Bob Schwartz

Tag: Afghanistan War

If You’re Tired of Hearing About the Vietnam War, Tell Our Leaders to Stop Reenacting It

This weekend, an administration official tried to explain in an interview what exactly we are now doing in Iraq and Syria. It was like a ghost or the walking dead, sounding eerily and unhappily exactly like the rhetoric that was rolled out in the middle days of the Vietnam War.

There are roughly three groups about Vietnam: those who lived through it on the home front, those who lived through it (or not) in battle, and a generation or more that is so tired of hearing about a war that ended forty years ago. So tired of it. Can’t you all ever get over it?

Too bad. No, we should never “get over” Vietnam, no matter how many generations pass, and no matter how tired those generations are about the lessons we might learn. Vietnam was the first truly modern war of the media age and of the post-national era.

In media terms, it offered the best possibility up to that time to say positive stuff about a complex war policy, have it widely broadcast (though not as widely as digital today), and have the media endorse it and people believe it. Okay, that does sound like a description of what happened in Iraq, but that just proves the point.

As far as post-national warfare, Vietnam was technically a civil war, but it was obviously something else too. There was an army of North Vietnam, but there were also indigenous forces and a people’s movement trying to upset an unacceptable status quo, which we supported and ultimately defended. For a while. Until there was no more government of South Vietnam. And then it became a matter of just not losing. Which we did.

Another parallel is not paying attention to history, our own and that of others. The French abandoned Indochina, but that was supposedly just because they were, well, French. Americans know and are better than that. Just as in Afghanistan, where the Soviets abandoned their war, but that was supposedly because, well, they were Commies. Freedom loving Americans know and are better.

Which brings us back round to Iraq and Syria today. If you make the effort, you could go back to the LBJ days of Vietnam and hear exactly the same words that were spoken this weekend. Not just something like it, but exactly. Such as: it’s their fight, not ours.

There are things worth fighting for on the world stage, even when it is not on our homeland. But it is hard enough to figure out what those things are, and even harder to commit ourselves and our loved ones to the fight, when we are swimming in a sea of official stuff and nonsense. We want the brutal truth, if our leaders can tell it, especially when it is bound to be a brutal and long fight.

Afghanistan Without End. Amen.

It is time to stop expecting American leadership in either party, at any level, to reasonably articulate an achievable goal in Afghanistan. Either the conclusion they’ve reached is that there is none or it is too hard to tell us the inconvenient truth they have concluded.

So we are just going to have to take on the role of citizen policy analysts and do it ourselves.

We are unlikely to ever help establish an Afghan military capable or willing to hold back whatever insurgent force mortally threatens stability and national integrity.

We are unlikely to see the establishment of a stable semi-permanent semi-democracy in Afghanistan.

We are never going to “defeat” the Taliban or other similar threats in Afghanistan, in the sense of forever eliminating and precluding such evil developments.

That leaves one possibility. We are keeping troops in Afghanistan to help keep things from getting worse.

It’s a problem to admit that. First, because a military mission of stopping things from getting worse seems unending, which it well might be. Entropy tells us that things fall apart naturally unless acted upon otherwise. In Afghanistan that otherwise is us. It’s also hard to tell those who serve that the point of their sacrifice is to keep things from getting worse, rather than seeing a genuinely better future and having a defined endpoint.

But at least it would be honest. And on top of the war without end, that is an equally big problem. From the Vietnam War to today, there has been a lot of official and political obfuscation. Well, let’s call it lying. It isn’t that the policy makers don’t have noble principles in mind, such as freedom, self-determination, and the like. It’s just that the plans they put in place—very expensive plans—have practically no chance of fulfilling any of those principles.

Do Something/Anything about ISIS? Would You Rather Have No Strategy or Bad Strategy?

Just Do It

President Obama candidly admitted that we have no strategy for dealing with ISIS, but that we are developing one.

Maybe too candid for the moment and his leadership position, but still a necessary truth. Necessary because no one on earth has a good strategy for dealing with that or the complex of situations around the world right now. For the religiously inclined, consider that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed convening in the Situation Room would have a tough time figuring out what to do next, short of calling in the Big Gun and wiping the slate clean and starting again.

This hasn’t stopped Congress from urging a simple solution to this puzzle: do something/anything. This is an all-time irony, given that Congress is currently infamous for doing absolutely nothing, ever, no matter how important the problem and no matter how relatively simple the solution. If a number of the members had a sense of irony, we could all wryly laugh at this, except that their sense of irony is absent, along with a sense of duty, democracy, and Americanism (the real kind, not the fake). Some of these same members do seem to have a sense of justice, John Wayne frontier justice, which is unfortunately out of place in the liquid world of 2014 global politics and insurgency.

A few years ago, some thought that democracy would spread around the oppressed nations like an epidemic, like Arab Spring fever. But chaos is also an opportunistic contagion, and as those on one insurgent or imperialist front look at the other fronts multiplying, they see opportunity and seize it. It doesn’t help that the geography is claustrophobic. If you don’t know it, connect the dots from Iraq to Syria to Israel to Gaza to Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. And that’s just one pole of the current dynamic.

We have been tragically mistaken on strategy in the last three major American wars. One was an abject defeat, the other two—Iraq and Afghanistan—have sort of ended, with an indeterminate outcome, and withdrawal that may or may not last. Let’s pull back from partisan finger-pointing, and just admit that some situations—whether you choose to demur or however you choose to engage—may have outcomes, but may not have solutions.

You can be smart or stupid, fearless or timid, right or wrong, and you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances. That is, there is no “perfect” strategy, especially not with the way things are aligning. So no, you can’t wait for that perfect strategy. But you also shouldn’t rush in with the next idea that comes into your head, especially if that idea comes from some outdated playbook that has already proven itself ineffective in current realities.

“Just do it” sounds great, as long as you spend sufficient time really considering what “it” is and what the consequences and outcomes might be. Oh, and also, you might try being candid, as Obama has been, rather than making stuff up. Like about WMDs. Like about wars that will last weeks and cost nothing. Let’s leave that sort of unhelpful lying to fairy tale tellers like Vladimir Putin, who is not invading Ukraine, and to Putin’s admirers and portrait painters.

The Gates Book and the Gates Speeches

Duty
Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is about to release a memoir of his tenure under Presidents Bush and Obama. Provocative advance excerpts from Duty are now being released, and these explosive devices are anything but improvised.

Every news outlet, pundit and politician is already busy making points about President Obama, Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, based on comments clipped from these excerpts, rather than having read the whole book. Even out of context, it is clear that Gates has formed some definite opinions based on working for and with these American leaders. That is anyone’s privilege, but particularly that of a man who spent forty-five years in laudable public service, much of it at the highest levels of government.

As always, though, opinion and criticism is a matter of perspective, that is, where the critic stands underlies what a critic sees and says.

You can read all the speeches that Gates delivered as Secretary of Defense. This is guaranteed not to be as titillating as reading or hearing about the “best parts” of Duty, but it might give you additional insight that will make the context of the book clearer.

Here, for example, are excerpts from remarks he made to the Heritage Foundation on May 13, 2008, when he was serving under President George W. Bush. (You can read the entire speech here) At that point, the Iraq war was five years old, only halfway to its conclusion. At that point, he had been Secretary of Defense for two years, and from that point, he would remain in that position under President Obama until July 2011.

But there is a more fundamental point that I will close with – and again, historical perspective is important. It is impossible to separate discussions of the “broken” Army following Vietnam – a conscription army – from the ultimate result of that conflict. At a congressional hearing last year, General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, recounted the profound damage done to the Service’s “fiber and soul” by the reality of defeat in that war.

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater – to that institution, as well as to our country – if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.

There it is, the context: Iraq was “the war we must win.” Gates’ insights into military matters is often brilliant and sensible, informed by his intelligence, experience and education. But on this point he candidly reveals a premise that for some colors everything else he offers. We must win Iraq because the failure to win would “break” the military the way that Vietnam did.

We did not win in Iraq, but technically, we did not lose. That current events in Iraq point to some devolution doesn’t really settle the question. That some U.S. Senators are calling for us to return to Iraq to avoid that loss or at least to avoid the appearance of futility is a partial reflection of exactly what Gates said.

We know that Gates’ personal critiques are based on close working relationships and observations. We also know, or should recognize, that those critiques are grounded in a worldview that others may not, very legitimately, share. If for Gates one of the measuring sticks is whether someone believes that Iraq had to be won, that measure may be skewed by genuine differences in informed opinion. One opinion is that as valorous as the service and sacrifice was, Iraq was a mistake, to be abandoned as prudently as possible; others might now say the same about Afghanistan. What Gates has to say about our leaders is certainly worth listening to, provided we pay equal attention to the mindset of the speaker.

Go Silent on Memorial Day

Go Silent
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) this week launched a new campaign asking all Americans to “Go Silent” this Memorial Day in honor of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The “Go Silent” campaign encourages Americans to pledge at IAVA.org to pause and be silent for a full minute at 12:01 p.m. EDT on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27.

The Pew Research Center has reported extensively on the Military-Civilian Gap:

America’s post-9/11 wars mark the longest period of sustained combat in the nation’s history – and never before has America waged war with so small a share of its population carrying the fight.

Military Participation

For more about IAVA.

To donate to IAVA.