In a sad spectacle, former President Barack Obama visited the White House and humiliated his former VP, Joe Biden, as this video shows:
Who cares, right? But I do want to say a few things about this:
Obama stands revealed here as a total narcissist as he basks in the applause and approval of White House political operatives while Joe Biden stands outside the circle of joy, looking lost and insignificant.
Obama’s “joke” of addressing a sitting president as “Vice President” was unintentionally revealing of Biden’s lack of power within the White House and his own party.
I’m not surprised Obama treated Biden in this humiliating manner. Obama intervened in 2020 and made Biden the nominee for the Democratic Party. Recall how he got both Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg to drop out before Super Tuesday, thereby boosting Biden’s vote in his race against Bernie Sanders. Without Obama’s intervention, Sanders would have been the likely winner of the nomination process. But Obama and the DNC could not stomach the idea of a progressive like Sanders winning the nomination, so Biden was propped up as the candidate who could win, i.e., the candidate who could be controlled by corporate forces.
Here’s my biggest concern. Biden isn’t a complete dummy, and no man truly wants to be a puppet of others. So I wonder if we’ll see Biden increasingly go off-script, in increasingly angry ways, that contribute to an increasingly dangerous world.
Biden has already gone dangerously off-script in calling for Vladimir Putin’s overthrow in Russia. To Biden, Putin is a “war criminal” who must not remain in power. It’s possible this heated, somewhat unhinged, rhetoric is that of an emasculated man who knows he’s little more than a figurehead.
Biden turns 80 later this year and says he wants to run again in 2024. Yet, at this Obama celebration at the White House, he looked like a man lost, a bit player in his own house, diminished to the point of irrelevance.
And that’s not a good thing when the U.S. needs effective, sound, and determined leadership.
I truly believe that if men got pregnant, abortion would be free, legal, and readily available across the United States.
But men don’t get pregnant, so the idea of carrying an unwanted baby to term is mainly theoretical for them. How easy it is, then, to outlaw abortion while claiming to be pro-life.
Having been raised Catholic, I was taught abortion is murder. It’s that blunt. As the Church was teaching me that, it was allowing predatory priests to molest children. There was even a predatory priest assigned to my parish when I was young. So I’m not too keen on the moral authority and teachings of the Church here. Again, if priests got pregnant, I truly believe abortion would be accepted within the Church. Perhaps it would be justified by arguing that priests, first and foremost, have to serve God and the Church and therefore shouldn’t be encumbered by children.
The U.S. Supreme Court seems ready to overturn Roe v Wade by next summer, which is not surprising. So much for respecting judicial precedent. Even as it does so, we’ll hear arguments about how the Court isn’t partisan or political or influenced by religious beliefs, which is absurd. So-called pro-life Republicans have won the battle of placing partisan justices on the Court, and soon they’ll reap their reward.
Establishment Democrats are not as unhappy as you might think. I’ve already received urgent requests to donate money in the cause of abortion rights. Abortion is a “hot-button” issue and a real money-maker for partisans on both sides. Sorry, Democrats, this is your mess too, and you won’t see a penny from me.
Why do I claim Democrats are responsible too? President Obama could have appointed a justice to the Supreme Court when Mitch McConnell refused to do his job. It may have touched off a Constitutional crisis, but it was a fight worth having. But Obama figured Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose to Trump, so he did nothing. Meanwhile, Hillary ran a horrible campaign and lost to a failed casino owner and C-list celebrity apprentice. Because of that, we got three new justices who were all picked in large part because of their opposition to Roe v Wade. (That, and the fact they’re all pro-business.)
We will soon take a giant step backwards in America. Roughly half of American states will outlaw abortion; the other half will likely allow it under various conditions. Of course, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, rich women, no matter where they live, will be able to get abortions. Women of lesser means will struggle and suffer. The pro-life movement will applaud that there are fewer abortions even as they cut benefits to the mothers who are forced to have these babies. They will do this with no pangs of conscience and in the name of loving the unborn — until they’re born to the “wrong” kind of mother.
And so it goes in America.
A Coda (12/5/21)
I welcome all comments on this difficult issue.
Instead of Cui bono, or who benefits, I think of who suffers if Roe v Wade is overturned. Not men. Not women of means, who will find a way to secure a safe abortion irrespective of the law in their particular state. It will be poor and desperate women who suffer, especially those who’ve been raped or who’ve been the victims of incest. Imagine being raped and then being forced to carry the fetus to term — it’s unimaginable to me.
I should note as well the burden placed on women — always women. What about the man who got her pregnant? Why may a woman be forced to give birth to an unwanted child while the father walks away freely in virtually all cases? People often discuss abortion as if women got pregnant by immaculate conception. As if men hold no responsibility whatsoever. Believe me, if men got pregnant too, abortion would be freely available.
So it’s likely that next summer, five men and one very conservative woman aligned with a fringe group in the Catholic Church will rule to compromise the bodily autonomy of women across the country; they’ll be opposed by two women and one man who seek to uphold a less-than-perfect precedent but one that has served to reduce state and patriarchal domination in the US of A for half a century.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will obviously be revealed for what it is: a partisan hack shop in which the law is for sale or otherwise open to manipulation by the well-connected for unsavory purposes.
Tell me how this is a good thing.
Coda 2 (12/6/21)
As a (lapsed) Catholic, I realize people have religious reasons why they oppose abortion.
To these people I say: If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have one. But don’t seek to impose your religious beliefs on everyone else.
A decision on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. It’s a private decision. You have no say. Your religious beliefs don’t matter.
Against abortion? Don’t have one — simple as that. And MYOB.
Remember Barack Obama, he of the “hope and change” campaign of 2008? He intervened in the 2020 Democratic primaries in March to eliminate any chance for hope and change this time around. That’s why we’re stuck with Biden/Harris versus Trump/Pence and a Hobson’s choice when it comes to what really matters for most Americans today.
I confess for a brief instant I thought Bernie Sanders was going to carry the day. Sanders knows we need a true political revolution in this country, which is precisely why the DNC and Obama conspired to put him down. Obama got both “Mayor” Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out and throw their support to Joe Biden. At the same time, he rallied the Black vote for Joe. The other mayor, billionaire Bloomberg, dropped out when he knew Sanders was sunk. And the election of 2020 was over.
I know — we still have another week until November 3rd and the general election. Yes, of course there are differences between Trump and Biden. But, again, if you were looking for substantive and meaningful change, if you were looking for a champion for the working classes, if you were looking for higher wages, better and more affordable health care, and some movement toward a less bellicose foreign and domestic policy, your candidate is gone, probably eliminated by Mister Hope and Change himself.
Surely this must be counted under Barack Obama’s sad and depressing legacy: the abandonment of even a pretense toward serving any interests other than those of the already well-heeled.
I predicted Biden/Harris was going to be the ticket a year before it became true, but I so much wanted to be wrong. I wanted a candidate to vote for, not simply an opponent to vote against. For a brief time, I was allowed to dream that we Democrats actually had a say in picking our candidate, and that it might be a true progressive, not another fake left, run right schmuck. Yes, deep down I knew better, but dreams sustain us, until harsh reality slaps us in the face and wakes us.
So, I’m awake, if not “woke,” and I despair because to me the election of 2020 is already lost.
Chatting with friends today via email, we discussed Trump’s prospects for a second term. Trump could win again, one friend said. “Could” win? He’s got this thing locked up, another friend added. It’s beginning to feel that way.
What’s Trump’s secret? Sure, he’s a shameless con man. He passes himself off as a “law and order” man even as his own way of living demonstrates lawlessness and disorder. Sure, his ignorance, his narcissism, and his laziness have combined to produce 200,000 American deaths from Covid-19, a figure that should have been far smaller with firm leadership from an engaged president.
Yet his supporters don’t hold him responsible for any of this: deaths, disorder, lawlessness in the government, who cares? They favor Trump because he gives them what they want. He makes them feel good.
Can you say the same of Joe Biden? Biden is largely a cipher who’s been picked by the donor class precisely because he’s predictable. His appeals to the progressive base of his party are at best lukewarm. While Trump feeds his base red meat, Biden gives his some warmed up, somewhat spoiled, leftovers.
