Excuse the gloom in the holiday season, but I feel like we’re all locked inside a malign version of the movie Groundhog Day. You remember, the one in which the characters are forced to relive the same 24 hours endlessly. Put more personally, TomDispatch started in November 2001 as an email to friends in response to the first moments of our latest Afghan War. More than eight years later… well, you know the story.
Worse yet, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates that a startling 58% of Americans, otherwise in a mighty gloomy mood, support the president’s latest “surge” in Afghanistan which will extend that war into the dismal future. And worse than that, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, from the point of view of official Washington, next year won’t really count for much. The crucial decisions on both wars will evidently leapfrog 2010. So, on that score, we might as well just mark the year off on our calendars now.
2010: pure loss. But before I go into the details, let me try this another way.
In his 1937 short story with an unforgettable title — “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” — Delmore Schwartz’s unnamed narrator imagines himself “as if” in a “motion picture theatre.” He’s watching a silent film — already then a long-gone form — “an old Biograph one, in which the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, and one flash succeeds another with sudden jumps.” It’s not any movie, however, but one about his parents’ awkward, uncertain courtship, and there comes a moment when his character suddenly leaps up in the crowded theater of his dream life and shouts at the flickering images of his still undecided (future) parents: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.”
For just an instant, that is, he’s willing to obliterate himself, his very being, in order to stop a nightmare he knows will otherwise occur.
This unnerving fictional moment, which I want you to hold in abeyance for a while, came to my mind recently — in the context of TomDispatch.
Bombing Afghanistan Back to the Stone Age
Our endless wars are nightmares. Few enough would disagree with that, even, I suspect, among the supportive 58% in that poll or the 54% who “approve of the president’s performance as commander-in-chief.” If only we could wake up.
I was reminded of our strange dream-state recently when I reread the article that sparked the creation of what became TomDispatch. I first stumbled across it in the fall of 2001, after the Towers came down in my hometown, after that acrid smell of burning made its way to my neighborhood and into everything, after I traveled to “Ground Zero” (as it was already being called) to view those vast otherworldly shards of destruction via nearby side streets, after I spent weeks reading the ever narrower, ever more war-oriented news coverage in this country, and after I watched George W. Bush and Company mainlining fear directly into the American bloodstream, selling the eternal terror of terror and the president’s Global War on Terror that so conveniently went with it.
It was obvious that war was on the way, and that the men (and woman) who were leading us into it had expansive dreams and gargantuan plans. Somewhere in that period, probably in late October 2001, a friend sent me a piece by an Afghan-American living in California that spurred me to modest action.
His name was Tamim Ansary and he posted it online on September 16th, just five days after the attacks on New York and Washington, having listened to right-wing talk radio rev up to an instant fever pitch about “bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age.” His piece went viral and finally reached me — I was hardly online in those days — by email sometime in October after the Bush administration had begun the bombing campaign in Afghanistan that preceded its invasion-by-proxy of that country.
Ansary wrote “as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden,” and yet his piece was a desperate warning against the American war to come. He wrote with passion and conviction, with knowledge of Afghanistan and a kind of imagery that was otherwise not then part of our American world:
“We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely.”
It was the image of our bombs only “stirring the rubble” that stunned me. I had been reading the papers for weeks and had seen nothing like it. It seemed to catch the forgotten nightmare of the Afghan past as well as the nightmare to come at a moment when the only nightmare on the American mind was our own. Our own chosen imagery was then playing out in repeated public rites in which we hailed ourselves as the planet’s greatest victims, survivors, and dominators, while leaving no roles for others in our about-to-be-global drama — except, of course, for greatest Evildoer (which Osama bin Laden filled magnificently). It wasn’t only our foreign policy that was switching onto the “unilateral” track, so was our imagery.
Small wonder, then, that the strangeness of that single image moved me to gather the email addresses of a small group of friends and relatives, copy the piece into an email, add a note above it indicating that it was a must-read, and with that modest gesture, quite unbeknownst to me, launch TomDispatch.com.
Ansary, an Afghan who had been living here for 35 years, wasn’t thinking only of Afghan lives and nightmares, however. He had American lives and nightmares in mind as well. He wrote about Americans dying, about the dangers of Pakistan, and especially about bin Laden’s dream — to draw this country’s military into the backlands of Islam and start a war of civilizations — while pleading against an invasion that, even on September 16th, was unstoppable. Of bin Laden, he wrote:
“It might seem ridiculous, but he figures if he can polarize the world into Islam and the West, he’s got a billion soldiers. If the West wreaks a holocaust in those lands, that’s a billion people with nothing left to lose, that’s even better from Bin Laden’s point of view. He’s probably wrong, in the end the West would win, whatever that would mean, but the war would last for years and millions would die, not just theirs but ours. Who has the belly for that? Bin Laden does. Anyone else?”
In the Biggest Dreams, the Largest Miscalculations
Well, yes, as it turned out, someone did have the “belly” for just that — and far more. One thing you can still say about the various characters who made up the Bush administration, including George’s one-percent-doctrine vice president, all those neocons ominously stashed away in the Pentagon, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who, within five hours of the attack on the Pentagon, was already urging aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq): they were thinking geo-strategically. They had the globe, the whole damn thing, in their sights. They were also desperately in love with the U.S. military and complete romantics about what it could do. They believed that the mightiest, most advanced military force on the planet could shock-and-awe anyone into submission, and quite unilaterally at that.
As still unrepentant Cold Warriors, even with the Soviet Union a decade gone, they were still eager to roll back Russia’s borders and influence, especially in oil-rich Central Asia, and so turn that rump empire into a second- or third-rate state of no future importance to the U.S. They were eager to encircle Iran with bases and take down the mullahs. (As the infamous neocon quip of that moment went: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) With a president and vice president who were former energy company execs and a national security adviser for whom Chevron had named a double-hulled oil tanker, they tended to be riveted by energy flows and how to control them.
They had their minds, that is, on a very big picture — nothing less than the creation of a future Pax Americana abroad and Pax Republicana at home. And they truly believed that Pax could be established at the tip of a cruise missile. Having been shocked-and-awed themselves on 9/11, they were more than ready to return the favor, to use that “Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century” as an excuse to do their damnedest, including, as they bragged at the time, targeting up to 60 countries, mostly in what they liked to call “the arc of instability” (essentially the oil heartlands of the planet) where terrorists were supposed to operate at will. Nothing, that is, was too grandiose for them.
They clearly saw the chance of a lifetime and grabbed it like the opportunists they were, and at first, it looked like they were right on the mark. Two “victories” were the result, each accomplished in a matter of weeks within less than a year-and-a-half of each other. The Taliban were gone in nanoseconds; bin Laden almost in their grasp and driven underground; Saddam Hussein swept into the dustbin of history. It seemed — to them above all — like a miracle of modern military power. Who could now withstand them? The answer was obvious: no one.
The rag-tag oppositional forces left in Afghanistan and Iraq were like so many flies to be swatted away. So they sent their viceroys into Kabul and Baghdad to clean things up, which, especially in the case of Iraq, meant disbanding that country’s military, privatizing its economy, and opening up the oil industry of one of the most energy-rich regions on the planet to the mighty transnational (and significantly American) oil giants. In the meantime, the Pentagon would build massive military bases and prepare to garrison both countries till hell froze over. The official documents they wrote for, and sometimes in the name of, the newly “liberated” Iraqis read like fever-dream versions of nineteenth century imperial fantasies.
When reality up and bit them hard, they were already looking to the future. They were going to crush Syria, drive Iran to its knees, make OPEC and the Saudis grovel (with the help of increased Iraqi oil output), bring China to heel, and, oh yes, get the terrorists, too.
What a dream! What a miscalculation! What a nightmare for the rest of us! Hundreds of thousands (or more) now dead, millions of refugees, ongoing war, a region — those very oil heartlands — destabilized, and of course the massive draining of American resources in two major wars (and various minor conflicts) on which almost a trillion dollars has already been spent and another trillion could easily go down the drain.
