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.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.
No, This Country Is Not at War and Shouldn’t Be
[Pierre Tristam, News-Journal, September 14, 2001.]
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.
Totally agree. Another Vietnam. You would think that after all the waste Americans would learn, but they want. Soon there will be another wasted war by the industrial military complex. At the least President Trump kept us out of war despite the industrial military complex.
Just a thought says
Trump did not keep us out of war. He kept us in a war.
Sgt. Barrel says
Just think in a few more weeks you can write about another War. This one right here in America. It will be the War to end ALL Wars…….. The New Civil War. Keep your pencils sharpened , the battle is about to begin.
Yeah Well I wont hold my breath waiting for it thanks for the heads up
5G Battle Cry says
Wow this is like the 7th civil war warning I’ve heard. Thanks for the heads up dude, haha. This time, #7, I guess it’s surely gonna happen, since it didn’t happen the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th time I heard about one… No offense but you, and people like you, are just getting old, haha.
Ray W. says
Do not underestimate the level of hate held by Americans such as Sgt. Barrel. While people who hate prefer to announce that their hate is caused by this or that, one must always suspect that the ability to hate may simply be more developed in certain people than it is in others. I have to wonder who Sgt. Barrel will have left to hate if his civil war projection ever comes to pass and he wins. Left with his enhanced capacity for hate and the object of his hatred gone, will he turn on himself or select a new category of others to hate? I can speak on this subject from experience. I was seven years on during the summer of 1964 when my family moved into a motel in St. Augustine during the racial crisis that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My father was prosecuting klansmen who blocked off a bridge in the night and attacked a number of black fishermen. Bypassing the grand jury process, which routinely refused to indict klansmen for any crime, my father direct-filed Informations and had the klansmen arrested. The Klan had been infiltrated by an undercover law enforcement officer, who reported that leading klansmen from around the country who had converged on St. Augustine had ordered and funded the murder not only of my father, but of the entire family. I did not understand why, suddenly, I had to pack my belongings alongside my five siblings and leave, with my father driving us through the night to North Carolina. We were dropped off with a grandmother and my father immediately drove back to Florida. Eventually, we returned to Daytona to the 24 hour presence of police officers at my home. For about two weeks, I had shotgun carrying officers in my driveway, on the sundeck of the third floor, and behind my home. When my mother needed to leave to get supplies, we all had to climb into the car, the officer in the driveway drove into the street and stopped all traffic and we left for our destination, only to return to wait until traffic was stopped again so we could pull back into our driveway. My childhood memory is walking out to the patrol cars or onto the sundeck to offer ice tea or water to my protectors who held guns at the ready. All because my father decided to hold klansmen responsible for their terroristic tendencies, which is what he was elected to do, except in the minds of the leaders of the Klan.
In early 2016, I began a successful defense of a man accused of attempting to corrupt a public servant by allegedly threatening to kill a judge. The defense was built on purely legal grounds, which the trial judge accepted; he found my client not guilty. Factually, the State had a recorded conversation from inside a bar in downtown Palatka. Yes, the bar had signage throughout warning patrons that they might be recorded. Yes, barroom talk has likely not changed throughout the entire history of this nation. As my client expressed his contempt for the judge who refused to dissolve an injunction, thereby denying him possession of his guns, another patron could be heard interjecting his opinion into the mix; he asserted that all he needed was 25,000 followers and he could overthrow the capital. My client did not join in that side conversation, as my client appeared to be only angry with his judge. Since that time, I have wondered from time to time, more so after January 6th, of what might have happened in the capital if Hillary had been elected in 2016. Sgt. Barrel is right in the implied statement that he is not alone; he simply left out how long he has held his beliefs.
Before my 2016 case, I had expressed my opinion to my oldest daughter that America gets a stomachache from time to time and we simply need to throw up and get it over with. She was worried, as young and rising professional adults do when facing unexpected political instability for the first time. As Trump’s rhetoric became ever more heated, I called my daughter and apologized to her, stating that I had been wrong in underestimating the level of hatred Trump was bringing out in his followers. I told her of a wave of political violence that engulfed Western Europe and United States from about 1890 to 1915, described in Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Towers.” I warned my daughter that we were – and I believe still are – headed to a new wave of domestic violence, one that might last for decades. Tuchman described the efforts by the Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, etc. (not the liberals, though, as they are not socialists, communists, or anarchists, by definition.), to ignite the overturning of the social order of the day by individual and random acts of violence. Police stations, newspaper offices, banks and other monuments of the old political order were bombed. Reporters, judges, policemen, politicians and members of royal families were assassinated, separate from the bombings. To me, the most vivid of Tuchman’s descriptions was the murder of a young Italian princess walking a promenade bordering an idyllic Swiss lake early one sunny morning. An self-described anarchist ran up and repeatedly stabbed her. As she lay dying, he threw down his knife and announced: Let the revolution begin!
Sgt. Barrel, it seems to me, may belong to that class of anarchist. An anarchist by nature, filled with hatred for those who represent a hurdle to his idealized future world, Sgt. Barrel presents himself as looking forward to his new world order, not mentioning that millions will likely have to die to satisfy his hopes and dreams. What Sgt. Barrel may not realize is that history reflects repeated incidents of the leaders of the revolution turning on each other, weeding out the weak as the brotherhood kills off its own. Our Revolution avoided that because our leaders believed in law and order and knew that government was necessary to preserve our gains. Sgt. Barrel’s compatriots do not believe in government. Picture France in the 1790’s, Russia in the 1920’s and 30’s. Picture any of the Eastern European countries after WWII. Murder, privations on a massive scale, famine, migration, large-scale imprisonment of political opponents. One of my university professors, Bohemian by birth, was a young university student in Prague when the Soviet Army overran Czechoslovakia and instituted a repressive new regime. He repeatedly led groups of his fellow countrymen through the frontier into what is now West Germany and Austria until he learned that he had been targeted by the new government as an enemy. He then fled. Fluent in English, he was hired by the Army to instruct soldiers to speak his native language. Eventually, he was sent to the University of Chicago, earned a doctoral degree, became a citizen and then a professor and, in my opinion, a very good professor. But he never forgot his experiences and shared them with the class and in personal meetings. He knew what happened when the Sgt. Barrel’s of his day gained power and it wasn’t good for anyone but for a select few. Sgt. Barrel may not be thinking about this right now, but he has to know, intuitively, he will not likely belong to the select few unless he is willing to eliminate his former compatriots and future rivals when that time comes, along with anyone else who stands in his way.
Sigmund Kirk, Esq. says
Hate is borne from ignorance!
Are you in anyway affiliated with any extremis groups such as the Proud Boys? Since Florida was the breeding ground of the capitol insurrection and a lot of domestic terrorists were and are from Volusia County. So let me get this straight. You are openly calling for a civil war? So who will you be fighting against exactly? Who is your enemy? Let me guess. Liberals?
I suggest you crawl back into your Neckbeard Nest and stay there.
@Duh Republican Party ayatollahs have something to say
And so it goes.
Don’t forget, planning and training for 911 took place in Afghanistan. They will not give up.
USA bound says
Jan 6th planning – planned on USA soil. Homeward bound they sure are!
Michael Cocchiola says
We know we cannot win foreign wars against determined indigenous fighters well armed with modern weapons. That is unless we wipe out the population and totally destroy their civilization with our modern weapons. Then occupy the rubble, forever.
We know this, but we will never really learn to deal with it.
I think i agree with this post over all. However, I do have a few disagreements.
(Sorry for the bad English in advanced)
1)I doubt the fall of the current Saudi Regime will be due to oil “running out”. The Saudi Economy has changed dramatically over the last decade, however, over the last 5 years it has become a financial center that has seen great activity from large investors. The flow of Financial instruments has greatly increased, as prior to covid the 10YR Saudi bond had a strong return when indexed for Inflation. This came with a credit rating upgrade, making it very similar to developed nations (although, the only nation it beat out in this terms was Greece). What Im trying to get at here, is that when looking at investor confidence, it seems that most believe Saudi Arabia will keep its commitment to diversifying its economy (looking at bank assets, they seem to learn from Russian errors of tying your brand new currency to fluctuating state securities that have no real value apart from inflation)
I fundamentally believe we should sanction the Saudi’s (if they fail to amend there current humanitarian catastrophes) specifically where it would hit their financial markets, as oil (price) wars clearly don’t work (see Putin’s attempt in March).
2) I agree with the idea of cutting defense spending, but find it counterproductive to support the infrastructure plan in replacement to that. Looking at studies from Barro we can see that the spending multiplier for Defense spending is still under 1 (for the most part, the range is from .6-1.2). That right there could be the argument alone for cutting spending in that area, as it would show that in most cases the Ricardian equivalence is proven (given the crowding out effects that harm private spending). However, the current infrastructure plan, in its current form does not seem to support growth. looking at multiplier effects from Penn Wharton, it seems to be hostile to capital inflows, specifically due to the corporate tax increase. Now this is not me advocating for a tax cut from the current 21%, however an income tax increase would be a far greater way of paying for this bill. A rate increase across the board (given the the middle class in America if undertaxed when looking at the global average for developed nations) would be more than enough to allow efficient growth, and would in long term increase Real GDP and Real wages.
I agree however, the humanitarian costs and the political hypocrisy is concerning, and i think you have done a great job getting that point across.
Sherry A Epley says
In my logical and inexpert opinion, President Obama should have declared victory and pulled our ground forces out of Afghanistan right after Bin Laden was extinguished.
We would be much better served focusing on creating a way to completely remove all the foreign and domestic lies, disinformation and propaganda from our media and culture. If we do not make credible, verifiable, factual information the foundation of our everyday decision making at every level, we will likely parish in the “internal” quick sand of corruption, disillusion, disbelief, distrust, fear and hate.
William Moya says
The focus of American foreign policy has not been to “make the world safer for democracy”, or even to improve the lives of the peoples affected by our intervention. It is to coerce, force by any means, compliance and obedience to advance the interest, in most cases, of the Capitalist system, and even to the long term detriment of the American people.
In unlikely chance that you’d been asleep in the past few years, there is a striking parallel between the Pentagon’s approach abroad and the police forces at home.
Chris Goodfellow says
Thank you Pierre. A great summation of the tomfoolery of American Foreign Policy. Do we ever get it right? Has there been one success where armed conflict succeeded since WW2? Korea? Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan? The one great success of the past fifty years was the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. It was accomplished by diplomacy and without firing a shot.
Our intentions are supposedly noble and good but somehow we fail in the execution. The policy of “ You are either with us or against us” will never produce fruitful outcomes but invites lasting opposition and derision as Mike C points out. A foreign policy based on endless war to support a military industrial complex at the expense of domestic infrastructure investment and progress has literally bankrupted us. Indeed we are like Britain at the end of Empire. Divided, spent and in retreat. A very sad America. But Biden is doing the right thing. Ending an endless war is a difficult task, but it is the right thing to do. Obama and Trump could not bring themselves to just admit it was a losing game and pull out whatever the costs. It takes great courage to admit defeat. When we pulled from Vietnam finally it was a difficult spectacle to see the NVA roll in and it will likely be difficult to watch the Taliban assume power again. But remember where we are today vis a vis Vietnam. Sometimes there is victory in defeat. Vietnam while not a vibrant democracy is a friend and productive trading partner.
I am not a pacifist – far from it but it is my humble view that we must return to a stricter delineation of the powers required for American military deployment so we remain out of fights we shouldn’t get into in the first place. Before any overseas engagements are contemplated again, we need to return to the policy that it is Congress’ role to declare war. Little by little, step by step, Presidential power accretion has resulted in the nation committing to policies and wars where we had no business. Presidential ego often gets in the way of good sense and the old adage applies it is easier to get in a fight than out of it. That is why I believe the Founders reserved war making to Congress where 535 can decide if America treasure is to be spent.
Neither major political party has ever had a problem with sending america’s troops off to fight and possibly die. The bulk of them, both r’s AND d’s just don’t want to go themselves, but they claim to represent you. They just don’t want to put their lives on the line. The current commander in chief got what, 5 deferments from Viet Nam, My father got 6 tours of duty. If you believe a politician of any party, you’re either a fool or simply an idiot, you choose.
STANLEY WOLAK says
What do you think of your so called president now? Be careful what you wish for!!
…20 years ago was a different time…now 75% of Afghans have iphones and technology and women are employed everywhere…they are surrounded by enemies…Iran, Pakistan…probably China.
Taliban broke Afghanistan and now they own it…how will they deal and keep up with with all the infrastructure complaints?
They better keep Joe Biden’s # on Speed dial…they will need US $$$$$$$!
John the Baptist says
Twenty years to train and equip the armed forces of Afghanistan shows good intention. However, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” as they say. In the end, the Afghanistan military forces gave up, coward, and surrendered to the Taliban. Part of this defeat I blame on our senior military leadership. All our flag officers were only interested in their promotion of the ranks. You will never convince me that our senior 4-star leadership and senior DOD officials did not see this coming. Oh, let’s not forget the abundance of anals in Congress who “armchair” quarterbacked the war. They knew best (LOL). Look at some of the bull sh– Rules of Engagement Congress mandated upon US forces. While I am confident that there were units in the Afghanistan military that did fight the fight, it was not enough. As a Vietnam vet and wounded warrior all, I can say is Déjà vu!
As a parting shot, I don’t put the blame totally on President Biden. Presidents Bush through Biden all had a role in this.
Just a thought says
All Trump’s loyalists said the Afghanistan people were terrorist and should be banned from entering our Country. Today, because Biden got us out of an unpopular war, and the government collapsed, all Trump’s loyalists are concerned for the Afghanistan people. Seems a bit self serving.
Mr. Stanley, I think very highly 🤔 of my President. Or shall I say our President. Don’t blame him, I yhink a Republican President was in charge 20 yrs ago. Did loud mouth, cheating, lying Trump do anything while in office? Very little to nothing. Why didn’t Trump withdraw the troops, oh he is afraid of Putin. Thus country is always spending trillions over seas and evicting people at home. Denying Black Farmers loans, and cutting off lights, water, and putting leins on homes. Never understood why this country spend billions overseas while millions are hungry and homeless at home. Just saying.
Our so called President is better than the poor excuse of a President, non listening, loud mouth, lying, cheating, crazy Donald Trump.