Sunday, June 15. 2014
Rather than spending the day chasing down odds and ends, I want to focus on one key piece: Tom Engelhardt: A Record of Unparalleled Failure. This came out nearly a week ago (June 10), well before the Iraqi government -- the legacy of six year of US occupation -- lost control of the nation's second or third largest city (Mosul). Now that large parts of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and large swaths of north Africa are under (sunni salafist) Islamist control, often identified with Al-Qaeda, it should be clear that the Global War on Terror G.W. Bush launched in 2001 has not only failed; it has blown back spectacularly.
Of course, the people who brought you all that war have a solution: more war. They blame the stalemate in Syria on Obama's reluctance to arm the so-called "moderate Syrian rebels" -- allowing the Islamist rebels to take over. And they see the chaos in Iraq as a consequence of the US pulling its troops out: firepower that both limited the Sunni insurgency and restrained the Shiite-dominated government. And they have more or less similar fixes for everything else, like the drone warfare over Yemen and the recent insertion of US Special Forces into Chad. They blame Obama for his week-kneed, wobbly responses. He, in turn, without any success on the Israel-Palestine diplomatic front, has been unable to resist the hawks' browbeating, repeatedly putting himself into lose-lose positions, where the hawks get to characterize the failures of American force as the results of "too little" rather than "too much."
There is an alternative view that virtually no one in Washington in any way invested in US foreign policy would dare bring up. Engelhardt makes this view succinctly:
Engelhardt's memory of America's wars goes back past the GWOT, all the way to Korea and Vietnam in the anti-communist era (the so-called "Cold War"), and he doesn't find any exceptions there either (nor in the so-called "little wars" that Max Boot is so fond of). The essay continues with him going back over all five points, adding details to reiterate the case. But he doesn't go after deeper answers. He doesn't, for instance, wonder how the American fetish for individualism and obsession with profit warp a military culture which has traditionally depended on selfless sacrifice. He doesn't go into the changes brought about as the Army abandoned the draft in favor of career soldiers (something Andrew Bacevich goes overboard on in his latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country). He doesn't even note that all of "America's wars" have been fought on foreign ground for political reasons that have had nothing to do with "the American way of life." He doesn't note the fickle tendency of American leaders to pick sides in fights they hardly understand, and how this almost invariably leads to the US allied with corrupt and ineffective leaders. He doesn't delve into how the desire to impose American-like systems of government always wind up reproducing the most unjust aspects of American society -- a problem that only became worse as conservatives gained power. (This is, of course, why Peter Beinart argued that only liberals could win the War on Terror, ignoring the fact that liberals had tried and failed to win the anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam.) Nor does he go into factors extrinsic to the US, such as the analysis that Jonathan Schell summed up perfectly in his book title, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People: could it be the case that one reason the US has always failed was that time and again it attempted the impossible?
When you think about it, not only is what Engelhardt says true, it's pretty obviously true for lots of easily identifiable reasons. Yet hardly anyone with a stake in power realizes that. Engelhardt reminds us: "keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible." There are lots of components to this propaganda machine, but I think the blinders that most elites have that prevents them from doubting the efficacy of "the military option" are rooted in two great myths.
The first is that the US always fights for right, and therefore our motives and goals are beyond question. For this, one can cite our major wars: the War for Independence, which established our democracy free from foreign rule; the Civil War, which ended the odious "peculiar institution" of slavery; and the World Wars, when Germany and Japan threatened to subdue whole continents and subject them to racist and colonialist exploitation. Of course, this ignores the 1848 Mexican-American War and 1898 Spanish-American War, which were blatant imperialist land grabs, and slights the many Indian wars, which were land grabs with a whiff of genocide thrown in. But after WWII, the anti-communist wars aligned the US with capital (and its cronies) against labor, ultimately leading to grave damage to America's own working class -- which is to say to the detriment of most Americans, as well as most people in the countries we fought or subverted. Moreover, where the US failed to impose its will, it turned out to be remarkably petty and vindictive, as we see even today in US efforts to blockade Cuba and North Korea.
The problem here is not just that our motives are impure -- if you look close enough you'll find that they never were, although it certainly suited the people who led those wars to get us to think so -- but that this sense of self-righteousness results in a huge blind spot around the terrible costs of war. Indeed, how blind one can be is amply demonstrated by WWII, which saw the US carpet-bombing Europe, creating horrific firestorms in Japan, and ultimately using nuclear weapons that obliterated whole cities. The notion that that was "the good war" is frankly obscene. What was "good" about it was that it was run by the most fair-minded and equitable administration the US ever enjoyed, one that worked hard to instill in all Americans an unprecedented sense of joint purpose and solidarity, and that was what felt good. But on the war fronts, which few Americans actually experienced, the usual atrocities of war prevailed.
