Destroying the Village in Vietnam

W.J. Astore

One day, a village of roughly 1200 people in South Vietnam ceased to exist. The U.S. Air Force destroyed it, and the report read “Target 100% destroyed, body-count 1200 KBA (killed by air) confirmed.”

It wasn’t an “enemy” village. It was a village that had failed to pay its taxes to a South Vietnamese provincial commander, a lieutenant colonel and ostensibly a U.S. ally. He wanted the village destroyed to set an example to other recalcitrant villages, and the U.S. Air Force did what it does: It put bombs and napalm on target.

At Seventh Air Force headquarters, the brass knew this village’s “crime.” As a brigadier general said to then-Lieutenant Colonel James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth, “Damn, Cotton, don’t you know what’s going on? That village didn’t pay their taxes. That [South Vietnamese] lieutenant colonel … is teaching them a lesson.”

It’s a “lesson” that made Cotton Hildreth, who later became a major general, “really sick” and “very bitter” about his role as a combat pilot in the Vietnam War. Later, in an oral interview, he admitted “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much.” One can understand why.

At the time, Hildreth brought his concerns to General William Momyer, the Seventh Air Force Commander, but Momyer offered only platitudes, saying that Hildreth was “doing some good, somewhere,” by dropping bombs and napalm and other ordnance on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.

We know this story only because Cotton Hildreth was willing to share it after being retired from the Air Force for fifteen years. A few days before this village was obliterated, Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, had been ordered to destroy the village with napalm. They refused to do so after making low and slow passes over the village, only to be greeted by children waving their arms in friendship. In “The Wingman and the Village,” Hugh Turley’s article about this in the Hyattsville Life & Times (July 2010), Hildreth admitted his wingman had dropped napalm away from the village first, and Hildreth then did the same. The wingman in question, old for a pilot at age 48 and a grandfather, had seen a woman running with two children from her hut. He’d made a snap decision to disobey orders.

As the wingman told Hildreth when they returned to base: “Sir, I have three small grandchildren at home, and I could never face them again if I had followed those orders.” The unnamed wingman was later reassigned to a non-combat role.

When Hildreth was asked later if he’d have destroyed the village if he’d been flying an F-105 “Thud,” which flew higher and much faster than the A-1 Skyraider, he admitted he likely would have, because “you don’t see the people.”

What can we learn from this story? This atrocity? That it’s very easy to kill when you never see the people being killed. That it’s easy to follow orders and much harder to disobey them. That the Air Force brass at headquarters knew they were complicit in mass murder but that it meant more to them to keep one South Vietnamese provincial commander happy than it meant to keep 1200 innocent people alive.

One day in a long and atrocious war, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman decided they’d put humanity first; that they wouldn’t destroy a defenseless village despite orders to do so. It didn’t matter. That village and those people were destroyed anyway a few days later. It was just another day in a war allegedly fought to contain communism but which instead led to uncontained barbarity by a so-called democratic alliance.

“We had to destroy the village to save it” is a catchphrase from that war that is of course a contradiction in terms. Destruction is destruction. Death is death. No one was saved. Small wonder that Hildreth was so sick, so bitter, and spoke so rarely of his experiences in Vietnam.

A Note on Sources:

Oral interview with retired U.S. Air Force Major General James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth on 9/19/96. Hildreth recounts his experience beginning at the 21-minute mark of the interview.

I first learned of Hildreth’s interview from David Martin, who wrote about it here in 2015, calling it the largest single known atrocity of the Vietnam War. Such atrocities were commonplace, given the wanton use of destructive power by the U.S. military in Vietnam. This is a theme developed by Nick Turse in his book, “Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.” (2013)

Hugh Turley, “The Wingman and the Village,” in “Hugh’s News,” Hyattsville Life & Times, July 2010.

Hildreth’s story is consistent with what Bernard Fall saw in Vietnam, which I wrote about here.

James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth. (Photo from North Carolina Digital Archive)

Operation Enduring War

W.J. Astore

War Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

It’s another very warm and very humid day here in the Bracing Views HQ.  As the situation in Afghanistan continues to go poorly, at least from the perspective of the U.S. government, I thought I’d reflect on a comment I made with the theme of “Wherever we go, there we are.” In other words, wherever America makes war, we bring certain aspects of ourselves and our culture with us.  What do I mean by this?

When America intervenes in (or invades) countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in the stated cause of “freedom” (recall these operations were unironically named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, proving that the U.S. government can out-Orwell George Orwell), we bring anything but freedom.  That’s because our “freedom” wars feature an almost total reliance on the military (no surprise there), and the military simply isn’t about freedom. That military is trained for kinetic ops, i.e., murderous violence; and that military features “force multipliers” (bombs and missiles and chemical agents of various sorts, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction) to subdue various “enemies” while limiting American casualties.

At the same time as lots of foreigners are being killed, Americans generally maintain a stubborn ignorance of the foreign country in which we’re involved.  Their history doesn’t matter; all that matters is putting bombs on target and killing the “right” people, the bad guys, whoever they are.  Even as the war starts going poorly, predictably because we don’t really know who the “bad guys” are, nor are we sensible enough to recognize we’re the “foreigners” and often the real bad guys, the U.S. military proceeds to engage in a mindless pursuit of “victory,” however poorly defined, which in the end degenerates to a desire not to be labeled a “loser” in any war, no matter how stupid and unnecessary it is.

Related to this is the reality that once a war gets ginned up, there is an overwhelming desire by war profiteers in the U.S. military-industrial complex to keep the good times rolling.  Look at how long the Vietnam war lasted, or the Afghan war for that matter.  Decades of “good times” await war profiteers as long as American troops are kept in harm’s way, busily hammering away at “freedom,” because “our” troops must be “defended” at any cost.

Americans in general, ignoring obvious evidence to the contrary, have a strong bias that U.S. troops are always fighting on the side of the angels.  Who really wants to believe otherwise?  Such a bias makes it easier for us to wash our hands of the whole sordid affair.  And whether you like it or not, the U.S. military always fights in your and my name.

There are many other factors at work to explain the woeful nature of America’s wars, but the ones I mention above are important, I think, as we examine how dreadful America’s “freedom” wars turn out to be.  And when these freedom wars end poorly, as they do, the very last organization to shoulder any blame is the U.S. government.

Perhaps that’s truly the lead feature of U.S. war-making today: Even when you lose, and lose badly, war means never having to say you’re sorry.

For the Pentagon, sorry seems to be the hardest word

Gavin Versus Ricks: Why the U.S. Military Keeps Flailing and Failing

By Daniel N. White. Introduction by W.J. Astore.

Why has the U.S. military failed so consistently since World War II?  A popular thesis advanced most notably by Tom Ricks is that today’s military leaders simply aren’t called on the carpet and dismissed for poor performance as in the “greatest generation” era.  But is it that simple?  Should we simply stop coddling generals and cashier a few to encourage the others?  Dan White begs to differ, turning to the writings of two generals, James Gavin and Robin Olds, for support.  White persuasively argues that more firings and ostensibly tougher generals are not necessarily the answer, not when America’s wars are so poorly defined and essentially unwinnable to begin with.  So why does the U.S. military both acquiesce to and persist in waging unwinnable wars for unattainable objectives?  And what does that tell us about America’s approach to and understanding of war?  Read on!  W.J. Astore

A Flailing and Failing Military Has Forgotten the Fundamental Tenets of War 

Daniel N. White 

Tom Ricks, the Washington Post military affairs correspondent, argued in his book The Generals that US military failures in our ongoing and recently past wars are due to a reluctance to relieve commanders for cause.  Ricks tells of how in World War II numerous mid-level and senior officers were relieved for cause—nonperformance of their units on the battlefield.  Under-performing units turned around (every time, Mr. Ricks?) with new commanders and relieved commanders were given second chances that they often succeeded at.  Ricks argues that despite the obvious military failure in our current military ventures, no general officer has yet to be relieved for cause.  According to him, this sea-change in US military policy and practice is what now ails us. 

Ricks, however, fails to look at the overall history of relieving officers in the US military in wartime; thus his conclusions are suspect.  America’s current military failures have little to do with a failure to relieve officers for cause during wartime.  Ricks, like so much of this country’s population at large, its political and media elites in particular, looks no further back in our history than to World War II.  The American obsession with the “good war” fought by the “greatest generation” is a blinding defect that will ultimately kill many more Americans unless we wise up soon. 

Consider World War I, for example.  The US Army in the First World War generally didn’t perform very well on the battlefield.  Yet to my knowledge no studies have been done that affirm that relieving officers for cause improved US battlefield performance.   

Consider the Korean War as well.  The Army performed poorly in the opening stages of the war and was beaten again after the Inchon turnaround at Chosin Reservoir, after which General Matthew Ridgway turned things around and the US Army became a capable fighting force again.  Anyone who wants to argue about how relieving officers for cause is the key to effective performance on the battlefield needs to look at the US Army and its relief of officers in World War I and Korea.  Ricks doesn’t. 

The Retreat from Chosin Reservoir, Korea

Now let’s consider the Vietnam War.  The US Army officer corps was riddled with ticket-punching and widespread personal and professional dishonesty and a wide range of other vices during that war, yet it still managed to relieve officers in the field for cause.  The 1st Infantry Division regularly relieved officers for cause, while other divisions rarely used the practice.  Was there any real difference in the field performance between the two types of divisions?  Ricks doesn’t say. 

A better argument to be made against Ricks’ premise is from General James Gavin, in his war memoirs, On to Berlin (1978).  Gavin and the elite 82nd Airborne Division were sent to the Battle of the Bulge (1944), where they fought alongside the 7th Armored and the 106th Infantry Divisions.  The 7th was an experienced unit whose performance in fighting while badly outnumbered in the first days of the battle is now generally considered an outstanding example of defensive fighting against odds.  The 106th was a green division whose performance Gavin considered as good as could be expected under the circumstances, and whose commanding general gets several favorable mentions from Gavin for his performance in those most difficult circumstances of a green unit being attacked by superior forces. 

These two units led the US defense in the key defensive battle of St. Vith, a battle that didn’t get the press that its less important crossroads battle of Bastogne got, despite its larger importance.  Bernard Montgomery said of these two units’ performance, as they withdrew from their defensive positions they had held for the first week of the battle to new ones further back: “They can come back with all honour.  They come back to the more secure positions.  They put up a wonderful show.”  Gavin quotes the official Army history on Montgomery’s comments on two retreating US Army divisions: “Montgomery showed the ability to honor the fighting men which had endeared him to the hearts of the Desert Rats in North Africa.” 

Gavin further tells of how the commanders of both of these divisions were relieved once they finished their withdrawal to their new positions.  In the case of the CG of the 7th Armored, Gen. Robert Hasbrouck, the orders for his relief were sent at 6:25 on the morning of Dec. 22nd, while the countermanding orders, from the same Corps Commander, were sent to him restoring him to his command of the division the same evening, at 7:00 pm.  The CG of the 106th Inf., Alan W. Jones, wasn’t so lucky and was relieved permanently from his command.   Gavin has this to say about the matter here, and the US Army’s quickness to relieve officers for cause in WWII—which Ricks finds most admirable—here, on p. 258: 

      Once again I was struck by the manner in which the system treats senior officers in combat.  I have a haunting memory that does not diminish with the passage of time of how unfairly and thoughtlessly we treated some of our senior officers.  And I use the word ‘system’ because that is what it is.  It is not a personal matter.  It is something that one has come to expect of senior officers in our Army.  In this case, one is particularly impressed by the manner in which Montgomery congratulated all those who fought at St. Vith for the fine job they did.  We relieved the two senior commanders, although one was restored.  In the situation at Arnhem, in our earlier battle in Holland, the British general lost three-quarters of his command and a battle.  He returned home a hero and was personally decorated by the King. 

There is no doubt that in our system he would have been summarily relieved and sent home in disgrace.  In the case of General Jones and his 106th Division, higher command knew no more about the German plans than he did.  Higher command also knew of his dispositions and approved them.  His leading green regiments were overwhelmed before they could offer much resistance, and there is little that he—or anyone else, for that matter—could have done about it.  Summarily relieving senior officers, it seems to me, makes others pusillanimous and indeed discourages other potential combat leaders from seeking high command.  Again, it is not individuals acting against other individuals—it is not a personal matter–it is the way the system works and is expected to work.  It must be changed.  The shift from peacetime to a war footing and then to battle has a tremendous psychological impact on individuals.  Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock is not only a luxury that we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.  We have much to learn from the British about senior command relationships.   

And it is worth bringing to the table peacetime relief of command for cause.  The US military organization most famous for that practice was Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the US Air Force, in its halcyon days of General Curtis LeMay.*  SAC was in its day notorious for a horrific pressure-cooker environment but is nowadays regarded by some as a model of a peacetime military organization at the top of its form—the most highly skilled personnel, running the most technologically advanced weaponry, all ready 24/7/365 at the drop of a hat.

 

General Curtis LeMay, on a Navy ship, ready to observe a nuclear bomb test

SAC awaits a truly critical historian, but whoever it might be will be wise to heed the comments about SAC made by BGen. Robin Olds, an outstanding fighter pilot, a triple-ace, and wartime military leader and commander, in his posthumous memoirs, Fighter Pilot.  Olds was thoroughly dissatisfied with what he saw of SAC in the late 1970s, and wrote in his memoirs, on p. 372, of SAC’s longstanding history of relieving officers from command slots at the drop of a hat:  

Under their (SAC’s) rules, if a wing commander messed even a little bit he was canned and gone forever, so SAC fostered attitudes about how tough they were.  What they really did was make a bunch of liars out of many wing commanders, DM’s, and DO’s.  Guys at wing level were scared people.  They would lie, cheat, steal, and deny—anything to make themselves look good. 

The net result of this over time is described by Olds on p. 374: 

When LeMay scared the hell out of his people, he made some-thing out of them that I don’t think was in their true nature.  He made them cringe and hide the truth.  He made them say,  

’Yes Sir, Yes Sir,’ becoming chronic liars protecting their own skins…A man like that has to have someone working for him that he can dominate and he is invariably going to pick a lesser individual (for promotion) … a big group of guys were developed into people who were afraid to think for themselves.  They damned near destroyed the air force in the process (emphasis  mine)** 

Gavin and Olds versus Ricks on the merits of the US military’s past quickness to relieve commanders.  The choice is yours.  I’m with Gavin and Olds. 

Ricks and his writings on war and the US military deserve more comment than I want to give them here.  Fundamentally Ricks is a fan of the US military and of things military in general.  A fan isn’t an impartial judge of whatever it is they are a fan of.  That’s simply the nature of fandom.  Perhaps Ricks sees himself as a friend of the US military, but fans aren’t true friends, either. 

The worst sort of fans are accurately described by the athletes themselves as crotch sniffs, and that’s a telling turn of phrase.  Ricks is fundamentally a crotch sniff for the US military.  Journalists have mostly (and editors invariably) been a bunch of crotch sniffs for their own country’s militaries and Ricks is no exception. 

There’s unfortunately nothing new about that situation; it has almost always been the case about military/war journalism ever since newspapers were invented.  Anyone wanting to argue otherwise needs to reread Phillip Knightley’s The First Casualty (1975), 3rd edition in 2004, still the best book on war reportage.  

A complicating factor is that what most Americans know about war and warfare comes via Hollywood, whether they realize it or not—and most Americans lack the self-perception to realize how much Hollywood/ PR they’ve internalized.   An additional compounding factor is that the military is one of those institutions, like the judiciary, that invariably gets a pass from editors from critical analysis, and from probably the same reasons.  Most journalists simply know little of war or law, and when you combine technical ignorance with institutional sacred cowism you get uncritical coverage.  Ricks to his credit isn’t ignorant; he’s knows a fair amount about the US military and military history.  But Ricks’ strong belief in the goodness and efficacy of the US military dooms his writings to hackwork status, much like the rest of his militarily ignorant journalist colleagues’.***    

Ricks deserves credit for trying to come to grips with why the institution he admires so much has failed so badly against weak opponents like the Iraqis and Afghans.  His is an all too typical American attitude, particularly among conservatives, of harkening back to the glory days of World War II, when America seemed completely right and completely omnipotent.  This belief in America’s goodness in those days is dumb and wrong, yet it’s a belief that’s endemic in this country, and one that shows no signs of ever soon diminishing.     

The reasons for America’s recent military failures are more obvious than Ricks wants to acknowledge.  America simply had (and has) no realistic objective for wars whether in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Both wars had lies as their stated rationales, and nobody has yet explained how any sort of good is supposed to come from wars started by and waged on lies.  What is worse, far, far worse than that, is that both wars lacked any coherent political or military objective, at any time before or during their commission,  and if there is a worse crime or sin in the professions of politics or arms than fighting wars without objective I cannot name it.  I defy anyone else to, either. 

The US military has continued both wars in the face of obvious failures to achieve meaningful goals, despite however many times the political leadership here moved the goalposts.  Persons who remember the Vietnam War, or who bothered to learn anything about it beyond the Rambo cartoons, should be noticing more similarities than dissimilarities in our failed efforts then and our failed efforts now. 

Ricks fails to address how (as have likewise, for decades now, most all others in the media, political world, our moral leadership, and intelligentsia), once again, the US military has saluted smartly while participating in wars in distant lands that required more men in the field and a bigger war effort than they knew they were going to get from the home front.  Once again, senior military leaders willingly involved themselves and their organizations in efforts that they knew from the beginning were almost certain to fail.  They fought wars without realistic war objectives and without adequate resources (most especially, support at home).  This is institutional failure at the highest level, a master class in moral cowardice and corruption.  

Sadly, instead of covering this, most media sites post the usual puff pieces about our noble troops as they fight terrorists in the cause of freedom.  Few people have asked the dreaded question of whether and why our military leaders are willingly participating in odious demi-wars staged largely for domestic political reasons.  The sickness and corruption—moral and professional corruption of the worst sort possible—that this question raises is an issue that fans like Ricks simply cannot comprehend. 

Ricks, who is again a reporter with considerable military knowledge, simply misses the target here.  The US military isn’t flailing and failing because it hasn’t fired enough generals: It’s flailing and failing because it engages in wars that are lost causes to begin with, as well as being illegal and immoral to boot.  Ricks is too much of a military fanboy to see this; so too are most Americans, who continue to salute the troops as heroes without ever questioning their actions in the field.  It is all most discouraging. 

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.     

*My favorite story about SAC and its willingness to relieve commanders comes from its earlier days when a B-36 Wing Commander was called on the mat by LeMay for a low level of operational readiness of his aircraft.  The Wingco explained that his squadrons at the base had had a rash of bird strike accidents involving buzzards, and these accidents had caused damage to parts of the airframes that were beyond the capabilities of wing maintenance to repair, and that new airframe parts from Convair were necessary to restore safe airworthiness to the airplanes.  The USAF didn’t have these airframe parts in its inventory, and Convair did not have them as spare parts yet, and Convair was unwilling to interrupt its production schedule for new B-36s by pulling the necessary parts off of its assembly lines and shipping them to his squadrons’ repair shops like he’d asked them to.  LeMay listened and said: “I have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent.  You are relieved.” 

**SAC was the preeminent branch of the US military during its Cold War salad days.  It had more money than God courtesy of a complacent Congress that gave it everything it wanted and then some.  There is of course nothing to show for all this expenditure; such is always the case for military expenditures.  But this line of Olds is as good an epitaph for SAC as an institution as it is ever going to get.  And SAC, as big and significant an American institution as it was in its day, really needs a good historian to look at it with a critical eye, before everyone involved in it is dead.  Most already are. 

***Anyone who thinks I’m being too hard on Ricks needs to go read his account of the Battle of Fallujah in his first book on the Iraq War, Fiasco.  A truly revolting bit of crotch sniffery towards the jarheads.

Ending America’s Wars

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I went on Keeping Democracy Alive with Burt Cohen to discuss ways of ending America’s wars. Click on the link below for the podcast.

Can it Happen Now: Real National Security, an End to Endless Wars?

We discussed the Biden administration and its approach to foreign policy, the Afghan War, the legacy of the Vietnam War, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and similar subjects. That rare word, “peace,” and that rare politician, George McGovern, truly a man of vision and guts, also get a mention.

Ending war is all about getting the profit out of war. General Smedley Butler knew this — yet America’s generals today love their massive “defense” budgets, this year soaring to $740.5 billion.

Another point: Look at the ongoing crisis in Texas with its frozen and failing power grid, lack of potable water, and so on. Why is America building more nuclear weapons when it needs to be upgrading its power grids and related infrastructure?

I know: stop making sense!

Nothing will fundamentally change?

Pulp Fiction and the Vietnam War

W.J. Astore

Growing up, I watched a lot of James Bond movies. That super-tough, super-sexy, British secret agent, played with such brilliance by Sean Connery, always seemed to have great fun as he saved the world from various dictators, terrorists, and megalomaniacs. I wanted an Aston Martin like Bond had in “Goldfinger,” tricked out with all the latest gizmos and gadgets provided by Q Branch. But more than anything I wanted Bond’s competence, his swagger, his ability to win the day while getting the girl as well. Such movies are harmless male fantasy flicks — or are they harmless?

While Ian Fleming was writing his “Bond” books and Sean Connery was breathing life and fire into the character, another sort of male fantasy was being promulgated and promoted in men’s adventure magazines with titles like “Stag” and “Man’s Life” and “Man’s World.” These pulp magazines appeared at a time when men’s masculinity was threatened (then again, when hasn’t masculinity been under threat?), in the 1950s and 1960s, a new nuclear age in which America seemed stuck behind the Soviet space program and stuck fighting wars (Korea, Vietnam) that ultimately proved unheroic and unwinnable.

It’s easy to dismiss such men’s magazines as a simplistic variety of pulp fiction, but we’d be wrong to do so, argues historian Greg Daddis in his new book, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines. Daddis is quite convincing in showing how this pulp fiction advanced a view of Western, and specifically American, chauvinism in which war served as an adventure, an opportunity to demonstrate the innate superiority of the American male over various foreign, often Asiatic, opponents, while getting the girl, of course, with the girl usually scantily clad and stereotyped as vulnerable and/or duplicitous and/or sexually available.

Daddis is careful to say that such magazines, with their often violent and sexist fantasies, didn’t drive or determine U.S. behavior in places like Vietnam. But they most certainly reflected and reinforced the idea of American martial superiority and the notion that foreigners, and specifically foreign women, were both inferior and exploitable. The book is well-produced and well-illustrated, including color plates of a representative sample of these magazines. “I’m not afraid of World War III,” “Castration of the American Male,” and “Beat it Sister, I’ve Got a War to Fight!” are a few of the article titles that caught my eye from these pulp covers.

For me, Daddis hits a homerun as he compares the harsh realities of the Vietnam War to the bizarre fantasies of these adventure magazines. If there were U.S. troops expecting lots of easy victories and easier women in ‘Nam, they quickly learned that pulp fiction had nothing to do with hard reality. In Daddis’ words:

In the macho pulps, brave warriors had fought for honor, for their comrades, for a sense of triumph. In Vietnam, GIs simply wanted to leave the fighting behind … The gaps between truth and fiction seemed insurmountable.

The undiscovered adventure thus generated a lingering sense of anxiety that Vietnam might not be the man-making experience as publicized in the macho pulps. The modern battlefield engendered a sense of helplessness, not heroism …

[M]ore than a few discouraged American soldiers in Vietnam took advantage of wartime opportunities to behave aggressively toward the very people they were there to protect … the pulps played an outsized role in contributing to a portrait of a manly warrior, conquering enemy forces in alien, savage lands, and, frequently, the women who resided there as well. For the men who were schooled by the Cold War pulps, actual experiences in Vietnam proved nothing like what they expected from stories of adventure and domination … [A] climate of deep frustration … might have contributed to violence against Vietnamese people in general and women in particular. After all, had not the macho pulps for years been promising them the sexual rewards of an exotic Orient?

Daddis, pp. 172-73

I’d wager that most men recognized the fantastic elements of the pulps — even laughing at some of the more outrageous stories and exaggerated illustrations. But on some level fantasy has a way of informing the reality that we construct out of the cultural material that surrounds us. Sure, I know I’m not James Bond, and I know that real spy work isn’t an adventure-filled romp as in a Bond flick like “Thunderball.” But I still prefer a martini that’s been shaken, not stirred.

The fiction sold by these men’s adventure magazines glorified war and the warrior even as it marginalized and stereotyped and demeaned foreigners of various sorts. Read enough of this stuff (or watch enough Bond flicks) and you’re bound to be influenced by them. Daddis is to be congratulated for writing a highly original study that sheds new light on why Americans fight the way they do, and for what reasons, fictions, and compulsions.

McGovern versus Nixon: Another Perspective

W.J. Astore

A loser in 1972 but a winner in life

In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.

And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.

Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:

Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land–young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.

Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.

Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.

History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.

Who was the “winner” again?

Three Generals Walk Into a Bar …

W.J. Astore (and Andrew Bacevich)

Back in May of 2019, I wrote an article here on General William Westmoreland and the Vietnam War. Westmoreland was conventional in every sense of the word; it was his misfortune to be put in charge of an unconventional war in Southeast Asia, a war he didn’t understand but also one that was unnecessary for U.S. security and incredibly wasteful to boot. Relieved of command by being booted upstairs, Westmoreland went to his grave convinced that the war was winnable. If only he’d received the reinforcements he needed …

Today at TomDispatch.com, Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and author, imagines Westmoreland grousing in a bar with two other generals: George S. Patton of World War II fame, and an imaginary general of today’s wars, Victor Constant. Let’s just say General Constant does not cover himself in glory, failing to live up to his victor(ious) first name as he loses himself in vapid catchphrases he’s gleaned from PowerPoint briefings on war and its meaning. Much like today’s generals, in fact.

So, with the blessing of TomDispatch.com, here is that barroom conversation, as imagined by Colonel (ret.) Bacevich:

Patton and Westy Meet in a Bar
A Play of Many Parts in One Act
By Andrew Bacevich

It’s only mid-afternoon and Army Lieutenant General Victor Constant has already had a bad day.1 Soon after he arrived at the office at 0700, the Chief2 had called. “Come see me. We need to talk.”

The call was not unexpected. Any day now, POTUS3 will announce the next four-star to command the war effort in Afghanistan — how many have there been? — and Constant felt certain that he’d be tapped for the job. He’d certainly earned it. Multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and, worse still, at the Pentagon. If anyone deserved that fourth star, he did.

Unfortunately, the Chief sees things differently. “Time’s up, Vic. I need you to retire.” Thirty-three years of service and this is what you get: your walking papers, with maybe a medal thrown in.

Constant returns to his office, then abruptly tells his staff that he needs some personal time. A 10-minute drive and he’s at the O-Club, where the bar is just opening. “Barkeep,” he growls. “Bourbon. Double. Rocks.” On the job long enough to have seen more than a few senior officers get the axe, the bartender quietly complies.

Constant has some thinking to do. For the first time in his adult life, he’s about to become unemployed. His alimony payments and college tuition bills are already killing him. When he and Sally have to move out of quarters,4 she’s going to expect that fancy house in McLean or Potomac that he had hinted at when they were dating. But where’s the money going to come from?

He needs a plan. “Barkeep. Another.” Lost in thought, Constant doesn’t notice that he’s no longer alone. Two soldiers — one boisterous, the other melancholy — have arrived and are occupying adjacent bar stools.

The first of them smells of horses. To judge by his jodhpurs and riding crop, he’s just returned from playing polo. He has thinning gray hair, small uneven teeth, a high-pitched voice, and a grin that says: I know things you never will, you dumb sonofabitch. He exudes arrogance and charisma. He is George S. Patton. He orders whiskey with a beer chaser.

The second wears Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, starched. His jump boots glisten.5 On his ballcap, which he carefully sets aside, are four embroidered silver stars. He is impeccably groomed and manicured. The nametape over his breast pocket reads: WESTMORELAND. He exudes the resentment of someone who has been treated unfairly — or thinks he has.

“Westy! Damned if you still don’t look like TIME’s Man of the Year back in ’65! Ease up, man! Have a drink. What’ll it be?”

“Just water for me, General. It’s a bit early in the day.”

“Shit. Water? You think my guys beat the Nazis by filling their canteens with water?”

Westmoreland sniffs. “Alcohol consumption does not correlate with battlefield performance — although my troops did not suffer from a shortage of drink. They never suffered from shortages of anything.”

Patton guffaws. “But you lost! That’s the point, ain’t it? You lost!”

The bickering draws Victor Constant out of his reverie. “Gentlemen, please.”

“Who are you, bucko?” asks Patton.

“I am Lieutenant General Victor Constant, U.S. Army. To my friends, I’m VC.”

“VC!” Westy nearly falls off of his stool. “My army has generals named after the Vietcong?”

Patton intervenes. “Well, VC, tell us old timers what you’re famous for and why you’re here, drinking in uniform during duty hours.

“Well, sir, first of all, I’m a warrior. I commanded a company in combat, then a battalion, then a brigade, then a division. But I’m here now because the chief just told me that I need to retire. That came as a bit of a blow. I don’t know what Sally is going to say.” He stares at his drink.

Patton snorts. “Well, my young friend, sounds like you’ve seen plenty of action. All that fighting translates into how many wins?”

“Wins?” VC doesn’t quite grasp the question.

“Wins,” Patton says again. “You know, victories. The enemy surrenders. Their flag comes down and ours goes up. The troops go home to a heroes’ welcome. Polo resumes.”

Westy interjects. “Wins? Are you that out of touch, George? The answer is: none. These so-called warriors haven’t won anything.”

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think that’s fair. Everyone agrees that, back in ’91, Operation Desert Storm was a historic victory. I know. I was there, fresh out of West Point.”

Patton smirks. “Then why did you have to go back and do it again in 2003? And why has your army been stuck in Iraq ever since? Not to mention Syria! And don’t get me started on Afghanistan or Somalia! The truth is your record isn’t any better than Westy’s.”

“Now, see here, George. You’re being unreasonable. We never lost a fight in Vietnam.” He pauses and corrects himself. “Well, maybe not never, but very rarely.”

“Rarely lost a fight!” Patton roars. “What does that have to do with anything? That’s like you and your thing with body counts! Dammit, Westy, don’t you know anything about war?”

VC ventures an opinion. “General Westmoreland, sir, I’m going to have to agree with General Patton on this one. You picked the wrong metric to measure progress. We don’t do body counts anymore.”

“Well, what’s your metric, sonny?”

VC squirms and falls silent.

His hackles up, Westy continues. “First of all, the whole body-count business was the fault of the politicians. We knew exactly how to defeat North Vietnam. Invade the country, destroy the NVA,6 occupy Hanoi. Just like World War II: Mission accomplished. Not complicated.”

He pauses to take a breath. “But LBJ and that arrogant fool McNamara7 wouldn’t let us. They imposed limits. They wouldn’t even mobilize the reserves. They set restrictions on where we could go, what we could attack. General Patton here had none of those problems in ’44-’45. And then the press turned on us. And the smartass college kids who should have been fighting communists started protesting. Nothing like it before or since — the home front collaborating with the enemy.”

Westy changes his mind about having a drink. “Give me a gin martini,” he barks. “Straight up. Twist of lemon. And give VC here” — his voice drips with contempt — “another of whatever he’s having.”

The bartender, who has been eavesdropping while pretending to polish glassware, grabs a bottle and pours.

“Hearts and minds, Westy, hearts and minds.” Patton taunts, obviously enjoying himself.

“Yes, hearts and minds. Don’t you think, George, that we understood the importance of winning over the South Vietnamese? But after Diem’s assassination,8 the Republic of Vietnam consisted of little more than a flag. After D-Day, you didn’t need to create France. You just needed to kick out the Germans and hand matters over to De Gaulle.”9

Westmoreland is becoming increasingly animated. “And you fought alongside the Brits. We were shackled to a Vietnamese army that was miserably led and not eager to fight either.”

“Monty was a horse’s ass,”10 Patton interjects, apropos of nothing.

“The point is,” Westmoreland continues, “liberating Europe was politically simple. Defending South Vietnam came with complications you could never havedreamed of. Did the New York Times pester you about killing civilians? All you had to do to keep the press on your side was not to get caught slapping your own soldiers.”

“That was an isolated incident and I apologized,” Patton replies, with a tight smile. “But the fact is, Westy, all your talk about ‘firepower and mobility’ didn’t work. ‘Search and destroy’? Hell, you damn near destroyed the whole U.S. Army. And the war ended with the North Vietnamese sitting in Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” Victor Constant offers by way of correction.

“Oh, shut up,” Patton and Westmoreland respond simultaneously.

Patton leans menacingly toward Victor Constant and looks him right in the eye. “Have you seen my movie, son?”11

“Yes, of course, sir. Several times.”

“Then you should understand what war is all about. You ‘hold onto him by the nose’ and you ‘kick him in the ass.’ That’s what I said in the movie. Why is that so hard to understand? How is it that my soldiers could defeat those Hun bastards and you and your crew can’t manage to take care of a few thousand ‘militants’ who don’t have tanks or an air force or even decent uniforms, for God’s sake?”

“Hearts and minds, George, hearts and minds.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Westy?”

“Your kick-them-in-the-ass approach isn’t good enough these days. You studied Clausewitz — war is politics with guns. Now, I’ll give you this much: in Vietnam, we never got the politics right. We couldn’t solve the puzzle of making war work politically. Maybe there wasn’t a solution. Maybe the war was already lost the day I showed up. So we just killed to no purpose. That’s a failure I took to my grave.”

A bead of perspiration is forming on Westmoreland’s lip. “But these guys” — he nods toward Constant — “now, we’ve got a generation of generals who think they’ve seen a lot of war but don’t know squat about politics — and don’t even want to know. And we’ve got a generation of politicians who don’t know squat about war, but keep doling out the money. There’s no dialogue, no strategy, no connecting war and politics.”

Victor Constant is mystified. Dialogue? He rouses himself to defend his service. “Gentlemen, let me remind you that the United States Army today is far and away the world’s finest military force. No one else comes close.”

Westy just presses on. “So what has your experience in war taught you? What have you learned?”

Patton repeats the question. “What have you learned, Mr. Warrior? Tell us.”

Learned? After several drinks, Victor Constant is not at his best. “Well, I’ve learned a lot. The whole army has.”

He struggles to recall recent PowerPoint briefings that he’s dozed through. Random phrases come to mind. “Leap-ahead technology. Dominant maneuver in an ever-enlarging battlespace. Simultaneous and sequential operations. Artificial Intelligence. Quantum computing. Remote sensing. Machine learning. Big data analytics. 5G technology. High-fidelity, multi-domain training.”

However dimly, VC realizes he’s babbling. He pauses to catch his breath. “It’s all coming, if they’ll just give us the money.”

Patton stares at him silently. Victor Constant senses that it’s time to go home.

“Can I call you a taxi?” Westmoreland asks.

“No, sir, thank you.” With as much dignity as he can muster, Victor Constant straightens his tie, finds his headgear, and walks unsteadily toward the door.

What have I learned? What did they even mean? He was a general officer in the best army in the world. Maybe the best army ever. Wasn’t that enough? He needed to ask Sally.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Copyright 2020 Andrew Bacevich


1 Victor Constant is the name of the ski slope at the United States Military Academy, called such in memory of a cadet ski instructor killed in an accident during World War II. To my knowledge, there is no officer bearing that name in the U.S. Army. Return to story.

2 The chief of staff, U.S. Army. Return to story.

3 The president of the United States. Return to story.

4 Many of the army’s most senior officers are housed at government-owned quarters at Fort Myers, Virginia, and Fort McNair in Washington. Return to story.

5 Beginning in World War II, U.S. Army paratroopers sported a distinctive style of black leather boot, more fashionable than standard army issue. After the war, Westmoreland attended jump school and commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Return to story.

6 Shorthand for the North Vietnamese army. Return to story.

7 Lyndon Johnson served as U.S. president from November 1963 to January 1969. Robert Strange McNamara filled the post of defense secretary from 1961 to 1968. Return to story.

8 The November 1963 assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem destroyed whatever slight political legitimacy the Republic of Vietnam had possessed. Return to story.

9 Charles De Gaulle was the leader of the Free French during World War II. Return to story.

10 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the senior British commander in the European Theater of Operations in World War II, had a low opinion of American officers from U.S. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower on down. Return to story.

11 “Patton” (1970), starring George C. Scott. Return to story.

Killing Democracy in America

W.J. Astore

While the mainstream media focuses on alleged threats from without, the most insidious dangers are those from within America, as I argue in my latest article for TomDispatch.com.  Here’s an excerpt:

Killing Democracy in America
The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore

The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going — until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.

I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence — and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to — dare I say it — in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).

Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.

You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong

To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.

Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.

As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening — that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.

In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).

The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be — the dream of the Vietnam era — fought in a “limited” fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).

More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying “collateral damage” — that is, dead civilians — from it.

Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.

When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spend significantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy — the Taliban continues to gain ground — yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.

Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?

To read more of this dispatch, please click here.

Wars, Secrecy, and Lies

W.J. Astore

You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.

This is nothing new, of course.  Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War.  Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir.  I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.

Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War.  This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.

Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:

One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.”  But this belief stands reality on its head.  The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam.  Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly.  So it went covertly.  It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people.  The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement.  That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media.  Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…

The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].

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This is well and strongly put.  The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough.  But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie.  Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.

Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy.  But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.”  Weapons contractors and other war profiteers.  The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power.  And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.

If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas.  This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.

Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.

Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.

The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.

America’s Afghan War: Lies and More Lies

Obama
President Obama with General Stanley McChrystal in the days of the ill-fated Afghan Surge

W.J. Astore

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.

This sell/spin process was all lies, as the Washington Post revealed yesterday:

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:

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