Thomas Paine on War and Empire

Portrait_of_Thomas_Paine
It’s time again to listen to the common sense of Thomas Paine

W.J. Astore

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come.  This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy.  Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it.  Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom?  Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home.  Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished.  He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars.  Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America.  Bring our troops home.  And restore freedom to our land.

(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)

U.S. Folly in Afghanistan and Media Complicity

mark-milley
Gen. Mark Milley argues America’s Afghan War has been “successful to date”

W.J. Astore

On NBC News today, I came across the following, revealing, headline:

The U.S. is eager to end its longest war. In interview, Taliban gives little sign it’s ready to change.

Aha!  The U.S. military is allegedly seeking an end to its Afghan war, but it’s being stopped in its tracks by stubbornly uncompromising Taliban forces.  So, it’s not our fault, right?  We’re trying to leave, but the Taliban won’t let us.

I’ve been writing against the Afghan war for a decade.  It was always a lost war for the United States, and it always will be.  But the U.S. military doesn’t see it that way, as Andrew Bacevich explains in a recent article on America’s flailing and failing generals.  These generals, Bacevich notes, have redefined the Afghan war as “successful to date.”  How so?  Because no major terrorist attack on America has come out of Afghanistan since 9/11/2001.  As Bacevich rightly notes, such a criterion of “success” is both narrow and contrived.

So, according to Mark Milley, the most senior general in the U.S. Army, soon to be head of the Joint Chiefs, America can count the Afghan war as “successful.”  If so, why are we allegedly so eager to end it?  Why not keep the “success” going forever?

Back in November of 2009, I wrote the following about America’s Afghan war.

We have a classic Catch-22. As we send more troops to stiffen Afghan government forces and to stabilize the state, their high-profile presence will serve to demoralize Afghan troops and ultimately to destabilize the state. The more the U.S. military takes the fight to the enemy, the less likely it is that our Afghan army-in-perpetual-reequipping-and-training will do so.

How to escape this Catch-22? The only answer that offers hope is that America must not be seen as an imperial master in Afghanistan. If we wish to prevail, we must downsize our commitment of troops; we must minimize our presence.

But if we insist on pulling the strings, we’ll likely as not perform our own dance of death in this “graveyard of empires.”

Pulling out an old encyclopedia, I then added a little history:

Some two centuries ago, and much like us, the globe-spanning British Empire attempted to extend its mastery over Afghanistan. It did not go well. The British diplomat in charge, Montstuart Elphinstone, noted in his book on “Caubool” the warning of an Afghan tribal elder he encountered: “We are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a master.”

As imperial masters, British attitudes toward Afghans were perhaps best summed up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ninth Edition (1875). The Afghans, according to the Britannica, “are familiar with death, and are audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain, and insatiable in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner …. the higher classes are too often stained with deep and degrading debauchery.”

One wonders what the Afghans had to say about the British.

The accuracy of this British depiction is not important; indeed, it says more about imperial British attitudes than it does Afghan culture. What it highlights is a tendency toward sneering superiority exercised by the occupier, whether that occupier is a British officer in the 1840s or an American advisor today. In the British case, greater familiarity only bred greater contempt, as the words of one British noteworthy, Sir Herbert Edwardes, illustrate. Rejecting Elphinstone’s somewhat favorable estimate of their character, Edwardes dismissively noted that with Afghans, “Nothing is finer than their physique, or worse than their morale.”

We should ponder this statement, for it could have come yesterday from an American advisor. If the words of British “masters” from 150 years ago teach us anything, it’s that Afghanistan will never be ours to win.

I stand by that last sentence.  Your “successful to date” war has been nothing but folly, General Milley, a reality mainstream media sources are determined not to survey.