And ever since then, that sense of solidarity is remembered in unthinking ritual, in waving the flag and commemorating veterans and cheering the troops, as if what they do now has anything to do with our declining standard of living.
The second myth has to do with the ever-increasing efficiency of killing that the US military wields. The problem here isn't that the efficiency is mythical (although it takes on mythical airs in some respects, like the doctrine of "shock and awe"), but that it gives our political elites a false sense of superiority and, indeed, invulnerability which makes them excessively confident and therefore more likely to use "the military option." On the other hand, the military's measures of killing efficiency turn out to be of very little value in the real world. No enemy since the Chinese in Korea have fought anything resembling a conventional war against the US, yet that never stopped them from finding effective ways to fight -- especially as the US is always fighting on foreign territory, ostensibly in support of local allies which necessarily provide cover for their enemies.
We also need to consider the touchy subject of defense. The US military has become increasingly reluctant to risk the lives of its soldiers: eliminating the draft has much to do with this, but one should also factor in the decreasing stakes of the wars the US has entered into -- maybe Iraq matters to Exxon, but is it worth your while to risk your life for slightly cheaper gasoline back home? The worst case scenario for Iraq might embarrass some politicians and generals but won't change a single thing in everyday life back home -- except, of course, for the ex-soldiers wounded and traumatized, and recognizing that helps push survival to the top of nearly every soldier's priority, changing the risks they're willing to take, and reducing their effectiveness at everything but killing.
The bottom line here is that the first time anyone in power says anything about "hearts and minds" you know that the US has lost the war, because American soldiers don't do "hearts and minds": they kill people, they blow shit up, they act menacing and invincible, but that's it. They may be the most efficient killers in the world, but for anything else they're useless, in large part because they're scared shitless any time they're not on the offensive.
While I was contemplating writing about Engelhardt's post, I ran across another piece that says the exact same things (working in a few of the extra points that I chided Engelhardt for not digging up): Gordon Adams: Blame America ("The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq. We should've known better."):
Back during Bush's runup to the Iraq War, it suddenly became very popular to talk about the US occupation of Germany and Japan as huge success stories. Anyone familiar with the details should have objected, as indeed John W. Dower (author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II) did, explaining both that Iraq had next to nothing in common with Japan, and that the United States in 2003 was nearly as far removed from the US in 1945. Some of the big differences:
Iraq and Afghanistan had their own experiences with colonial and quisling rulers. As Muslims, they had grown up with the historical remembrance of the Crusades and the knowledge that their ancestors had beaten back the infidel invaders. (Afghanistan, of course, was responsible for the utter rout of British colonial forces in the 19th century, as well as the more recent destruction of the Soviet Union.) So the idea of fighting back was deeply embedded in both places, and the pathetic performance of the Saddamist and Taliban armies smelled more like desertion than defeat, and happened to haphazardly that the people wound up with large stockpiles of arms.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, was utterly cynical about government, seeing it as little more than a vast store of pilferage and patronage -- they invested more in Iraq for the bare reason that there was more to steal there. Moreover, they were absolutely shameless in their manipulation of constitutions and elections, seeing them as games to be scammed to make sure that the resulting institutions were dependent on and submissive to the US, as opposed to representative of their constituencies. (In other words, pretty much the same attitude Republicans have toward elections in the US.) And when things went wrong, they talked a lot about "hearts and minds" and sent the military out to do the only thing it does at all well: kill. And when that didn't work, they whipped multiple sides up and aimed them at killing each other, a divide strategy that didn't conquer so much as protract the embarrassment of defeat. Obama finally pulled out not so much because he knew better as because the entire war machine was so wore out that they preferred to move on to greener pastures -- drone warfare, Libya, north Africa, places where they can do their damage without getting their boots dusty (or bloody).
Still, Engelhardt and Adams are very exceptional in pointing out the obvious about US military power. It's very hard for politicians to do the same, not because they can't see failure all around them so much as that hawk patriotism is so entertwined with self-flattery of Americans, and politicians understand that flattery works. Give us a prospective crisis like, say, preventing the destruction of the Shiite shrine in Karbala and no self-revering American will concede that there's nothing we can do to save it, and that if we even tried the most likely outcome would be that we blow it up ourselves.
Ultimately we need to understand: there is no answer to war but no war. Until we take that to heart, we'll be stuck in this endless cycle of futility.
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