Readers, my memory here is a bit fuzzy, so please bear with me.
When I was at the Air Force Academy in the late 1990s, a British diplomat came to speak on Anglo-American policies and activities in the Middle East. A controversial subject was the “No-Fly” zone enforced by the U.S. Air Force as well as sanctions against Iraq, with the stated goal of encouraging the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That overthrow never happened; instead, the U.S. military had to invade in 2003 with “shock and awe,” leading to war, insurgency, and torture that truly was shocking and awful.
I recall asking a question of the diplomat, a younger guy, slick and polished, probably a product of Oxbridge (and I had recently earned my D.Phil. from Oxford, so I knew the type). The gist of my question was this: Why are we continuing with sanctions when they appear not to be hurting Saddam but only ordinary people in Iraq?
The diplomat smoothly ignored the tenor of my question and instead praised Anglo-American resolve and cooperation in the struggle against Saddam and similar bad actors in the Middle East. I was nonplussed but I didn’t push the matter. I was in a classroom with a couple of dozen other AF officers and we were all supposed to be on the same team.
This all came back to me today as I listened to Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor at The Gray Zone. He recalled a British major asking similar questions of similar diplomats, but the British major went much further than I had in challenging the BS he was being fed. COL Macgregor quotes this major as saying the following in response:
If our cause is just, why do we have to lie about it?
Those words should be seared in the minds of all Americans at this perilous moment. I wish I’d had the clarity of mind and the confidence to say something similar, but I recall thinking that maybe I just didn’t know enough about what was going on in Iraq.
Of course, Madeleine Albright, asked on “60 Minutes” if the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to sanctions was a price worth paying for Saddam’s eventual downfall, readily replied that yes, she believed this price was worth paying.
Her sociopathic calculation didn’t even work; only a massive U.S. invasion finally toppled Saddam, leading to yet more chaos and mass death in Iraq.
We need to stop lying to ourselves that America’s policies are generally noble and just or even morally defensible or forced upon us by a harsh and cruel world. In fact, perhaps that harsh and cruel world is exactly the one we’ve created for ourselves — and for so many others as well.
Joe Biden is America’s new president, but nothing has changed on the war front. In Iraq, a U.S. airstrike has killed the top leader of the Islamic State, notes today’s New York Times. The paper notes that “the United States has about 2,500 troops left on three Iraqi military bases. While Iraqi capability in fighting the Islamic State group has improved, the country still relies on intelligence, surveillance assets and air support from the US-led coalition.”
Remember when U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? Of course, despite all the military training and equipment the U.S. showered on a new Iraqi military, that military totally collapsed in 2014 under pressure from the Islamic State. Naturally, the U.S. military took no blame, even as the collapse opened a door for more U.S. military intervention. And so the fighting persists, but at a low-enough level that it stays off of most American radar screens.
Revealingly, this is how the Iraqi parliament responded to the latest U.S. “victory” on terror: “After the drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding the government expel US forces from Iraq, a move that has not been implemented.”
Do you think President Biden will listen to the Iraqi parliament and withdraw U.S. troops once and for all?
War has been made much too easy in America. Imagine if Joe Biden, or Donald Trump, or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, actually had to lead troops from the front, exposing themselves to potential harm as they waged America’s wars overseas. It’s easy to sit in the Oval Office and push paper that translates into killing people. I’m not getting nostalgic for the age of Napoleon or the time of kings and queens, but there’s something to be said for physical and moral courage and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for what one believes.