Trump is an empty shell of man, devoid of compassion and humility. But he knows how to sell, and he knows how to deliver, even if that delivery isn’t quite what one was expecting. So, for example, he hasn’t built much of his great big beautiful wall along the southern border, and Mexico sure isn’t paying for it, but Trump has kept fighting for it. New portions of the wall are being built. And his base likes this because they like walls that allegedly keep out killers and rapists and they like Trump for persisting. Even if the final result is ineffective, a colossal waste of money, it made his base feel better. And Trump knows this.
Trump is delivering with the Supreme Court as well, with help from the ultimate Washington swamp creature, Mitch McConnell. How did Obama do with his Supreme Court choice in 2016? That poor weak man had his pick stolen from him. You think Trump and McConnell are going to let Democrats block or cheat them? Forget about it.
In four short years, Trump will deliver three supreme court justices who are conservative and who will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, sealing the support of evangelicals until End Times. Again, like him or loathe him, Trump has delivered to his base.
Remember when Obama promised hope and change in 2008 and then hired all the usual suspects in Washington to protect businesses and the bankers while screwing the little people? Remember when Obama instantly caved on the idea of universal health care as he worked toward what became Obamacare, which is basically Romneycare and originally a conservative idea? Remember when Obama admitted his policies were basically those of a moderate Republican? So do I.
That’s why we got Trump in 2016. That and the terrible campaign his Democratic rival ran. “I’m with her,” but she wasn’t with me or the majority of Americans, so she lost. Now we have Joe Biden, yet another Democrat who wants to win without promising anything to the base that will upset his donors.
And how does that base feel about Joe? My sense is they are, at best, ambivalent. They don’t trust him. And why should they? Biden is establishment, unexciting, and past his prime. Trump is anti-establishment (in his poses), exciting (in a violent and visceral way), and still hitting on most of his cylinders. Edge to Trump.
Look: Readers of Bracing Views know I despise Trump. I find Biden unreliable as well as uninspiring. His message, so far, is “I’m not Trump.” And I don’t think that’s enough.
You need to inspire. You need to make people feel — something. Trump does this, mostly in a highly charged and negative way. His followers like him and think that Trump knows them and cares about them. Biden is not connecting, not in the same charged way as Trump does, and he’s not giving the Democratic base much of anything.
If the Democrats lose yet again, they had better change tactics and actually play to their base, else you can start penciling in Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner as America’s president and “first man” in 2024.
Trump isn’t a politician — he’s a brand. What he wants more than anything is brand loyalty. So he plays to his base as much as possible, maintaining their loyalty by hitting “hot button” issues like immigration, abortion, white power, guns, Confederate generals, standing for the flag and the national anthem, the bible (while gassing peaceful protesters), and so on.
Obama was also a brand — but he arguably gave his most fervent supporters much less than Trump. What I mean is this: Obama posed as a progressive but ruled mostly as a corporate Republican-lite, taking his base for granted, figuring quite rightly they had nowhere else to go. What that meant in practice was a feckless administration that led to disillusion, setting the stage for another, much less moderate, brand name: Trump.
Early in 2010, I was flummoxed by Obama and his feckless leadership. Tapping into my affection for science fiction and “Star Trek,” I wrote the article below on how Obama had to “Learn from Mr. Spock” and take bigger chances. Of course, Obama had no interest in going big — he much preferred to cash in and go home. And so he has.
Trump and Obama: well-known brand names, but one has served his base more loyally than the other. Guess which one? Hint: It’s the one who overacts, much like William Shatner playing Captain Kirk.
President Obama: Learn from Mr. Spock! (Posted 1/27/2010)
President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s. Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya. Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.
Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience. Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer. An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair. Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator. Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.
Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command. In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.” His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.
To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet. As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids. While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that. He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.
Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions. He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them. Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire. Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position. The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.
What went wrong? Spock doesn’t know. Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew. But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally. Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.
While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings. A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.” Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.
Now, let’s turn to Obama. Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental). Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.
What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots. Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options. By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.
How does Spock recover and save the day? By gambling. As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it. Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry. But the desperate gamble works. Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet. Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.
