all about showing “resolve,” even if resolve in this case means hammering and pulling away at so many screws.  And this even makes a weird sort of sense, for there’s a lot of profit to be made in the name of  developing better pincers and levers and fulcrums to tackle “screws” like Afghanistan.

The Definition of American Insanity

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There’s always money for more nukes

W.J. Astore

Here are two items this morning from FP: Foreign Policy (foreignpolicy.com), which provides a daily summary (Situation Report, or SITREP) of news items related to the U.S. military and foreign policy.  Together, they represent the very definition of insanity.

Item 1The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday said U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. That huge number takes into account the replacement of nuclear-capable submarines, ICBMs, and new aircraft for the Air Force.

The budget office warned that the projected costs would muscle out some conventional weapons programs in the coming years unless the Pentagon’s budget is increased substantially. The CBO identified some cost savings however, saying the Pentagon could save as much as $139 billion if it delayed production of a new ICBM, stalled a secretive new nuclear-capable bomber called the B-21, and reduced the number of ICBMs and missile-carrying nuclear submarines than planned. 

All of those plans are carry-overs from the Obama administration, as the Trump team has yet to articulate a nuclear weapons strategy. 

Item 2War in Afghanistan, redacted. The Afghan government is losing control of more and more territory to the Taliban, according a grim new report from the congressionally-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. On the humanitarian side, civilian casualties from coalition and Afghan air strikes spiked by 52 percent in the first nine months of this year over last year, the report notes. 

In response to those unfriendly stats, the U.S. military has started to withhold information from the American public, refusing to report figures related to the size and success of Afghan security forces — which the U.S. taxpayer has spent tens of billions to build and sustain.

“The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. military knows what’s going on,” John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, told the New York Times. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

In sum, the American people will possibly pay more than a trillion dollars in the next three decades for more nuclear weapons (when the stated goal of leaders like Obama had been to eliminate them), even as information about the never-ending war in Afghanistan is withheld from the American people (especially the jaw-dropping waste of billions of dollars on Afghan security forces that can’t or won’t fight).

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico languish in the dark, the victims of a U.S. government that seeks to punish the island for its debt to various financial institutes and power brokers.

What madness!

Trump’s Afghan War Speech: More of the Same, With More Killing

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Trump, surrounded by troops and patriotic bunting, defines his “new” Afghan strategy (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

W.J. Astore

As a private citizen and presidential candidate, Donald Trump railed against the Afghan war.  A waste, he said.  Americans should withdraw, he said.  But in last night’s speech, Trump went against his own instincts (so he said) and went with the failed policies of his predecessors.  The war will continue, no timetable set, no troop levels determined, with conditions on the ground dictating America’s actions, according to the president.

What caught my attention, beyond the usual paeans of praise to America’s “warriors” and “warfighters,” was the specious reasoning to justify the continuation of the war.  Trump gave three reasons, so let’s take them one at a time:

  1. “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives …”

It’s piss-poor reasoning to argue that, because a lot of people have sacrificed and died in a war, the war should continue (with more people dying) to justify those previous sacrifices.  By this logic, the more who die, the more we should keep fighting, meaning more dead, meaning more fighting, and so on.  Where is the honor and “worthy” outcome here?

  1. “Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”

Actually, the consequences of an American withdrawal are both unpredictable and (most probably) acceptable.  Sure, terrorist organizations may gain impetus from an American withdrawal.  It’s also possible that a notoriously corrupt Afghan government might finally negotiate with the Taliban and other organizations, and that regional power brokers like Pakistan and Iran, who have their own interests in regional stability, might broker a settlement that Americans could live with.

Trump further argued that a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 led to “hard-won gains slip[ping] back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for, and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS.”  The truth is far more complex.  The prolonged U.S. occupation of Iraq helped to create ISIS in the first place, and failed American efforts to create and train reliable Iraqi security forces contributed to easy ISIS victories after U.S. forces left in 2011.

  1. “Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”

Isn’t it remarkable that, after sixteen years of sustained effort by the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region is now home to 20+ terrorist organizations?  The “highest concentration” in the world?  Is this not an admission of the utter failure of U.S. policy and actions since 2001?  How is this failure to be rectified by yet more U.S. attacks?

