Engelhardt, All-Volunteer Wars

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How Many Times Have You Seen This Headline?

By Tom Engelhardt

After a week away, here’s my advice: in news terms, you can afford to take a vacation.  When I came back last Sunday, New Orleans was bracing for tough times (again).  BP, a drill-baby-drill oil company that made $6.1 billion in the first quarter of this year and lobbied against “new, stricter safety rules” for offshore drilling, had experienced an offshore disaster for which ordinary Americans are going to pay through the nose (again).  News photographers were gearing up for the usual shots of oil-covered wildlife (again).  A White House — admittedly Democratic, not Republican — had deferred to an energy company’s needs, accepted its PR and lies, and then moved too slowly when disaster struck (again).

Okay, it may not be an exact repeat.  Think of it instead as history on cocaine.  The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, already the size of the state of Delaware, may end up larger than the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, and could prove more devastating than Hurricane Katrina.  Anyway, take my word for it, returning to our world from a few days offline and cell phone-less, I experienced an unsettling déjà-vu-all-over-again feeling.  What had happened was startling and horrifying — but also eerily expectable, if not predictable.

And, of course, when it came to our frontier wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — you remember them, don’t you? — repetition has long been the name of the game, though few here seem to notice.  With an immigration crisis, Tea Partying, that massive oil spill, and a crude, ineptly made car bomb in Times Square, there’s already enough to worry about.  Isn’t there? 

All-Volunteer Wars

Still, there was this headline awaiting my return: “Afghan lawmaker says relative killed after U.S. soldiers raided her home.”  Sigh.

After nine years in which such stories have appeared with unceasing regularity, I could have written the rest of it myself while on vacation, more or less sight unseen.  But here it is in a nutshell: there was a U.S. night raid somewhere near the Afghan city of Jalalabad.  American forces (Special Operations forces, undoubtedly), supposedly searching for a “Taliban facilitator,” came across a man they claimed was armed in a country in which the unarmed man is evidently like the proverbial needle in a haystack.  They shot him down.  His name was Amanullah.  He was a 30-year-old auto mechanic and the father of five. As it happened, he was also the brother-in-law of Safia Siddiqi, a sitting member of the Afghan Parliament.  He had, as she explained, called her in a panic, thinking that brigands were attacking his home compound.

And here was the nice touch for those U.S. Special Operations guys, who seem to have learning abilities somewhat lower than those of a hungry mouse in a maze when it comes to hearts-and-minds-style counterinsurgency warfare.  True, in this case they didn’t shoot two pregnant mothers and a teenage girl, dig the bullets out of the bodies, and claim they had stumbled across “honor killings,” as Special Operations troops did in a village near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan in March; nor did they handcuff seven schoolboys and a shepherd and execute them, as evidently happened in Kunar Province in late December 2009; nor had they shot a popular imam in his car with his seven-year-old son in the backseat, as a passing NATO convoy did in Kabul, the Afghan capital, back in January; nor had they shadowed a three-vehicle convoy by helicopter on a road near the city of Kandahar and killed 21 while wounding 13 via rocket fire, as U.S. Special Forces troops did in February.  They didn’t wipe out a wedding party — a common enough occurrence in our Afghan War — or a funeral, or a baby-naming ceremony (as they did in Paktia Province, also in February), or shoot up any one of a number of cars, trucks, and buses loaded with innocent civilians at a checkpoint.

In this case, they killed only one man, who was unfortunately — from their point of view — reasonably well connected.  Then, having shot him, they reportedly forced the 15 inhabitants in his family compound out, handcuffed and blindfolded them (including the women and children), and here was that nice touch: they sent in the dogs, animals considered unclean in Islamic society, undoubtedly to sniff out explosives.  Brilliant!  “They disgraced our pride and our religion by letting their dogs sniff the holy Koran, our food, and the kitchen,” Ms. Siddiqi said angrily.  And then, the American military began to lie about what had happened, which is par for the course.  After the angry legislator let them have it (“…no one in Afghanistan is safe — not even parliamentarians and the president himself”) and the locals began to protest, blocking the main road out of Jalalabad and chanting “Death to America!,” they finally launched an investigation.  Yawn.

If I had a few bucks for every “investigation” the U.S. military launched in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years after some civilian or set of civilians died under questionable circumstances, I might be on vacation year around.

The U.S. military can, however, count on one crucial factor in its repetitive war-making: kill some pregnant mothers, kill some schoolboys, gun down a good Samaritan with two children in his car trying to transport Iraqis wounded in an Apache helicopter attack to a hospital, loose a whirlwind that results in hundreds of thousands of deaths — and still Americans at home largely don’t care.  After all, for all intents and purposes, it’s as if some other country were doing this on another planet entirely, and “for our safety” at that.

In that sense, the American public licenses its soldiers to kill civilians repetitively in distant frontier wars.  As a people — with the exception of relatively small numbers of Americans directly connected to the hundreds of thousands of American troops abroad — we couldn’t be more detached from “our” wars.  Repetition, schmepetition.  The real news is that Conan O’Brien “got very depressed at times” after ceding “The Tonight Show” to Jay Leno (again) and that the interview drove CBS’s “60 Minutes” to a ratings success.

The creation of the All-Volunteer Army in the 1970s was a direct response to the way the draft and a citizen’s army undermined an imperial war in Vietnam.  When it came to paying attention to or caring about such wars, it also turned out to mean an all-volunteer situation domestically (and that, too, carries a price, though it’s been a hard one for Americans to see).

“You’ll Never See It Coming”

I came back from vacation to several other headlines that I could have sworn I’d read before I left.  Take, for instance, the Washington Post headline: “Amid outrage over civilian deaths in Pakistan, CIA turns to smaller missiles.”  So here’s the “good” news, according to the Post piece: now we have a new missile weighing only 35 pounds, with the diameter of “a coffee cup,” and “no bigger than a violin” — who thinks up these comparisons? — charmingly named the Scorpion.  It has been developed to arm our drone aircraft and so aid the CIA’s air war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.  According to the advocates of our drone wars, the new missile has the enormous benefit of being so much more precise than the 100-pound Hellfire missile that preceded it.  It will, that is, kill so much more precisely those we want killed, and so (theoretically) not spark the sort of anti-American anger that often makes our weaponry a rallying point for resistance.

Talk about repetitious.  The idea that ever more efficient and “precise” wonder weapons will solve human problems, and perhaps even decisively bring our wars to an end, is older than… well, than I am anyway, and I’m almost 66.  After six-and-a-half decades on this planet and a week on vacation, I know one thing, which I knew before I left town: there’s no learning curve here at all.

Oh, and however crucial our night raids, and nifty our new weaponry, and despite the fact that we’re now filling the skies with new aircraft on new missions in our undeclared war in Pakistan, I returned to this headline in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes: “Report: Still not enough troops for Afghanistan operations.”  The Pentagon had just released its latest predictable assessment of the Afghan War, which included the information that, of the 121 districts in the country that the U.S. military identifies as critical to the war effort, NATO only has enough forces to operate in 48.  (U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan has nonetheless risen by 56,000 since President Obama took office.)  The news was grim: the Taliban remains on the rise, controlling ever larger swaths of the countryside, and the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is increasingly unpopular.  What you can already feel here is the rise of something else hideously predictable — the “need” for, and lobbying for, more American troops — even though the latest polling data indicate that Afghan anger and opposition may be rising in areas U.S. troops are moving into.

Or what about this headline in the British Guardian that a friend emailed me as I returned?  “Afghanistan forces face four more years of combat, warns NATO official.”  Four more years! Doesn’t that sound repetitiously familiar — and not as a line for Obama’s reelection campaign either.  Think of all this as a kind of predictable equation: more disastrous raids and offensives plus more precise weapons for more attacks = the need for more troops plus more time to bring the Afghan War to a “satisfactory” conclusion.

Oh, and let me mention one last repetitive moment.  You may remember that, in March 2004, just a year after he launched the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush appeared at the annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association and narrated a jokey slide show.  It showed him looking under White House furniture and around corners for those weapons of mass destruction that his administration had assured Americans would be found in Iraq in profusion, and which, of course, were nowhere to be seen.  “Those weapons of mass destruction,” the president joked, “have got to be here somewhere.”

Hard to imagine such a second such moment, certainly not from the joke writers of Barack Obama, who appeared at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner while I was gone, and garnered this positive headline at the wonk Washington political website for his sharp one-liners: “Obama Tops Leno at WHCD.” The accompanying piece hailed the president for showing off “his comedic chops” and cited several of his quips to make the point.  Here was one of them, quoted but not commented on (nor even considered worth a mention in the main Washington Post piece on his appearance, though it was noted in a Post blog): “The Jonas Brothers are here!… Sasha and Malia are huge fans but boys don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: Predator Drones. You’ll never see it coming.”

The audience at the correspondents’ dinner reportedly “laughed approvingly.”  And why not?  Assassinate the Jonas brothers by remote control if they touch his daughters?  What father with access to drone killers wouldn’t be tempted to make such a joke?  We’re talking, of course, about the weaponry now associated with what media pieces still laughably call the CIA’s “covert war” or “covert missions” in Pakistan.  So covert that a quip about them openly slays the elite in Washington.  Of course, you might (or might not) wonder just how funny such a one-liner might seem at a Pakistani media roast.

And I wonder as well just what possessed another American president to do it again?  Okay, it’s not an oil spill off the coast of planet Earth or an actual air strike in some distant land, just a joke in a nation that loves stand-up, even from its presidents.  Still, I think you’ll have to admit that the repetition factor is eerie.

By the way, don’t mistake repetition for sameness.  If you repeat without learning, assessing, and changing, then things don’t stay the same.  They tend to get worse.  The thought, for instance, that either a giant oil company or the Pentagon will solve our problems is certainly a repetitive one.  So is the belief that, when they make a mess, they should be in charge of “investigating” themselves and then responding.  While predictable, the results, however, do not simply leave us in the same situation.

And don’t say you didn’t read it here: If American wars continue to exist as if in a galaxy far, far away, and the repeats of the repeats pile up, things will get worse (and, in the most practical terms, life will be less safe).  Once we’re all finally distracted from the possibility of the Gulf of Mexico being turned into a dead sea by the next 24/7 crisis, if nothing much changes, expect repeats.  After all, what happens when, in the “tough oil” era, the BPs of this world hit the melting Arctic with their deep water rigs in really bad climates?

In such circumstances, repetition doesn’t mean sameness; it means a wrecked world.  And here’s the worst of it: predictable as so much of this may be, the odds are you’ll never see it coming.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book, The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books), will be published in May.

Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt