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Private Eye

War Is Hell. So Is Inaction

Without knowing what the end game is in Afghanistan, why do it?

By John Saltas
 Full Metal Jacket
Posted // October 28,2009 -

I don’t know firsthand if war really sucks or not, as I’m nonmilitary. But from what I’m told by my friends and family who did serve—most of whom are also Vietnam combat veterans—war does, indeed, suck. They nearly universally agree that war can be fun, too, but not during combat. They also often admit they couldn’t tell you how fighting for a piece of that rice paddy in Vietnam equates to a more secure USA.

All good soldiers to a man, they fought as good soldiers do. But it’s not the soldiers who have it wrong about war—either good or bad wars. During the Vietnam era, it was common to hear that we had to stop Communism from spreading throughout Southeast Asia like dominoes. If South Vietnam fell to the Communists, it went, soon Cambodia would, too. And Laos. And Thailand. And the next thing you know, we’d all be speaking Chinese.

For the nearly 20 years that the United States had ground troops or advisers in Vietnam, Domino Theory arguments ruined many a family Sunday pot roast. More than 30 years after the United States’ departure from South Vietnam in 1975, the world map shows a unified Vietnam. Laos, Thailand and Cambodia also remain with unchanged borders. In hindsight, the Domino Theory looks like malarkey. It was really an explanation for us staying in Vietnam—you will be hard-pressed to learn from any person or text why we got into Vietnam in the first place, nearly 10 years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to full-scale escalation of the Vietnam War. Give the calendar 20 years, and it’s a safe bet that you’ll not be able to tell your kids why we went to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, either.

If war sucks, the reasons for war suck equally. Like a carnival arcade game, for every war theory that gets whacked, a new one rises to take its place. Besides the moving targets of why we went to Iraq and Afghanistan, a modern true believer in the Vietnam War, as often as not a neo-con, justifies it by claiming the war distracted the Russians so much, it led to the downfall of the USSR. Well, OK, but since that theory is revisionist and also made in hindsight, I doubt a single of the 58,195 soldiers killed in Vietnam ever heard that one.

Besides the time-honored traditions of dying with valor, for the unit, for their friends, for the causes they believed to be just and right, what exactly did those men and women die for? It wasn’t real estate— even the bloodiest hills and battle sites were quickly abandoned. It wasn’t for a democratic Vietnam—we may have called the elections democratic, but behind the scenes we nixed that system in favor of puppet governments and regimes. I don’t arrive here with the proper cred, so it’s best to let someone else ask the openended question of what our soldiers died for. That someone is a Vietnam-era, U.S. Navy vet, Joseph Allen McDonald.

Here’s how he put it in 1969 at Woodstock with his band, Country Joe & the Fish (apologies to Joe, but “Vietnam” has been changed to “Afghanistan”):

Aw, c’mon all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. Got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Afghanistan. Put down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun. And it’s one, two, three, what are we fightin’ for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Afghanistan. And it’s five, six, seven, open up your pearly gates! Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why, whoopee, we’re all gonna die.

Additional verses condemned Wall Street’s connection to the war (today, Halliburton) and career generals who only cared about their prestige. The song ends with a rejoinder for parents across the land to send their sons off to war so they could be first on the block to “have your boy come home in a box.” Nearly 40 years later, Bill O’Reilly, who should have served with McDonald but avoided the draft via school deferments, would compare McDonald to Fidel Castro. That’s some kind of thank-you for helping to end an unpopular war.

We once said, “Never again!” No more Vietnams. But we’re heading for one. Democrats and Republicans are itching for a fight with one another, even if it means sending your kids to Afghanistan so they can score political points at home. War is in the headlines. Another Utah soldier has died in Afghanistan, and 14 more Americans died yesterday and 8 more today. Maybe that’s not enough to rile you, but neither did the headlines in the early 1960s, when we were also preoccupied and not paying attention to the war building momentum half a world away.

Later, the real headlines came: Ia Drang, 1965—234 U.S. dead in four days; Dak To, 1967—376 dead and missing; Hue, 1968—142 Marines and 74 Army dead. Other terrible battles were fought, and fought again, at Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Chu Lai, Pleiku, Kontum, in the A Shau Valley, the Central Highlands, the Mekong Delta, and the Iron Triangle. I can only hope that names such as Zabul, Oruzgan, Kwost and Ghazni—sites of previous battles in Afghanistan and of more to come—don’t end up with the same terrifying resonance as those Vietnam battlefields.

