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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Not So Great Wars, Theirs and Ours

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In case you hadn't noticed -- and it wasn't exactly front-page news -- America's eighth war commander in Afghanistan (and keep in mind that we're only talking about this country's second Afghan War), General John Nicholson, is about to be history. Sometime in the coming months, the ninth, Lieutenant General Austin "Scott" Miller, who spent much of his career commanding Special Operations forces, will take over. The previous commanders included figures like generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who made more than their share of news, and ones like Nicholson's predecessor, General John Campbell or General David McKiernan (back in distant 2009), whom no one today is likely to remember. But they each had one striking thing in common. Whatever they did, whether they were commanding a few thousand American troops or more than 100,000 of them, and no matter what strategies they employed, they were invariably succeeded by another commander.

And let me add one more bit of news. The Taliban, our original enemy there (along with al-Qaeda), was driven from the last Afghan provincial capital it held early in 2002, just months after the U.S. launched its invasion of that country. Only a couple of weeks ago, almost 17 years after the "liberation" of Afghanistan, the Taliban took Farah, a provincial capital in the west of the country, for a day. They now control or maintain influence in as much territory -- almost half of that country's districts -- as at any time since 2002. The capital, Kabul, is practically under siege and casualties nationwide are on the rise. And that's just to begin a list of the "successes" of the mightiest military force on the planet against groups of modestly armed Islamic militants more than a decade and a half after the "successful" invasion of the country.

Now, a small warning (not that the U.S. military or politicians in Washington really need such a caution): after a mere 16-plus years in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in American history, it's important not to jump to rash conclusions. For that, you would undoubtedly need a far more extensive set of experiences (18 commanders?). In the meantime, as TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of America's War for the Greater Middle East, suggests today, Washington's war on terror simply stretches on into... well, infinity, without a new thought or a disconcerting question in sight. Tom

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Infinite War
The Gravy Train Rolls On
By Andrew J. Bacevich

"The United States of Amnesia." That's what Gore Vidal once called us. We remember what we find it convenient to remember and forget everything else. That forgetfulness especially applies to the history of others. How could their past, way back when, have any meaning for us today? Well, it just might. Take the European conflagration of 1914-1918, for example.

You may not have noticed. There's no reason why you should have, fixated as we all are on the daily torrent of presidential tweets and the flood of mindless rejoinders they elicit. But let me note for the record that the centenary of the conflict once known as The Great War is well underway and before the present year ends will have concluded.

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Indeed, a hundred years ago this month, the 1918 German Spring Offensive -- codenamed Operation Michael -- was sputtering to an unsuccessful conclusion. A last desperate German gamble, aimed at shattering Allied defenses and gaining a decisive victory, had fallen short. In early August of that year, with large numbers of our own doughboys now on the front lines, a massive Allied counteroffensive was to commence, continuing until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when an armistice finally took effect and the guns fell silent.

In the years that followed, Americans demoted The Great War. It became World War I, vaguely related to but overshadowed by the debacle next in line, known as World War II. Today, the average citizen knows little about that earlier conflict other than that it preceded and somehow paved the way for an even more brutal bloodletting. Also, on both occasions, the bad guys spoke German.

So, among Americans, the war of 1914-1918 became a neglected stepsister of sorts, perhaps in part because the United States only got around to suiting up for that conflict about halfway through the fourth quarter. With the war of 1939-1945 having been sacralized as the moment when the Greatest Generation saved humankind, the war-formerly-known-as-The-Great-War collects dust in the bottom drawer of American collective consciousness.

From time to time, some politician or newspaper columnist will resurrect the file labeled "August 1914," the grim opening weeks of that war, and sound off about the dangers of sleepwalking into a devastating conflict that nobody wants or understands. Indeed, with Washington today having become a carnival of buncombe so sublimely preposterous that even that great journalistic iconoclast H.L. Mencken might have been struck dumb, ours is perhaps an apt moment for just such a reminder.

Yet a different aspect of World War I may possess even greater relevance to the American present. I'm thinking of its duration: the longer it lasted, the less sense it made. But on it went, impervious to human control like the sequence of Biblical plagues that God had inflicted on the ancient Egyptians.

So the relevant question for our present American moment is this: once it becomes apparent that a war is a mistake, why would those in power insist on its perpetuation, regardless of costs and consequences? In short, when getting in turns out to have been a bad idea, why is getting out so difficult, even (or especially) for powerful nations that presumably should be capable of exercising choice on such matters? Or more bluntly, how did the people in charge during The Great War get away with inflicting such extraordinary damage on the nations and peoples for which they were responsible?

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For those countries that endured World War I from start to finish -- especially Great Britain, France, and Germany -- specific circumstances provided their leaders with an excuse for suppressing second thoughts about the cataclysm they had touched off.

Among them were:

* mostly compliant civilian populations deeply loyal to some version of King and Country, further kept in line by unremitting propaganda that minimized dissent;

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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