"War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin'!" So went the famed Vietnam War-era protest lyrics first sung by the Temptations.
Looked at a certain way, however, like so many Americans, war has been the backdrop of my life. After Pearl Harbor, my father, 35, promptly volunteered for what was then the Army Air Corps; my mother, a cartoonist, would, in her own way, mobilize herself, too; and I would be born in war-time 1944 (on the day, as it happens, of the failed officers' plot against Adolf Hitler). My father had, by then, returned from duty as operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma. (His own commander, Phil Cochran, would be made famous as Flip Corkin in Milton Caniff's popular comic strip Terry and the Pirates.)
I would then grow up in the depths of the Cold War, ducking and covering under my school desk in atomic drills meant to prepare me for the potential obliteration of New York City by Russian missiles. I can still remember it made a lasting impression the begrimed face of a GI on the cover of LIFE magazine from a grim moment in the Korean War, a conflict that to this day has never officially ended. In my twenties, I would spend much time on the streets protesting against or reporting in opposition to the disastrous American war in Vietnam. Like World War II (but in reverse), that war would mobilize so many Americans (the Temptations and myself included). You couldn't, it seemed, forget about it for a moment.
I would launch TomDispatch in 2002, at age 58, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, and a feeling I had that whatever was coming might, in the end, prove even worse than the Vietnam era. In a sense, this website has been a functional protest against what, for many years, was called "the Global War on Terror," before American politicians stopped calling it anything at all. Ever since, except for a brief moment around the invasion of Iraq, Americans not sent to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa have largely gone about their business as if this country's forever wars weren't happening. They generally acted as if those conflicts and the mayhem they represented were not in their own strange ways coming home, whether in the militarization of the police or, on January 6th, in the Capitol.
We've just entered the fourth (!) presidency of our endless twenty-first-century wars, ones that TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the upcoming book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has long been writing about. After all, he knows something about American wars. He fought in Vietnam and, like me, he's watched what, in a 1941 LIFE editorial, Henry Luce labeled "the American Century" unfold gracelessly in a blistering round of wars and threatened conflicts until what's seemed like the end of time. Today, he offers a requiem for that century of war and, in particular, for the misbegotten, never-ending war in Afghanistan from which, sadly, Americans in Washington and elsewhere seem to have learned so little. Tom
America's Longest War Winds Down
No Bang, No Whimper, No Victory
"Ours is the cause of freedom.
We've defeated freedom's enemies before, and we will defeat them again"
[W]e know our cause is just and our ultimate victory is assured"
My fellow Americans, let's roll."
George W. Bush, November 8, 2001
In the immediate wake of 9/11, it fell to President George W. Bush to explain to his fellow citizens what had occurred and frame the nation's response to that singular catastrophe. Bush fulfilled that duty by inaugurating the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Both in terms of what was at stake and what the United States intended to do, the president explicitly compared that new conflict to the defining struggles of the twentieth century. However great the sacrifices and exertions that awaited, one thing was certain: the GWOT would ensure the triumph of freedom, as had World War II and the Cold War. It would also affirm American global primacy and the superiority of the American way of life.
The twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon now approaches. On September 11, 2021, Americans will mark the occasion with solemn remembrances, perhaps even setting aside, at least momentarily, the various trials that, in recent years, have beset the nation.
Twenty years to the minute after the first hijacked airliner slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, bells will toll. In the ensuing hours, officials will lay wreathes and make predictable speeches. Priests, rabbis, and imams will recite prayers. Columnists and TV commentators will pontificate. If only for a moment, the nation will come together.
It's less likely that the occasion will prompt Americans to reflect on the sequence of military campaigns over the two decades that followed 9/11. This is unfortunate. Although barely noticed, those campaigns the term GWOT long ago fell out of favor give every sign of finally winding down, ending not with a promised victory but with something more like a shrug. On that score, the Afghanistan War serves as Exhibit A.
President Bush's assurances of ultimate triumph now seem almost quaint the equivalent of pretending that the American Century remains alive and well by waving a foam finger and chanting "We're number one!" In Washington, the sleeping dog of military failure snoozes undisturbed. Senior field commanders long ago gave up on expectations of vanquishing the enemy.
While politicians ceaselessly proclaim their admiration for "the troops," in a rare show of bipartisanship they steer clear of actually inquiring about what U.S. forces have achieved and at what cost. As for distracted and beleaguered ordinary Americans, they have more pressing things to worry about than distant wars that never panned out as promised.
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