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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, The Madness of War, American-Style

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The American invasion of Iraq began almost 18 years ago in mid-March 2003. By early April, that country's capital, Baghdad, had fallen and before the month ended the war was considered over and won. On May 1st, President George W. Bush, in the co-pilot's seat of a Navy fighter jet, landed on the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln and gave his "mission accomplished" speech. ("Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.") By then, of course, he had already "won" the war he and his top officials had launched with their post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. So, the wins were piling up. And yet here we are so many years later and, as the president who swore he'd end our "forever wars" gets ready to... well, who knows what a few weeks from now, those wars continue to straggle on. Almost two decades later, it's worth remembering that it wasn't exactly a mystery then, at least to some of us, that this might happen.

I began TomDispatch in October 2001 as a no-name listserv focused on America's new Afghan War. By the invasion of Iraq, it had already become a website. When Andrew Bacevich sent me today's 2020-ending TD piece, in which he considers the American future in terms of our disastrous, never-ending wars in Vietnam in the previous century and Iraq in this one, I must admit that I practically whacked myself on the head in frustration. I was thinking, of course, about how long both of us had been writing about this disaster (and the Vietnamese one as well). And so, I went back into the TomDispatch archives and found myself writing this just a month and a half after that mission-accomplished moment (and, believe me, what's below wasn't obvious to me alone then):

"Do you remember when, in the wake of Gulf War I [the first Gulf War of 1990-1991], our then president, Bush the Father, exulted that we had finally kicked the 'Vietnam thing,' that heinous 'Vietnam syndrome,' all that seemed to be left of America's staggering defeat? Well, here's the strange thing -- now, we've supposedly kicked it all over again... in the wake of Gulf War II. You know, quick war, low casualties, no quagmire, stupid critics who predicted otherwise (though most didn't) disarmed, the press well embedded, and so on and so forth. But 'Vietnam,' which like some deadly virus morphs and morphs, seems incapable of performing the disappearing [act] our leaders have long prepared for it. And there are reasons for that. I've been carefully watching recent coverage of the upsurge of fighting in Iraq and the Vietnam analogy is buried deep not just in the reportorial mind, but in the military and governmental mind as well."

In that same piece, as I watched the U.S. launch its disastrous post-invasion occupation of Iraq, I added that "the military is a painfully blunt instrument with which to create a new state. Every act of mass and messy suppression is bound to be an act of creation as well -- the creation of opposition." How sadly obvious it all was but not, evidently, to the Washington establishment. The question TomDispatch regular Bacevich asks so many years later as 2020 ends is whether, as another $740 billion heads for the Pentagon in pandemic America, anyone in that establishment has really come to grips with the striking American ability in the last 60 years to get into but not out of wars. Tom

Reflections on Vietnam and Iraq
The Lessons of Two Failed Wars
By Andrew Bacevich

In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book's title in the first words of this couplet:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay

A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I'm not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song "Are the Good Times Really Over?":

Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?

I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?

Allow me to try the reader's patience with a bit more of Goldsmith:

O luxury! thou curst by Heaven's decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.

Powerful stuff, but here's Haggard making a similar point without frills:

I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along...
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell

Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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