It’s decision time for President Obama—and you. More war, or no war. Less war doesn’t cut it. Utah’s national representatives—except Rep. Jason Chaffetz—support sending more soldiers to die in Afghanistan. Chaffetz says he’s not sure what victory looks like in Afghanistan. He’s right. They didn’t know in Vietnam, either. Without knowing what the end game is in Afghanistan, why do it 58,000 more times?

Related reading:

Should Obama get in with full force or get out of Afghanistan?


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Post a comment
Posted // November 6,2009 at 14:40


Very good column. I relate to your thinking very much. In 1963 I dropped out ot the Catholic seminary in St, Paul, Minn., and within days got a draft notice. I went to the Navy recruiter and signed up.

I was, after boot camp, sent to Japan to do electronic spying on the Russians, North Vietnamese, China, and any and all shipping in the South China Sea.

I also did some flying, near Russia territories. Never was shot at and never shot at anything.

On returning to my command in Japan, I learned that my mom was extremely ill and was sent home on leave.

I flew home on a MediVac plane that had more than 300 wounded soldiers, marines and sailors. I aided the doctors and nurses througout the flight, and upon landing at Travis Air Force Base learned that nearly half of the wounded had died during the flight.

Waiting for a cab to take me to the SF airport, I cried. Out loud. Then cried during the flight to St. Paul. I cry as I write this.

We had no business envading Iraq, and now, after so many years, have no business being in Afghanistan. Pulling out now would leave this country without war and no longer counting dead soldiers, marines and sailors.

War, I have decided -- all wars -- is evil.

Bill Beecham


Posted // November 5,2009 at 13:16

Cuz don't fret remember as Dylon sang "God's on our side" no sweat so just sit back and watch the blood flow.



Posted // November 6,2009 at 07:30 - I do know that song, quite well, and like it. But, you are aware that it's a sarcastic song, right? Sardonic, really. Besides, I think Dylan's "Masters of War" is better applied here.


Posted // October 28,2009 at 11:00

Another good article, John.

You have just addressed one major reason that I've lost faith in the current admistration. Initially, we were promised that American combat forces would be completely removed from Iraq, one to two Brigades per month, within a sixteen month timeline, starting on the first day of the new Administration. Before that, the timeline promised was that all troops in Iraq would be home by the end of 2009. We were also promised that no permanent American bases would be constructed or maintained in Iraq. The current administration seems to have forgotten those promises.

We've been at war with Iraq for nearly seven years and Afghanistan for nearly nine years now. Iraq is destoyed, so is Afghanistan. The Afghan-based Taliban is stronger than ever. We've wasted billions of dollars (though I'm sure the financiers are happy with their earnings), tens of thousands of lives, and are further away from some sort of "victory" than we were at the beginning of this bullshit.

The Brits lost in Afghanistan, the Russians lost in Afghanistan and so have we. The real losers, of course, are the Afghans themselves.

But here we are. Iraq continues and likely will for years to come. Our bases there will likely remain. There are no promises regarding Afghanistan, other than sending in more troops to prop up what will soon be, after the fake run-off election, a false government, whose Presidency will have been stolen, illegally, again, from the Afghan people.

Finally, lets not forget why we were told we went to Afghanistan in the first place: Osama Bin Laden. Remember him? And lets not forget why we were told went to Iraq: WMD's. Remember those?

Thanks a lot, man. I have heartburn now.


Posted // November 2,2009 at 10:41 - Well, what a surprise. There will be no fake run-off election in Afghanistan as Dr. Abdullah has dropped out, citing concerns over blatant corruption and the commission's refusal to remove poll officials that are obvious criminals. Abdullah knew the run-off would be a scam because nothing would have changed within the system beforehand. Karzai is a crooked thief, obviously USA's boy-at-the-helm, and has already been happily welcomed and congratulated as the official election winner (even though it was so incredibly crooked Karzai should have been jailed) by the international community, including the USA. Obama's administration is thrilled with the decision and will send Karzai flowers very soon (poppies, of course), along with more American troops to die in that shithole.