Words seem to mean different things in the Middle East. “Training” is a new term for escalation, and “Iraq” seems more and more like the Arabic word for Vietnam.
But the terms “slippery slope” and “quagmire” still mean what they have always meant.
In 2011, making good on a campaign promise that helped land him in the White House, President Barack Obama closed out America’s eight-year war in Iraq. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed.
Then America went back. In August 2014, Obama turned an emotional appeal to save the Yazidi people from Islamic State into a bombing campaign. A massive tap was turned and arms flowed into the region. The number of American soldiers in Iraq zoomed up to 3,100, quietly joined by some 6,300 civilian contractors. The reputed mission was training – or whipping the Iraqi Army into shape.
After another inglorious retreat of the Iraqi Army, this time in Ramadi, the Obama administration last week announced a change: America will send 450 more troops to establish a new base at al Taqaddum, Anbar Province.
It is clear the United States no longer believes the Iraqi Army exists. What is left of it is largely a politically correct distribution tool for American weapons, and a fiction for the media. America will instead work directly with three sectarian militias in their separate de facto states (current bases in America’s Iraqi archipelago include one in Sunni Anbar, another in Kurdish territory and three in Shi’ite-controlled areas). The hope is that the militias will divert their attention from one another long enough to focus on Islamic State. It is, of course, impossible; everyone in Iraq — except the Americans — knows Islamic State is a symptom of a broader civil war, not a stand-alone threat to anyone’s homeland.
It is also significant that the United States will circumvent Baghdad’s objections to arming and training Sunni tribes. Baghdad has not sent any new recruits to the U.S. training facility at Ain al-Asad, in Sunni territory, for about six weeks; the United States will instead engage directly with Sunni recruits at Taqaddum. Obama’s new plan will also bring U.S. arms for the Sunnis straight into the new base, bypassing Baghdad’s control.
This is likely only the beginning of Obama’s surge. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American base-lets scattered around the country. Of course, like Taqaddum, these lily pads will require hundreds more American military advisers to serve as flies, at risk of being snapped up by an Islamic State frog. Any attack on U.S. troops would require a response, a cycle that could draw the U.S. deeper into open conflict.
The new strategy also revises the role of American troops in Iraq. “Advise and assist” is the new “training.” While careful to say Americans would not engage in combat per se, signals suggest advice and assistance will be dispensed quite close to the front.
In sum: More troops, more bases, more forward-leaning roles, all operating at times against the will of a host government the United States appears to have lost patience with. The bright light of victory is years down a long tunnel.
We’ve seen this before. It was Vietnam.
Some details are different. The jumps from air power to trainers to advisors to combat troops took years in the Vietnam War. Obama has reached the advisor stage in just months. The Iranians fighting in Iraq do share a short-term goal with the United States in pushing back Islamic State, but like the Russians and Chinese in Vietnam, ultimately have an agenda in conflict with American policy.
Meanwhile, similarities scream. As in Vietnam, a series of U.S.-midwifed governments in Baghdad have failed to follow Washington’s orders; they have proceeded independently amid incompetence and corruption. Both wars are characterized as good versus evil (baby killers in Vietnam, jihadis chopping off heads with swords in Iraq); both were sold under questionable pretenses (humanitarian intervention in Iraq, reaction to an alleged but doubtful attack on U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964) and as part of a great global struggle (against communism, against Islamic extremism). Despite the stakes claimed, few allies, if any, join in. In each war, the titular national army — trained, advised and retrained at great cost — would not fight for its country. The host country is charged with ultimate responsibility for resolving its (American-created) problems, even as America assumes a greater role.
In Vietnam, Americans were caught between two sides of a civil war. Iraq has at least three but, once again, America sits in the center, used by all, trusted by none. One even sees in Obama a touch of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In its obituary, the New York Times wrote, “[McNamara] concluded well before leaving the Pentagon that the war was futile, but he did not share that insight with the public until late in life. In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was ‘wrong, terribly wrong.’ ” Like McNamara, Obama’s years-long uncertain approach to Iraq may suggest he privately knows the war can’t be won, but publicly escalates it anyway, caught in the roller-coaster of his times and its politics
One difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is sharp as a razor. The United States eventually left Vietnam. Disengaged, redeployed, packed up, departed. But unlike in Iraq, the United States was not foolish enough to go back.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Iraq? On another Memorial Day, we’re still talking about Iraq?
I attended the 2015 commencement ceremonies at Fordham University in New York. The otherwise typical ritual (future, global, passion, do what you love, you’ll never forget this place) began oddly, with an admonition to pause for a moment in honor of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a special congratulations to veterans among the graduating class. No other group was so singled out.
At William and Mary, a university that counts Thomas Jefferson as an alumnus, Condoleezza Rice was granted this spring an honorary degree in public service; William and Mary’s chancellor is former head of the CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The ongoing news features “gaffs” by various Republican candidates about whether they would invade Iraq then knowing now, or maybe then invade now knowing then, or tomorrow knowing less. Pundits recycle the old arguments about imperfect decisions, mistakes being made, and a new trope, that Obama “lost” Iraq.
The mother of the first Navy Seal killed in Iraq wrote an open letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Dempsey responded to reports that Ramadi, Iraq fell to Islamic State by describing the city as “not symbolic in any way.” The mother asked a version of the familiar question, “so what did he die for?”
Remembering the Dead
Yes, it is another Memorial Day and we are still talking about Iraq.
The facts are in front of us. The Iraq War of 2003-2011 killed 4491 Americans. The Pentagon states 32,226 Americans were wounded “in action,” a number which does not include an estimated 200,000 soldiers who will suffer PTSD or major depression, or the 285,000 of them who experienced a probable traumatic brain injury.
On the Iraqi side of the equation, no one knows. Most of the Iraqis died more of the war — well-after then-president Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” and an end of major hostilities — than in the war per se. Estimates run from some 200,000 up to a million dead.
Argue with any of the numbers you like. Agree that the “real” numbers are big.
There are similar sets of numbers for Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and many other places America makes war, overtly, covertly and via drone.
Lessons from Iraq
And that is why we should, on Memorial Day, still be talking about Iraq. We haven’t learned anything from our mistakes there and it is time we did.
The lessons of Iraq are not limited to bad decision making, falsifying intelligence reports, and exaggerated claims about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
Those are just details, and they come and go with wars: the Gulf of Tonkin incident that brought America into the Vietnam War was false. So were the stories out of Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti infants from their incubators. Same for the “we’re just on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidi people” that reopened American involvement in Iraq less than a year ago. Just as false are the “we are invading ______ (fill in the blank with any number of locations) to liberate the people” there from a thug government, an evil dictator, another bad guy.
