In "The Tenacity Question," this morning, New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks raises some highly provocative and relevant points and questions. (click here;emc=th) They're all about President Obama, and whether he has the in-the-gut "determination" to stick with any decision he might make about the situation in Afghanistan and troop levels. And I don't see how it's possible to disagree with what Brooks is saying, or asking.
I've been following closely the arguments from the Right and from the Left, and I think all miss the consequent point, which is reflected in a sign I composed, had laminated, and which is in the inside of my Crown Vic's rear window: "If Afghanistan is sooo ('sooo' is in bright red letters, by the way) goddamned important, why the hell are you here reading this?" As the subject matter is itself the most profane, even obscene, of all human activities (the infliction of horrible, protracted agonizing death and forever-after lifelong physical and psychological mutilation on not only intentional combatants, but on those who are wholly innocent bystanders caught in the wrong place at the wrong time), I set aside any concerns for those with prissy sensitivities who might take offense at my choice of language. Indeed, it was those who might take offense at my language that I wanted most to offend. Once again: We're talking about horrendous death and mutilation of human beings -- and some complain because they're disturbed by rough words???
Born in January of '46, I grew up in the shadow of World War II and the notion that joining the military following high school was a sort of patriotic spelunking one just went through, en route to the rest of one's life. Honesty forces the admission that my decision to join the army in June of '64 was born of a complex confection of naÃ¯ve and thoroughly erroneous, testosterone-driven assumptions. There were the John Wayne-genre war movies where death, if it came, came peacefully, easily, painlessly, and quite heroically; sort of a "Tell Laura I love her" last words before the eyelids closed dreamily down. And if the soldier was not fatally wounded, the wounds resulting from an enemy round were always capable of being dealt with stoically; something akin to getting a splinter in the finger. Our cowboy heroes never shot to kill, only to "graze," and if they themselves were grazed, it was "It's not too bad Sarge . . . he only winged me." No one ever bled. Or screamed in excruciating agony.
In 1964 nothing much perilous was occurring anywhere in the world, at least anywhere American forces were or might be stationed, at least anywhere that was more perilous than remaining in an important metropolis that could be subject to an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from the Soviet Union. After all, the country, as had the world, stood anxious and helpless through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. What could be more hazardous than being a walking duck while the world was being torched? Besides, what was on the horizon for a kid growing up outside Detroit with a limited -- at best -- scholastic record? Working on an assembly line, holding my breath each day, waiting week after week after month after month to see whether the local draft board had put my notice to report in the mail? Gimme a break.
With a wheel-vehicle mechanic MOS, in mid-spring of 1965 I was sent overseas, to Korea, stationed on the north side of the Libby Bridge that crossed the Imjin River. The early afternoon was hot and humid, and not having yet been permanently assigned to a specific company in the battalion, I'd trekked the few hundred yards to the small PX-annex, to pick up a six-pack of beer. I was sitting on my bunk, with a cool one in my fist, when a runner from the headquarters' Quonset hut: "Tubbs . . . you're going on patrol. Grab your gear and head to the armory to pick up a rifle."
To this day I can't recall whether I did, or did not, actually hear the anti-tank mine explode up front in the patrol. PFC Hendrix was point, and PFC Hendrix's body was converted to grisly confetti strings of meat and bone and flesh and organ parts that splotched the trees, the brush, the grass and our olive-drab fatigue uniforms. Besides the end of PFC Hendrix, that awful day also marked the end of an awful lot of naÃ¯vete.
While test-driving an M151 jeep in the hills behind the motor pool that summer, the soldier who was riding shotgun with me (Strict army orders: Never leave a compound alone; ALWAYS be accompanied by at least one other soldier!) and I heard a series of short bursts of small arms fire. As we made our way to the motor pool below, we saw that a squad of North Koreans were kneeling, with their arms folded behind their heads. A few weeks later I submitted to Capt. Ackiss my 1049 request that I be sent to Vietnam. In 1965 it wasn't, couldn't be, any more hazardous to my health than duty north of the Imjin. North of the Imjin, Americans were being killed, and North Koreans were trying to kill them. And I was the operative component of "them."
What this dissertation has to do with Afghanistan and the question facing President Obama, relative to whether to increase troop levels, is everything. Vietnam, and every part of it, was B.S. But what composed the most cynical, most depraved element were the lies the top brass, the generals -- Can you hear me General Westmoreland? This is directed quite intentionally at you. -- were telling the president, were telling congress, were telling the American public: "10,000 more; there's light at the end of the tunnel." Ten thousand became twenty, then forty, then 100,000. And always: "There's light at the end of the tunnel."
John McCain was and is wrong, as is every Republican legislator who now asserts congress pulled the rug -- prematurely -- from the US fighting man in Vietnam, that it was congress, abetted by a television media that, unpatriotically, had the gall to show to the home audience the death and mutilation that was taking place in the hills and hamlets, that were the proximate cause of our defeat in that southeast Asian country.
In today's dollars, the cost of the misadventure must by now be exceeding at least $4 - 5 trillion; counting the physical and psychiatric wounds that are still being treated in VA medical centers, that we're still paying for; those and the not to be discounted hard-dollar costs attributable to state and local criminal justice costs and the economic opportunity costs exacted by the 30 percent of homeless Americans who are Vietnam vets. Combat wounds, including the invisible ones, just do not ever really go away. And then there are the 59,000-plus names on The Black-granite Wall . . ..
And I wonder, how many reading this occasionally wake in the middle of the night sobbing uncontrollably, and don't know why? Oh you who claim "we" have to win in Afghanistan, that the generals have to be given what they ask . . . You've not a clue what you're saying, and you damned sure don't know what you're asking. Don't ever let the tears or the names of those on the Wall go away.
But none of what I've posted thus far should be taken to suppose I am unalterably against the use of US military force. There are times, and there are instances when all else fails, with "all else" being the controlling phrase. What must become controlling national policy is the requirement that the president sell the total proposition -- that the national interests demand the use of military force -- to congress and to the country, and include as an equally essential component of that the proposition that it is "sooo goddamned important" that it will require that, without exclusion, save for genuine physical or psychological unfitness, all American males and females between 18 and 40 forsake whatever they had been doing and face being military-service drafted into the peril-ridden cause, and that the cause be paid for through the raising of tax revenues. No standing on the sidelines because of "other priorities" or anal cysts.
What we have today is not a volunteer military. That's a beguiling misnomer, intended to assuage the consciences of those who are not burdened with one. Rather, no matter that they may be in the uniform of their country, what we have now are proxies and mercenaries. They're doing the bidding of those who just don't feel the doing and the bidding are of sufficient import that they're willing to ante up their own lives and limbs and economic assets, and those of their kids, to the horrible bet.
So those are the consequent questions and points the president should be weighing, and presenting to the country. Not whether to send another 40 or 40,000 soldiers into the maelstrom, or to keep in theater the numbers already there. The president should ask congress and the country what the sign on my back window asks: "If Afghanistan is sooo goddamned important, why are you here?"
Were Obama to take that tack, I'm fully prepared to wager the few assets I have that damned few of those who now pound their breasts in patriotic fervor and who shout from the mountaintops that it is "sooo goddamned important" would conclude it's at all important . . . ya know, like after all.
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