Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

[I hesitated writing this essay. When I finally did write it, I sat on it for months. Then I edited it, and I still hated it, so I sat on it for more months. I’ve then edited it again, sat on it again, and now that it’s horribly dated, I’m finally publishing it. I still hate it. I still hate what it says about me. But I have to say it, nonetheless.]

From Kennesaw …

Kennesaw Mountain was a major engagement in the American Civil War. It was a tactical defeat but a strategic win for the Union army, for it opened up the preeminent Confederate city, Atlanta, to occupation by Union forces. This had the side effect of rallying the North to the side of Abraham Lincoln, thereby guaranteeing his second term as President of the United States. After Kennesaw, General William T. Sherman conducted his infamous March to the Sea, wrecking industries, farms, roads and the lives of thousands of civilians, as he made his way to Savannah on the coast. It was, as some historians have noted, the dawn of “total war”. Sherman wanted to break the back of the confederacy, and he felt the only way to do that was by destroying all its institutions, and putting the people in direct harm’s way, thereby forcing the surrender of the Confederate leaders and its armies.

Mort Kunstler’s “War is Hell”

Brutal, brutal stuff. To this day, Civil War buffs don’t like to talk about the March to the Sea. People love talking about Gettysburg and Antietam and Bull Run and Vicksburg, but not the topic of Atlanta and the March too often. It inevitably leads to accusations of Northern atrocities, few of which can be refuted. It typically ends in argument, and is a topic best left avoided.

As they say: war is hell.

… To Iraq and Afghanistan

Let’s advance the clock 125 years. America has become an industrial juggernaut, a major player in global politics, and (seeing as how we delightfully ignored Eisenhower’s warning), the strongest military power the world has ever seen. We are masters of destruction, harnessing the Sig P320, the power of the atom, and everything in between. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. We blow shit up and kill people.

In August of 1990, the Iraqi Republic invaded the State of Kuwait in a clear case of overt aggression. The Iraqi president, the tyrant Saddam Hussein, in quite possibly the biggest blunder in the second half of the 20th Century, invaded an oil-rich country, and expected an oil-hungry world to simply let it happen. Of course, the world, and the United States, had other ideas. President George H. W. Bush and his team brilliantly assembled a coalition of nations, and after a buildup of some months, proceeded with a superbly executed “100 day offensive”, shattering the Iraqi military, freeing the nation of Kuwait, and securing significant oil fields in the region. Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf’s “Hail Mary” play was a rousing success, and the briefings and maps filled CNN’s schedule for days, weeks and months. The Gulf War met its objectives, and the Western World was pleased.

Full of Grace

And that was it. We were done. Well, we did enforce no-fly zones for years afterward, but other than that, we withdrew from Iraq. Entirely. All our troops, and the troops of the coalition. Bush famously asked the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam, and then we went home. That was it, we were done. And the first, and wisest, President Bush took an endless load of crap for that. “We should have marched to Baghdad”, the war hawks cried. Certainly, they fabricated their own chance to do so twelve years later, but in the moment, the President gave the order, and the military obeyed. We had an objective, we met the objective, and went home. “You break it, you buy it” was the lesson of the day, and for that moment in time, we decided not to break it.

Flash forward another ten years, and we have the horrors of 9/11, which I won’t recount here. Afghanistan harbored Osama bin Laden and his militant band for years prior, giving them sanctuary so they could plot terrorist attacks around the world. The lesser President Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden and dismantle al Qaeda, and Mullah Omar declined. It was clear the Taliban government was an enemy of the U.S. and other Western democracies, and a direct supporter of international terrorism. NATO invoked Article 5, and again, war was on. The U.S. and her allies officially invaded on October 7, 2001, and … we were there nearly 20 years.


War Is Hell

This is where this essay gets ugly. This is where I begrudgingly put to page the thoughts I’ve begrudgingly held for a couple of decades now.

It has been said that war is a failure of diplomacy. I would go one further and say that war is a failure of everything. It’s the failure of respect, the failure of decency, the failure of civility. It is the failure of economics, of reason, of leadership, of sanity.

Unfortunately, it is also, occasionally, necessary.

Sherman wasn’t a man to fsck around. He knew what he was dealing with. He also knew what his job was, and that job was to win, and end, a war. He didn’t start it, he might not have wanted it, but once he was in it, he was going to fight. And win. But fighting, and winning, comes at a price. A terrible, terrible price. The Atlanta campaigns and the subsequent March to the Sea caused about 70,000 casualties and over $1B in damages in today’s dollars. It was brutal and miserable, and real people suffered.

And the war ended within 6 months. Sherman went home. Grant went home. War was over (I won’t go over Reconstruction here, that’s a topic for another day).

So what does this teach us? It teaches us that war only has one purpose, and that purpose is achieving a specific political goal through acts of violence when no other approach will work. But what did we set out to do in Afghanistan? In the words of George W. Bush, we set out on a “daring and ambitious mission” to “rebuild Afghanistan” with the “transformational power of liberty”. What does that even mean? Those were nebulous, fanciful objectives, none of which should ever be the goal of warfare. Yet the liberals in Congress ate it up. One representative dressed up in a burqa and pleaded with the House to support the invasion of Afghanistan, and praised Bush for dropping “both food and bombs.” [link] We waged war against an enemy state and justified it with touchy-feely platitudes, with supermajority Congressional OK and highest-ever presidential approval ratings.

That was totally, and completely, the wrong approach. War isn’t a touchy-feely exercise. It is destructive and deadly. Take any other approach, and you’re lying to yourself, and setting yourself up for failure.

I’ll tell you how we *should* have responded. We should have gone in and decimated the Taliban, Mullah Omar, and al Qaeda. And then gotten the hell out, leaving a power vacuum if need be. The world would have been left with a message: “if you support domestic terrorism, we will end you, and leave your country a rudderless mess”.

Link with photo credit

The level of cruelty in the last paragraph astounds me, and I’m the guy who wrote it. But look what happened: we sat there, spending billions of dollars and risking thousands of lives, trying to rebuild a country. We left ourselves open to terrorist attacks, IEDs, and suicide bombers. And then we had enough and left, in the sloppiest exit since Saigon. We gave the Taliban a victory, a victory over the deadliest military force the world has ever seen. They’ve since used that victory to seize power for themselves. That country is now in a state as sorry as it’s ever been.

... To the Future (and maybe Ukraine)

So now where do we stand? Yes, we’re out of Afghanistan, but what about us as a military power? Well, we’ve shown that we’re a military power that can be defeated by our own goody-two-shoes mentality, a military power whose tactical, strategic, and political thinking can be skewed by sympathy and Twitter polls. We are not a military power who wages war, we’re a military power that wants to build orphanages. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not what military power is for, and not what it should do. That is the activity of other institutions. At best, the military can keep the peace so other actions can occur, but even that is dubious and should be short lived. It’s best to get in, kick the everloving shit out of the belligerents, and get out, leaving a clear and stern message that actions have consequences.

It’s hard to create direct corollaries between historical events. It would be unfair of me to wholly trace our failures in Afghanistan (and in the second war with Iraq, a debacle way beyond the pale) to today’s situation in Ukraine. You do have to wonder if Putin would be in a different mindset if he knew America was a true, not-fscking-around military power, instead of a bunch of orphanage builders.

Closing Thoughts

I said in the beginning of this essay that I’m not proud of my thoughts in this area. This whole topic makes me angry, and angry people don’t think with reason. I’m also not a trained solder, I haven’t served in the Armed Forces, haven’t attended basic training, much less a military academy. I’m definitely not a historian either, I’m just a hobbyist who reads books and thinks about this stuff when he has a bout of insomnia. I strongly welcome any and all criticism on this post. Perhaps someone can put some sanity into the conversation and talk me off the ledge. Or perhaps convince me to jump. So chime in, leave a comment, and feel free to tell me exactly how wrong I am.


Google map to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park

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[Please note: this post contains strong language and extreme soapboxing. It’s also off-topic from the main theme of this blog: insights from my travels through the National Parks. Apologies to my subscribers, but I feel the need to do this.]

A Repulsive Story

The other day I heard a repulsive story. I don’t know if it’s true or an urban legend, but here it goes:

“A friend of a friend was going on vacation somewhere in the middle east. He thought it’d be funny if he put a packet of bacon in his luggage. But when they checked his luggage at the airport they found it and wouldn’t let him take it. Can you believe that shit?”

Um, WTF?? That is the stupidest thing I ever heard. Why in the world would you intentionally do something so patently offensive when traveling to a country on vacation? You would actually taunt the citizens of a country where you don’t speak the language, where you are (obviously) oblivious to their customs & culture, and where you’re (therefore) at the mercy of their generosity and goodwill? That’s like being invited to a friend’s house for dinner, walking in the front door, whipping it out and pissing on their couch. Then asking “haha, just kidding. Whatcha cooking?”

Toss on top of that the reality: that part of the world is in an immensely transformative state, one where we may not come out on top. The Crossroads of the World is at the Crossroads of History, the choices we make now can end well or can end very, very poorly. Imagine the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis x10 if you want to understand the magnitude. Read a newspaper and understand the situation. They you’ll (hopefully) understand that pulling that kind of stunt is just Ignorant (capital “I”).

Actually, in my opinion the TSA did the wrong thing. They should have happily put the bacon back in the luggage, let the dude board the plane, then make a special phone call to security at the destination airport. That asshole could then re-assess his life choices while they’re stapling electrodes to his testicles in a dank room far, far from civilization. Then the State Department can quietly put his passport documents into the shredder. Another asshole lost to the dustbin of history.

Now if this was just one of those “I heard it from a guy who knew the guy” stories, it would have ended right there. A footnote on snopes.com. But in this case, it was the storyteller who irked me. This person thought it was ridiculous for the TSA to confiscate it, that it would be funny, and after all, they just come over here to blow things up anyway.

OK, so now double WTF.

It really troubles me that people think like this. I mean, it really troubles me that AMERICANS think like this. Shouldn’t we be enlightened, at least a little bit? We think we have are the best at everything. Do we even show a little bit of insight, or thoughtfulness, or consideration, or understanding? No, we’re a bunch of arrogant, paranoid, thuggish fuckwits children.

So let’s just let this pass. There are bigots all over the place. I don’t have the strength of will to challenge them all, and my demeanor in these situations would make things far, far worse. I simply wasn’t interested in making a big stink about it. I just jotted it down in my mental notebook and turned the page.

Well, for a few days anyway.

Part Two

My mother is 78 years old and lives alone. I regularly take her out to do different things, like the movies (she loves sci-fi 🙂 ), or museums, or nature walks, or carnivals, or whatever. This past weekend, I took her on the Lady Bea, a small tour boat on the Connecticut River. It’s just an excursion, something to do, away from the TV. We’re sitting there, waiting for the boat, soaking up the sun, and a large van pulls up. About a dozen or so young women step off, most wearing hijabs. Muslims, obviously.

Now I am a human being. I have my foibles and fears. My initial, internal reaction was not positive. But I got over it without saying a word about it. I figured they were a club or something, perhaps a “women’s auxiliary” (to use an ignorant American euphemism) to a local mosque. There are Muslims living their lives in this country just fine, and they have every right to socialize wherever and whenever they want. And because the rest of us are a bunch of arrogant, paranoid, thuggish fuckwits children, it makes perfect sense they’d want to hang out with people “just like them”. It’s probably far safer and far more comfortable to do that, instead of hanging out with the rest of us who will undoubtedly try to sneak bacon into their ginger tea or something “because it’s funny”.

When we boarded the boat, it became obvious that they were tourists and not immigrants. I overheard one of their American guides explain the situation: they were students from Baghdad University, and just flew in to attend a one-month program at Smith College. Now I was intrigued, and perhaps a bit more optimistic. When an opportunity presented itself, I started to chat with their sponsor. These women were all in the country to study biological sciences in a special exchange program. It seems their country is actually trying to encourage their women to travel and learn at universities around the world.

Now this has to sink in, I think folks have to get this: an Arabic country, an Islamic country, a culture and a religion not known for kindness towards women, is actually encouraging its women to go overseas and become educated. This is outstanding! And to top it all off, they want to come here to do it. Let’s face it: as a whole, and contrary to popular belief, we did not do good things over there. Sure, we toppled their dictator, but the ensuing carnage and instability ruined their country (and I fear we have yet to see the inevitably horrific long-term consequences). Perhaps it’s not as gloomy as I think it is, perhaps there’s some hope …

Oh wait. We’re a country full of assholes who think it’s HYSTERICAL to insult, degrade, and demean those different from us, those we don’t understand, those we don’t like, or those who might share the same God as a suicide bomber or the same last name as an airplane hijacker. I suddenly felt bad for those women. I hoped they’d stay with their group and not wander on their own because we’re a society that will taunt and torment them or perhaps commit our own acts of violence & terrorism against them because “they just come over here to bomb us anyway”. I wish them well, I hope they have a good stay, and I hope they go back to Iraq and do good work.

I also hope I live long enough to see a time where the ones who are ostracized in this country are the arrogant, paranoid, thuggish fuckwits.

[Thanks for your patience. Back on topic starting next post.]

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Mistakes Were Made — Again

The last U.S. troops have been pulled from Iraq. To all the folks who served in that country, thank you. I’ll never know what you went through, but I’m certain it wasn’t pretty. I hope you’ve at least made it home safely. And to those who’ve lost a spouse, a family member, or a friend in that country, I am truly sorry, and very much appreciate the sacrifice you’ve made. So thank you, all of you.