Trump said the new American goal is to kill terrorists.  This is not a strategy.  It’s a perpetual and deadly game of Whac-A-Mole.  That’s what Trump’s vaunted new strategy boils down to, despite the talk of economic pressure and working with Pakistan and India and other regional powers.

On Afghanistan, Trump should have listened to his instincts and withdrawn.  Instead, he listened to “his” generals.  With Trump, the generals won this round.  What they can’t win, however, is the war.

On Afghanistan, Trump is Right to be Skeptical

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Not seeing eye-to-eye: Trump and Mattis (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

W.J. Astore

NBC news reports that President Trump is skeptical about the U.S. military’s prospects in Afghanistan.  The military is losing, not winning, Trump said, and he further suggested the U.S. commander on the scene should be fired.  Meanwhile, China is cleaning up with mineral rights (such as copper mining), even as America’s generals continue with a “stay the course” policy, a policy that’s led to sixteen years of “stalemate” (the U.S. military’s word) at a cost of roughly a trillion dollars.

I highly recommend reading the NBC article for at least two reasons. First, Trump is right to question his advisers’ stale advice.  He’s right to question the generals.  Indeed, that’s his job as president and commander-in-chief.  If sixteen years of effort and a trillion dollars has produced “stalemate” (at best) in Afghanistan, can one blame the president for seeking a new strategy?  Perhaps even a withdrawal?

Second, and most interesting, is the push-back from NBC News and its hired guns: the retired generals and admirals who work for NBC as “consultants.”  Let’s look closely at their comments.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former head of NATO and an NBC News analyst, basically blames the Trump administration, not the military, for the Afghan stalemate.  In his words:

“The situation in Afghanistan is not improving, but I think it’s hardly irretrievable at this point, and what the president needs to be doing is deciding on the strategy.” 

“What is hurting the process at the moment is this back and forth about do we stay or do we go, how many troops,” he added. “Any commander is going to be incredibly handicapped in an environment like that. So I think the fundamental problem here is lack of decisiveness in Washington, specifically in the White House.”

Now, let’s turn to retired General Barry McCaffrey.  President Trump had the audacity to ask experienced combat veterans in Afghanistan (i.e., not only the generals) for advice on the war. and McCaffrey is having none of that:

“One of the last things you necessarily want to do is form policy advice based on what the current combatants think about something in a war zone,” said Gen. McCaffrey, an MSNBC military analyst. “They’re qualified totally to talk about tactics and things like that and what they’re seeing, but the president’s job is to formulate strategy and policy not to do tactical decisions.”

In short, a retired admiral and general at NBC News are taking the President to task for (1) Not being quick enough to rubber-stamp the military’s latest call for more troops in Afghanistan; (2) Daring to listen to the advice of lower-level U.S. combat veterans of the Afghan war, veterans who are rightly critical of the war.

Tell me again: Where’s that “liberal” media bias we’re always hearing about?

Trump is right to question his generals, and he’s right to seek advice from those who don’t wear stars on their shoulders.  And he’s certainly right in not making a hasty decision.

Finally, to NBC News: Can’t you find military experts who aren’t retired generals and admirals?  And with critical perspectives?  Your article essentially supports the generals and their strategy (if that’s the right word) for endless war in Afghanistan.  Is that really the best and only course for America and Afghanistan?  Where’s the talk of negotiation? Withdrawal? An end to America’s seemingly endless commitment to Afghanistan?

Trump is more skeptical of the Afghan war than NBC News and its team of “starry” experts.  Advantage, Trump.

Yet Another U.S. Surge in Afghanistan

W,J. Astore

The news out of Washington, D.C. is that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent to help stabilize and reverse the “stalemate” in Afghanistan.  The commitment, relatively small in the number of troops, is open-ended in duration, and of course the numbers could (and likely will) rise.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com, urging then-President Obama not to give in to the “urge to surge.”  Of course, America did surge in Afghanistan in 2009-10, but that surge, roughly ten times larger than the mini-surge of this moment, failed to alter the fundamentals on the ground.  Indeed, the Taliban and related insurgent forces in Afghanistan have only grown stronger in the aftermath of the failed Obama surge.

Perhaps the new motto of the U.S. military should be: If at first you don’t succeed, surge, surge again.

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Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President

By William Astore (written in 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.

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Mary McCarthy

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.

Copyright 2009 William Astore