And where are we eight years later? The Chinese, the Russians, the Malaysians, and others have picked up those energy dreams and, in Iraq and elsewhere, translated them into success without spending a cent on war. The Russians are back in Central Asia. The Chinese are now sending Central Asian natural gas China-wards through a newly opened pipeline. Meanwhile, the American oil giants have ended up with few of the spoils. The American Army is a wreck and two minority insurgencies with but tens of thousands of relatively lightly armed guerrillas have made a mockery of that military’s supposed power to shock and awe anybody. The latest laugh-fest being that insurgents have, according to the Wall Street Journal, hacked into the most advanced weaponry the Pentagon has, the video feeds from its latest drone aircraft, with a $26 piece of off-the-shelf Russian software. In other words, while, at the cost of multimillions, Americans were capable of looking at battlefield scenes fit for destruction from distant Langley, Virginia, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, or various secret sites in the Greater Middle East, so were Iraqi, and possibly Afghan, guerrillas and terrorists on their laptops for nada.
Eight years later, the Bush administration’s dreams of a Pax Americana and its domestic twin are in that dustbin of history along with Saddam Hussein. And all the big ideas that went with our two disastrous wars seem to have been sluiced down the drain as well. And yet, in both countries, the giant bases remain like permanent scars on the land, as do the wars. No dust heap of history for them. Not yet, anyway. Our wars are instead to proceed without rhyme or reason. And among those deciding U.S. policy, military and civilian, none (I have no doubt) have placed a call to Tamim Ansary, wherever he may be. It doesn’t pay to be right in our world.
I don’t want to claim, of course, that no reasons are offered any more in explanation of our wars: There’s Osama bin Laden, for starters, as President Obama reminded us recently. No one in our world knows where he is, or even, at this point, if he is. But if he still exists, he must be dancing a jig. With possibly fewer than 100 operatives in Afghanistan and another few hundred in Pakistan (according to the best calculations of the Obama administration), he’s somehow managed to bog imperial America down in the tribal backlands of Central (and increasingly South) Asia.
Beyond the damage inflicted on 9/11, he’s already helped drain the United States of nearly a trillion dollars in war costs and counting. His “presence” seems to insure that, sometime in the near future, the Obama administration will further compound the folly of the last eight years by attempting to completely destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan with air attacks on its restive province of Baluchistan, where the Taliban leadership is supposedly hiding.
If back in 2002 or 2003 you had presented such a scenario — a few hundred terrorists tying us up in a trillion-dollar war — you would have been laughed out of the country; yet it’s safe to say that what’s happening now represents, for bin Laden, triumph on a level that the attacks of 9/11, no matter how televisually spectacular, could never come close to. And here’s the worst of it in this holiday season, peering into the murk of 2010, all I can see is signs of endless war. As for peacemaking or de-escalation next year, fuggedaboutit.
2010: A Year of No Significance
Just to take our wars one at a time:
In Afghanistan, here’s what we know. The president is surging at least 30,000 troops into that country, reportedly accompanied by a surge of up to 56,000 private contractors, and an extra crew of civilian employees of the U.S. government as well. What initially was announced as a six-month surge is now expected to last 11-12 months (if things “line up perfectly,” according to the general in charge). That means the surge itself will probably still be underway next November. Fittingly, then, the Obama administration has made it clear that it won’t even consider beginning what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called a “thorough review of how we’re doing” in Afghanistan until December 2010, a process that, based on the last set of presidential deliberations, could last months. Put another way, war in the present escalated form is simply what’s on the books for 2010. Period.
Moreover, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry recently assured Afghans that July 2011, the date the president mentioned for beginning a withdrawal of American forces, is not “a deadline” of any sort. According to Thomas Day of the McClatchy newspapers, he insisted, in fact, “that a strong American military presence will remain in Afghanistan long after July 2011.”
In Iraq, on the other hand, the war is officially ending. In the last months of the Bush administration, the U.S. negotiated an agreement with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to withdraw all its “combat troops” by August 2010 and the rest of its troops by the end of 2011. Ever since, on both counts, fudging has been the order of the day. To begin with, all troops are, in a sense, “combat” troops, but it soon became clear that some of those now defined as such might be conveniently relabeled “advisors” or “trainers.” This has left a good deal of flexibility as to just who has to be withdrawn by this coming August. As for “all” the troops, although next to no media attention has been paid, the weaving and bobbing has begun there, too. While visiting Iraq recently, Gates managed to sideline 2010 as a date of significance, while angling for an unending, if smaller scale, occupation of that country. Under the headline, “Gates Expects New Sanctions on Iran,” for instance, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times reported this:
“The defense secretary also spoke about America’s involvement in Iraq, saying that the administration expects that some United States forces might remain in an advisory capacity in Iraq after 2011, the deadline for all American troops to withdraw from the country. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to see agreements between ourselves and the Iraqis that continue a “train, equip and advise” role beyond the end of 2011,’ Mr. Gates said. He added, ‘I suspect as we get on through 2010 and begin approaching 2011, the Iraqis themselves will probably have an interest in this.’”
So scratch 2010 when it comes to Washington’s Iraq plans, and for 2012, start imagining thousands, or even tens of thousands of American “advisors” and “mentors” (not, heaven forbid, “combat troops”) on a few of those giant bases the Pentagon built. Keep an eye, in particular, on massive Balad Air Base — since the U.S. quite consciously never helped the Iraqi military build up a real air force of its own — and the monster base complex, Camp Victory, on the edge of Baghdad. Only if those are turned over to the Iraqis would an American “withdrawal” seem a plausible reality. (Keep in mind as well that the Bush administration in its planning for the occupation of Iraq in 2003 always expected to withdraw all but perhaps 30,000 American troops who were to be garrisoned on out-of-the-way American-built bases for the long haul.)
And when Gates says such things, it’s no small matter. After all, what’s now being called “Obama’s war” might at least as reasonably be called “Gates’s war,” as might the war in Iraq that Obama is ostensibly ending. In both countries, Washington’s basic policy was set in the last months of the Bush administration when Gates, then as now secretary of defense, was already ascendant. The first 11,000 troops of “Obama’s” surge were, for instance, dispatched by the Bush administration, even if they only left for Afghanistan in the early days of the Obama presidency.
Similarly, the new Pentagon budget — a Gates-supervised document in its planning stages before Obama arrived — is larger than the last Bush-era budget, and that’s without the supplemental bill for Afghan surge funding, now estimated at $30-$40 billion (and likely to rise), that will be submitted to Congress sometime next year. The “new” military strategy for fighting our wars, counterinsurgency (or COIN), isn’t an Obama-era creation either. It’s the baby of Bush’s favorite general and Iraq surge commander David Petraeus. Advanced to the post of Centcom commander by Bush, he is now the key military figure who oversees both our wars in the Greater Middle East. In other words, in war policy the continuity between the post-Cheney Bush era and the Obama one is striking, not to say overwhelming, and given the fact that Gates and Petraeus hold such crucial posts, that’s hardly surprising, just depressing as hell.
These are men already preparing for “the next war” and, in that sense, Afghanistan is also our main laboratory for the weaponry and concepts that will animate our future conflicts. Its skies and villages are the testing grounds for endless war, American-style.
Full Drone Ahead
So here’s my fantasy this holiday season. If I could return to the movie theater of those early post-9/11 days, I’d like to stand up in that well-packed place and shout: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, impoverishment, death, and a population whose character will be monstrous.”
I’d like, that is, to obliterate TomDispatch — for without the Afghan invasion and war, the one that, all these years later, only grows wider, my website would never have existed.
And yet, here’s the saddest thing: I know full well that its future is assured as long as I care to do it. Our American way of life is a way of war. War and more war. 2010, a snap. 2011, no problem. 2012, 2013, Ambassador Eikenberry guarantees it. 2018, 2025, 2047? Don’t worry, we already have one nifty bomber (advanced battlefield surveillance system, dogfighting drone) on the drawing boards for you!
Even without the geopolitical thinkers of the Bush administration, even without the necessary set of rationales, war has a force of its own. Especially in our country, it has its own powerful set of interests, its lobbies and enthusiasts, its powerful weapons makers, its law makers, planners, and dreamers. It has its own head of steam. After a while, it seems, it doesn’t need explanations to keep itself going. It’s self-propelled.
None of what’s happening in the world of American war may make much sense any more, not even in terms Washington’s foreign policy power brokers understand, but no matter. They — and so all of us — are already in the grip of a nightmare, and nothing, it seems, can wake us. So, for the last days of this year, as for the days that preceded them, as for all the days of next year, it’s full drone ahead and damn the torpedoes. That’s our American world, and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.
Perhaps, though, it’s worth keeping one modest thought in mind:
In nightmares, too, begin responsibilities.
[Note on further reading: If you want to know more about the origins of TomDispatch.com, check out the first part of a two-part interview Nick Turse did with me back in 2006, "The Imperial Press and Me.”]
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt