When the wheels are coming off, it doesn’t do much good to change the driver.
Whatever the name of the commanding general in Afghanistan, the U.S. war effort will continue its carnage and futility.
Between the lines, some news accounts are implying as much. Hours before Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s meeting with President Obama on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that "the firestorm was fueled by increasing doubts — even in the military — that Afghanistan can be won and by crumbling public support for the nine-year war as American casualties rise."
It now does McChrystal little good that news media have trumpeted everything from his Spartan personal habits (scarcely eats or sleeps) to his physical stamina (runs a lot) to his steel-trap alloy of military smarts and scholarship (reads history). Any individual is expendable.
For months, the McChrystal star had been slipping. A few days before the Rolling Stone piece caused a sudden plunge from war-making grace, Time Magazine’s conventional-wisdom weathervane Joe Klein was notably down on McChrystal’s results: "Six months after Barack Obama announced his new Afghan strategy in a speech at West Point, the policy seems stymied."
Now, words like "stymied" and "stalemate" are often applied to the Afghanistan war. But that hardly means the U.S. military is anywhere near withdrawal.
Walter Cronkite used the word "stalemate" in his famous February 1968 declaration to CBS viewers that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won. "We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders both in Vietnam and Washington to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds," he said. And: "It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate."
Yet the U.S. war on Vietnam continued for another five years, inflicting more unspeakable horrors on a vast scale.
Like thousands of other U.S. activists, I’ve been warning against escalation of the Afghanistan war for a long time. Opposition has grown, but today the situation isn’t much different than what I described in an article on December 9, 2008: "Bedrock faith in the Pentagon’s massive capacity for inflicting violence is implicit in the nostrums from anointed foreign-policy experts. The echo chamber is echoing: the Afghanistan war is worth the cost that others will pay."
The latest events reflect unwritten rules for top military commanders: Escalating a terrible war is fine. Just don’t say anything mean about your boss.
But the most profound aspects of Rolling Stone’s article "The Runaway General" have little to do with the general. The takeaway is — or should be — that the U.S. war in Afghanistan is an insoluble disaster, while the military rationales that propel it are insatiable. "Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further," the article points out. And "counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war."
There was something plaintive and grimly pathetic about the last words of the New York Times editorial that arrived on desks just hours before the general’s White House meeting with the commander in chief: "Whatever President Obama decides to do about General McChrystal, he needs to get hold of his Afghanistan policy right now."
Like their counterparts at media outlets across the United States, members of the Times editorial board are clinging to the counterinsurgency dream.
But none of such pro-war handwringing makes as much sense as a simple red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that says: "These colors don’t run . . . the world."
Fierce controversy has focused on terminating a runaway general. But the crying need is to terminate a runaway war.