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Engelhardt: An Obit for the General

8:24 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small) 
History, Farce, and David Petraeus 
By Tom Engelhardt

Official Portrait of Petraeus

David Petraeus

History, it is said, arrives first as tragedy, then as farce.  First as Karl Marx, then as the Marx Brothers.  In the case of twenty-first century America, history arrived first as George W. Bush (and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and the Project for a New America — a shadow government masquerading as a think tank — and an assorted crew of ambitious neocons and neo-pundits); only later did David Petraeus make it onto the scene.

It couldn’t be clearer now that, from the shirtless FBI agent to the “embedded biographer and the “other other woman,” the “fall” of David Petraeus is playing out as farce of the first order.  What’s less obvious is that Petraeus, America’s military golden boy and Caesar of celebrity, was always smoke and mirrors, always the farce, even if the denizens of Washington didn’t know it.

Until recently, here was the open secret of Petraeus’s life: he may not have understood Iraqis or Afghans, but no military man in generations more intuitively grasped how to flatter and charm American reporters, pundits, and politicians into praising him.  This was, after all, the general who got his first Newsweek cover (“Can This Man Save Iraq?”) in 2004 while he was making a mess of a training program for Iraqi security forces, and two more before that magazine, too, took the fall.  In 2007, he was a runner-up to Vladimir Putin for TIME’s “Person of the Year.”  And long before Paula Broadwell’s aptly named biography, All In, was published to hosannas from the usual elite crew, that was par for the course.

You didn’t need special insider’s access to know that Broadwell wasn’t the only one with whom the general did calisthenics.  The FBI didn’t need to investigate.  Even before she came on the scene, scads of columnists, pundits, reporters, and politicians were in bed with him.  And weirdly enough, many of them still are.  (Typical was NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams mournfully discussing the “painful” resignation of “Dave” — “the most prominent and best known general of the modern era.”)  Adoring media people treated him like the next military Messiah, a combination of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Ulysses S. Grant rolled into one fabulous piñata.  It’s a safe bet that no general of our era, perhaps of any American era, has had so many glowing adjectives attached to his name.

Perhaps Petraeus’s single most insightful moment, capturing both the tragedy and the farce to come, occurred during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He was commanding the 101st Airborne on its drive to Baghdad, and even then was inviting reporters to spend time with him.  At some point, he said to journalist Rick Atkinson, “Tell me how this ends.”  Now, of course, we know: in farce and not well.

For weeks, the news has been filled with his ever-expanding story, including private rivalries, pirate-themed parties, conspiracy theories run wild, and investigations inside investigations inside investigations.  It’s lacked nothing an all-American twenty-first-century media needs to glue eyeballs.  Jill Kelley, the Tampa socialite whose online life started the ball rolling and ended up embroiling two American four-star generals in Internet hell, evidently wrote enough emails a day to stagger the imagination.  But she was a piker compared to the millions of words that followed from reporters, pundits, observers, retired military figures, everyone and anyone who had ever had an encounter with or a thought about Petraeus, his biographer-cum-lover Paula Broadwell, Afghan War Commander General John Allen, and the rest of an ever-expanding cast of characters.  Think of it as the Fall of the House of Gusher.

Here was the odd thing: none of David Petraeus’s “achievements” outlasted his presence on the scene.  Still, give him credit.  He was a prodigious campaigner and a thoroughly modern general.  From Baghdad to Kabul, no one was better at rolling out a media blitzkrieg back in the U.S. in which he himself would guide Americans through the fine points of his own war-making.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Why the Troops Are Coming Home

8:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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One and a Half Cheers for American Decline 
The Future’s Not Ours — and That’s Good News 

By Tom Engelhardt

Compare two assessments of the American future:

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in which 61% of Americans interviewed considered “things in the nation” to be “on the wrong track,” 66% did “not feel confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.” (Seven percent were “not sure,” and only 27% “felt confident.”)  But here was the polling question you’re least likely to see discussed in your local newspaper or by Washington-based pundits: “Do you think America is in a state of decline, or do you feel that this is not the case?” Sixty-five percent of respondents chose as their answer: “in a state of decline.”

Meanwhile, Afghan war commander General David Petraeus was interviewed last week by Martha Raddatz of ABC News.  Asked whether the American war in Afghanistan, almost a decade old, was finally on the right counterinsurgency track and could go on for another nine or ten years, Petraeus agreed that we were just at the beginning of the process, that the “clock” was only now ticking, and that we needed “realistic expectations” about what could happen and how fast.  “Progress” in Afghanistan, he commented, was often so slow that it could feel like “watching grass grow or paint dry.”

Now, I’m not a betting man, but I’d head for Vegas tomorrow and put my money down against the general and on Americans generally when it comes to assessing the future.  I’d put money on the fact that the United States is indeed “in a state of decline” and I’d make a wager at odds that U.S. troops won’t be in Afghanistan in nine or ten years.  And I’d venture to suggest as well that the two bets would be intimately connected, and that the American people understand at a visceral level far more than Washington cares to know about our real situation in the world.  And I’d put my money on one more thing: however lousy it may feel, it’s not all bad news, not by a long shot.

Decline Today, Not Tomorrow

Let’s start with Afghanistan.  Yes, we’ve been “in,” or intimately involved with, Afghanistan not just for almost a decade, but for a significant chunk of the last 30 years.  And for much of that time we’ve poured our wealth into creating chaos and mayhem there in the name of “freedom,” “liberation,” “reconstruction,” and “nation-building.”  We started in the distant days of the Reagan administration with the CIA funneling vast sums of money and advanced weaponry into the anti-Soviet jihad.  At that time, we happily supported outright terror tactics, including car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks on the Soviets in Afghan cities and bomb attacks on movie theaters as well.  These acts were committed by Islamic fundamentalists of the most extreme sort, and our officials, labeling them “freedom fighters,” couldn’t say enough nice things about them.

That was our expensive first decade in Afghanistan.  In 1989, when the Russians withdrew in defeat, we departed in triumph.  You know the next round well enough: we returned in 2001, armed and eager, carrying suitcases full of cash, and ready to fight many of the same fundamentalists we (or our allies the Pakistanis) had set loose, funded, and armed in the previous two decades.

If, back in 1979, you had told a polling group of Americans that their country would soon embark on a never-ending war that would involve spending hundreds of billions of dollars, building staggering numbers of military bases, squandering startling sums (including at least $27 billion to train Afghan military and police forces whose most striking trait is desertion), losing significant numbers of American lives (and huge numbers of Afghan ones), and launching the first robot air war in history, and then asked them to pick the likely country, not one in a million would have chosen Afghani-where(?).  And yet, today, our leading general (“perhaps the greatest general of his generation”) doesn’t blink at the mention of another 9 or 10 years doing more of the same.

After 30 years, it might almost seem logical.  Why not 10 more?  The answer is that you have to be the Washington equivalent of blind, deaf, and dumb not to know why not, and Americans aren’t any of those.  They know what Washington is in denial about, because they’re living American decline in the flesh, even if Washington isn’t.  Not yet anyway.  And they know they’re living it not in some distant future, but right now.

Here’s a simple reality: the U.S. is an imperial power in decline — and not just the sort of decline which is going to affect your children or grandchildren someday.  We’re talking about massive unemployment that’s going nowhere and an economy which shows no sign of ever returning good jobs to this country on a significant scale, even if “good times” do come back sooner or later.  We’re talking about an aging, fraying infrastructure — with its collapsing bridges and exploding gas pipelines — that a little cosmetic surgery isn’t going to help. 

And whatever the underlying historical trends, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and company accelerated this process immeasurably.  You can thank their two mad wars, their all-planet-all-the-time Global War on Terror, their dumping of almost unlimited taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon and war planning for the distant future, and their scheme to privatize the military and mind-meld it with a small group of crony capitalist privateers, not to speak of ramping up an already impressively over-muscled national security state into a national state of fear, while leaving the financial community to turn the country into a giant, mortgaged Ponzi scheme.  It was the equivalent of driving a car in need of a major tune-up directly off the nearest cliff — and the rest, including the economic meltdown of 2008, is, as they say, history, which we’re all now experiencing in real time.  Then, thank the Obama administration for not having the nerve to reverse course while it might still have mattered.

Public Opinion and Elite Opinion

The problem in all this isn’t the American people.  They already know the score. The problem is Afghan war commander Petraeus.  It’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  It’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  It’s National Security Adviser James Jones.  It’s all those sober official types, military and civilian, who pass for “realists,” and are now managing “America’s global military presence,” its vast garrisons, its wars and alarums.  All of them are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Ordinary Americans aren’t.  They know what’s going down, and to judge by polls, they have a perfectly realistic assessment of what needs to be done.  Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service recently reported on the release of a major biennial survey, "Constrained Internationalism: Adapting to New Realities," by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA).  Here’s the heart of it, as Lobe describes it:

“The survey’s main message, however, was that the U.S. public is looking increasingly toward reducing Washington’s role in world affairs, especially in conflicts that do not directly concern it. While two-thirds of citizens believe Washington should take an ‘active part in world affairs,’ 49% — by far the highest percentage since the CCGA first started asking the question in the mid-1970s — agreed with the proposition that the U.S. should ‘mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’

“Moreover, 91% of respondents agreed that it was ‘more important at this time for the [U.S.] to fix problems at home’ than to address challenges to the (U.S.) abroad — up from 82% who responded to that question in CCGA’s last survey in 2008.”

That striking 49% figure is no isolated outlier.  As Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz point out in an article in the journal International Security, a December 2009 Pew poll got the same 49% response to the same “mind its own business” question.  It was, they comment, “the highest response ever recorded, far surpassing the 32% expressing that attitude in 1972, during the height of opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Along the same lines, the CCGA survey found significant majorities expressing an urge for their government to cooperate with China, but not actively work to limit the growth of its power, and not to support Israel if it were to attack Iran.  Similarly, they opted for a “lighter military footprint” and a lessening in the U.S. role as “world policeman.”  When it comes to the Afghan War specifically, the latest polls and reporting indicate that skepticism about it continues to rise.  All of this adds up not to traditional “isolationism,” but to a realistic foreign policy, one appropriate to a nation not garrisoning the planet or dreaming of global hegemony.

This may simply reflect a visceral sense of imperial decline under the pressure of two unpopular wars.  Explain it as you will, it’s exactly what Washington is incapable of facing.  A CCGA survey of elite, inside-the-Beltway opinion would undoubtedly find much of America’s leadership class still trapped inside an older global paradigm and so willing to continue pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Afghanistan and elsewhere rather than consider altering the American posture on the planet.

Imperial Denial Won’t Stop Decline

Despite much planning during and after World War II for a future role as the planet’s preeminent power, Washington used to act as if its “responsibilities” as the “leader of the Free World” had been thrust upon it.  That, of course, was before the Soviet Union collapsed.  After 1991, it became commonplace for pundits and officials alike to refer to the U.S. as the only “sheriff” in town, the “global policeman,” or the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Whatever the American people might then have thought a post-Cold War “peace dividend” would mean, elites in Washington already knew, and acted accordingly.  As in any casino when you’re on a roll, they doubled down their bets, investing the fruits of victory in more of the same — especially in the garrisoning and control of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region.  And when the good fortune only seemed to continue and the sole enemies left in military terms proved to be a few regional “rogue states” of no great importance and small non-state groups, it went to their heads in a big way.

In the wake of 9/11, that “twenty-first century Pearl Harbor,” the new crew in Washington and the pundits and think-tankers surrounding them saw a planet ripe for the taking.  Having already fallen in love with the U.S. military, they made the mistake of believing that military power and global power were the same thing and that the U.S. had all it needed of both.  They were convinced that a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East was within their grasp if only they acted boldly, and they didn’t doubt for a moment that they could roll back Russia — they were, after all, former Cold Warriors — and put China in its place at the same time.  Their language was memorable.  They spoke of “cakewalks” and a “military lite,” of “shock and awe” aerial blitzes and missions accomplished.  When they joked around, a typical line went: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad.  Real men want to go to Tehran.”

And they meant it.  They were ready to walk the walk — or so they thought.  This was the remarkably brief period when the idea of “empire” or “empire lite” was proudly embraced and friendly pundits started comparing the United States to the Roman or British empires.  It’s hard to believe how recently that was and how relatively silent the present crew in Washington has fallen when it comes to the glories of American power.

Now, they just hope to get by, in itself a sign of decline.  That’s why we’ve entered a period when, except for inanely repetitious, overblown references to the threat of al-Qaeda, no one in Washington cares to offer Americans an explanation — any explanation — of why we’re fighting globally.  They prefer to manage the pain, while holding the line.  They prefer to leak the news, for example, that in Afghanistan no policy changes are in the offing any time soon.  As the Washington Post reported recently, “The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year…”

It’s not that they don’t see decline at all, but that they prefer to think of it as a mild, decades-long process, the sort of thing that might lead to a diminution of American power by 2025.  At the edges, however, you can feel other assessments creeping up — in, for instance, former Condoleezza Rice National Security Council deputy Robert Blackwill’s recent call for the U.S. to pull back its troops to northern Afghanistan, ceding the Pashtun south to the Taliban.

Sooner or later — and I doubt it will take as long as many imagine — you’ll hear far more voices, ever closer to the heartlands of American power, rising in anxiety or even fear.  Don’t think nine or ten years either.  This won’t be a matter of choice.  Our leadership may be delusional, but there will be nothing more to double down with, and so “America’s global military presence” will begin to crumble.  And whether they want it or not, whether there’s even an antiwar movement or not, those troops will start coming home, not to a happy nation or to an upbeat situation, but home in any case.

It may sound terrible, and in Afghanistan and elsewhere, terrible things will indeed happen in the interim, while at home the economy will, at best, limp along, the infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, more jobs will march south, and American finances will worsen.  If we’re not quite heading for what Arianna Huffington, in her provocative new book, calls “Third World America,” we’re not heading for further fame and fortune either.

But cheer up.  The news isn’t all bad.  Truly.  We’ve just gotten way too used to the idea that the United States must be the planet’s preeminent nation, the global hegemon, the sole superpower, numero uno.  We’ve convinced ourselves that neither we nor the world can exist without our special management.

So here’s the good news: it’s actually going to feel better to be just another nation, one more country, even if a large and powerful one, on this overcrowded planet, rather than the nation.  It’s going to feel better to only arm ourselves to defend our actual borders, rather than constantly fighting distant wars or skirmishes and endlessly preparing for more of the same.  It’s going to feel better not to be engaged in an arms race of one or playing the role of the globe’s major arms dealer.  It’s going to feel better to focus on American problems, maybe experiment a little at home, and offer the world some real models for a difficult future, instead of talking incessantly about what a model we are while we bomb and torture and assassinate abroad with impunity.

So take some pleasure in this: our troops are coming home and you’re going to see it happen.  And in the not so very distant future it won’t be our job to “police” the world or be the “global sheriff.” And won’t that be a relief?  We can form actual coalitions of equals to do things worth doing globally and never have to organize another “coalition of the billing,” twisting arms and bribing others to do our military bidding.

Since by the time we get anywhere near such a world, our leaders will have run this country into the ground, it’s hard to offer the traditional three cheers for such a future.  But how about at least one-and-a-half prospective cheers for the possible return of perspective to our American world, for a significant lessening, even if not the decisive ending, of an American imperial role and of the massive military “footprint” that goes with it.

It’s going to happen.  Put your money on it.

And thank you, George W. Bush (though I never thought I’d say that), you’ve given an old guy a shot at seeing the fruits of American decline myself.  I’m looking forward.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com.  His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. You can catch him discussing war American-style and his book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.

[Note: To view the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll mentioned in paragraph two of this piece, click here (pdf file).  My thanks go to two friends, Jim Peck and Jim Lobe, for conversations that made a difference in writing this essay, and to Christopher Holmes and Andy Kroll for keeping me honest.  To read more of Lobe’s work, check out his blog, Lobelog, filled with energetic pieces by him and especially his young associates and also his archive of articles.  Thanks as well go to Antiwar.com (as well as Jason Ditz’s daily summaries at that site), Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website, and Paul Woodward’s the War in Context website, all invaluable to me when it comes to gathering information daily on our various wars.  (While you’re at it, check out this provocative little piece by Woodward on the way weapons outlive the empires that peddle them.)]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: William Astore, Wars Don’t Make Heroes

7:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch readers:  If you have a moment, check out my latest piece, "Advice for General Petraeus on the Rules of Engagement: It's Neither/Nor, Not Either/Or."  It appeared Tuesday at Juan Cole’s invaluable Informed Comment website as part of my minuscule campaign to get word out about my new book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. You can check out the first reviews of the book by clicking here.  The next TomDispatch piece will be posted Monday on a slightly slower summer schedule.]

Consider a strange aspect of our wars since October 2001: they have yet to establish a bona fide American hero, a national household name.  Two were actually “nominated” early by the Bush administration — Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old private and clerk captured by the Iraqis in the early days of the American invasion and later “rescued” by Army Rangers and Navy Seals, and Pat Tillman, the former NFL safety who volunteered for service in the Army Rangers eight months after 9/11 and died under “enemy” gunfire in Afghanistan.

Both stories were later revealed to be put-up jobs, pure Bush-era propaganda and deceit.  In Lynch’s case, almost every element in the instant patriotic myth about her rescue proved either phony or highly exaggerated; in Tillman’s, it turned out that he had been killed by friendly fire, but — thanks to a military cover-up (that involved General Stanley McChrystal, later to become Afghan war commander) — was still given a Silver Star and a posthumous promotion.  Members of his unit were even ordered by the military to lie at his funeral, and he was made into a convenient “hero” and recruitment poster boy for the Afghan War. Both were shameful episodes, involving administration manipulation and media gullibility.  Since then, as TomDispatch regular and retired lieutenant colonel William Astore points out, U.S. troops as a whole have been labeled “our heroes,” but individual heroes have been in vanishingly short supply.

In fact, the only specific figures who get the heroic treatment these days are our military commanders.  They tend to be written about like so many demi-gods (until they fall).  General McChrystal, before his ignominious nosedive, was presented in the press (with the Tillman incident all but forgotten) as a cross between a Spartan ascetic and a strategic genius (with the brain of a military Stephen Hawking).  Present war commander General David Petraeus regularly receives even more fawning media treatment and seems to be worshipped in Washington these days as if he were not only “an American hero,” but a genuine military god (as well as a future presidential candidate).  Yet, in the way they’ve been treated, both of these figures seem closer to celebrities than heroes in any traditional sense.