We’ve eliminated a lot of Qaddafi’s and Saddam’s, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the ground in their old countries happy about what resulted from that. War after war we need to fight back against barbarians who seek to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region (Communism? Terrorism?) War after war we need to fight “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here.
Maybe as late as the Vietnam War we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. Most hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” But we of the September 12 group of Americans have no excuse.
The lies and fudges and mistakes that took us to war in Iraq in 2003 were not unique; they were policy. There is a template for every American war since 1945, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. Unless and until we talk about that on some Memorial Day, we will be talking about Iraq, or wherever next year’s war is, on another Memorial Day.
Alone at Night
I think about that mom who wonders what her son died for in Ramadi. She is not alone; there are lots of moms whose sons died in Ramadi, and Fallujah, and Helmand Province, and Hue and Danang, even Grenada. Late at night, perhaps after a third glass of white wine failed again to let them sleep, those moms may try and console themselves thinking their sons and daughters died for “something.” I can’t criticize or begrudge them for that, they having lost a child. Ghosts are terrible things to follow you through life.
The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are currently in elementary school. They are out on the lawn right now this Memorial Day, playing at being ghosts.
What I would like to do on this Memorial Day is ask all the mom’s who have not yet lost a child in a war that does not matter to think about those unthinkable things while they are waving a flag, and while their kids are still alive.
If we think about that this Memorial Day, maybe we can start to learn the real lesson of Iraq.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Chris Appy’s American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity is a book-length essay on the Vietnam War and how it changed the way Americans think of ourselves and our foreign policy. This is required reading for anyone interested in foreign policy and America’s place in the world, showing how events influence attitudes, which turn to influence events.
Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam
Appy’s book is valuable to its readers in showing how Vietnam became the template for every American war since, from novelties like the invasion of Grenada to the seemingly never-ending conflicts post-9/11. But before all that, there was Vietnam, and, larger lessons aside, Appy’s book is a fascinating, insightful, infuriating and thought-provoking study of that conflict, from its earliest days when America bankrolled the French defeat, to the final, frantic evacuation of Saigon. This is a history, yes, but one where events are presented not as isolated factoids but toward building a larger argument. Drawing from movies, songs, and novels, as well as official documents, example after example shows how America was lied to and manipulated.
We begin with Tom Dooley, a Navy physician who had one of the best-selling books of 1956, Deliver Us from Evil. Presented as fact, the book was wholly a lie, painting a picture of Vietnam as a struggling Catholic nation under attack by Communists, with only America as a possible Saviour. Despite Dooley’s garbage selling millions of copies in its day, few have ever heard of it since. It did however establish a forward-leaning pattern of lies to engage and enrage the American public in support of pointless wars.
The Dooley line runs through the faux Gulf of Tonkin Incident to fake stories from Gulf War 1.0 of Iraqi troops throwing infants from their incubators to Gulf War 2.0’s non-existent WMDs to Gulf War 3.0’s “Save the Yazidi’s” rationale for America re-entering a war already lost twice. “Saving” things was a common sub-theme, just as Vietnam was to be saved from Communism. It was no surprise that one of the last American acts of the Vietnam War was “Operation Babylift,” where thousands of children were flown to the U.S. to “save” them.
Vietnam as a Template
Vietnam set the template in other ways as well.
— The 1960’s infamous domino theory was raised from the grave not only in the 1980’s to frighten Americans into tacit support for America’s wars in Central America, but then again in regards to the 1991 model of Saddam, never mind the near-constant invocations of tumbling playing pieces as al Qaeda and/or ISIS seeks world domination.
— Conflicts that could not stand on their own post-WWII would be wrapped in the flag of American Exceptionalism, buttressed by the belief the United States is a force for good/freedom/democracy/self-determination against a communist/dictator/terrorist evil. Indigenous struggles, where the U.S. sides with a non-democratic government (Vietnam, the Contras), can never be seen any other way, truth be damned to hell. Wars for resources become struggles for freedom, or perhaps self-preservation, as we fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.
— A sidestory to such memes is the invocation of “Munich.” If we don’t stop _____ (Putin?) now, he’ll just go on to demand more. Better to stand and fight than commit the cardinal sin of appeasement. That “appeasement” and “diplomacy” are often confused is no matter. We are not dealing in subtleties here.
— Killing becomes mechanical, clean, nearly sterile (remember the war porn images of missiles blasting through windows in Gulf War 1.0?) Our atrocities — My Lai in Vietnam is the best known, but there were many more — are the work of a few bad apples (“This is not who we are as Americans.”) Meanwhile, the other side’s atrocities are evil genius, fanaticism or campaigns of horror.
No More Vietnams
Appy accurately charts the changes to the American psyche brought on by the war. Never before had such a broad range of Americans come to doubt their government. The faith most citizens had in their leaders coming out of WWII was so near complete that the realization that they had been lied to about Vietnam represents the most significant change in the relationship between a people and their leaders America, perhaps much of history, has ever seen.
The aftermath — No More Vietnams — is well-covered in Appy’s work. The No More Vietnam mantra is usually presented as avoiding quagmires, focusing on quick, sharp wins. Instead, Appy shows politicians have manipulated No More Vietnams into meaning greater secrecy (think Central America in the 1980’s), more over-the-top justifications (“You don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”) and an emphasis on keeping American deaths inside the acceptable limits of the day to tamp down any public anti-war sentiment.
Throw in increasingly clever manipulation of the media (“Pat Tillman was a hero,” “Malaki/Karzai is a democratic leader with wide support”) and indeed there will be no more Vietnams per se, even as conflicts that bear all the hallmarks continue unabated. Americans may have developed an intolerance for Vietnam-like wars, but failed to become intolerant of war.
For readers of the 9/11 era, explaining the changes America underwent because of Vietnam seems near-impossible, though American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity succeeds as well as anything else I have read.
Before Vietnam, we accepted it all. That was the way of it. You could call it patriotism, or you could call it naivety, or even faith. We hadn’t yet realized our leaders would lie to us about things as important as war. There had been no Watergate, no fake WMDs. American Exceptionalism was not a right-wing trope twirled inside the confection of “Morning in America.” Our education was very expensive in the form of that blood and treasure commentators love to refer to.
You finish with the feeling that Appy wishes the lesson of Vietnam would be for the American people to rise up and shout “we won’t be fooled again,” but close the book sharing with Appy the thought that we have, and will. “There remains,” concludes Appy, “a profound disconnect between the ideals and priorities of the public and the reality of a permanent war machine that no one in power seems able or willing to challenge or constrain… the institutions that sustain empire destroy democracy.”
How did we reach such a state? Better read this book to find, in Appy’s words, what our record is, and who we now are.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I wanted to offer a wry chuckle before we headed into the heavy stuff about Iraq, so I tried to start this article with a suitably ironic formulation. You know, a déjà-vu-all-over-again kinda thing. I even thought about telling you how, in 2011, I contacted a noted author to blurb my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, and he presciently declined, saying sardonically, “So you’re gonna be the one to write the last book on failure in Iraq?”
I couldn’t do any of that. As someone who cares deeply about this country, I find it beyond belief that Washington has again plunged into the swamp of the Sunni-Shia mess in Iraq. A young soldier now deployed as one of the 1,600 non-boots-on-the-ground there might have been eight years old when the 2003 invasion took place. He probably had to ask his dad about it. After all, less than three years ago, when dad finally came home with his head “held high,” President Obama assured Americans that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” So what happened in the blink of an eye?
The Sons of Iraq
Sometimes, when I turn on the TV these days, the sense of seeing once again places in Iraq I’d been overwhelms me. After 22 years as a diplomat with the Department of State, I spent 12 long months in Iraq in 2009-2010 as part of the American occupation. My role was to lead two teams in “reconstructing” the nation. In practice, that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (“small business,” “women’s empowerment,” “democracy building.”)
We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off against hesitant Shia ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field. In an afternoon, we definitively failed to reconcile the millennium-old Sunni-Shia divide we had sparked into ethnic-cleansing-style life in 2003-2004, even if the score was carefully stage managed into a tie by the 82nd Airborne soldiers with whom I worked.
In 2006, the U.S. brokered the ascension to power of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician handpicked to unite Iraq. A bright, shining lie of a plan soon followed. Applying vast amounts of money, Washington’s emissaries created the Sahwa, or Sons of Iraq, a loose grouping of Sunnis anointed as “moderates” who agreed to temporarily stop killing in return for a promised place at the table in the New(er) Iraq. The “political space” for this was to be created by a massive escalation of the American military effort, which gained a particularly marketable name: the surge.
I was charged with meeting the Sahwa leaders in my area. My job back then was to try to persuade them to stay on board just a little longer, even as they came to realize that they’d been had. Maliki’s Shia government in Baghdad, which was already ignoring American entreaties to be inclusive, was hell-bent on ensuring that there would be no Sunni “sons” in its Iraq.
False alliances and double-crosses were not unfamiliar to the Sunni warlords I engaged with. Often, our talk — over endless tiny glasses of sweet, sweet tea stirred with white-hot metal spoons — shifted from the Shia and the Americans to their great-grandfathers’ struggle against the British. Revenge unfolds over generations, they assured me, and memories are long in the Middle East, they warned.
When I left in 2010, the year before the American military finally departed, the truth on the ground should have been clear enough to anyone with the vision to take it in. Iraq had already been tacitly divided into feuding state-lets controlled by Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. The Baghdad government had turned into a typical, gleeful third-world kleptocracy fueled by American money, but with a particularly nasty twist: they were also a group of autocrats dedicated to persecuting, marginalizing, degrading, and perhaps one day destroying the country’s Sunni minority.
U.S. influence was fading fast, leaving the State Department, a small military contingent, various spooks, and contractors hidden behind the walls of the billion-dollar embassy (the largest in the world!) that had been built in a moment of imperial hubris. The foreign power with the most influence over events was by then Iran, the country the Bush administration had once been determined to take down alongside Saddam Hussein as part of the Axis of Evil.
The Grandsons of Iraq
The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.
According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.
Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.
The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.
And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared? They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.
The newest Iraq war features Special Operations “trainers,” air strikes against IS fighters using American weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army (now evidently to be resupplied by Washington), U.S. aircraft taking to the skies from inside Iraq as well as a carrier in the Persian Gulf and possibly elsewhere, and an air war across the border into Syria.
It Takes a Lot of Turning Points To Go In a Circle
The truth on the ground these days is tragically familiar: an Iraq even more divided into feuding state-lets; a Baghdad government kleptocracy about to be reinvigorated by free-flowing American money; and a new Shia prime minister being issued the same 2003-2011 to-do list by Washington: mollify the Sunnis, unify Iraq, and make it snappy. The State Department still stays hidden behind the walls of that billion-dollar embassy. More money will be spent to train the collapsed Iraqi military. Iran remains the foreign power with the most influence over events.
One odd difference should be noted, however: in the last Iraq war, the Iranians sponsored and directed attacks by Shia militias against American occupation forces (and me); now, its special operatives and combat advisors fight side-by-side with those same Shia militias under the cover of American air power. You want real boots on the ground? Iranian forces are already there. It’s certainly an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, but also of what happens when you assemble your “strategy” on the run.
Obama hardly can be blamed for all of this, but he’s done his part to make it worse — and worse it will surely get as his administration once again assumes ownership of the Sunni-Shia fight. The “new” unity plan that will fail follows the pattern of the one that did fail in 2007: use American military force to create a political space for “reconciliation” between once-burned, twice-shy Sunnis and a compromise Shia government that American money tries to nudge into an agreement against Iran’s wishes. Perhaps whatever new Sunni organization is pasted together, however briefly, by American representatives should be called the Grandsons of Iraq.
Just to add to the general eeriness factor, the key people in charge of putting Washington’s plans into effect are distinctly familiar faces. Brett McGurk, who served in key Iraq policy positions throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, is again the point man as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. McGurk was once called the “Maliki whisperer” for his closeness to the former prime minister. The current American ambassador, Robert Stephen Beecroft, was deputy chief of mission, the number two at the Baghdad embassy, back in 2011. Diplomatically, another faux coalition of the (remarkably un)willing is being assembled. And the pundits demanding war in a feverish hysteria in Washington are all familiar names, mostly leftovers from the glory days of the 2003 invasion.
Lloyd Austin, the general overseeing America’s new military effort, oversaw the 2011 retreat. General John Allen, brought out of military retirement to coordinate the new war in the region — he had recently been a civilian advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry — was deputy commander in Iraq’s Anbar province during the surge. Also on the U.S. side, the mercenary security contractors are back, even as President Obama cites, without a hint of irony, the ancient 2002 congressional authorization to invade Iraq he opposed as candidate Obama as one of his legal justifications for this year’s war. The Iranians, too, have the same military commander on the ground in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Quds Force. Small world. Suleimani also helps direct Hezbollah operations inside Syria.
Even the aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf launching air strikes, the USS George H.W. Bush, is fittingly named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq almost a quarter century ago. Just consider that for a moment: we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who launched the adventure.
On a 36-month schedule for “destroying” ISIS, the president is already ceding his war to the next president, as was done to him by George W. Bush. That next president may well be Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state as Iraq War 2.0 sputtered to its conclusion. Notably, it was her husband whose administration kept the original Iraq War of 1990-1991 alive via no-fly zones and sanctions. Call that a pedigree of sorts when it comes to fighting in Iraq until hell freezes over.
If there is a summary lesson here, perhaps it’s that there is evidently no hole that can’t be dug deeper. How could it be more obvious, after more than two decades of empty declarations of victory in Iraq, that genuine “success,” however defined, is impossible? The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise, you’re just a sucker at the geopolitical equivalent of a carnival ringtoss game with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
Apocalypse Then — And Now
America’s wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space where reality is of little import, so if you think you heard all this before, between 2003 and 2010, you did. But for those of us of a certain age, the echoes go back much further. I recently joined a discussion on Dutch television where former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra made a telling slip of the tongue. As we spoke about ISIS, Hoekstra insisted that the U.S. needed to deny them “sanctuary in Cambodia.” He quickly corrected himself to say “Syria,” but the point was made.
We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.
As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.
If ignorance was bliss, you’d think more people would be happy. In the media, ignorance just seems to make people angrier, and thanks to the Internet, we all get to listen to them.
A number of conservative outlets have featured a story like this one, “Obama Spending $2.7 Mil to Broadcast Communist Propaganda to Vietnam.” The article quotes from somewhere (no attribution or link):
The Department of Health and Human Services is spending $2,797,979 on a study that brings television to more than a dozen remote villages in Vietnam to study its impact on their culture and reproductive behavior.
Can we have a study in which we take away money from government bureaucrats in the United States while using government bureaucrats in Vietnam as a control group to see which country goes bankrupt faster? Instead we’re funding the broadcast of Communist propaganda to rural Vietnamese villages like the anniversary celebration of the Communist Party.
Because I’m trying to dilute ignorance here rather than fan its flames, a disclaimer is needed. I am neither a conservative, nor a liberal, a libertarian, a Presbyterian, a Rastafarian or believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I support public leaders who might serve the public interest, and oppose those who don’t. So, denizens of the Internet, remain in your basements and do not accuse me of loving Obama or hating Obama. Only four more hours to your meds anyway, be strong for me buddy.
A Golden Fleece Award was presented each month by Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, from 1975 to 1987, to identify what he viewed as wasteful government spending.
One Award was given in honor of a $57,800 study of the physical measurements of airline stewardesses, paying special attention to the “length of the buttocks” and how their knees were arranged when they were seated. Another Award made fun of the money spent on insect sex.
Basic research is often very important, and very easy to mock. The buttocks measuring was one part of data-gathering that led to safety equipment standards for aircraft. Fly sex research led to sterile screw-worms that were released into the wild and eliminated a major cattle parasite from the U.S., saving the cattle industry $20 billion.
Back to Vietnam
The media claiming the U.S. is funding Red propaganda, and/or just throwing away money, are, not surprisingly, wrong.
Reading the actual grant from the U.S. National Institute of Health (for only $705k; not sure where the $2.7 million number came from), we learn that the purpose has little to do with Commies:
Billions of dollars are spent worldwide on television campaigns to promote population health even though we lack clear evidence of a causal link between television and family formation and reproductive health. Although a substantial research literature documents television’s effects, existing research is primarily associational; making it impossible to establish a causal direction or to eliminate the possibility that a third variable is responsible for the observed associations. In defending these existing research problems, many note that because television is so widely available, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to randomly assign members of a target audience to comparison and intervention groups.
The idea of researching the impact of something at the cost of maybe millions to better spend billions seems to make sense. The idea of finding a place without any TV that is also safe to work in and somewhat accessible means that isolated hill villages in Vietnam are exactly the kind of location you need.
We’re All Right
Weird conservative media, you are wrong about the Vietnam study. People who think they should write in and criticize me for liking or hating Obama, you are too shallow to get this is all not about “liking” a leader anyway, plus of course the fact that Obama himself had nothing to do with an individual NIH grant. In the spirit of a happy ending, I for one feel much better knowing the government is spending at least some of my tax money on basic research, and thus maybe a tiny, tiny, tiny amount less on drones and the NSA.
A fella can dream, can’t he?
So a person attacks the Capitol building and gets gunned down by the cops, just two weeks after the Navy Yard mass shooting. A man set himself on fire on the National Mall, just outside one of the closed Smithsonian museums. The NSA continues to lie about spying on Americans, get caught lying, then says, OK, we lied about that, but not this next thing. Over 5,000 Iraqis have died in sectarian violence in the past ten months (65 yesterday alone) but despite a recent nine year American invasion, occupation and retreat, that story isn’t really news. Afghanistan devolves daily, with the U.S. bailout there scheduled for next year. Two out of ten American children live below the poverty line. The U.S. government, meanwhile, is… closed.
Did I miss anything? I haven’t checked the news in the last hour. Some days it feels like I woke up huffing paint.
As the Vietnam War’s futility became evident, and as most-trusted man-in-America Walter Cronkite came out against it, then-president LBJ said “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” When was the last time we weren’t cynical about politics and government, when we had hope for change? Yeah, that was that 2008 thing. LECTOR SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE
Well America, when you’ve lost the young people, you’ve lost the future. We welcome a new friend of the blog today, who sends this message:
An open letter to the Ladies and Gentlemen of the 113th United States Congress:
Most kids tend to grow out of the “I want to be President” stage at around age 12, I however did not. That is, until today. Today is October 1, 2013, the day Congress led the federal government to a shutdown, simultaneously leaving thousands of federal employees out of work and crushing the last bits of hope and trust I had for our government and my future (Not to mention cutting off the panda cam at the national zoo. Not OK.)
I grew up less than 25 minutes from DC my entire life, and spent my childhood wandering around the monuments and the national mall, daydreaming about how one day I would be a part of that elite “inside the beltway” club. I have spent the last decade of my life telling anyone who would listen that one day I would become Speaker of the House, and then eventually, President of the United States, and each time I did, I was met with responses such as “stay away from politics – it is a dirty game” and “wouldn’t you rather have a job that helps people?’. Time and time again, I would look those people straight into their disapproving eyes and tell them that not all politicians were bad and that some truly did care and work to get things done. Usually my responses were met with condescending remarks about how cute I was and how I’d learn when I was older, but I meant every word. I spent four years in college studying Government and Politics, racking up debt that I will likely be re-paying until I am 65, to prove to those people that our government is not all bad and that I could make a difference in the field.
Little did I know, I was wrong. So wrong.
Over the past several weeks I have seen just how ridiculous and petty the people who hold some of the highest and most prestigious offices in our nation can be. I have seen my role models let their stubbornness and ignorance shut down an entire nation. Honestly, I have seen better cooperation in a first grade classroom, or better yet in the Great Ape House at the National Zoo (which is now closed). It is hard for me to comprehend how educated adults, who the people have entrusted to run our country, can be so childish as to allow THE ENTIRE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO SHUT DOWN. You are literally shutting a nation down because you can not learn to compromise and agree with one another, do you not realize that? These are skills you should have learned in elementary school. Though I guess it isn’t your fault if you didn’t since our educational system isn’t where it should be. Oh wait. That is your fault.
So basically, I just wanted to thank you for opening my eyes to what Congress and the Federal government are really all about. Thank you for crushing the hopes and dreams I have carried with me since I was twelve years old, and leaving me with a useless degree, and no trust in my government. Oh yeah, and thanks for almost completely shutting down the city I love more than any other place in the world. At least I can take comfort in the fact that you are still receiving your paychecks and that your families won’t go hungry.
If any of your friends in the private sector are hiring, kindly let me know.
It was one of my great pleasures to have dinner with Daniel Ellsberg (and several others supporting justice for Bradley Manning) this week.
Ellsberg is the prototypical whistleblower, a former Marine and serious government official supporting the government’s way until something– in Ellsberg’s case, learning the truth about U.S. conduct in the Vietnam War– so shocked his conscience that he was compelled to speak out. In Ellsberg’s case, that resulted in the “Pentagon Papers” and the landmark legal decisions defending the right of the New York Times to publish them. That those same legal rights are now under attack by the Obama Administration, and likely to figure significantly in the Manning case, just emphasized the importance of what Ellsberg risked his freedom to do.
I wrote an open letter to Dan, tracing a small part of my own political awakening to his brave actions. Maybe worth a read.
In person Dan proved to still be an amazing intellect at age 82. Though his hearing has faded, his mind is razor. Talking politics with him, from Lyndon Johnson to Bradley Manning, was like playing chess against Fischer, discussing writing with Steinbeck or shooting pool against Fats.
Dan also possesses an amazing stock of jokes, some a bit naughty, which he tells with some skill. One involved a leprechaun (you had to be there) and Ellsberg slipped in and out of an Irish accent as effortlessly as he skewed Richard Nixon moments earlier.
The next night I joined Ellsberg, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Tom Drake, Ethan McCord and others at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington DC to speak out for justice for whistleblower Bradley Manning. Manning’s trial, after his three years of confinement, finally begins June 3. The speeches were followed by interviews with the BBC Radio World Service. The American media, who certainly profited from Manning’s whistleblowing, skipped the event.
There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.
Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.
The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.
What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.
Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.
But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”
Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.
America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”
In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.
Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam
Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.
As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.
While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.
Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”
Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.
The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.
In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com
Mr. Secretary, I mourn the death of Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan. She was only 25 years old. She was one of three American civilians and three soldiers killed in the deadliest day this year for Americans in Afghanistan.
Anne was killed traveling to a school to donate books, twelve years into America’s longest war.
It will be easy to dismiss this letter as “playing politics” with a young woman’s death, and you and others might just stop reading here to do so. But if you will read one sentence more, read this: Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, her death delivering books was a political act (if not propaganda) and your own statement that “She tragically gave her young life working to give young Afghans the opportunity to have a better future” was politics as pure as can be. So if this letter is a political statement, it is in good company.
Mr. Secretary, as a young man back from Vietnam in 1971 you bravely addressed Congress and said:
Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake.
We are asking Americans to think about that because 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?
Mr. Secretary, are you the same brave man you were in 1971? And if so, will you not demand that American lives stop being wasted in Afghanistan and elsewhere on politics and bring them home?
Colin Powell, you need to shut the fuck up. Like Grandpa Simpson, every time you open your mouth you just embarrass yourself and demean all around you. Your time is done. Let the nurse change your diaper without fussing and just watch Matlock on TBS until you wither fully away.
Colin emerged from the land of creamed corn and denture adhesives to cast a shadow on the Sunday talk shows. He said this about Hillary Clinton and the deaths of four Americans at Benghazi:
I think she’s had a distinguished record. And I don’t think that this one incident–which is one of these things that those of us in government have been through many, many times where suddenly an action happens late at night … I don’t think it’s a blot on her record.
You’re surprised. Somebody gets killed, something gets blown up. And then the after-action reports start and everybody wants to know who was at fault. Who was responsible? ‘Why didn’t you keep this from happening?’ Well, you can’t keep everything from happening. Benghazi was a very, very difficult one and a difficult situation, and maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The reader is reminded that Hillary Clinton was the head of the organization that placed those Americans where, in Colin’s words, “maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place” and thus might, oh, I don’t know, have some responsibility for what happened. Colin, who likely can’t read anymore even with his damn glasses, wherever the hell he left them, might also recall that the State Department’s own report on Benghazi found “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection.” Since Slick Hilly was head of the pack that showed such poor leadership, maybe she had some responsibility?
Nothing New for Colin Powell
But of course not being responsible for the deaths of others is Colin’s specialty, actually the hallmark of his career.
Colin Powell, as Secretary of State, lent his considerable credibility and gravitas to the case for war with Iraq.
Powell spoke publicly before the UN General Assembly, and privately in depth with America’s allies, about mobile biowar labs, weapons of mass destruction and the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed. While many people considered Bush an idiot puppet, and Cheney and Rumsfeld psychopathic fibbers, Powell convincingly represented the United States’ case for war. Of course, everything Powell said was a lie. Pimping his book Colin told all (like Benghazi, it was just a “blot”):
A blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me. There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.
So why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech? Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence. Try to get over failure quickly. Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it. If you are responsible, own up to it.
And My Lai Just Happened Too
Colin famously served in America’s retro-war of choice, Vietnam. He was charged with investigating the My Lai Massacre. Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Later, Powell’s assessment would be described as whitewashing the massacre. Almost rehearsing his Hillary lines to the very word, in May 2004 Powell told radio host Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Birds of a Feather
So it is no real surprise that Colin Powell, who took no responsibility for helping America into a horrible war with Iraq, is now dragged out of the retirement home toilet to tell us that Hillary also has no responsibility for the stuff that just kinda happens out there when you go intervening around the world. And hey, in Colin’s own words, you’d be surprised when people want to know who is responsible for the deaths of their sons and daughters. Gosh golly, why would anyone want to know who was responsible for just a blot? And why are we still listening to has-beens like Colin? Have we run out of Kardashians to interview? Do we have to wait for some pathetic sex scandal until we can heap Colin into the dust-bin of once-media-superheroes alongside Petraeus and Lance Armstrong? Colin and Hillary together, what a pair, which is good because without her Colin does not have one.
Thanks Colin, for all your
blots service. Now go away you tired old man. Meanwhile, let’s watch this:
I’m a big fan of historical irony, actually of the idea that history does indeed hold lessons for us. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the moment as a brand new war presents itself in the Gulf, or the glee the White House expresses when Syrian government officials get blown up by a suicide bomb. But as we rush into the next war with all the enthusiasm of a hot date, it is useful to look back over our shoulders.
Let’s try Senator George McGovern, speaking as the McGovern–Hatfield Amendment, which required via funding cutoff a complete withdrawal of all American forces from Indochina by the end of 1970, failed:
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 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.
So if you haven’t gotten it yet, I’ll do it for you. Here’s the Iraq version:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 4,486 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 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 Iraq, 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.
And for Afghanistan, now America’s longest war:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 2.050 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 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 Afghanistan, 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.
And a generic version for you to use as needed:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending ????? 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 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 ?????, 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.
Bonus: The kids who will serve in our military into the “commitment” to Afghanistan that extends into 2024 are just starting elementary school now. They are playing on the lawn at being ghosts.
(This was originally published on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)
Thank you for sending me copies of your books (they arrived in today’s mail), and thank you even more for writing “with admiration for your truth telling” inside the cover flap of one. I am humbled, because I waited my whole life to realize today I had already met you.
In 1971 I was ten years old, living in a small town in Ohio. The Vietnam War was a part of our town’s life, same as the Fruehauf tractor-trailer plant with its 100% union workforce, the A&P and the Pledge of Allegiance. Nobody in my house went to war, but neighbors had blue and gold stars in their windows and I remember one teacher at school, the one with the longer hair and the mustache, talking about Vietnam. It meant little to me, involved with sports and oncoming puberty, but I remember my mom bringing home from the supermarket a newsprint quickie paperback edition of the Pentagon Papers. She knew of politics and Vietnam maybe even less than I did, but the Papers were all over the news, the Lady Gaga of their day, and it seemed the thing to do to spend the $1.95. My Dad flipped through the book, pronounced it garbage and when I tried to make sense of the names and foreign places it made no impact on me.
I didn’t know then that in the years before my mom bought that paperback what you had done. I didn’t know that the US had been at war in Vietnam since the 1950’s, that it was US duplicity that divided the country into North and South, and that a series of Presidents had customarily lied to the American people about what we were doing in a third world jungle. I did not know that at the time you were working at the RAND corporation, and that a secret history of the Vietnam War, the real story of our involvement, had been commissioned. While I was in fourth grade trying to learn multiplication, you were making photocopies of these then-classified documents. As you read them, you understood that the government had knowledge early on that the war could not be won, and that continuing the war would lead to many times more casualties than was ever admitted publicly. As the New York Times was to write, the documents “demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.”
New York Times Stands
A lot of people inside the government had read those same Papers and understood their content, but only you decided that instead of simply going along with the lies, or privately using your new knowledge to fuel self-eating cynicism, you would try to persuade US Senators Fulbright and McGovern to release the papers on the Senate floor. When they did not have the courage, even as they knew the lies continued to kill Americans they represented, you brought the Papers to the New York Times. The Times then echoed with the courage of great journalists and published the Papers, fought off the Nixon Administration (New York Times v. The United States) by calling to the First Amendment and brought the truth about lies to America. That’s when my mom bought a copy of the Papers at the A&P.
You were considered an enemy of the United States because when you encountered something inside of government so egregious, so fundamentally wrong, that you risked your own freedom to make it public. You almost went to jail, fighting off charges under the same draconian Espionage Act that Obama uses today to silence others who stand in your shadow.
Fast Forward to Iraq
In 2009 I volunteered to serve in Iraq for my employer of some 23 years, the Department of State. While I was there I saw such waste in our so-called reconstruction program, such lies put out by two administrations about what we were (not) doing in Iraq, that it seemed to me that the only thing I could do—had to do—was tell people about what I saw. In my years of government service, I experienced my share of dissonance when it came to what was said in public and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the gap was filled only with scared little men and women, and what was left unsaid just hid their flaws.
What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing (the waste), and what we were saying (the endless chant of success) was filled with numb soldiers and devastated Iraqis, not nerveless bureaucrats. It wasn’t Vietnam in scale or impact, but it was again young Americans risking their lives, believing for something greater than themselves, when instead it was just another lie. Another war started and ended on lies, while again our government worked to keep the truth from the people.
I am unsure what I accomplished with my own book, absent losing my job with the State Department for telling a truth that embarrassed them. So be it; most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.
But Dan, what you accomplished was this. When I faced a crisis of conscience, to tell what I knew because it needed to be told, coming to realize I was risking at the least my job if not jail, I remembered that newsprint copy of the Papers from 1971 you risked the same and more to release. I took my decision in the face of the Obama administration having already charged more people under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information than all past presidencies combined, but more importantly, I took my decision in the face of your example.
Thank you for the books you sent me Dan, and for the sentiments you expressed toward me inside them. Thank you for your courage so that when I needed it, I had an example to assess myself against other than the limp men and women working now for a Department of State too scared of the truth to rise to claim even a whisper of the word courage for themselves.
On April 25 a number of people will gather in Washington DC for this year’s Ridenhour Prize, which recognizes patriots who choose acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. I am proud to have been nominated. One of this year’s winners is Congressman John Lewis, whose life working for social justice started when he walked alongside Dr. King. Another awardee this year is Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis, a soldier whose leaked documents on the Afghan War revealed the same rotten lies at its heart that we saw in our previous wars. Daniel Ellsberg was the first person awarded the Ridenhour, his award simply for Courage.
The problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is not that COIN can’t work. The problem is that one can only counter an insurgency if a legitimate government, supported by the majority of the people but opposed by an insurgency, exists.
The governments in each of these three cases were illegitimate, created and supported by force from the United States, after which the United States had it’s creation adopt the superficial trappings of democracy in order to have some claim on legitimacy. There was not in any case a legitimate government, and thus no insurgency–legitimate government is a necessary condition for an insurgency to exist.
What existed in these cases was a legitimate government not to our liking (Vietnam), a power vacuum caused by the total destruction of the existing government (Iraq), and an illegitimate government which we toppled and replaced with another illegitimate government (Afghanistan). In none of these cases could COIN be properly executed. The conditions demanded by COIN theory simply did not exist.
Our support of Colombia’s battle with the FARC is the closest we have come to actually putting COIN theory into practice, and we and the Colombians have had some success there. This is largely due to the fact that most Colombians support the government established by the Constitution the Colombian people approved in 1991. The sad part about this success story is that there would be no insurgency and no FARC if the United States would do away with its failed policy to ban drugs.
Susan Rice, our ambassador to the UN and someone on the short list to replace Hillary as SecState in 2013, continues to set new personal bests in terms of ignorant statements. Describing (in her acid riddled mind) what makes Obama’s foreign policy distinct from that of its predecessors, Rice mooed:
We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s.
I could just throw out the old “Those that don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” line here and hit the bar early, but Rice’s remark is so idiotic that I’ll skip happy hour for now (the sacrifices we make for country).
Tom Ricks starts us off:
Just because you weren’t alive during the Vietnam War doesn’t mean you won’t go down that road. I generally am a fan of the Obama administration, on both domestic and foreign policy. But the one thing that gives me the creeps is their awkward relationship with senior military officials. Mistrusting the Joint Chiefs, suspecting their motives, treating them as adversaries or outsiders, not examining differences — that was LBJ’s recipe. It didn’t work. He looked upon the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a political entity to be manipulated or, failing that, sidelined. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially for an administration conspicuously lacking interest in the views of former military officers or even former civilian Pentagon officials.
Anytime anyone tells me that the lessons of Vietnam are irrelevant, that’s when I begin looking for a hole to hide in.
Rice again now:
What frustrated me about the 2004 (John Kerry) campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, ‘Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?’
Ok Susan, you ignorant bonehead, here it is:
Vietnam echoes through everything we do because we are repeating mistakes. We should not invade countries that do not pose a threat to the US. We should not be in wars without a coherent objective. We should not create governments unsupported by their people and then kill Americans trying to prop them up. We should not spend our money and lives abroad when we have problems at home that need those resources. We should not borrow money to fund wars in ways that wreck our economy. We should not piss off the rest of the world unnecessarily with wars of choice. We should not see America’s power solely as the rampant use of military force. We should express a little more humility toward the world and be seen as a little less of a bully. We should stop inventing straw men (communists, terrorists) that feed the military-industrial complex and distract us from the real issues facing America. We should not ignore the lessons of history because they seem politically awkward in an election year.
Bonus: We should not employ as ambassadors to the UN people so ignorant of history and so ready to throw away lessons for political positioning. You are, to paraphrase Robert Reich speaking of the Clintons, “the arrogance of power combined with the inexperience of youth.”
Susan, this blog has spent a lot of time drawing lessons from Vietnam, so have a look before you ejaculate dumbness again.
One definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, but somehow expecting different results. Such as it is in our never-ending gobsmacker reconstruction work in
Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan.
From another well-meaning but naive contractor in Afghanistan comes yet another well-meaning but naive tale of how US reconstruction money is being spent to buy chickens for widows. The US buys the chickens, the widows raise the chickens as a source of food and income, and hearts and minds are won. Photos of kids with our brave troops are included.
We’ve seen this before of course, in Iraq, where our failed reconstruction efforts featured at various times cows for widows, goats for widows, bees for widows and in my book, sheep for widows. Noah himself couldn’t have brought more animals to more widows.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
The question in my mind is this: Can we in Viet-Nam, or anywhere else, save (or improve) the administrative or governmental structure? The answer is obvious, and there is no other effort really worth doing. There are no easy shortcuts to solving the problems of revolutionary war. In fact, I would like to close with one last thought, which applies, of course, to everything that is done in the armed forces, but particularly to revolutionary war: If it works, it is obsolete. In Viet-Nam and in many other similar situations we have worked too often with well-working but routine procedures and ideas. It is about time that new approaches and–above all–ideas be tried; obviously, the other ones have been unequal to the task.
Take the stock photos from Afghanistan and recolor the ground the gray tan of Iraq’s sand, or the red brown of Vietnam’s clay and it is the same picture.
Counterinsurgency wars are not fought successfully by handing out livestock, or winning merit badges. One fights an idea with a better idea, and by protecting the people (and not obliterating their wedding parties) and by creating and protecting a local government.
One SEAL living real counterinsurgency in virtual Quang Tri province, Afghanistan, gets it:
Let’s rewrite our metrics of success to reflect our effect on the population, with measures such as: economic activity at bazaars, unsolicited enemy reporting from villagers, and longevity of local officials; as opposed to the input metrics of enemy killed, dollars spent, and Afghan troops trained.
Another COIN warrior wrote in the comments below:
All our coin efforts fail because we never do a soil compaction test (i.e., check for a stable, supported local government) before we attempt to build a structure (nation).
But oh, say the $200k a year contractors as they round up more goats or dig better privies, what we are doing must help a little. Yes, yes, it must, in the same way that jumping up brings you closer to the sun. True, but it does not matter. After eleven years of animal giveaways in Afghanistan, you’d think someone would be coming to that same conclusion.
Remember the Vietnam War? You know, the one from Rambo, the war that was supposed to stop Communism from rolling Asia like dominoes? Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here? Kennedy? Johnson? Nixon? Bueller? The US fought in Vietnam in one form or another from the late 1950’s until we gave up in 1975 and lost. Helicopters on the roof of the Embassy, hippies taking over the country, some history stuff went down, babies.
Vietnam was America’s first modern counter-insurgency war. There are a lot of definitions of counter-insurgency (COIN), but it boils down to a war that can’t be won and isn’t fought in the traditional Red Guys clash with Blue Guys and the winner seizes territory way, like Private Ryan and Tom Hanks did in World War II. A COIN struggle is characterized primarily by a “hearts and minds” struggle, a multi-spectrum approach to winning the loyalty of the people by protecting them, helping them, establishing a local government, that kind of thing. The failure to do this in Iraq is the subject of my book, and the ongoing failure to do this in Afghanistan will be the subject of some other person’s book to come.
If you check Wikipedia or ask the Vietnam Vet next door, you’ll find out that we did not succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. If you want to read the best book written about how COIN and Vietnam, it is Street Without Joyby Bernard Fall.
One of the crucial elements of the failure to win the real war in Vietnam was the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program, run by the same State Department that flopped in Iraq. Formed in 1967, CORDS was headed by a State civilian, Ambassador Robert W. Komer. CORDS pulled together all the various U.S. military and civilian agencies involved in the hearts and minds effort, including State, USAID, USIA and the CIA (who tagged on the remnants of the Phoenix Program, just because). CORDS civilian/military advisory teams were dispatched throughout South Vietnam.
So how’d that CORDS thing work out for ya’all? It failed in conjunction with the whole war effort. We lost the war. Nothing four Presidents said about Vietnam was true and tens of thousands of people died for no purpose. We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Looking Glass, according to the State Department’s slick self-congratulatory monthly magazine (thanks taxpayers!), CORDS “was a success” and in fact somehow contributed to the defeat of the Viet Cong in the Delta by 1972, where per the State Department, the wiley Commies couldn’t even muster a squad-sized action. It is true– read it all here in the State Magazine (p. 16) you’re paying for anyway.
The article is just spiffy, using words like “swashbuckling” non-ironically to describe State’s men in Vietnam, and claiming in 1967 State’s Vietnam Training Center was “the center of things” (1967 was the freaking “Summer of Love” so State thinking their Training Center was the center of anything is beyond nerd land.) We learn that many FS men “enjoyed their tours.” In fact, US military officers “watched in awe” as the first State Department troopers deplaned, just like in that movie Platoon no doubt.
Here’s a keen description of precisely how State won the Vietnam War (those in Afghanistan now, pay attention):
[We] would pick a house at random, politely ask if we could come in and chat, and enquire about the perspective of the resident on everything from the state of the rice crop to the price of cooking oil to the honesty of local officials.
Dammit! Why didn’t we know that before spending $44 billion and nine years trying to solve Iraq and win that war! All we had to do was “politely ask.”
OK, fun’s over. Here’s the problem. If State is still clinging to the bizarre idea that it succeeded in Vietnam, and propagandizing its own employees with the same, what hope is there that they will ever make any progress about the failures visited upon Iraq, and the failures now ongoing in Afghanistan?
Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it we’re told. But those who make up their own versions of history to fit present political needs are simply doomed in advance.
Hello American people, your friend Nouri al Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq, writing to you here from Tehran, which is the capital of Iran since many Americans I heard are ignorant of basic geography. For example, did you know that Iraq’s borders, which cause so much Sunni-Shia-Kurd trouble for you, were basically drawn up artifically by your old friends the British? Hah hah, this is true.
I am in Tehran this week, as you can see from the photo, meeting with my old friends the Iranians. I had a few minutes here and wanted to drop you in America a line to say “hi.” Your Barack invited me to the White House last December as a propaganda ploy as the US was magnanimously returning my country to me, but since I have been naughty since then I doubt I will be invited back again to greet you in person.
Ahmadinejad said that Tehran-Baghdad ties are exemplary. “Tehran, Baghdad share ‘unbreakable’ relationship’.” Like me, his English not so good, you forgive, OK.
I started thinking about you when I was reading a book about what you call the “Vietnam War.” People over there call it the Third Indochina War, as they fought the Japanese, the French and then the Americans in succession, much as we in Iraq call the most recent invasion by you the Third Gulf War, after Saddam fought the Iranians in the 1980’s (you were on Iraq’s side), then Iraq fought the US in 1991 and of course then you invaded us because of 9/11 in 2003. Your wonderful naivete about history just amuses me.
You know, in Vietnam your government convinced generations of Americans to fight and die for something bigger than themselves, to struggle for democracy they believed, to fight Communism in Vietnam before it toppled countries like dominoes (we also love this dominoes game in Iraq!) and you ended up fighting Communism in your California beaches. Everyone believed this but it was all a lie. Then in 2003 the George W. Bush (blessed be his name) told the exact same lie and everyone believed it again– he just changed the word “Communism” to “Terrorism” and again your American youth went off to die for something greater than themselves but it was a lie. How you fooled twice?
But I am rude. I need to say now “Thank You” to the parents of the 4484 Americans who died in this Iraq invasion so that I could become the new autocratic leader of Iraq. Really guys and the girls, I could not have achieved this status without you.
You see, during the Saddam years I was forced to live in exile in Iran. This is true! Your war allowed me to come back to Iraq and become Prime Minister. In March 2010 you had another American election festival for us in Iraq, and I lost by the counting of votes. However, because your State Department was desperate for some government to form here and they could not broker a deal themselves, they allowed the Iranian government to come and help me (as we are old friends you now know) and arrange a deal with the Sadrists (they were once terrorists on one of your lists). So then I won.
Within days of your troops leaving Iraq in December 2011 (a deal I also need thanks to say to your randy man Brett McGurk for he negotiated it with me, thanks ‘Randy, we party again soon, maybe in Doha where I hear you have friends, yeah!) I had my main opponent’s staff tortured and sent that bastard dog Hashimi on the run. Soon I take over the good big ministries and arrest a few, watch a mayor commit suicide in my jail and now here I am, working back toward as much power as Saddam held just a few years ago.
My Iraq is good friends with my Iran thanks to you, and I am returning some favors allowing Iranian arms to criss-cross Iraq into Syria. It is what friends are for, no? “If Tehran and Baghdad are powerful, then there will be no place for the presence of enemies of nations in this region, including the U.S. and the Zionist regime,” the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Ahmadinejad as telling al-Maliki, which is me.
Anyway, I gotta run. Being a autocrat is busy days you know, as being one man in control means I have to do so much. I am now working with Iran to rebuild Iraq, some of that reconstruction you claimed to have done but now we really do need to fix some stuff up, so this time it is for serious.
There’s my picture when I was at your Arlington National Cemetery with the Obama. I looked so serious but I was thinking about hot women! But yes, my thanks again for sacrificing 4484 of your young men and women for me. I can never repay this debt, not that I would even think of seeking to repay you anything you ignorant pigs.
Nouri al Maliki (follow me on Twitter!)
TomDispatch tells us more about how we evolved into a country without much purpose abroad beyond targeted killing with our robots:
Put drones in a more familiar context, skip the awestruck commentary, and they should have been eerily familiar. We should have known that remotely piloted vehicles were heading toward us these last four decades, that they were, in fact, the most natural form of war for the All Volunteer Military (and the demobilized American public that went with it).
Go back to one of the most momentous, if underrated and little considered, decisions of the “American Century” — the decision, in the wake of Vietnam, to sever the military from potentially unruly draftees and create an all-professional army, while not backing down from the American global mission. The amateurs, a democratic citizenry, were demobilized, sent home, and sidelined as a new American way of war was launched that would grow ever more remote (as in “remotely piloted vehicle”) from most Americans, while corporations, not citizens, would be mobilized for our new wars.
Although early drone technology was already being used over North Vietnam, it’s in another sense entirely that drones have been heading into America’s future since 1973. There was an eerie logic to it: first came professional war, then privatized war, then mercenary and outsourced war — all of which made war ever more remote from most Americans. Finally, both literally and figuratively, came remote war itself.
Read the whole article now on TomDispatch.
Lâm Văn Tức, was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on June 11, 1963. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s corrupt and ineffectual Diệm administration.
The Iraqi poet Poet Kazim al-Hajjaj, in southern Iraq’s port city of Basra, has locked himself inside his home “until death,” to protest the continuous electric power cuts in his city. Temperatures these days are routinely over 100 degress F/50 degrees C.
The US spent over $63 billion on “rebuilding,” including billions spent on (not) fixing the power grid.
There is nothing more to say. This is the Iraq we created.