This put me to mind of a passage from Tana French’s novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. French writes the following “rant” for one of her characters:
“Look at the old wars, centuries ago: the king led his men into battle. Always. That was what the ruler was: both on a practical level and on a mystical one, he was the one who stepped forwards to lead his tribe, put his life at stake for them, become the sacrifice for their safety. If he had refused to do that most crucial thing at that most crucial moment, they would have ripped him apart—and rightly so: he would have shown himself to be an impostor, with no right to the throne. The king was the country; how could he possibly expect it to go into battle without him? But now…Can you see any modern president or prime minister on the front line, leading his men into the war he’s started? And once that physical and mystical link is broken, once the ruler is no longer willing to be the sacrifice for his people, he becomes not a leader but a leech, forcing others to take his risks while he sits in safety and battens on their losses. War becomes a hideous abstraction, a game for bureaucrats to play on paper; soldiers and civilians become mere pawns, to be sacrificed by the thousands for reasons that have no roots in any reality. As soon as rulers mean nothing, war means nothing; human life means nothing. We’re ruled by venal little usurpers, all of us, and they make meaninglessness everywhere they go.” (pages 320-21, emphasis added)
It’s a powerful passage that has much to say about America’s seemingly eternal wars against someone somewhere.
For America’s rulers, war has largely become “kinetic action” at an entirely safe distance, so far away as to become almost an imaginary construct, except for the vast profits earned from it. To most Americans, as French suggests, it has become an exercise in meaninglessness. And whatever else war is or should be, it should have meaning, otherwise it’s just killing for nothing.
Recently, I had a long conversation with Major (retired) Danny Sjursen on our responses to the Iraq and Afghan Wars. The entire conversation is at TomDispatch.com; what follows is an excerpt.
Bill (that’s me!): In the summer of 2007, I was increasingly disgusted by the way the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney was hiding behind the bemedaled chest of Iraq commander General David Petraeus. Our civilian commander-in-chief, George W., was avoiding responsibility for the disastrous Iraq War by sending Petraeus, then known as the “surge” general, before Congress to testify that some sort of victory was still possible, even as he hedged his talk of progress with words like “fragile” and “reversible.”
So I got off my butt and wrote an article that argued we needed to end the Iraq War and our folly of “spilling blood and treasure with such reckless abandon.” I submitted it to newspapers like the New York Times with no success. Fortunately, a friend told me about TomDispatch, where Tom Engelhardt had been publishing critical articles by retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich. Luckily for me, Tom liked my piece and published it as “Saving the Military from Itself” in October of that same year.
That article put me on the path of dissent from America’s forever wars, even if I wasn’t so much antiwar as anti-dumb-war then. As I asked at the time, how do you win someone else’s civil war? Being a Star Trek fan, I referred to the Kobayashi Maru, a “no-win” scenario introduced in the second Star Trek movie. I saw our troops, young lieutenants like yourself in Iraq, being stuck in a no-win situation and I was already convinced that, no matter how much Petraeus talked about “metrics” and “progress,” it wasn’t going to happen, that “winning” really meant leaving, and we haven’t won yet since, god help us, we’re still there.
Of course, the so-called surge in Iraq back then did what it was actually meant to do. It provided an illusion of progress and stability even while proving just as fragile and reversible as the weaselly Petraeus said it would be. Worse yet, the myth of that Iraqi surge would lead disastrously to the Afghan version of the same under Barack Obama and — yet again — Petraeus who would prove to be a general for all presidents.
Lucky you! You were on the ground in both surges, weren’t you?
Danny: I sure was! Believe it or not, a colonel once told me I was lucky to have done “line duty” in both of them — platoon and company command, Iraq and Afghanistan, Baghdad and Kandahar. To be honest, Bill, I knew something was fishy even before you retired or I graduated from West Point and headed for those wars.
In fact, it’s funny that you should mention Bacevich. I was first introduced to his work in the winter of 2004 as a West Point senior by then-Lieutenant Colonel Ty Seidule. Back then, for a guy like me, Bacevich had what could only be called bracing antiwar views (a wink-nod to your Bracing Views blog, Bill) for a classroom of burgeoning neocons just about certain to head for Iraq. Frankly, most of us couldn’t wait to go.
And we wouldn’t have that long to wait either. The first of our classmates to die, Emily Perez, was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb in September 2006 within 18 months of graduation (and five more were to die in the years to come). I took a scout platoon to southeast Baghdad a month later and we didn’t leave — most of us, that is — for 15 months.
My partly Bacevich-bred sneaking suspicions about America’s no-longer distant wars were, of course, all confirmed. It turned out that policing an ethno-religious-sectarian conflict, mostly of our own country’s making, while dodging counter-counterinsurgent attacks aimed at expelling us occupiers from that country was as tough as stateside invasion opponents had predicted.
On lonely outpost mornings, I had a nasty daily habit of reading the names of our announced dead. Midway through my tour, one of those countless attacks killed 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich. When I saw that name, I realized instantly that he must be the son of the man whose book I had read two years earlier, the man who is now our colleague. The moment remains painfully crystal clear in my memory.
By the way, Bill, your Iraq War take was dead on. During my own tour there, I came to the same realization. Embarrassingly enough, though, it took me seven years to say the same things publicly in my first book, fittingly subtitled “The Myth of the Surge.” By then, of course, ISIS — the Frankenstein’s monster of America’s misadventure — was already streaming across Syria’s synthetic borders and conquering swaths of northern and western Iraq, which made an anti-Iraq War screed seem quaint indeed, at least in establishment circles.
But Bill, do go on.
Bill: It was also back in 2007 when something John McCain said on PBS really ticked me off. In essence, he warned that if the U.S. military lost in Iraq, it wouldn’t be the generals’ fault. No, it would be ours, those of us who had questioned the war and its conduct and so had broken faith with that very military. In response, I wrote a piece at TomDispatch with the sarcastic title, “If We Lose Iraq, You’re to Blame,” because I already found such “stab-in-the-back” lies pernicious beyond words. As Andy Bacevich noted recently when it came to such lies about an earlier American military disaster: we didn’t lose the Vietnam War in 1975 when Saigon fell, we lost it in 1965 when President Johnson committed American troops to winning a civil war that South Vietnam had already lost.
Something similar is true for the Iraq and Afghan wars today. We won’t lose those conflicts when we finally pull all U.S. troops out and the situation goes south (as it most likely will). No, we lost the Afghan War in 2002 when we decided to turn a strike against the Taliban and al-Qaeda into an occupation of that country; and we lost the Iraq War the moment we invaded in 2003 and found none of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush and his top officials had sworn were there. Those were wars of choice, not of necessity, and we could only “win” them by finally choosing to end them. We lose them — and maybe our democracy as well — by choosing to keep on waging them in the false cause of “stability” or “counterterrorism,” or you-name-it.
Early in 2009, I had an epiphany of sorts while walking around a cemetery. With those constant deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and dozens of other countries globally, the U.S. military, I thought, was becoming a foreign legion, almost like the quintessential French version of the same, increasingly separated from the people, and increasingly recruited from “foreign” elements, including recent immigrants to this country looking for a fast-track to citizenship.
Danny: Bill, one of my own soldiers fit the mold you just mentioned. Private First Class Gustavo Rios-Ordonez, a married father of two and a Colombian national. Partly seeking citizenship through service, he was the last trooper to join my command just before we shipped out and the first killed when, on June 20, 2011, he stepped on an improvised explosive device within sight of the Afghan outpost I then commanded. Typing this now, I stare at a framed dusty unit guidon, the pennant that once flew over that isolated sandbagged base of ours and was gifted to me by my soldiers.
Sorry, Bill, last interruption… scout’s honor!
Surges to Nowhere
Bill: So I wrote an article that asked if our military was morphing into an imperial police force. As I put it then: “Foreign as in being constantly deployed overseas on imperial errands; foreign as in being ever more reliant on private military contractors; foreign as in being increasingly segregated from the elites that profit most from its actions, yet serve the least in its ranks.” And I added, “Now would be a good time to ask exactly why, and for whom, our troops are currently fighting and dying in the urban jungles of Iraq and the hostile hills of Afghanistan.”
A few people torched me for writing that. They thought I was saying that the troops themselves were somehow foreign, that I was attacking the rank-and-file, but my intent was to attack those who were misusing the military for their own purposes and agendas and all the other Americans who were acquiescing in the misuse of our troops. It’s a strange dynamic in this country, the way we’re cajoled into supporting our troops without ourselves having to serve or even pay attention to what they’re doing.
Indeed, under George W. Bush, we were even discouraged from commemorating the honored dead, denied seeing footage of returning flag-draped caskets. We were to celebrate our troops, while they (especially the dead and wounded) were kept out of sight — literally behind curtains, by Bush administration order — and so mostly out of mind.
I was against the Afghan surge, Danny, because I knew it would be both futile and unsustainable. In arguing that case, I reached back to the writings of two outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War, Norman Mailer and Mary McCarthy. As President Obama deliberated on whether to surge or not, I suggested that he should confer with broadminded critics outside the government, tough-minded freethinkers cut from the cloth of Mailer and McCarthy.
Mailer, for example, had argued that the Vietnamese were “faceless” to Americans (just as the Iraqis and Afghans have been all these years), that we knew little about them as a people and cared even less. He saw American intervention in “heart of darkness” terms. McCarthy was even blunter, condemning as “wicked” the government’s technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare with its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives.” Predictably, Obama listened to conventional wisdom and surged again, first under General Stanley McChrystal and then, of course, under Petraeus.
Danny: Well, Bill, paltry as it may now sound, I truly thank you for your post-service service to sensibility and decency — even if those efforts didn’t quite spare me the displeasure of a second stint in a second theater with Petraeus as my supreme commander for a second time.
By the way, I ran into King David (as he came to be known) last year in a long line for the urinals at Newark airport. Like you, I’ve been tearing the guy’s philosophy and policies up for years. Still, I decided decorum mattered, so I introduced myself and mentioned that we’d met once at a Baghdad base in 2007. But before I could even kid him about how his staff had insisted that we stock ample kiwi slices because he loved to devour them, Petraeus suddenly walked off without even making it to the stall! I found it confusing behavior until I glimpsed myself in the mirror and remembered that I was wearing an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” t-shirt.
Okay, here’s a more instructive anecdote: Have I ever mentioned to you that my Afghan outpost, “Pashmul South” as it was then known, featured prominently in the late journalist Michael Hasting’s classic book, The Operators (which inspired the Netflix original movie War Machine)? At one point, Hastings describes how Petraeus’s predecessor in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, visited an isolated base full of war-weary and war-exasperated infantrymen. In one of the resident platoons, all but seven of its 25 original members had “been killed, wounded, or lost their minds.” And yes, that was the “palace” I took over a couple of years later, an outpost the Taliban was then attacking almost daily.
By the time I took up the cause of “Enduring Freedom” (as the Afghan operation had been dubbed by the Pentagon), I had already resigned myself to being one of those foreign legionnaires you’ve talked about, if not an outright mercenary. During the Afghan surge, I fought for pay, healthcare, a future West Point faculty slot, and lack of a better alternative (or alternate identity). My principles then were simple enough: patrol as little as possible, kill as few locals as you can, and make sure that one day you’ll walk (as many of my scouts literally did) out of that valley called Arghandab.
I was in a dark headspace then. I didn’t believe a damn thing my own side said, held out not an ounce of hope for victory, and couldn’t even be bothered to hate my “enemy.” On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, staff officers at brigade headquarters sent a Reuters reporter deep into the boonies to profile the only commander around from the New York City area and I told him just what I thought, or close enough in any case. Suffice it to say that my colonels were less than pleased when Captain Sjursen was quoted as saying that “the war was anything but personal” and that he never “thought about 9/11 at all” or when he described the Taliban this way: “It’s farm-boys picking up guns. How do you hate that?”
Rereading that article now, I feel a certain sadness for that long-gone self of mine, so lost in fatalism, hopelessness, and near-nihilism. Then I catch myself and think: imagine how the Afghans felt, especially since they didn’t have a distant home to scurry off to sooner or later.
Anyway, I never forgot that it was Obama — from whom I’d sought Iraq War salvation — who ordered my troops on that even more absurd Afghan surge to nowhere (and I’m not sure I’ve forgiven him either). Still, if there was a silver lining in all that senselessness, perhaps it was that such a bipartisan betrayal widened both the breadth and depth of my future dissent.
Please read the rest of our conversation here, and our conclusion that, when it comes to resisting America’s disastrous wars, our motto has to be: No retreat, no surrender.
A friend sent along the following statement from the U.S. State Department:
Sovereignty is just fine, Iraqi people — as long as you do exactly what America says. By the way, I thought ISIS was 100% eliminated, according to President Trump.
I’m sure the Iraqi government can’t wait to have this “conversation” with the U.S. government. Note, however, that any “conversation” about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq is already forbidden. So much for sovereignty!
At the donor conference for the “post-ISIL reconstruction” of Iraq which just ended in Kuwait, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about Iraqi corruption and insecurity, which he claimed had to be tackled for rebuilding investments to be feasible. He said nothing about donations or reparations for the immeasurable damage the U.S. inflicted on Iraq since the first Gulf war in 1991, let alone since the invasion in 2003. I do not recall reading that Iraq had been successfully rebuilt before ISIL struck in 2014. And let’s recall that ISIL was largely the result of L. Paul Bremer and assorted US generals’ disastrous policies.
The US “aid” offered by Tillerson is a financial package from the U.S. Export-Import Bank in the amount of $3 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and insurance funds to American firms investing in Iraq. Compare that paltry sum to the post-WWII Marshall Plan to Western Europe — including defeated enemy Germany and its allies — which amounted to about $140 billion in today’s dollars. Without going into the increasingly disputed purpose and even effectiveness of that aid, it amounted to more than the totality of Iraq’s needs as estimated at this moment. And only some 10-15% of it were loans; the rest were grants, even if most of these had to finance goods imported from the U.S.
After Saddam’s capture in 2003, the U.S. apparently promised some $20 billion in reconstruction money in the form of credit against Iraq’s future oil revenues. Whether this ever materialized I do not know, and there may well have been similar pledges, but there is no reason to assume that any of it was a grant without major strings attached.
The U.S. government is not the only hypocrite in this matter. The overwhelming majority of the $30 billion in reconstruction pledges concerns credit and investments. Is this simply donor fatigue? How come the U.S.-led coalition had no trouble spending untold billions on the destruction of Iraq and its people, but cannot afford to help them rebuild their country?
The only governmental exception seems to be the nearly half a billion in donations from the European Union, but I wonder how much of this is dedicated to purchases from the EU.
I doubt my own government [Poland] will contribute anything but a token investment — if anything — while it enthusiastically joined the unholy coalition in 2003 for three candidly stated reasons: gain more importance in NATO, train its military in field conditions (!), and benefit from economic off-sets. We do not even have the vibrant veterans-against-war associations which in the U.S. fight to prevent more of such wars from happening. One such admirable initiative is We Are Not Your Soldiers, with veterans visiting high schools to harness kids against the propaganda of military recruiters, by explaining what war really looks like and what damage it inflicts on both victims and perpetrators.
In sum, American “Shock & Awe” doctrine destroyed Iraq, initial reconstruction efforts were haphazard and insufficient, and now in 2018 Iraq is sure to end up with a debt noose around its neck and ever greater dependence on the whims of foreign investors.
With respect to foreign investors, consider this quotation: “Iraq also is Opec’s second-largest crude producer and home to the world’s fifth-largest known reserves, though it has struggled to pay international firms running them.”
As for the Iraqi government, this is how it was described by New York-based Iraqi poet and long-term exile Sinan Antoon: “The Iraqi government and the entire political class are beneficiaries of the U.S. and its wars. They recognize and commemorate the crimes of Saddam Hussein and the Baath regime and now ISIL and exploit them for their narrow and sectarian political purposes.”
Antoon’s critique of the Iraqi government should be kept in mind when reading Prime Minister’s Haider al-Abadi’s glowing appreciation of our “generous aid.”
Pamela, a former aid worker with a decade’s worth of on-the-ground experience in Afghanistan, worked with the Afghan people in relationships characterized by trust and friendship.
