How can you win a war when the country and peoples you’re fighting never existed?
Most Americans have little knowledge of Afghanistan. When we think of it, if we think of it at all, it exists as a battlefield. A place where some of America’s troops serve; a distant and obscure land where more than a few of them come home from with physical and mental wounds that may plague them for the remainder of their lives. Afghanistan, in sum, is an abstraction to most Americans, a “war,” an utterly foreign place where dangerous bearded “terrorists” now rule.
But is Afghanistan really that foreign to us? It shouldn’t be.
A friend sent me a terrific article by Jim Lobe with the title, “Three major networks devoted a full five minutes to Afghanistan in 2020.” You read that right. In 2020 America’s three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) spent a total of five minutes (!) covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Keep that in mind as you today view blanket coverage of the collapse of America’s position there. What the mainstream media truly cares about is ratings and money, and a military collapse that threatens Americans is sure to glue more than few eyeballs to the screen. The networks can also play a hyper-partisan blame game, pitting Republicans against Democrats as the former accuse the latter of appeasement and weakness of some sort. That “game” is always good for ratings.
Of course America loses in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. These countries and peoples only exist as a backdrop to our collective national drama. And as soon as the curtain falls on America’s latest dramatic flop, it’s quickly forgotten until the next major flop.
But there’s always money to be made, and the war-show must go on. Which distant nation shall it be next? Somalia? Iran? Somewhere-istan? Does it matter?
Update: When you truly care about something or someone, you care consistently. You pay attention. You devote yourself to it. Certain talking heads are now telling Americans they need to care about Afghanistan after suppressing information about the war for the last two decades. Sorry. You can’t cover up and lie about the U.S. war effort for two decades and then expect Americans deferentially to listen to you.
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.
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.
Silencing War Criticism: The Iraq Invasion of 2003
Update (7/19/17): I posted this article at HuffPost, and the site added a video that shows the mainstream media gushing over Trump’s strike against Syria. The video is well worth watching. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/596df7a3e4b07f87578e6bd7 or follow this link.
Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota (1999-2003), was a hot media commodity as the Bush/Cheney administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ventura, a U.S. Navy veteran who gained notoriety as a professional wrestler before he entered politics, was both popular and outspoken. MSNBC won the bidding war for his services in 2003, signing him to a lucrative three-year contract to create his own show – until, that is, the network learned he was against the Iraq war. Ventura’s show quickly went away, even as the network paid him for three years to do nothing.
I heard this revealing story from a new podcast, the TARFU Report, hosted by Matt Taibbi and Alex Pareene. By his own account, Jesse Ventura was bought off by the network, which back then was owned by General Electric, a major defense contractor that was due to make billions of dollars off the war.
Of course, Ventura was hardly the only war critic to run afoul of GE/NBC. Phil Donahue, the famous talk show host, saw his highly rated show cancelled when he gave dissenters and anti-war voices a fair hearing. Ashleigh Banfield, a reporter who covered the Iraq war, gave a speech in late April 2003 that criticized the antiseptic coverage of the war (extracts to follow below). For her perceptiveness and her honesty, she was reassigned and marginalized, demoted and silenced.
So much for freedom of speech, as well as the press.
As Phil Donahue said, his show “wasn’t good for business.” NBC didn’t want to lose ratings by being associated with “unpatriotic” elements when the other networks were waving the flag in support of the Iraq war. In sidelining Ventura and Donahue, NBC acted to squelch any serious dissent from the push for war, and punished Ashleigh Banfield in the immediate aftermath of the war for her honesty in criticizing the coverage shown (and constructed) by the mainstream media, coverage that was facilitated by the U.S. military and rubber-stamped by corporate ownership.
Speaking of Banfield’s critique, here are some excerpts from her speech on Iraq war coverage in April 2003. Note that her critique remains telling for all U.S. media war coverage since then:
That said, what didn’t you see [in U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war]? You didn’t see where those bullets landed. You didn’t see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you’re getting the story, it just means you’re getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that’s what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn’t journalism, because I’m not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid of a horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn’t see what it took to do that.
I can’t tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you’ve got to be on both sides.
Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that’s amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn’t see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.
I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I’m very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people’s opinions. It was very sanitized. [emphasis added]
This TV show [Iraq invasion coverage] that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there’s nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do. [emphasis added]
War is ugly and it’s dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It’s a dangerous thing to propagate.
I’m hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.
Nothing has changed since Banfield’s powerful critique. Indeed, the networks have only hired more retired generals and admirals to give “unbiased” coverage of America’s military actions. And reporters and “journalists” like Brian Williams have learned too. Recall how Williams cheered the “beautiful” U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles as they were launched against Syria earlier this year.
It’s not just that U.S. media coverage actively suppresses dissent of America’s wars: it passively does so as well, which is arguably more insidious. Any young journalist with smarts recognizes the way to get ahead is to be a cheerleader for U.S. military action, a stenographer to the powerful. Being a critic leads to getting fired (like Donahue); demoted and exiled (like Banfield); and, in Ventura’s case, if you can’t be fired or demoted or otherwise punished, you can simply be denied air time.
When you consider that billions and billions of dollars are at stake, whether in weapons sales or in advertising revenue tied to ratings, none of this is that surprising. What’s surprising is that so few Americans know about how pro-authority and uncritical U.S. media coverage of war and its makers is. If anything, the narrative is often that the U.S. media is too critical of the military to the detriment of the generals. Talk about false narratives and alternative facts!
America’s greed-wars persist for many reasons, but certainly a big one is the lack of critical voices in the mainstream media. Today’s journalists, thinking about their career prospects and their salaries (and who is ultimately their boss at corporate HQ), learn to censor themselves, assuming they have any radical thoughts to begin with. Some, like Brian Williams, even learn how to stop worrying and love the beautiful bombs.