I guess there are a few suckers, like myself, who are holding out hope that the worst kept secret in Washington (i.e., the expected announcement from our president about another escalation of troops into the Graveyard of Empires) is yet another instance of Obama’s effective/annoying strategy of floating out a rumor to get a “read” of the public mood before shucking and jiving, then surprising the always-obtuse Beltway media bozos. Of course, that Clintonian triangulation on steroids act got stale a while back (certainly before and during the protracted death spiral of the public option which, to this day, Obama has been unconscionably quiet about endorsing –which leaves intelligent people with little evidence to counter the assumption that the public option in particular, and meaningful health care reform in general, is not terribly high on his personal radar. Which, of course, is more than a little disappointing, and disenchanting), between his waffling over how to handle the Wall Street catastrophe and his, well, dithering on the Afghanistan stalemate.
(Isn’t it depressing how easily Iraq has fallen back off the radar? What exactly is being accomplished there? Andrew Sullivan has a reliably succinct, and clear-eyed assessment of the muted returns on our considerable investment of lives and dollars:
All the surge did was provide a face-saving way for the US to create enough temporary security to leave. Given the chaos of the first four years of occupation, this was an achievement. But the achievement was in preventing total humiliation for the US, not anything close to victory or success stable enough to leave with anything but another civil war as the likeliest outcome. But the US didn’t leave, Obama took the neocon advice, and is still hanging on to the notion that a stable, democratic, self-governing Iraq is possible after only six years of occupation, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, 5,000 dead Americans, countless wounded and disabled vets, and up to $3 trillion in taxpayers’ money.
As Obama appears to be intensifying the lost war in Afghanistan, with the same benchmark rubric that meant next-to-nothing in the end in Iraq, he does not seem to understand that he will either have to withdraw US troops from Iraq as it slides into new chaos, or he will have to keep the troops there for ever, as the neocons always intended. Or he will have to finance and run two hot wars simultaneously. The rest is here.)
It is, suffice it to say, incredibly discouraging to think that Obama feels that a “modest” increase in troops will deliver anything approximating positive results. On the practical front, it’s a non-starter; on the political front, it is backwards bordering on masochistic. Does he think for one second that this move will buy him an ounce of credit or goodwill from the obstreperous (and increasingly single-minded) Republican base? Does he believe the chickenhawk ship of idiots (including, but not limited to Dick Cheney, Charles Krauthammer and John Bolton) will cut him any slack (and more importantly, why would he give two shits what any of those imbeciles think? Indeed, since those guys have been wrong about virtually everything they’ve blathered about over the last eight or so years, isn’t it intuitive to grasp that a position opposite of theirs practically guarantees success?) will get on board? Does he think this craven pandering to the mythical moderate demographic will satisfy anyone? (Not that anyone needs to be satisfied; that would be reducing the very real affairs that mean life and death for those involved to pure political gamesmanship, and we’re all better off when we leave that to Republicans, and we’re best off when we keep them out of office, where they are unable to keep the war machine chugging.)
In sum, this tactical cop-out would signify neither change nor anything that anyone can believe in. And that is where it gets ugly: Obama loses his base over this, and it’s over. Which is why it’s difficult to believe a man of his intelligence could fail to fathom this. And this is what this is all about.
So I’d rather step aside and let some well-equipped and quite persuasive writers put some things in perspective.
It is a ceaseless source of chagrin that the name George Orwell gets name-checked (by both the hard-left and the hard-right, proving that he was a genius and can be all-things-to-all-people as only the true iconoclasts, the genuinely original thinkers of their time, are capable of being) so often but when you talk to people (especially people who work in or around politics) you come to understand that they have not only not read 1984 or Animal Farm, but they have not read anything else, either. Of course, coming into contact with Orwell at a formative age and engaging in some honest fashion with the truths he told almost a century ago, might have prevented these same people from wanting any part of the political scene…so it makes a sad sort of sense to realize how ignorant –in the literal sense of the word– these cynics and true-believers actually are. None of which is to imply that if they did read Orwell, now, it would prompt or compel any type of epiphany. But it would certainly cause confusion and uncertainty. And, as anyone who knows anything about politics (and the people who partake in the circus) well understands, confusion and uncertainty –which often lead to their unspeakable cousin nuance– are anathema to contemporary political hacks.
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that history predictably and inexorably repeats itself, and that many answers to our seemingly (and maddeningly) unanswerable foreign policy conundrums were articulated in stark, unequivocal fashion long before any of the actors in today’s world stage were born. Orwell’s indelible (and, it would seem, largely unread) evisceration of empire building (not just the practice itself, but the corrosive effects it has on the occupants’ hearts and souls), Shooting An Elephant is mandatory viewing. At least it must be for anyone who aspires to be taken seriously about any convictions they may have regarding our Sisyphean undertaking in Afghanistan:
As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.
I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided. And at that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.
That was written in 1936.
The next piece, which –without putting too fine or, I hope, melodramatic point on it– should be required reading for anyone who is ardently for these war(s), or has never had a family member fight in a war, and perhaps especially for the folks who don’t have a particularly strong opinion one way or the other, comes courtesy of Chris Jones in Esquire. This one, entitled The Things That Carried Him, won a well-earned National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. It is a shattering piece, and would give considerable pause to anyone with a half-functioning heart or brain.
“Honorable transfer,” they call it, the last in a series of military handoffs, when the Army finally turns over a dead son or daughter, husband or wife, to his or her family.
Staggers stole away behind the hangar to read his Bible. He had confronted grief for most of his adult life, but he had to get his head straight. He had somehow seen this future for himself while standing at the lip of a mass grave in Bosnia a decade ago, had seen it in the faces of two hundred men, women, and children massacred and thrown in a pit. “That was a spiritual moment,” he said. “That’s when I said I will follow this calling that you’ve been pestering me with, God, for all my years.” Since then, he has worked as a sheriff’s chaplain, and alongside one of the Army’s casualty notification officers, and in the trauma room of a city hospital. Most recently had come his tour in Afghanistan, where he had missed the birth of his youngest son to pray over the bodies of the sorts of men he hoped his son might one day become.
Today, though, was new and it was different: It was not a farewell but a return. Today would be about framing a reality that was only now coming home. “I was thinking, What would I want for my wife and kids if I were the one not to make it back?” Staggers said. “I would want someone to give them 100 percent of their attention and preparation.”
When Sergeant Montgomery’s family arrived from Scottsburg a short time later, and after Don Collins Sr. had parked his hearse and opened the door, Chaplain Staggers introduced himself and did his best to prepare them for what they were about to see. He went over the mechanics of the ritual, but he also tried to steady them for the emotion that would follow. There might have been times over the past week when they felt like they were in a movie, actors playing parts. That feeling would end this afternoon.
The guardsmen had carried enough caskets to deduce, from what their arms told them as they grasped the handles and lifted, something of the person inside. They know if the dead soldier was big or little, and they can also make a good guess at how he died, whether he was killed by small-arms fire or a helicopter crash or an IED. Sometimes they’d lifted caskets and been surprised by the weight of them — wooden caskets are heavier than metal, and that combined with a strapping young man can make for a considerable burden, several hundred pounds — and sometimes there was barely any weight at all, and they knew that inside the casket was a pressed uniform carefully pinned to layers of sheets and blankets, between which might be nestled only fragments of a former life, sealed in plastic.
Finally, from the Feb’09 Esquire, Michael Paterniti’s The Garden, which looks at the lives (and livelihoods) of the crew who dig the graves (and perform the myriad custodial obligations) at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Football is like war,” he says. “To win, you’re going to have to gamble a little. But in war that’s gambling people’s lives. “Sometimes I just can’t fit it in my head,” he continues, “I see these stones out here, see that some kid was 18, 19. These are babies, man. Babies. And they could be any of us.”
The feeling somehow becomes more acute and immediate out in the living memory box of Section 60: Before one headstone sits a tin of Copenhagen; before another, a bottle of half-drunk bourbon. There are packs of Newports and laminated pictures of wedding days, births of children, and buddies during good times. There are condoms and lipstick kisses on the marble headstones and colored stones on top and, in the nearby trees, glittering seasonal juju: blue stars or tinsel, American flags or stuffed bunnies. Leaning against one headstone is a birthday card with the picture of a little boy who has just learned to scratch out the name Daddy, three years after Daddy’s death. And then there are the scrawled notes from friends and wives that say I miss chillen with you brother and I wish we were together, you fussing over my pregnant belly and buying me those awful coveralls to wear like we planned.
And, on hotel stationery, this note from a mother: Hello son, I miss you so much it hurts and sometimes I’m so proud I can’t stop smiling. You were a great son and I am very proud of you. Some times I feel your presents and some times I see you in my dreams. Those are the best times. We are together again and I get to give you those hugs I love so much. Well, I’ll get in touch with you again real soon and please make more visits to me in my dreams. I would really like that. Love you Son, Mom xxoo.