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?
U.S. and Coalition forces have seriously undercounted the number of civilians killed in air attacks against ISIS. That is the key finding of an 18-month-long investigation led by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal and published this week in the New York Times Magazine. Khan/Gopal surveyed 103 sites of air strikes in northern Iraq, extrapolating from these attacks into other regions in which the Coalition launched air attacks against ISIS since 2014. They conclude that between 8000 and 10,000 civilians have been killed in these attacks, far higher than the U.S. government’s estimate of roughly 500 civilians killed (or the 3000 civilian deaths estimated by Airwars.org over this same period).
Does it matter to Americans if the true count of civilian deaths is closer to 10,000 than 500? To most Americans, sadly, I’m not sure it matters. Not if these air strikes are described and defended as saving American and Coalition lives as well as killing terrorists.
Airwars.org keeps a running tally of U.S. and Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Their website today (11/19/17) records 28,380 strikes over an almost four-year period, using 102,082 bombs and missiles. It would be remarkable if only a few hundred innocents were killed by such an astonishing number of bombs and missiles, and indeed they estimate that nearly 6000 civilians have been killed in these attacks.
Why are U.S./Coalition figures so much lower than those estimated by Khan/Gopal and Airwars.org?
In March 2013, I wrote an article for TomDispatch in which I explained that airpower and bombing missions are neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive. More recently, I lamented the horrific euphemism of “collateral damage,” a term often used to elide the realities of death by bombing. There are good reasons why officialdom in Washington is content to undercount the number of civilians killed in bombing and drone attacks overseas. Some are obvious; others perhaps less so:
It’s not in the best interests of the U.S. military to give a full and honest accounting of civilian casualties, so they don’t.
A full and honest accounting requires direct investigations (boots on the ground) like the ones conducted by Khan/Gopal. These are not generally done, partly because they would expose U.S. troops to considerable risk.
A full and honest accounting might suggest that air attacks are too costly, murderously so. The Coalition and the U.S. military prefer to advertise airpower as a “precise” and “decisive” weapon, and of course the Coalition relies on airpower to keep their casualties limited.
Related to (3), as airpower is sold as “surgical” and decisive, there are billions and billions of dollars riding on this image. Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in warplanes, drones, and munitions. Is the U.S. willing to suggest that this approach is often not that effective in the “war on terror”? Even worse, that it results in the death and grievous wounding of thousands of innocent men, women, and children? That it may, in fact, exacerbate terrorism and intensify the war?
Another possible angle: Do you want to tell pilots and other crew members that their bombs and missiles often kill innocents rather than the enemy? What would that do to morale?
When civilian deaths are mentioned in the U.S. media, they are often explained, or explained away, as the byproduct of ISIS/ISIL using innocents as human shields, or of the messiness and unpredictability of urban warfare in densely packed cities like Mosul. But the Khan/Gopal study notes that civilian deaths from the air war are often due to poor intelligence – a failure of process, the result of insufficient resources and inadequate understanding of events on the ground. In a word, negligence.
Again, do Americans care about civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria or other faraway places? We seem to have a blasé attitude toward foreign peoples being killed at a distance in air strikes. I suppose this is so because those killings are termed “accidental” by military spokesmen even as they’re attributed to a nefarious enemy or to technological errors. It’s also so because these deaths have been both undercounted and underreported in America.
In showing that the U.S. government seriously undercounts civilian casualties and by highlighting systemic flaws in intelligence-gathering and targeting, the Khan/Gopal study makes a major contribution to our understanding of the true costs of America’s endless war on terror.
General Joseph Votel, U.S. Centcom commander, testified to the House Armed Services Committee this week that the greatest destabilizing force in the Middle East is Iran, and that the U.S. must be prepared to use “military means” to confront and defeat the Iranian threat to the region.
No doubt Iran is a pest to U.S. designs in the Middle East. No doubt Iran has its own agenda. No doubt Iran is no friend to Israel. But the greatest destabilizing force in the Greater Middle East? That’s the USA. We’re the ones who toppled Iraq in 2003, along with the legitimate government of Iran 50 years earlier.
