I Had A Base in Africa: Nick Turse on the U.S. Military and AFRICOM

turse

W.J. Astore

In the movie Out of Africa, Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen, who used the pen name of Isak Dinesen) wistfully intones, “I had a farm in Africa.” It’s a considerable understatement given her character’s ambition and energy and drive.  Rather than out of Africa, the U.S. military’s new motto is Into Africa, and like those cocky European colonialists of old, the military has plenty of ambition and energy and drive.  So notes Nick Turse in his latest book, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.”  Turse, the prize-winning author of “Kill Anything that Moves,” a searing examination of America’s war against Vietnam, turns his sharp eye to yet another misguided U.S. military adventure, this time within and across the continent of Africa.  What he finds is disturbing.

The U.S. Army likes to talk about BLUF, or giving the bottom line up front, and Turse has a doozy on America’s militarized designs on Africa:

Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops and bases, missions and money.  And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to this camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal.  Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts.  The human toll is incalculable.  And there appears to be no end in sight.” (184)

A grim BLUF indeed.  Perhaps that explains why the U.S. military is so reluctant to give Turse any information, even seemingly innocuous data such as the number of bases the U.S. has in Africa.  Turse, who happily has a sense of humor, recounts tedious and frustrating battles with military public affairs officers as the latter employ various delaying tactics to stymie him.  Indeed, if the U.S. military was as effective at winning wars as it is at fighting reporters, we might truly have a military that’s second to none.  Turse perseveres through all this, relying on public sources, freedom of information requests, interviews, and other creative means to tease out the numerous ways AFRICOM is seeking to penetrate the continent.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that reporters who pay fawning tribute to U.S. efforts in Africa are happily accommodated by military public affairs.  Turse, an old-school investigative reporter who’s not into fawning, gets stonewalled, his reward for having integrity.)

Though AFRICOM is eager to deny or minimize its “footprint” in Africa to Turse, the story is different when the military talks among themselves.  Turse begins by cleverly recounting a military change of command ceremony he attended in Germany in 2013.  At that ceremony, speaking freely to one another, U.S. military commanders were not reticent at all.  One military commander obsequiously praised his boss in these words: “General Linder has been saying, ‘Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.’ And, sir, I couldn’t agree more.  This new battlefield is custom made for SOC [the Special Operations community], and we’ll thrive in it.  It’s exactly where we need to be today and I expect we’ll be for some time in the future.” (3)

Sir, I couldn’t agree more that Africa is already becoming a battlefield for U.S. special ops, now and in the future.  And it’s “custom made” for us — we’re going to thrive there!  Mark those words, America.  We’ve heard their like before in the jungles of Vietnam in the early 1960s, when America’s fledgling special ops community boasted then that Vietnam was tailor made for the counterinsurgency skills of U.S. elite warriors.  We were going to thrive there too.  And look where that got us!

Turse’s knowledge of Vietnam makes him sensitive to the perils of mission creep in Africa, the problems of winning hearts and minds in cultures poorly understand by American troops, the dilemma of overthrowing less-than-tractable leaders (long ago, Diem in South Vietnam; more recently, Gaddafi in Libya) and the chaos that often results when the “bad man” is gone, the proliferation of U.S. weaponry that often accelerates regional violence, and so on.  Rather than give an honest accounting of these difficulties, the U.S. military often prefers simply to declare victory, or at least to take credit for success, however partial or fleeting.  Indeed, as Turse tartly observes, when it comes to Africa and America’s military missions there, “it’s so much easier to claim success than to achieve it.” (168)

For anyone interested in the U.S. military and especially AFRICOM, Turse’s honest, no-BS account makes for cautionary reading.  It should be required reading for all U.S. military personnel assigned to Africa, who deserve to read honest criticism while being exposed to critical thinking.  It’s a helluva lot better than hearing “I couldn’t agree more, sir.”  And perhaps it’ll save the U.S. military from having to intone, tragically this time, “I had a base in Africa.”

War Again in Iraq and the American Desire Never to be Labeled a Loser

Fighters of the Islamic State (Associated Press)
Fighters of the Islamic State (AP/NYT)

W.J. Astore

In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan.  A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser.  That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”

Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:

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.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan).  Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak).  And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?

The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:

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?

Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”?  And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?

In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003.  In his words:

The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:

We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.

That is indeed the question.  As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “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.”

Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East.  Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.

But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.”  Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation.  Impossible for us.  Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.

The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left.  How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East?  Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.

One Word Defines U.S. Foreign Policy: Hubris

Like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up
Like Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard,” Our Hubristic Leaders Are Always Ready for their Close-up

W.J. Astore

When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States.  You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945.  We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs.  We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.

There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course.  The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play.  The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.

But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image.  Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances.  Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops.  Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face.  So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves.  After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.

Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops.  Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.

The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.

Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it.  Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)

“Look at them in the front offices.  The masterminds!”  Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility.  Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.

Do We Learn Anything from History?

Worthless?
Worthless?

W.J. Astore

As a historian, I like to think we learn valuable lessons from history.  Those who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them, or so my students tell me, paraphrasing (often unknowingly) the words of George Santayana.

We applaud that saying as a truism, yet why do we persist in pursuing mistaken courses?  Why two costly and destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Why an energy policy that exploits dirty fossil fuels at the expense of the environment?  Why a foreign policy that is dominated by military interventionists in love with Special Forces and drones?

In part, I think, because our decision makers have no respect for the lessons of history.  They think the lessons don’t apply to them.  They think they can make history freely: that history is like a blank canvas for their creative (and destructive) impulses.  They figure they are in complete control.  Hubris, in other words.

Such hubris was captured in a notorious boast of the Bush Administration (in words later attributed to Karl Rove) that judicious study of the past was, well, antiquarian and passé.  Why?  Because men like Karl Rove would strut the historical stage to create an entirely new reality.  And the rest of us would be reduced to impotent watchers, our only role being to applaud the big swinging dicks at their climactic “mission accomplished” moments.  In Rove’s words:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Rove’s rejection of history stemmed from hubris.  For the character of Joaquin in Scott Anderson’s novel Triage, history is “The worst invention of man” for a very different reason.  History was to be reviled because it tries to make rational what is often irrational; history invents reasons for what is often unreasonable or beyond reason.

In Joaquin’s words:

“We invented history for the same reason we invented God, because the alternative is too terrible to imagine.  To accept that there is no reason for any of it, that we are only animals—special animals, maybe, but still animals—and there is no explaining the things we do, that happen to us—too awful, no?  … To hell with history.  If there is anything to be learned from any of it, it is only that civilization is fragile, that in war it takes nothing for a man—any man, fascist, communist, schoolteacher, peasant, it doesn’t matter—to become a beast.”

As a good Catholic, I was taught that wisdom begins with the fear of God.  A secular version might be that wisdom begins with the fear of history.  Our history.  Because it teaches us what we’re capable of.  We invent all sorts of seemingly reasonable excuses to kill one another.  We grow bored, so we kill.  In the words of Joaquin, we come to slaughter one another “because we wanted to see how blood ran, because it seemed an interesting thing to do.  We killed because we could.  That was the reason.”

The beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God.  It’s the fear of ourselves—the destruction that we as humans are capable of in the name of creating new realities.  The historical record provides a bible of sorts that records our harshness as well as our extraordinary capacity for self-deception.  Such knowledge is not to be reviled, nor should it be dismissed.

The more we dismiss history—the more we exalt ourselves as unconstrained creators of new realities—the more we pursue policies that are unwise—perhaps even murderously so.  If we learn nothing else from history, let us learn that.