The lesson? Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds. Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it. He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it. In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.
So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command? That we could use a little inspiration. That we want less analysis and more action. That we may even need a game-changing gamble.
C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it. Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.
Postscript (7/1/20): Obama never took command. He never took risks on behalf of progressive principles. (Perhaps he just didn’t have any.) The emptiness of his brand enabled Trump. Will Trump’s emptiness enable more fecklessness in the name of Joe Biden?
The Afghan War is back in the news, mainly because of allegations that Russian entities offered a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops. Pulling no punches, Alternet used this headline: “The Pentagon leaks an explosive story of Trump’s dereliction of duty — widening the rift between the military and the White House.”
The U.S. military has been fighting the Taliban ever since 2001, so why the latter now needs bounties to motivate them is unclear. Indeed, the original “bounty” story at the New York Times was thinly and anonymously sourced and has been denied by Russia and the Taliban. Of course, in the past U.S. officials had their own bounties on various “terrorists,” and who can forget President George W. Bush’s appeal to Old West lore when he echoed those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in the search for Osama bin Laden?
President Trump has said he wants to end the Afghan War by November, but he is surprisingly weak in reining in the Pentagon. At some level, Trump knows the Afghan War is unwinnable; it always has been. It’s unjust as well, though Trump never uses that kind of language. He sees it mainly as a business proposition that’s losing money bigtime. Yet despite all his fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.
Back in 2010, I tried to point out the folly of America’s war in the following article. At the time, President Obama was implementing a “surge” of troops that proved both unsustainable and unwise. So I put together this thought experiment, putting my gun-toting neighbors and friends in the rugged hills of rural Pennsylvania in the role of an American Taliban responding to an invasive force. A decade ago, I had no doubt who would prevail, whether in reality or in my experiment.
As the Afghan War approaches two decades, how will we ever end our folly when even so-called liberal media sources are waving red shirts and inflaming passions with talk of Russian bounties? (6/28/2020)
A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge
(Written in January 2010)
Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?
My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.
Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.
As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.
Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?
And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?
Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?
I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.
As a concept, “white privilege” is disturbing, contentious, insulting, take your pick, assuming you’re a white guy like me enjoying “advanced middle age,” as one of my old friends recently put it. Me, privileged? I come from a working-class background, grew up in a triple-decker in a decaying city, started working at age 15, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the military for twenty years, and so on. I didn’t “succeed” because I’m a cis white male, right? Where was “my” privilege?
Of course, privilege is often invisible or barely visible; it’s stealthy. It may mean you’re not being watched because you’re white. You’re not being stopped and frisked because you’re white. People don’t cross the street because you’re white. Maybe you’re not shot at or choked out because you’re white.
The clearest illustration of white privilege I can think of is Donald Trump, and it’s not because I’m a Trump hater. (I’m opposed to Trump and Biden.)
Think about Trump. He’s been married three times. Has had five kids with three different wives. Brags about pussy-grabbing. Has had documented affairs with a Playboy playmate and a porn star while paying them hush money. And none of this behavior has ruined his political chances, even among the “family values” evangelical crowd. Indeed, evangelicals generally love “bad boy” Trump.
Now, imagine a black candidate for the presidency with Trump’s record. The multiple marriages, the adulterous affairs, the pussy-grabbing talk. Would this black guy have a ghost of a chance at being nominated in the USA? Recall that Barack Obama needed to have the “perfect” family image, monogamous, faithful, wife, two kids, by all accounts a loving relationship, the prototypical nuclear family. They even had a dog, unlike Trump, who seems to despise pets. (Trump’s a germaphobe.)
Now, let’s imagine a woman of any race or creed. What would America say about a female candidate who’s had five kids with three different husbands? Who’s had adulterous affairs with porn stars and Playgirl centerfolds? Who’s bragged of grabbing males by the you-know-what? Would she have a chance to be our president? To be embraced by evangelicals as their candidate of choice? Of course not.
With Trump, all this doesn’t matter. As a rich spoiled white guy, he’s been given a blank check by society to do whatever he wants. Sure, he’s been criticized for his more outrageous comments and actions, but he still won the presidency — and may yet win again. You simply can’t say the same of any woman or any person of color with the same baggage as Trump.