Perhaps this catches something essential about America’s unending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and also what used to be called the Global War on Terror but now has no name.  Like the drone pilots who sit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, killing peasants and terrorists 7,000 miles away and to whom new standards of “valor” are now being applied, most Americans are remarkably detached from the wars our “all volunteer” military force (and its vast contingent of for-profit mercenary warriors) fight in distant lands.  Our forces have become generically heroic, but no one cares to look too closely at the specifics of these bloody, dirty wars that will never end in victory, not close enough to end up with actual heroes.  Our “heroic” troops have no real names, any more than the wars they fight, and so individual heroics are perhaps beside the point.  (Check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which William Astore discusses heroism and the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.)  Tom 

“Our American Heroes” 
Why It’s Wrong to Equate Military Service with Heroism 

By William J. Astore

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved reading accounts of American heroism from World War II.  I remember being riveted by a book about the staunch Marine defenders of Wake Island and inspired by John F. Kennedy’s exploits saving the sailors he commanded on PT-109.  Closer to home, I had an uncle — like so many vets of that war, relatively silent on his own experiences — who had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and then fought them in a brutal campaign on Guadalcanal, where he earned a Bronze Star.  Such men seemed like heroes to me, so it came as something of a shock when, in 1980, I first heard Yoda’s summary of war in The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke Skywalker, if you remember, tells the wizened Jedi master that he seeks “a great warrior.” “Wars not make one great,” Yoda replies.

Okay, it was George Lucas talking, I suppose, but I was struck by the truth of that statement.  Of course, my little epiphany didn’t come just because of Yoda or Lucas.  By my late teens, even as I was gearing up for a career in the military, I had already begun to wonder about the common ethos that linked heroism to military service and war.  Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) provides an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but even then I instinctively knew that it didn’t constitute heroism.

Ever since the events of 9/11, there’s been an almost religious veneration of U.S. service members as “Our American Heroes” (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office).  That a snappy uniform or even intense combat in far-off countries don’t magically transform troops into heroes seems a simple point to make, but it’s one worth making again and again, and not only to impressionable, military-worshipping teenagers.

Here, then, is what I mean by “hero”: someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place.  Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).

“Hero,” sadly, is now used far too cavalierly.  Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes.  Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I’ve ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality, and lucidity.  In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I’ll never forget.

Hometown Heroes in Uniform

In local post offices, as well as on local city streets here in central Pennsylvania, I see many reminders that our troops are “hometown heroes.”  Official military photos of these young enlistees catch my eye, a few smiling, most looking into the camera with faces of grim resolve tinged with pride at having completed basic training.  Once upon a time, as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, I looked into such faces in the flesh, congratulating young service members for their effort and spirit.

I was proud of them then; I still am.  But here’s a fact I suspect our troops might be among the first to embrace: the act of joining the military does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat.  Whether in the military or in civilian life, heroes are rare — indeed, all-too-rare.  Heck, that’s the reason we celebrate them.  They’re the very best of us, which means they can’t be all of us.

Still, even if elevating our troops to hero status has become something of a national mania, is there really any harm done?  What’s wrong with praising our troops to the rafters?  What’s wrong with adding them to our pantheon of heroes?

The short answer is: There’s a good deal wrong, and a good deal of harm done, not so much to them as to us.

To wit:

*By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down.  In celebrating isolated heroic feats, we often forget that war is guaranteed to degrade humanity.  “War,” as writer and cultural historian Louis Menand noted, “is specially terrible not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.”

When we create a legion of heroes in our minds, we blind ourselves to evidence of their destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior.  Heroes, after all, don’t commit atrocities.  They don’t, for instance, dig bullets out of pregnant women’s bodies in an attempt to cover up deadly mistakes.  They don’t fire on a good Samaritan and his two children as he attempts to aid a grievously wounded civilian.  Such atrocities and murderous blunders, so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans who simply can’t imagine their “heroes” killing innocents.  How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.

*By making our military generically heroic, we act to prolong our wars.  By seeing war as essentially heroic theater, we esteem it even as we excuse it.  Consider, for example, Germany during World War I, a subject I’ve studied and written about.  Now, as then, and here, as there, the notion of war as heroic theater became common.  And when that happens, war’s worst excesses are conveniently softened on the “home front,” which only contributes to more war-making.  As the historian Robert Weldon Whalen noted of those German soldiers of nearly a century ago, “The young men in field-grey were, first of all, not just soldiers, but young heroes, Junge Helden.  They fought in the heroes’ zone, Heldenzone, and performed heroic deeds, Heldentaten.  Wounded, they shed hero’s blood, Heldenblut, and if they died, they suffered a hero’s death, Heldentod, and were buried in a hero’s grave, Heldengrab.”  The overuse of helden as a modifier to ennoble German militarism during World War I may prove grating to our ears today, but honestly, is it that much different from America’s own celebration of our troops as young heroes (with all the attendant rites)?

*By insisting programmatically on American military heroism, we also lay a firm foundation for potentially dangerous post-war myths, especially of the blame-mongering “stab-in-the-back” variety.  After all, once you have a league of heroes, how can you assign responsibility for costly, debilitating, perhaps even lost wars to them?  It’s just a fact that heroes don’t lose.  And if they’re not responsible, and their brilliant, super-competent leaders (General “King David” Petraeus springs to mind) aren’t responsible — then it’s only a small step to assigning blame to weak-willed civilians and so-called unpatriotic elements on the “home front,” especially since we’re not likely to credit our enemies for much.  By definition, cravenly hiding among civilians as they do, our enemies are just about incapable of behaving heroically.

Of Young Heroes and Front Pigs

In rejecting the “heroic” label, don’t think we’d be insulting our troops.  Quite the opposite: we’d be making common cause with them, for most of our troops undoubtedly already reject the “hero” label, just as the young “heroes” of Germany did in 1917-18.  With the typical sardonic humor of front-line soldiers, they preferred the less comforting, if far more realistically descriptive label (given their grim situation in the trenches) of “front pigs.”

Whatever nationality they may be, troops at the front know the score.  Even as our media and our culture seek to elevate our troops into the pantheon of demi-gods, our “front pigs” carry on, plying an ancient and brutal trade.  Most simply want to survive and come home with their bodies, their minds, and their buddies intact.  Part of the world’s deadliest war machine, they are naturally concerned first about saving their own skins, and only secondarily worried about the lives of others.  This is not beastliness.  Nor is it heroism.  It’s simply a front pig’s nature.

So, next time you talk to our soldiers, Marines, sailors, or airmen, do them (and your country) a small favor.  Thank them for their service.  Let them know that you appreciate them.  Just don’t call them heroes.

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.  He welcomes reader feedback at wjastore@gmail.com. Check out the latest TomCast audio interview in which Astore discusses heroism and the military by clicking here, or to download to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Petraeus Syndrome

7:45 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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[Note for TomDispatch readers:  James Carroll, Boston Globe columnist and author of the bestselling Constantine’s Sword, wrote the following about my new book (which is already going into a second printing) and TomDispatch at the Daily Beast: “On 9 /11 the well-regarded writer and editor Tom Engelhardt was drafted. Ever since he has been a conscript in the campaign against America’s knee-jerk wars. His weapon has been his eloquence. For nearly a decade, he has written passionate criticism and shrewd analysis on his website TomDispatch.com. Now a collection of his dissections of U.S. military policy has been published as a book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s. This is an invaluable catalog of the Pentagon-driven mistakes, myths, self-deceptions, and crimes that have wreaked havoc in Iraq and Afghanistan. That the American wars are proving to be as fruitless now as they were then unnecessary keeps them from rising to the level of actual tragedy, even as the lives of countless individuals have been tragically cut short. This book is a permanent record of the TomDispatch website’s ongoing but more ephemeral masterpiece-in-progress.”  To order The American Way of War at Amazon.com just click here (and remember that whenever you buy at Amazon off a TomDispatch link, book or otherwise, TD gets a little contribution, cost-free to you).  To catch me discussing "Why Afghanistan" question in the latest Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, here.  Tom]

Why Are We in Afghanistan?
As Petraeus Takes Over, Could Success Be Worse Than Failure?

By Tom Engelhardt

July 12, 2011, Washington, D.C. – In triumphant testimony before a joint committee of Congress in which he was greeted on both sides of the aisle as a conquering hero, Gen. David Petraeus announced the withdrawal this month of the first 1,000 American troops from Afghanistan.  “This is the beginning of the pledge the president made to the American people to draw down the surge troops sent in since 2009,” he said, adding, “and yet let me emphasize, as I did when I took this job, that our commitment to the Afghan government and people is an enduringone.”

Last July, when Gen. Petraeus replaced the discredited Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan war commander, he was hailed as an “American hero” by Senator John McCain, as “the most talented officer of his generation” by the New Yorker’s George Packer, and as “the nation’s premier warrior-diplomat” by Karen DeYoung and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post — typical of the comments of both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives at the time. Petraeus then promised that the United States was in Afghanistan “to win.”

In the year since, the Taliban insurgency has been blunted and “a tipping point has been reached,” says a senior U.S. military official with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who could speak only on the condition of anonymity, in keeping with the policy of his organization.  By every available measure — IEDs or roadside bombs, suicide attacks, Taliban assassinations of local officials, allied casualties, and Afghan civilian casualties — the intensity of the insurgency has weakened significantly.  The Afghan military and police, though not capable of taking the lead in the fighting in their own country, have been noticeably strengthened by American and NATO training missions.  President Hamid Karzai’s government, still considered weak and corrupt, has succeeded in putting an Afghan face on the war.

Democratic critics of Gen. Petraeus, and of President Obama’s surge strategy, were notably quiet this week as the general toured the capital’s power hotspots from John Podesta’s Center for American Progress to the American Enterprise Institute, while being feted as the hero of the moment and a potential presidential candidatein 2016.  As in 2007, when he was appointed to oversee George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq after the critics said it couldn’t be done, the impressive charts the general brought to his congressional testimony once again vividly indicated otherwise.  The situation in Afghanistan has undergone an Iraq-like change since the nadir of July 2010 when critics and proponents alike agreed that the nine-year-old war was foundering, the counterinsurgency strategy failing, and polling in the U.S. highlighted the war’s increasing unpopularity.

“What a difference a year makes,” said a jubilant senior official at the Pentagon.  In just 12 months, as Gen. Petraeus likes to describe it, he managed to synchronizethe Afghan and Washington “clocks” and, in the process, as he had done in Iraq, took the news out of the war and the war out of the news.  The latest Gallup poll indicates that up to 63% of Americans are now “supportive” of the general’s approach to the Afghan War…

What Success Would Mean in Afghanistan

Okay, it hasn’t happened yet — and the odds are it never will.  But for a moment, just imagine stories like that leading the news nationwide as our most political general in generations comes home to a grateful Washington.

By all accounts, the Afghan War could hardly be going worse today.  Counterinsurgency, the strategy promoted by General McChrystal but conceived by General Petraeus, is seemingly in a ditch, while the Taliban are the ones surging.  Around that reality has arisen a chorus of criticism and complaint, left, right, and center.

Failure breeds critics, you might say, the way dead bodies breed flies.  Or put another way, it’s easy enough to criticize a failing American project, but what about a successful one?  What if Petraeus really turns out to be the miracle general of twenty-first century American war-making — which, by the way, only means that he needs to “blunt” the Taliban surge (the modern definition of “winning,” now that victory is no longer a part of the U.S. war-making lexicon)?

Today, the increasingly self-evident failure of American policy in Afghanistan is bringing enough calls for firm drawdown or withdrawal dates (or, from the Republicans, bitter complaints about the same) to exasperate President Obama.  Under the circumstances, no one evidently wonders what success would really mean.  We’ve been down so long, it seems, that few bother to consider what being up might involve.

Too bad.  It’s worth a thought.  Let’s say that Petraeus does return to Washington in what, these days, passes for triumph.  The question is: So what?  Or rather, could success in Afghanistan prove worse for Americans than failure?

Let’s imagine that, in July 2011, the U.S. military has tenuous control over key parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second largest city.  It still has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway.  Similarly, the “civilian” surge, which tripled the State Department’s personnel there, remains in place, as does the CIA surge that went with it — and the contractor and base-building surges that went with them.  In fact, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have only escalated further by July 2011.  Experts expect the counterinsurgency campaign to continue for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading for the exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan’s Pashtun minority, simply cannot in any normal sense be defeated.

This, then, would be “success” 10 years into America’s Afghan war.  Given the logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops, intelligence agents, civilian officials, and private contractors in the country, the approximately $7 billion a month now being spent there will undoubtedly be the price Americans are to pay for a long time to come (and that’s surely a significant undercount, if you consider long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of future care for those badly wounded in body or mind).

The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo continual training and, in a country with next to no government funds and (unlike Iraq) no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate horizon, they, too, will have to be paid for and supplied by Washington.  And keep in mind that the U.S. Air Force will, for the foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force.  In other words, success means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to come.

So what would we actually have to show for all this expenditure of money, effort, and lives?

We would be in minimalist possession of a fractious, ruined land, at war for three decades, and about as alien to, and far from, the United States as it’s possible to be on this planet.  We would be in minimalist possession of the world’s fifth poorest country.  We would be in minimal possession of the world’s secondmost corrupt country.  We would be in minimal possession of the world’s foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium.  In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda operatives (“maybe less”) — for whom parts of the country might still be a “safe haven.” And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year.

On the basis of our stated war objective — “[W]e cannot allow Al Qaeda or other transnational extremists to once again establish sanctuaries from which they can launch attacks on our homeland or on our allies,” as General Petraeus put it in his confirmation hearing at the end of June 2010 — success in Afghanistan means increasingly little.  For al-Qaeda, Afghanistan was never significant in itself.  It was always a place of (relative) convenience.  If the U.S. were to bar access to it, there are so many other countries to choose from.

After all, what’s left of the original al-Qaeda — estimated by U.S. intelligence experts at perhaps 300 leaders and operatives — seems to have established itself in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, a place that the U.S. military could hardly occupy, no matter how many CIA drone attacks were sent against it.  Moreover, U.S. intelligence experts increasingly suggest that al-Qaeda is in the process of fusing with local jihadist groups in those borderlands, Yemen, Somalia, North Africa, and elsewhere; that it is increasingly an amorphous “dispersed network,” or even simply an idea or crude ideology, existing as much online as anywhere in particular on the ground.

In this sense — and this is the only reason now offered for the American presence in Afghanistan — a counterinsurgency “success” there would be meaningless unless, based on the same strategic thinking, the U.S. then secured Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and a potential host of other places.  In other words, the U.S. military would have to do one thing the Bush years definitively proved it couldn’t do: impose a Pax Americana on planet Earth.

Of course, the Bush administration might have offered other explanations for the ongoing Afghan War, including the need to garrison what it called “the arc of instability” stretching from North Africa to the Chinese border (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet), roll back Russia from its former Soviet “backyard” in Central Asia, and guarantee the flow of Caspian Sea oil westward.  More recently, with the revelation that a trillion or more dollars worth of natural resources lie under Afghan soil, securing that country’s raw materials for western mining companies might have been added to that list.  The Obama administration, however, offers no such explanations and, being managerial rather than visionary in nature when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, might not even have them.

In any case, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be telling a rather different story.  The singular thing the Iraq War seems to have done politically is promote Iranian influence in that country.  Economically, it’s made Iraq a safer place for the state-owned or state-controlled oil companies of China, Russia, and a number of other non-western nations.  In Afghanistan, in terms of those future natural resources, we seem to be fighting to make that country safeforChinese investment (just as the recently heightened U.S. sanctions against Iran are helping make that country safe for Chinese energy dominance).

The Question Mark over Afghanistan

All of this leaves the massive American investment of its most precious resources, including lives, in Afghanistan an ongoing mystery that is never addressed.  Somewhere in that country’s vast stretches of poppy fields or in the halls of Washington’s national security bureaucracy, in other words, lurks a great unasked question.  It’s a question asked almost half a century ago of Vietnam, the lost war to which David Petraeus turned in 2006 to produce the Army counterinsurgency manual which is the basis for the present surge.

The question was: Why are we in Vietnam?  (It even became the title of a Norman Mailer novel.)  In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration produced a government propaganda film solely in response to that question, which was already threatening to drive down his polling figures and upend his Great Society at home.  The film was called Why Viet-Nam.  While it had no question mark after the title, the question of whether to add one was actually argued out in the most literal way inside the administration.

The film began with the president quoting a letter he had received from a mother “in the Midwest” whose son was stationed in Vietnam.  You hear the president, in his homey twang, pick up that woman’s question, as if it were his own.  “Why Vietnam?” he repeats three times as the title appears on the screen, after which, official or not, a question mark seems to hover over every scene, as it did over the war itself.

In a sense, the same question mark appeared both before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but it has never been associated with Afghanistan.  Because of 9/11, Afghanistan remained for years the (relatively) good (and largely forgotten) war, until visible failure visibly tarnished it.

It’s now past time to ask that question, even as the Obama administration repeats the al-Qaeda mantra of the Bush years almost word for word and lets any explanation go at that.

Why are we in Afghanistan?  Why is our treasure being wasted there when it’s needed here?

It’s clear enough that a failed counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan will be an unaffordably expensive catastrophe.  Let’s not wait a year to discover that there’s an even worse fate ahead, a “success” that leaves us mired there for years to come as our troubles at home only grow.  With everything else Americans have to deal with, who needs a future Petraeus Syndrome?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond.  His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), has just been published. Listen to him discuss the "Why Afghanistan" question in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here, or to download it to your iPod, here.

[Note on sources: I’m eternally thankful for the existence of Antiwar.com (including Jason Ditz’s daily updates), Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog (the quality of which is eternally startling), and Paul Woodward’s The War in Context.  Along with Katherine Tiedemann’s AfPak Channel “Daily Brief” and Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room blog (a must for all things strange and military), they help ensure that not much news coming out of Afghanistan and environs gets by me.]

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt