This column first ran in April, and the editorial below it ran two days after 9/11. Neither need a rewrite–PT.
President Biden’s speech Wednesday about American withdrawal from Afghanistan was welcome news, in one sense. Our part of the war will finally be over. But it’s 20 years too late. And his claim that we achieved our goals is absurd. The Taliban never lost control over key parts of Afghanistan and today controls or contests more of it than at almost any point since 2001. If it wanted to run terrorist camps, it always could.
But the Taliban is into terrorizing its own, not exporting it. It realized in 2001 that it had made a mistake, letting Osama in. It wants to run a second Saudi Arabia–a Wahhabi-hirsute theocracy as harsh and regressive as that of our friends the Saudis. It was doing so in 2001. Had it been left alone once Osama was chased off to his vacation rental in Pakistan (our ally), the Taliban would likely have been history by now, demolished by its own nihilism as surely as Saudi Arabia’s theocracy will self-destruct, once the oil runs out. But the American invasion gave the Taliban life. It turned tribal bandits deranged by religion into a nationalist force. Now it’ll walk on Kabul as surely as the North Vietnamese Army walked on Saigon in 1975. Put away those kites again, runners.
Biden said a lot of the right things Wednesday. There was no triumphalism. There was humility. But there are still illusions, like his claim that America had a role in Afghanistan beyond assassinating Osama, which never required an invasion, as a handful of Navy Seals proved. Biden was still dressing up death-gushing adventurism in the lipstick-on-a-pig rationale of spreading democracy. At least he recognized the failure, and has for over a decade.
The papers ran a picture of Biden walking among the headstones of Arlington National Cemetery. Touching. Also, deceptive. It keeps the focus on American casualties, modest in comparison with an Afghan death toll exceeding 150,000 since 2001, some 43,000 of them children, and the 800,000 deaths and 21 million displaced from all of America’s wars in the Middle East in that time span, according to a Brown University study. But outsourcing suffering is American policy. “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America,” George W. Bush said, and we swallowed the outsourcing of massacres without a moral peep, as if, other than armies of straw men, there ever was a risk we’d ever need to “face them in the United States.”
Even the terms “forever war,” which Biden unfortunately used, which newspapers love to use, are distasteful. The terms romanticize the war, casting it in cheap literary alliteration, like 1970s Penthouse spreads that sought to dress up porn through soft-focus filters. The terms give it a lineal parentage along the lines of “the forgotten war” (Korea) or “the war to end all wars” (World War I), mythologizing it so we don’t call it what it was: a failure from day one, a war as dirty as Vietnam, as pointless as Grenada.
I remember those days after the attacks, how the nation anticipated retaliation against Afghanistan, how violent and inevitable the counterattack would be. I also remember as if it were yesterday our discussions on the editorial board at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, where the seven or eight of us around the table were all outliers to the drumbeat. We anticipated a reaction of course. But we knew, given the flammable leadership at the time, that it would be vengeful, out of proportion with the terrorist attacks, unnecessary, wasteful, and in keeping with what al-Qaeda and the Taliban wanted: to bait us into a war we could not escape. (See the editorial I wrote on Sept. 14, 2001, below, summing up the anticipated failures if we took the bait.)
Al-Qaeda and the Taliban won. We lost. We lost another war where we did not belong. We’d lost even in 2001 before B-52s dropped their first bombs, and not just that war, which then metastasized to Iraq, then to the entire Middle East and finally to 80 countries in that “global war on terror.” It enabled ISIS to mutate from al-Qaeda’s morbid entrails. It enabled Iran, its murderous regime on the verge of collapse in 2001 (like the Taliban), to re-emerge and become the region’s superpower, opposite Israel. The Iraq that Iran could not conquer when Saddam Hussein was its tyrant, we obligingly prepared so Iran could take over with a lot less blood, as it did since our collapse there.
We discussed the way the attacks would be a pretext to turn Fortress America into a goonery of what soon became “Patriot Act” and “Homeland Security” cartels, devouring civil liberties while freeing secret services to run torture chambers, rendition programs, black sites, and forcing Americans to live between peace and fear. We outdid ourselves with Guantanamo, fabricating an exit clause from the Constitution and maintaining our own little gulag annex to this day. Today’s anti-protest bills, border walls and militarized policing are the variants of homeland security mania. It’s all of a piece, as foreign wars inevitably wreck stateside liberties.
We discussed the Bush cabinet’s illusions of democracy in the Middle East, how presumably intelligent men and women in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department could actually think themselves different from every western madman from Alexander to the Crusades to Napoleon to Imperial Britain to Brezhnev, those fools who thought they could impose more than wastelands or prove Tacitus wrong (“They make a desert and call it peace”).
We talked about the costs, how they would run us into the trillions and into the ground, handicapping our capacities as a world power and setting us up for the kind of degradation Britain experienced when it lost its empire, its hubris exhausted, its claims of exceptionalism–oh yes, the Brits thought they were the shits, too–discredited. Conservatives are losing their wits over the trillions spent on pandemic recovery. At least that’s a reinvestment in the dear “homeland,” in human capital and infrastructure, in actual, not pretend, security. And it’s still well below the more than $7 trillion so far spent on those wars they applauded blind, though in that regard it really was a bipartisan orgy: Democrats, among them Biden, Obama and Clinton, were equal accessories. (Obama may have drawn away from Iraq. He kept Afghanistan going for eight years and expanded the bombing campaigns across the Middle East. Trump dittoed.)
The point being that none of this waste, none of the misjudgments and failures were unanticipated 20 years ago. They were merely silenced or vilified as un-American, or worse. And here we are, 20 years later, nothing gained, so much lost. The forever failure may be over. I’m not so sure we’ve learned a damn thing.
Two days after Biden spoke, a memorial to World War I was dedicated in Washington, D.C. where, strangely for a city so enchanted with memorials to war, none had gone up commemorating that one. The memorial isn’t finished yet. Its centerpiece sculpture narrating the war is still smelting. But its story is set. It’s more fabrication than history, going as far as mixing Black and immigrant soldiers along with whites in oh-what-a-lovely-war solidarity against Krauts. It’s as if Woodrow Wilson’s America wasn’t one of Jim Crow’s greatest triumphs and the period after America’s entry into the war wasn’t among its most xenophobic. As if the Palmer Raids against immigrants setting a precedent for McCarthyism in the 1950s and Bush’s raids on Muslims in 2001 and subsequent deportations.
“What was on my mind was pro-human agency upliftment,” Sabin Howard, the sculptor, told the Times, a strange word to associate with the last century’s first holocaust, itself as pointless and wasteful a war as history had ever known until then. But why not. Fabricate history and redefine a war memorial as an excuse to uplift. Why should Sgt. York have all the fun? It’s about damn time the rest of us should make ourselves feel good about World War I.
What a wonderful model for war celebrations to come. Surely the Afghan-Iraq memorial won’t have to wait a century. There’s a forever failure to uplift. And this time cannon fodder’s diversity was real. Imagine the Arabs and Afghans we could celebrate in that monument.
It is hell in Manhattan and Arlington. It is not war.
And if the nation continues to rattle its sabers as it has since Tuesday’s attacks, then something potentially more dangerous than war could develop — a misunderstanding of what war is, and a response to the attacks so overwhelmingly out of proportion with Monday’s terrorism that the United States could plunge itself and the world into a nightmare both will regret.
War is a relentless march of brutality, a devastation that doesn’t begin and end with two or three deadly impacts but a death machine that drafts and bloodies, willingly or not, entire populations and industries. “War,” as Ernie Pyle wrote two years before his own death at war, “makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.” The White House, aided by commentators and the military and abetted by collective anger, is veering prematurely toward making strange giants out of routine men.
An unintended consequence of Tuesday’s attacks is that the country’s moral authority around the world is unequaled since the end of World War II. But America’s misuse of its own might, conventional or nuclear, could wipe that out in a flash while inviting even more evil rogues to retaliate. It would open the era of terrorism by suitcase weapons of mass destruction, whether they be nuclear or biological (it wouldn’t matter to the victims).
Even short of all-out retaliation, the political misuses of the situation could have bewildering consequences for the nation’s budget and its sense of itself as a free and peaceful society. Senators are scrambling to outscream each other for a new war against terrorism, for a blank check to the nation’s secret services and military, for a new and improved national security state that would make Harry Truman’s Cold War infrastructure look quaint in comparison. The Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI are sitting back, waiting to reap the windfall.
It is all an abuse of an extraordinary situation. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has repeatedly warned city merchants and hospitals against taking advantage of Tuesday’s disaster and gouging consumers and victims. But no one is warning against gouging by the Pentagon and the nation’s already-gigantic national security establishment. No one is warning against gouging the national treasury and the national trust at such a vulnerable time.
We are not, or ought not be, that sort of giants.
No one is arguing in favor of doing nothing. Retaliation is inevitable and necessary. No need for moral relativism, for “sensitive” treatment of a truth naked enough to be told as it is: The nation was attacked by backward, anti-Western fundamentalists to whom civilization is an affront, for whom repression is an edict from whatever twisted deity they pretend to serve. Few will mourn their loss should they be found and destroyed. But there will be plenty to mourn if, as so often happens in these cases, retaliation becomes a carnage of innocents different from Tuesday’s attacks only in hardware and location. And if war is the result. We are not there yet, and we should not let cowardly fanatics with Khyber Pass addresses take us there. They want our war. Let us, rudely and violently, decline.
There are better things to do, and they’re being done. The only people poring into lower Manhattan are rescuers and volunteers and anonymous heroes already chipping away the devastation of an evil act with a million daily acts of humanity. They are relentless, as the nation will be, to set things right again. But they’re not at war.