Iran/Persia has lived in, and sometimes dominated, the Greater Middle East for 2500 years. By comparison, the USA is a newcomer on the block. Yet it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizers, the ones operating in a nefarious “grey zone” between peace and war, at least according to U.S. generals.
Besides the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which accidentally helped Iran, the U.S. continues to sell massive amounts of weaponry to Iran’s rivals, most especially Saudi Arabia. U.S. military operations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East have both destabilized the region and created marketplaces for U.S. weaponry and opportunities for economic exploitation by multinational corporations.
I’m no fan of Iran and its leaders, but can one blame them for resisting U.S. military and economic incursions into their sphere of influence? Recall how we reacted when the Russians put missiles into Cuba. Look at all the hostile rhetoric directed today against Mexico and its allegedly unfair trade practices vis-a-vis the U.S.
Let’s not forget that for 25 years (1953-78), the Shah of Iran was an American ally. The U.S. military loved to sell him our most advanced weaponry, which at that time included F-14 Tomcat fighters and HAWK missile systems. That cozy relationship died with the Iranian Revolution (1979); ally turned to enemy as the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.
Yet, despite all this history, despite all the U.S. meddling, all the weapons sales, all the invasions and sanctions, somehow it’s the Iranians who are the destabilizing force, the ones deserving of more “disruptive” U.S. military action.
As America’s designs are frustrated in the Middle East, American generals never look in the mirror to see their own faults and failings. Instead, they cast about for new countries to blame — and to attack. Iran is seemingly next on the list, a country that General Mattis, America’s Secretary of Defense, said is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
Anyone for war with Iran? U.S. generals are ready.
Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway didn’t invent alternative facts. The U.S. government has been peddling those for decades. Consider the recent history of the Iraq War. Recall that in 2002 it was a “slam dunk” case that Iraq had active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (We couldn’t allow the smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud, said Condoleezza Rice.) In 2003, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq – mission accomplished! And in 2007, the “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus was sold as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. All of those are “alternative facts.” All were contradicted by the facts on the ground.
Nowadays, most people admit Iraq had no active WMD programs in 2002 and that the mission wasn’t accomplished in 2003, but the success of the surge in 2007 is still being sold as truth, notes Danny Sjursen at TomDispatch.com. Sjursen, who participated in the surge as a young Army lieutenant, notes that it did succeed in temporarily reducing sectarian violence in Iraq, but that was precisely the problem: it was temporary. The surge was supposed to allow space for a stable and representative Iraqi government to emerge, but that never happened.
A short-term tactical success, the surge was a strategic failure in the long-term. Partly this was because long-term success was never in American hands to achieve, and it certainly wasn’t attainable by U.S. military action alone. In sum, the blood and treasure spilled in Iraq was for naught. But that harsh truth hasn’t stopped the surge from becoming a myth of U.S. military triumph, one that led to another unsuccessful surge, this time in Afghanistan in 2009-10, also conducted by General Petraeus.
These surges sustain an alternative fact that the U.S. military can “win” messy insurgencies and sectarian/ethnic wars, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Yemen or elsewhere. They contribute to hubris and the idea we can remake the world by using our military, a belief that President Trump and his bevy of generals (all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan) seem to share and want to put into practice again. This time, they promise to get it right.
The President and the Pentagon are currently considering sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. This mini-surge is being advertised as America’s best chance of defeating terrorists in the AfPak region. Even though previous, and much bigger, surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were failures, the alternative fact narrative of “successful” surges remains compelling, even authoritative, among U.S. national security experts. They may grudgingly admit that, yes, those previous surges weren’t quite perfect, but we’ve learned from those – promise!
Prepare for more troop deployments and more surges, America. And for more “victories” as alternative facts, as in lies.
But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say. The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.
More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones. All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion. The result? Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941. (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)
Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.” So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.
America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump. Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.
As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency. As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.” Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem. Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.
Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America. For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.