Instead of saying “thank you”, however, I really should be saying “I’m sorry”. It certainly seems much more appropriate, and much more honest. What I really should do is paraphrase terrorism expert Richard Clarke’s famous opening statement to the 9/11 Commission: your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and the people of these United States – all of us – failed you, too. It was a terrible, terrible mistake to invade Iraq. It was off-purpose, off-policy, off-mission and incredibly stupid, and should never have been done in the first place.

I wonder what you, the Iraq veterans, think when you hear or read comments like this.  It probably pisses you off something fierce. You went halfway around the world to some Godforsaken country, fought a ruddy complicated insurgency, avoiding exploding garbage cans and roadside trash all the while, and hopefully made it back home in one piece, all to hear jerks like me say stuff like “it was all a mistake”. But I can’t say anything else about it. It was a mistake, a huge mistake, and a mistake that didn’t need to be made.

Now, I could write paragraph after paragraph about the manipulated intelligence, the fabricated link between Saddam Hussein & al Qaeda, and the lack of WMDs. I could write about the theoretical Neocon conspiracy to commit fraud upon the country and the world for their own political (or perhaps financial or perhaps retributional) gain. I could discuss at great length all the strategic and tactical blunders that occurred: dropping the ball in Afghanistan; letting bin Laden go; not providing adequate body armor; poor Humvee design; aggravating international relations; trusting the advice of an ex-pat Iraqi playboy. But all of these things have been talked about ad infinitum, and by people far more knowledgeable. I will say that all of these things, put together, are enough to convince me that we owe you all a tremendous apology for all we’ve put you through.

From the viewpoint of an amateur historian, here’s the real reason why we owe you an apology: it seems we all forgot what “war” really meant. Which was completely idiotic, we’ve been in enough wars that we should definitely have known better. But in the days leading up to the invasion, I heard almost no one in power talk about war in realistic terms. No one talked about the inevitability of American casualties. No one talked about the inevitable impact on families. No one talked about the certainty some veterans would suffer disabilities, brain damage, or PTSD. No one talked about the inevitability of massive civilian casualties, and the immense amount of guilt good soldiers have when they kill civilians. No one talked about friendly fire, prisoner abuse, and other ugly facets of war that I will not speak of here, but all of these things are (and here’s that word again) inevitable in wartime. We basically forgot history and repeated it, which is sacrilege to a historian (even an amateur like me), and man am I sorry for that.

I do want to be clear on one thing: I have no illusions that we live in some “cuddly, fluffy” world where there is no real evil and war is pointless and we should all plant daisies in our gun barrels. No, not at all. War has been and will continue to be necessary in certain situations. But before you go you have to weigh the reasons for the war (including the accuracy of the intelligence), the benefits of the victory, the risk of a defeat, versus the damage it will cause, and THEN make a decision whether war is necessary. With all the unreliable intel and shady connections (not to mention MUCH bigger fish to fry, namely al Qaeda & the Taliban), there is no way that such an analysis, done sanely, would result in “yes, let’s invade Iraq”. But a sane analysis was not done, so we invaded, and the entire country owes you an apology for that.

So why am I the one apologizing? I didn’t sign any declaration of war. I’m just some schmuck with a homemade soapbox. Well, it’s simple: I am a citizen of this country, which happens to be a democracy. According to the law of the land, I have a say in government equal to every other citizen. I am 1/300-millionth responsible for everything that happens in this country. And every other American citizen is equally responsible, and they also need to be accountable for the nation’s failings.

We all like to sit on our fat asses in our Lazy-Boy recliners and piss-and-moan about the government. But you know what? The sh*t that happens here, like the fatally flawed invasion of Iraq, is our fault. We’ve allowed this to happen to our country, through our sloth and our focus on rash consumerism and our willingness to vote for people “we’d like to have a beer with” rather than paying attention, voting soundly, and fighting for what’s right. We can all whine and cry that “we’re all powerless” but you know what? We are powerless because we allow ourselves to be powerless. All we want is Monday Night Football and Wal-Mart and 3-D movies and Starbucks. We don’t want to be involved, we don’t want to take a stand, we don’t want to take our country back. Even with this recent wave of activism from both ends of the political spectrum, how many people are actually involved in movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street? 1%? I seriously doubt there are 3 million people actively involved in these or other movements intent (rightly or wrongly) on fixing our country. The real 99% just doesn’t give a damn.

Well, I don’t give a damn if they don’t care. If someone’s a citizen of this country, then they are 1/300-millionth responsible for it anyway. And the least they can do for you, the Iraq war veteran, is walk up to you and, as sincerely as they possibly can, say “I’m sorry”.


UPDATE: another good post on this topic: http://themoderatevoice.com/132701/gratitude-wont-pay-the-bill-for-returning-iraq-afghan-war-veterans/

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