Lessons From the Dead in a No-Learning-Curve World
by Tom Engelhardt
He was 22, a corporal in the Marines from Preston, Iowa, a “city” incorporated in 1890 with a present population of 949. He died in a hospital in Germany of “wounds received from an explosive device while on patrol in Helmand province [Afghanistan].” Of him, his high school principal said, “He was a good kid.” He is survived by his parents.
He was 20, a private in the 10th Mountain Division from Boyne City, population 3,735 souls, which bills itself as “the fastest growing city in Northern Michigan.” He died of “wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with small-arms fire” and is survived by his parents.
These were the last two of the 10 Americans whose deaths in Afghanistan were announced by the Pentagon Thanksgiving week. The other eight came from Apache Junction, Arizona; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Greensboro, North Carolina; Navarre, Florida; Witchita, Kansas; San Jose, California; Moline, Illinois; and Danville, California. Six of them died from improvised explosive devices (roadside bombs), assumedly without ever seeing the Afghan enemies who killed them. One died of “indirect fire” and another “while conducting combat operations.” On such things, Defense Department press releases are relatively tight-lipped, as was the Army, for instance, when it released news that same week of 17 “potential suicides” among active-duty soldiers in October.
These days, the names of the dead dribble directly onto the inside pages of newspapers, or simply into the ether, in a war now opposed by 63% of Americans, according to the latest CNN/ORC opinion poll, but in truth barely remembered by anyone in this country. It’s a reality made easier by the fact that the dead of America’s All-Volunteer Army tend to come from forgettable places — small towns, obscure suburbs, third or fourth-rank cities — and a military that ever fewer Americans have any connection with.
Aside from those who love them, who pays much attention anymore to the deaths of American troops in distant lands? These deaths are, after all, largely dwarfed by local fatality counts like the 16 Americans who died in accidents on Ohio’s highways over the long Thanksgiving weekend of 2010 or the 32,788 Americans who died in road fatalities that same year?
So who, that same week, was going to pay the slightest attention to the fate of 50 year-old Mohammad Rahim, a farmer from Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan? Four of his children — two sons and two daughters, all between four and 12 years old — were killed in a “NATO” (undoubtedly American) airstrike, while working in their fields. In addition, an eight-year-old daughter of his was “badly wounded.” Whether Rahim himself was killed is unclear from the modest reports we have of the “incident.”
In all, seven civilians and possibly two fleeing insurgents died. Rahim’s uncle Abdul Samad, however, is quoted as saying, “There were no Taliban in the field; this is a baseless allegation that the Taliban were planting mines. I have been to the scene and haven’t found a single bit of evidence of bombs or any other weapons. The Americans did a serious crime against innocent children, they will never be forgiven.”
As in all such cases, NATO has opened an “investigation” into what happened. The results of such investigations seldom become known.
Similarly, on Thanksgiving weekend, 24 to 28 Pakistani soldiers, including two officers, were killed in a set of “NATO” helicopter and fighter-jet attacks on two outposts across the Afghan border in Pakistan. One post, according to Pakistani sources, was attacked twice. More soldiers were wounded. Outraged Pakistani officials promptly denounced the attack, closed key border crossings to U.S. vehicles supplying the war in Afghanistan, and demanded that the U.S. leave a key airbase used for the CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani tribal areas. In response, American officials, military and civilian, offered condolences and yet pleaded “self-defense,” while offering promises of a thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the “friendly fire incident.”
Amid these relatively modest death counts, don’t forget one staggering figure that came to light that same Thanksgiving week: the estimate that, in Iraq, 900,000 wives have lost their husbands since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Not surprisingly, many of these widows are in a state of desperation and reportedly getting next to no help from either the Iraqi or the American governments. Though their 900,000 husbands undoubtedly died in various ways, warlike, civil-war-like, and peaceable, the figure does offer a crude indicator of the levels of carnage the U.S. invasion loosed on that country over the last eight and a half years.
Creative Destruction in the Greater Middle East
Think of all this as just a partial one-week’s scorecard of American-style war. While you’re at it, remember Washington’s high hopes only a decade ago for what America’s “lite,” “shock and awe” military would do, for the way it would singlehandedly crush enemies, reorganize the Middle East, create a new order on Earth, set the oil flowing, privatize and rebuild whole nations, and usher in a global peace, especially in the Greater Middle East, on terms pleasing to the planet’s sole superpower.
That such sky-high “hopes” were then the coin of the realm in Washington is a measure of the way delusional thinking passed for the strategic variety and a reminder of how, for a time, pundits of every sort dealt with those hopes as if they represented reality itself. And yet, it should have come as no shock that a military-first “foreign policy” and a military force with staggering technological powers at its command would prove incapable of building anything. No one should have been surprised that such a force was good only for what it was built for: death and destruction.
A case might be made that the U.S. military’s version of “creative destruction,” driven directly into the oil heartlands of the planet, did prepare the way, however inadvertently, for the Arab Spring to come, in part by unifying the region in misery and visceral dislike. In the meantime, the “mistakes,” the “incidents,” the “collateral damage,” the slaughtered wedding parties and bombed funerals, the “mishaps,” and “miscommunications” continued to pile up — as did dead Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Americans, so many from places you’ve never heard of if you weren’t born there.
None of this should have surprised anyone. Perhaps at least marginally more surprising was the inability of the U.S. military to wield its destructive power to win anything whatsoever. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, there have been so many proclamations of “success,” of “mission accomplished,” of corners turned and tipping points reached, of “progress” made, and so very, very little to show.
Amid the destruction, destabilization, and disaster, the high hopes quietly evaporated. Now, of course, “shock and awe” is long gone. Those triumphant “surges” are history. Counterinsurgency, or COIN — for a while the hottest thing around — has been swept back into the dustbin of history from which General (now CIA Director) David Petraeus rescued it not so many years ago.
After a decade in Afghanistan in which the U.S. military has battled a minority insurgency, perhaps as unpopular as any “popular” movement could be, the war there is now almost universally considered “unwinnable” or a “stalemate.” Of course, what a stalemate means when the planet’s most powerful military takes on a bunch of backcountry guerrillas, some armed with weapons that deserve to be in museums, is at best an open question.
Meanwhile, after almost nine years of war and occupation, the U.S. military is shutting down its multi-billion-dollar mega-bases in Iraq and withdrawing its troops. Though it leaves behind a monster State Department mission guarded by a 5,000-man army of mercenaries, a militarized budget of $6.5 billion for 2012, and more than 700 mostly hire-a-gun trainers, Iraq is visibly a loss for Washington. In Pakistan, the American drone war combined with the latest “incident” on the Pakistani border, evidently involving U.S. special forces operatives, has further destabilized that country and the U.S. alliance there. A major Pakistani presidential candidate is already calling for the end of that alliance, while anti-Americanism grows by leaps and bounds.
None of this should startle either. After all, what exactly could an obdurately military-first foreign policy bring with it but the whirlwind (and not just to foreign lands either)? As the Occupy Wall Street protests and their repression remind us, American police forces, too, were heavily militarized. Meanwhile, our wars and national security spending have drained the U.S. of trillions of dollars in national treasure, leaving behind a country in political gridlock, its economy in something close to a shock-and-awe state, its infrastructure crumbling, and vast majorities of its angry citizens convinced that their land is not only “on the wrong track,” but “in decline.”
Into the Whirlwind
A decade later, perhaps the only thing that should truly cause surprise is how little has been learned in Washington. The military-first policy of choice that rang in the century — there were, of course, other options available — has become the only option left in Washington’s impoverished arsenal. After all, the country’s economic power is in tatters (which is why the Europeans are looking to China for help in the Euro crisis), its “soft power” has gone down the tubes, and its diplomatic corps has either been militarized or was long ago relegated to the back of the bus of state.
What couldn’t be stranger, though, is that from the whirlwind of policy disaster, the Obama administration has drawn the least likely conclusion: that more of what has so visibly failed us is in order — from Pakistan to Uganda, Afghanistan to Somalia, the Persian Gulf to China. Yes, COIN is out and drones as well as special operations forces are in, but the essential policy remains the same.
The evidence of the last decade clearly indicates that nothing of significance is likely to be built from the rubble of such a global policy — most obviously in relations with China, America’s greatest creditor. However, there, too, as President Obama signaled (however feebly) with his recent announcement of a symbolic permanent deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, Australia, the military path remains the path of least resistance. As Michael Klare put it recently in the Nation magazine, “It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the White House has decided to counter China’s spectacular economic growth with a military riposte.”
As Barry Lando, former 60 Minutes producer, points out, China, not the U.S., is already “one of the largest oil beneficiaries of the Iraq War.” In fact, our military build-up throughout the Persian Gulf region is, in essence, guarding Chinese commerce. “Just as American troops and bases have spread along the Gulf,” Lando writes, “so have China’s businessmen, eager to exploit the vital resources that the U.S. military is thoughtfully protecting… A strange symbiosis: American bases and Chinese markets.”
In other words, the single most monstrous mistake of the Bush years — the confusion of military with economic power — has been set in stone. Washington continues to lead with its drones and ask questions or offer condolences or launch investigations later. This is, of course, a path guaranteed to bring destruction and blowback in its wake. None of it is likely to benefit us in the long run, least of all in relation to China.
When history, that most unpredictable of subjects, becomes predictable, watch out.
In what should be a think-outside-the-box moment, the sole lesson Washington seems capable of absorbing is that its failed policy is the only possible policy. Among other things, this means more “incidents,” more “mistakes,” more “accidents,” more dead, more embittered people vowing vengeance, more investigations, more pleas of self-defense, more condolences, more money draining out of the U.S. treasury, and more destabilization.
As it has been since September 12, 2001, Washington remains engaged in a fierce and costly losing battle with ghosts in which, unfortunately, perfectly real people die, and perfectly real women are widowed.
He was 22 years old…
She was 12…
Those are lines you will read again and again in our no-learning-curve world and no condolences will be enough.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt