Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Last One to Die . . .

August 9, 2011, 1:50 p.m.

. . . for a mistake

Every Sunday toward the end of ABC News' "This Week with Christiane Amanpour," she says (as she does 45 seconds into the excerpt above, from the August 7, 2011, show's "Lives of Note" segment), "And we remember all of those who died in war this week."

It is, for me, a very somber moment; a Sunday church service of sorts. No more multi-tasking. I stop whatever else I am doing to focus on the name, rank and young age of each. I think of their families, loved ones, parents.

Last Sunday Amanpour continued, "The Pentagon has yet to release the identities of the Americans who were killed yesterday in the single deadliest attack of the war in Afghanistan, but we have learned the names of seventeen soldiers and Marines who were killed the days before."

With the soldiers' names, their home towns scrolled by: Edmond, Oklahoma; Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Daly City, California; Columbus, Georgia; Wilson, North Carolina; Moscow, Pennsylvania; Brecksville, Ohio; Dallastown, Pennsylvania; Sapulpa, Oklahoma; Sliver Spring, Maryland; Holton, Kansas; Jacksonville, Florida; Red Bay, Alabama; Chelsea, Oklahoma; Chatsworth, California; Vernal, Utah; Warner Robins, Georgia.

They are not all well known American towns. Some are little more than a stop for gas when you take a trip along one of America's scenic "blue highways." But this week, each of those 17 towns is filled with grieving Americans.

The men and women in today's military were not drafted. They volunteered. We need a military, and all of us owe thanks and more to those willing to serve.

But we, and our elected officials, also owe them common sense, and more restraint in our willingness to risk their lives.

If there were hostile armed forces entering the United States from Canada, Mexico, or either coast by sea, I would be willing to take up arms myself, even in my advanced age, to help protect my country.

But the war into which we sent these 17 soldiers, and the 38 who died last Saturday, is not that kind of war.

The likelihood of the Afghan Taliban doing harm to Americans residing in the United States is somewhere between slim and none at all. Even in 2001, the individuals who attacked us on 9/11, and their funding, primarily came from Saudi Arabia not Afghanistan; and our decade-long goal since then -- to capture or kill bin Laden -- now truly is, "mission accomplished." The only Americans who are at risk of harm from the Taliban are those who have been sent into Afghanistan -- over the objections of many Afghans -- and whose presence is now fueling Afghan hostility and Taliban recruiting efforts.

The bumper sticker says, "Whatever is the question, war is not the answer." That's not, strictly speaking, always true in every instance. I'm not confident there was any meaningful answer besides war to Hitler's advance through Europe. War is sometimes not only an answer, it is the only answer.

But as I have written about the Viet Nam war, and in comparable ways about Iraq and Afghanistan, war is not a very sensible option when and if,
1. given the history of the country, you will be perceived as only the latest in a centuries-long string of invaders (which prior to us in Viet Nam were the French),

2. you can’t speak or understand the native language,

3. you know little or nothing of the history, religion, culture and customs of the people, and have little grasp of the territory in which you’re fighting,

4. you are easily identified by your “enemy,” and to make sure you will be, you wear uniforms

5. your enemy, on the other hand, looks almost identical to your allies and the locals you employ, and refuses to wear a uniform,

6. since there is no “front line,” as such, territory is repeatedly lost, and gained, only to be lost again,

7. during which battles, your troops are given the impossible choice between (a) killing disproportionately large numbers of innocent civilians, or (b) being killed by enemy fighters who look like innocent civilians,

8. with the consequence that an internal inconsistency exists between the strategy of “winning hearts and minds,” and the tactic of “burning down the village to save it,” such that the longer the fighting continues the more counterproductive it becomes

9. up to and including the possibility of exacerbating, rather than reducing, chaos and civil war
Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics, Terrorism and War" (2006).