It’s amazing what Trump gets away with. But this is not about partisan politics. It’s about societal norms and expectations. Consider John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Both were philanderers; LBJ was especially vulgar. But all was accepted or at least tolerated because they were white males acting in “manly” ways.
This is just one obvious but nevertheless compelling illustration of white (male) privilege in America. As my better half reminds me, for white men it’s easier walking down the sidewalk, buying a car, renting an apartment; basically, living. And that is privilege indeed.
I watched Trump’s speech today to the nation on Iran. It had the usual boasts about the U.S. military and its “big” and “lethal” missiles, the usual bombast, the usual lies. But this passage of his speech truly struck me as beyond the pale:
Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given 150 billion dollars, not to mention 1.8 billion dollars in cash. Instead of saying thank you to the United States, they chanted Death to America.
In fact, they chanted Death to America the day the agreement was signed. Then Iran went on a terrorist spree funded by the money from the deal and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.
That’s right: the missiles used against U.S. forces last night we’re paid for by the Obama administration. Not only that: Iran went on a “terrorist spree” funded by the “foolish” Iran nuclear treaty, spreading “hell” throughout Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I’m sure glad Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, and other military actors in the region never spread any “hell,” despite all those Hellfire missiles launched from American drones.
So here’s a new claim for you. If the U.S. military is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, the culprit is clear: the Obama administration and by extension the Democrats, the appeasers who funded Iran and made possible all of its “terrorist” activities.
Best of all, Trump wished peace and prosperity to the Iranian people, but you heard nothing about working peacefully and in prosperous ways with the Democrats.
Clearly, Trump sees the real enemy of America: Obama and the Democrats.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War. The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war. Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism. But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
Surprise, surprise! Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009. Here’s my article from that time. Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (April 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.
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.
Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up:
Ten years ago, President Obama went to West Point to sell his “surge” in the Afghan War. Back then, I wrote two articles for Huffington Post on Obama’s decision to escalate that war and his choice of venue to announce his decision. Those two articles are re-posted below.
The Afghan War was supposed to be settled quickly, in America’s favor, by Obama’s surge. Yet here we are, a decade later, still mired in Afghanistan, with America’s generals either talking about several more years in Afghanistan, or several more generations. How can they be so foolish?
In telling the American people about his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, President Obama has selected a venue that at first blush seems to make sense. Yet by choosing the United States Military Academy at West Point, Obama is sending at least three disturbing messages. The first message is a tacit admission to the corps of cadets — and to the American people — that we’re facing a long war of at least five, possibly ten, perhaps even fifty, years. After all, why bother to address the class of 2013 unless these cadets can also expect to be deployed to Afghanistan as platoon commanders in 2014?
The second message is that Obama is more than willing to ape the tactics of former President George W. Bush. Often when Bush had a controversial decision to announce, he did so before a sympathetic audience of assembled troops, surrounded by waving flags and military brass. Critics rightly took Bush to task for speaking so often in front of admiring troops in uniform, thereby evading tough questioning from more critical, less deferential, audiences.
The third, somewhat more subtle, message is that Obama sees the situation in Afghanistan primarily in military terms — that, if there’s a solution to Afghanistan, it’s one that must be brokered or imposed by the U.S. military. If he wanted to stress the importance of diplomacy, for example, one might think Obama would have selected the State Department as a venue; if international diplomacy, one might have considered the United Nations. But West Point it is, and thus more escalation and militarization loom.
Here’s what I’d prefer: The President, speaking honestly and directly to the American people, from the Oval Office. No military trappings. No echoes, whether intentional or unintentional, of Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” speech at West Point in 1962.
West Point is all about “duty, honor, country.” Young, idealistic, and dedicated cadets need no convincing by their commander-in-chief. It’s the rightly skeptical American people who truly need convincing.
By going to West Point, Obama is not just further militarizing his presidency — he’s taking the easy way out.
