How appropriate, don't you think? America's longest war, the Afghan one, now heading into its 18th year, may set another kind of record -- for the longest withdrawal ever. The Pentagon recently revealed news of its daring "plan" to end that war. It will take up to five years to get 14,000 U.S. troops (and unknown numbers of private contractors), military equipment, and the like out of that country successfully, ensuring a war of perhaps 23 years (without, of course, a victory in sight). To add to the cheery news, just about everyone's on board with the plan, except perhaps for one recalcitrant individual. As the New York Times recently reported:
"So far, the plan has been met with broad acceptance in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels. But American officials warned that Mr. Trump could upend the new plan at any time."
In other words, when it comes to setting records in Afghanistan (USA! USA!), the news couldn't be more upbeat if the president doesn't interfere (and his administration's peace talks with the Taliban don't somehow get in the way). In fact, there might be even better news lurking just offstage. The Pentagon's "plan," after all, looks strangely like an effort to simply outlast the Trump era in hopes that a future president might be far more intent on record-setting than the present one. General Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, which oversees Washington's never-ending wars across the Greater Middle East, may be typical of top U.S. commanders when it comes to such matters. He's not just against the president's urge to withdraw American troops from Syria but envisions a permanent war with ISIS into the distant future -- and he imagines something similar in Afghanistan. As he told the House Armed Services Committee early this month, speaking of a possible U.S. withdrawal from that country, "The political conditions, where we are in the reconciliation right now, don't merit that."
So there's no end to the records that could still be set, if it's up to the generals, who -- as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and historian William Astore points out today -- are filled with similar wisdom when it comes to what Pentagon officials have taken to calling "infinite war." Tom
Whose Blood, Whose Treasure?
America's Senior Generals Find No Exits From Endless War
By William J. Astore
"Veni, Vidi, Vici," boasted Julius Caesar, one of history's great military captains. "I came, I saw, I conquered."- Advertisement -
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that famed saying when summing up the Obama administration's military intervention in Libya in 2011 -- with a small alteration. "We came, we saw, he died," she said with a laugh about the killing of Muammar Gaddafi, that country's autocratic leader. Note what she left out, though: the "vici" or victory part. And how right she was to do so, since Washington's invasions, occupations, and interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere in this century have never produced anything faintly like a single decisive and lasting victory.
"Failure is not an option" was the stirring 1995 movie catchphrase for the dramatic 1970 rescue of the Apollo 13 moon mission and crew, but were such a movie to be made about America's wars and their less-than-vici-esque results today, the phrase would have to be corrected in Clintonian fashion to read "We came, we saw, we failed."
Wars are risky, destructive, unpredictable endeavors, so it would hardly be surprising if America's military and civilian leaders failed occasionally in their endless martial endeavors, despite the overwhelming superiority in firepower of "the world's greatest military." Here's the question, though: Why have all the American wars of this century gone down in flames and what in the world have those leaders learned from such repetitive failures?
The evidence before our eyes suggests that, when it comes to our senior military leaders at least, the answer would be: nothing at all.
Let's begin with General David Petraeus, he of "the surge" fame in the Iraq War. Of course, he would briefly fall from grace in 2012, while director of the CIA, thanks to an affair with his biographer with whom he inappropriately shared highly classified information. When riding high in Iraq in 2007, however, "King David" (as he was then dubbed) was widely considered an example of America's best and brightest. He was a soldier-scholar with a doctorate from Princeton, an "insurgent" general with the perfect way -- a revival of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency techniques -- to stabilize invaded and occupied Iraq. He was the man to snatch victory from the jaws of looming defeat. (Talk about a fable not worthy of Aesop!)
Though retired from the military since 2011, Petraeus somehow remains a bellwether for conventional thinking about America's wars at the Pentagon, as well as inside the Washington Beltway. And despite the quagmire in Afghanistan (that he had a significant hand in deepening), despite the widespread destruction in Iraq (for which he would hold some responsibility), despite the failed-state chaos in Libya, he continues to relentlessly plug the idea of pursuing a "sustainable" forever war against global terrorism; in other words, yet more of the same.- Advertisement -
Here's how he typically put it in a recent interview:
"I would contend that the fight against Islamist extremists is not one that we're going to see the end of in our lifetimes probably. I think this is a generational struggle, which requires you to have a sustained commitment. But of course you can only sustain it if it's sustainable in terms of the expenditure of blood and treasure."
His comment brings to mind a World War II quip about General George S. Patton, also known as "old blood and guts." Some of his troops responded to that nickname this way: yes, his guts, but our blood. When men like Petraeus measure the supposed sustainability of their wars in terms of blood and treasure, the first question should be: Whose blood, whose treasure?