That piece also contains my own version of what's credited to former General Colin Powell as the "Powell Doctrine" -- questions the military leaders (and we citizens and taxpayers) need to ask our politicians before sending our sons, daughters and dollars to war:
* What, specifically, is the goal you’re trying to accomplish?
* Why do you think a military operation will contribute to (rather than impede) its accomplishment?
* What will it require in troops, materiel, lives and treasure to achieve that goal?
* Are you prepared to provide those resources and pay those costs?
* Will the American people support this effort for as long as it takes -- and how long will that be?
* How will we know if we’ve ever been “successful”?
* What, then, will be our exit strategy?
* What will happen when we leave?
* Will that be consistent with our original mission?
Given the conditions under which war is, and is not, a viable option, and given the questions that need to be at least asked, and hopefully answered, before engaging in war, my own view is that we ought to get our military personnel out of Afghanistan before even more will die.

In reflecting on the 30 more American dead in one helicopter (38 counting Afghans, whom I think should and do count), I hear an echo of the words of Senator John Kerry -- then a 27 year old Navy veteran of Vietnam -- in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971:
How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
Kerry's entire moving presentation is very much worth reading, the video excerpt worth watching, in the context of Afghanistan today. Deborah White, "John Kerry's Famed 1971 Testimony to Congress on Vietnam," About.com.

A cynic might respond, "Don't be worrying about the last military man or woman to die in Afghanistan, Nick. The last person to die in Afghanistan hasn't yet been born."

We can only hope and pray that's not true.

Yet from what I read and hear in the media, we have troops in 150 countries, SOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) forces in 75, headed toward 100 by the end of this year, plus the CIA personnel and the private sector warriors. SOCOM has increased its numbers by four-fold or more since 9/11, and shows no signs of slowing down. (See/hear, e.g., Tom Ashbrook, "Special Operations Forces In Afghanistan," On Point, August 9, 2011.)

So, sadly, the cynic is probably right.

Nor are our military adventures unrelated to the global financial troubles, and the riots in London. The best estimates are that when everything is totaled up, the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, including the lifelong care of the wounded, will run something like the $2-3 trillion we currently need to balance a budget.

Given that, in Afghanistan, even defining "success" seems almost as difficult as achieving it, one is not reassured by President Obama's insistence that "We will press on and we will succeed. Our troops will continue the hard work . . .." "President Obama Pledges to Press on in Afghan War," Reuters, August 8, 2011.

One is reminded of more of the commentary regarding the Viet Nam war, so effectively embedded into the anti-war protest songs that played a role in ultimately bringing that failed effort to an end.

Press on?

How about "push on"?

Here's Pete Seeger's Viet Nam era "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy ("and the big fool said to push on"):

While we're at it, here are a couple more from that war:

Edwin Starr singing his song "War (What is it good for? Absolutely nothing)" (1969)

An excerpt from the lyrics:
"War, what's it good for?/Absolutely nothing."
War..huh...look out...
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing...listen to me ohhhhh
WAR! I despise,
'cause it means destruction of innocent lives,
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes,
When their sons gone to fight and lose their lives.
I said WAR!...huh...good God y'all,
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing
And . . .

Country Joe & The Fish, "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag"

with an excerpt from those lyrics:
Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He's got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We're gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Come on Wall Street, don't be slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go
There's plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade,
But just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
They drop it on the Viet Cong.
Why aren't we out in the streets? Why aren't there songs protesting the Afghan war?

Because those who favor war, even when it is counterproductive, learned a lesson from Viet Nam. To keep the American people from demanding an end to foreign and military policies of perpetual war, you need only provide the illusion that it is war without sacrifice.

(1) War costs nothing -- except for those few Americans (as a percentage of 325 million) who die or are wounded. We don't have to pay the costs of war. There are no war taxes. We simply put it on our Chinese credit card; we borrow the money -- plus a little more for tax breaks for the wealthy.

(2) We've abolished the draft. No one has to go to war; just the ones who want to. What could be more American than that?

As a strategy for perpetual war, it seems to have worked.

The last one to die for this mistake? She's yet to be born.

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Barb Bryan said...

Wow!!!!!!!!!! This is one Powerfull blog, Nick. I will share it with many. Thank you!! I'm in total agreement.

Anonymous said...

This blog should be required viewing for all of our Representatives and Senators.

Alex Lavidge said...

Brilliant as usual. Sharing now with others.