A week ago, I argued that President Obama sent three disturbing messages in choosing West Point as the site to announce his escalatory plans for the Afghan war. A week later, I’d like to make three further points. First, I believe that the President undermined the grave seriousness of his speech by deciding post-speech to press the flesh of cadets while posing for smiling photos. An urgent call to battle was transformed into a political photo-op. “Grip and grin” photos are best left to times of celebration, like class graduation, rather than to times of grim news of the need to commit more troops to a difficult and deadly war.
Second, the President was right to emphasize that West Point cadets “represent what is finest about our country.” His meaning here was clear: they’re the “finest” because they “stand up for our security.” Having myself taught military cadets for six years, these words resonated with me. But I wish the President had elaborated further because, in spelling out why he considers our troops to be our “finest,” Obama could have reminded us of the enormous burdens — and enormous price — of war.
Put bluntly, by ordering another 35,000 or so American troops to Afghanistan, Obama was ordering men and women, including some of the young cadets from West Point’s long grey line sitting in that very auditorium, to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives in the service of their country — to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic — marks them as being among our finest.
The ultimate price these cadets are prepared to pay puts an enormous burden on the judgment and wisdom of their Commander-in-chief. For what president wants to send America’s finest to fight and perhaps die for a lost cause or, even worse, an unjust one?
It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability. But as “pure” citizens, we are not duty-bound to snap to attention and to salute smartly.
Obama, after all, is not our Commander-in-chief: he’s our President, our most senior public servant. We owe it to our troops to challenge him if we believe escalation in Afghanistan is not the best course of action to secure America’s safety.
So, my third point is to remind us of our duty as informed citizens to ask the tough questions of our public servants — even, if necessary, to dissent and protest — precisely because our troops are prevented from doing so by their solemn oath of office.
But I worry that we are not informed citizens, and that because of that fact, and because our personal stake in our nation’s wars is so small compared to that of the West Point cadets, we largely don’t seem to care, or care enough.
In a decidedly unscientific poll, I asked three of my classes, a total of 59 students, if they had watched the President’s speech on Afghanistan. Only one student did (and these were students enrolled in History classes).
So, I worry. I worry about more American combat brigades being sent overseas, a momentous decision capped by a photo-op of our President surrounded by beaming cadets in the prime of life. I worry that so many of my students are seemingly so ill-informed, or so uninterested, about the ramifications of this decision.
But I hope, for the sake of our troops as well as for the Afghan people, that our President somehow got it right, and that the cause for which we fight is neither lost nor unjust.
Addendum: When I wrote this article ten years ago, I said this:
It’s not for West Point cadets, or for any other serviceman or servicewoman, to question the orders of their Commander-in-chief. They are duty-bound to carry out his orders to the best of their ability.
In writing this ten years ago, I made an assumption the president’s orders would be lawful.
No military member can be forced to follow unlawful orders, which I would define as contrary to the U.S. Constitution and/or consistent with war crimes. So, for example, LT Calley was ordering as well as committing war crimes at My Lai. No troops had to, or should have, followed such orders. But we know from history and from our knowledge of military command systems how difficult it is to disobey orders, even when they are unlawful to the point of enabling war crimes.
Military cadets are educated on these distinctions; they have to take courses on ethics and discuss these complex issues in the classroom. But it’s much easier to deal with these issues in class, tough as they are, than in the heat of battle.
Things get more slippery if you consider a whole war to be immoral and unjust. If you’re in the military and ordered to participate in such a war, what do you do? You may have an option to resign, assuming you have no service commitment. But often the option is obedience or punishment. And those who are willing to risk and/or endure punishment while taking a principled stance are to be respected, or at the very least not dismissed out of hand.
For me, Chelsea Manning is a true hero. She did what other service members should always do: remembering her oath, she acted to uphold it, irrespective of the cost to her.
But there’s a counterargument that should be considered. What individual soldier has perfect knowledge? In acting, perhaps with one-sided information, are you endangering your fellow troops? Are you truly acting selflessly, or selfishly?
Not every would-be whistleblower is acting wisely or thinking coherently.
These are tough calls where people pay a very high price indeed.
Obedience is needed in the military. Even in the face of death. But obedience is wrong in the face of illegality and immorality. Thus we should elect leaders who respect legality and display morality. Sadly, that is often the very opposite of what we do as a people.