The news that this is not a physical war but mainly one of perceptions will not be received well among American military families or Afghan children, which is why a responsible citizen must rebel first and foremost against The Official Story. That simple act of resistance necessarily leads to study as part of critical practice, which is essential to the recovery of a democratic self and democratic society.
Read, for example, this early martial line of Rudyard Kipling, the English poet of the white-man’s burden: “When you’re left wounded on Afghanistan’s plains and the women come out to cut up what remains/ just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/And go to your God like a soldier.” Years later, after Kipling’s beloved son was killed in World War I and his remains never recovered, the poet wrote: “If any question why we died/ Tell them because our fathers lied.”
A hope for peace
An important part of the story of the peace movement, and the hope for peace itself, is the process by which hawks come to see their own mistakes. A brilliant history/autobiography in this regard is Dan Ellsberg’s Secrets, about his evolution from defense hawk to historic whistleblower during the Vietnam War. Ellsberg writes movingly about how he was influenced on his journey by contact with young men on their way to prison for draft resistance.
The military occupation of our minds will continue until many more Americans become familiar with the strategies and doctrines in play during the Long War. Not enough Americans in the peace movement are literate about counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and the debates about “the clash of civilizations”—i.e., the West versus the Muslim world.
The writings of Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and retired Army lieutenant colonel whose own son was killed in Iraq in 2007, is one place to begin. Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, has written The New American Militarism and edited The Long War, both worth absorbing.
For the military point of view, there is the 2007 Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual developed by Gen. Petraeus, with its stunning resurrection of the Phoenix model from Vietnam, in which thousands of Vietnamese were tortured or killed before media outcry and Senate hearings shut it down. David Kilcullen, Petraeus’ main doctrinal adviser, even calls for a “global Phoenix program” to combat al-Qaida-style groupings. These are Ivy League calls to war, Kilcullen even endorsing “armed social science” in a New Yorker article in 2007.
For a criticism of counterinsurgency and defense of the “martial spirit,” Bing West’s recent The Wrong War is a must-read. West, a combat Marine and former Pentagon official, worries that counterinsurgency is turning the army into a Peace Corps, when it needs grit and bullets. “America is the last Western nation standing that fights for what it believes,” he roars.
Not enough is being written about how to end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but experts with much to say are University of Michigan professor Scott Atran (Talking to the Enemy) and former U.K. envoy Sherard Cowper Coles (Cables from Kabul). Also there is my own 2007 book, Ending the War in Iraq, which sketches a strategy of grass-roots pressure against the pillars of the policy (the pillars necessary for the war are public opinion, trillions of dollars, thousands of available troops, and global alliances; as those fall, the war must be resolved by diplomacy).
The more we know about the Long War doctrine, the more we understand the need for a “long peace” movement. The pillars of the peace movement, in my experience and reading, are the networks of local progressives in hundreds of communities across the United States. Most of them are citizen volunteers, always immersed in the crises of the moment—nowadays the economic recession and unemployment. Look at them from the bottom up, and not the top down, and you will see:
• The people who marched in the hundreds of thousands during the Iraq War.
•Those who became the enthusiastic consumer base for Michael Moore’s documentaries and the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush lyrics.
• The first to support Howard Dean when he opposed the Iraq war, and the stalwarts who formed the anti-war base for Barack Obama.
• The online legions of MoveOn who raised millions of dollars and turned out thousands of focused bloggers.
• The voters who dumped a Republican Congress in 2006 on the Iraq issue, when the party experts said it was impossible.
• The millions who elected Obama president by a historic flood of voluntary enthusiasm and get-out-the-vote drives.
• The majorities who still oppose the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and want military spending reversed.
This peace bloc deserves more. It won’t happen overnight, but gradually we are wearing down the pillars of the war. It’s painfully slow because the president is threatened by Pentagon officials, private military contractors and an entire Republican Party (except the Ron Paul contingent), all of whom benefit from the politics and economics of the Long War.
But consider the progress, however slow. In February of this year, Rep. Barbara Lee passed a unanimous resolution at the Democratic National Committee calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and transfer of funds to job creation. The White House approved of the resolution. Then 205 House members, including a majority of Democrats, voted for a resolution that almost passed calling for the same rapid withdrawal. Even the AFL-CIO executive board, despite a long history of militarism, adopted a policy opposing Afghanistan.
The president himself is quoted in Obama’s Wars as opposing his military advisors, demanding an exit strategy and musing that he “can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
At every step of the way, it must be emphasized that public opinion in congressional districts has been a key factor in changing establishment behavior.
In the end, the president decided to withdraw 33,000 American troops from Afghanistan by next summer and continue “steady” withdrawals of the rest (68,000) from combat roles by 2014. At this writing, it is unclear how many remaining troops Obama will withdraw from Iraq, or when and whether the drone attacks on Pakistan will be forced to an end.
The Arab Spring has demolished key pillars of the Long War alliance, particularly in Egypt, to which the CIA only recently was able to render its detainees for torture.
Obama’s withdrawal decision upset the military but also most peace advocates he presumably wanted to win back. The differences revealed a serious gap in the inside-outside strategy applied by many progressives.
After a week of hard debate over the president’s plan, for example, Sen. John Kerry invited Tim Carpenter, leader of the heavily grass-roots Progressive Democrats of America, into his office for a chat. Kerry had slowly reversed his pro-war position on Afghanistan and said he thought Carpenter would be pleased with the then-secret Obama decision on troop withdrawals. From Kerry’s insider view, the number 33,000 was a very heavy lift, supported mainly by Vice President Joe Biden but not the national security mandarins. (Secretary of Defense Gates had called Biden “ridiculous,” and Gen. McChrystal’s later ridicule of Biden helped lose the general his job.)
From Carpenter’s point of view, 33,000 would seem a disappointing too little, too late. While it was definite progress toward a phased withdrawal, bridging the differences between the Democratic liberal establishment and the idealistic progressive networks will remain an ordeal through the 2012 elections.
As for al-Qaeda, there is always the threat of another attack, like those attempted by militants aiming at Detroit during Christmas 2009 or Times Square in May 2010. In the event of another such terrorist assault originating from Pakistan, all bets are off: According to Woodward, the United States has a “retribution” plan to bomb 150 separate sites in that country alone, and there are no apparent plans for The Day After.
Assuming that nightmare doesn’t happen, today’s al-Qaida is not the al-Qaida of a decade ago. Osama bin Laden is dead, its organization is damaged, and its strategy of conspiratorial terrorism has been displaced significantly by the people-power democratic uprisings across the Arab world.
It is clear that shadow wars lie ahead, but not expanding ground wars involving greater numbers of American troops. The emerging argument will be over the question of whether special operations and drone attacks are effective, moral and consistent with the standards of a constitutional democracy. And it is clear that the economic crisis finally is enabling more politicians to question the trillion-dollar war spending.
Meanwhile, the 2012 national elections present a historic opportunity to awaken from the blindness inflicted by 9/11.
Diminishing the U.S. combat role by escalating the drone wars and Special Operations could repeat the failure of Richard Nixon in Vietnam. Continued spending on the Long War could repeat the disaster of Lyndon Johnson. A gradual winding down may not reap the budget benefits or political reward Obama needs in time.
With peace voters making a critical difference in numerous electoral battlegrounds, however, Obama might speed up the “ebbing,” plausibly announce a peace dividend in the trillions of dollars, and transfer those funds to energy conservation and America’s state and local crises. His answer to the deficit crisis will have to include a sharp reduction in war funding, and his answer to the Tea Party Republicans will have to be a Peace Party.