by George Evans
It’s too early to weigh the efficacy of Barack Obama’s administration in a practical way (putting aside personal feelings about vampiric bailouts), if only because six months is merely an eighth of his guaranteed tenure—he deserves a reasonable chance to find his sea legs before the daggers fly. Then too, no one can deny the country’s sense of relief after eight years in the unventilated political abattoir that passed for government during the Bush‑Cheney regime. Nonetheless, Mr. Obama has exhibited a lapse in judgment with potential to derail not only his administration but the world. He has committed himself (actually not himself, but potentially countless lives, along with resources we’ve been told we do not have enough of for our own needs) to an amorphous war he neither understands nor knows what to do with—at least he hasn’t adequately explained his presumably major battle plans. In that respect, his resembles every failed war presidency in recent US history. He is engaging in war for political reasons (there appear to be no other grounds), and the armored hatch through which he can escape the greatest threat to his young presidency is closing fast.
Since the end of World War II (though not exclusive to that period), many presidential candidates have run for office on promises to end or wind down this or that war—as part, if not the whole, of their platforms—but not one ultimately elected in the past sixty five years actually did so, with the exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Korean War, and he didn’t exactly end that; it was brought to a negotiated truce. The country’s WW II war‑weariness forced him to take what he could get, saving an incalculable number of lives in the bargain. Unfortunately, he canceled out that good work by imitating predecessor Truman’s snub of Ho Chi Minh’s pleas for recognition of his government in Viet Nam, thus setting the stage for the U.S. war in Viet Nam, which his youthful successor JFK positioned between other foreign invasions in his own vision of U.S. world domination and set on the road to becoming the nightmare of the 1960s and 70s, LBJ’s wet dream, and Nixon’s gift horse (manipulated mercilessly to distract the public while attending to lesser crimes).
At this point it already sounds clichéd to draw analogies between current U.S.‑Middle East wars and the U.S.‑Viet Nam War, and so, though such comparisons can be instructive, it’s more practical to recognize that something worse (and very different) is afoot, and that no amount of usual protest will be enough to stop it. Things set in motion by the Bush‑Cheney regime have taken on a life and direction of their own, and only a completely different approach to U.S. policy and the concept of world peace can avoid the coming disaster. Mr. Obama could possibly be the last U.S. president in a position to call anything close to a near‑term halt to what promises to be the ultimate slide of humanity into an abyss of war beyond anything previously conceived or experienced—the longest, most destructive war in history. And that assessment is not intended as apocalyptic rhetoric, but moderate, realistic evaluation.
The problem with current U.S. wars is that the military is in control of policy, and asking a general for advice on what to do about war is like asking a mechanic whether or not you should fix that irritating rattle in your car. And no one is better at charming the good sense out of a president (short of elections) or the public (short of reality TV) than a general. Take, for example, the current general‑in‑chief, bedazzling medals and all, along with his personal army of advisors and experts, hell bent on solving the world’s problems with military precision and know how, mix in tribes of desert people with religious zealotry, endless landscape to escape across and access to the richest troves of oil and poppies on the planet, and (somehow) you have the perfect formula for convincing a man with no military experience whatsoever outside of Hollywood movies that it is in the best interest of the U.S. to pursue a fifty (at least) year war. That’s where we are now.
The Iraq War may look like it’s winding down, but it’s only moving into a different phase. Then there’s Afghanistan, a war with renewed traction now cranking into full gear with Washington approval (complete with increased‑troop‑death‑is‑imminent disclaimers, a surreal rider that should blast shivers down Main Street). And then there’s Pakistan, a third war, in motion but only at its beginning and barely catching the media spotlight—that will change once the subject of India, Pakistan, the Taliban and nuclear weapons can be said in one breath without anyone scoffing. And there are other, smaller related conflicts, and possibly even invisible mini‑wars for all we know. Generals never tell everything, only enough to keep their strategies afloat, and even politicians who know better (who have read war history or been on the receiving end of a barrel) keep their heads down, worried over employment at the local munitions factory and how it might affect their reelection.
War can be sold as a good thing if you’re winning, but winning in war is a conundrum. Those who could provide strongest testimony to the success and effectiveness of winning any war are the dead, both victor and loser. In war, triumph and defeat are the same in the end because death is the only possible outcome, of the body or spirit. War’s purpose is death (no matter what it’s waged in the name of). It is meant to kill, maim, destroy and poison. It has no higher purpose, no matter what politicians claim for it. It’s a short cut, a crass, brutal form of nationalized bullying that reduces human potential to it’s lowest nature. Anyone can argue the virtues and necessities of self defense, and even revolution, but brief or protracted, mechanized, wide spread aggressive destruction is not self defense (particularly in foreign lands where the self one is protecting does not belong)—it is murder, pure and simple.
But strategies of the moment don’t have to produce immediate results: a potentially endless war has been launched, and if the generals have their way, and if our promising new president does not reverse his course and commitments, the following will be true: If you are ten years old today and reading this, your grandchildren will be fighting these same wars (and related others). The relevance of our generation—this era—will have been completely erased and forgotten by then; the country will have become financially, politically and artistically bankrupt; the environment will be a hot sewer (no such things as ice caps and potable water); and the extinction rate will have surpassed imagination (creatures we consider common will be mysterious and unheard of to your grandchildren—squirrels maybe, housecats, who knows?). Everything original and creative about the human imagination will be swept into the effort of continuing and supporting endless war, and your life—you who are now ten years old now—would not (if we were given a chance to see you again in fifty years) be recognizable to us, we who stand at this crossroad on the verge of allowing the remnants of our battered republic to be taken over by ancient, tedious visions of conquest and enforced peace, designed and executed by a pejoracracy of generals and other lesser beings. We will have ruined the planet for you, and will have done it purely for the sake of war itself, a human preoccupation as ancient and primal as sex and food gathering, but it will all have been for nothing because unlike the other two, war is unnecessary to survival. Then again, so are most political decisions.
Among works I recommend at this moment are Andrew J. Bacevich’s articles “The Semiwarriors” (The Nation, April 5, 2007), and “Illusions of Victory” (The Nation, August 12, 2008); also, the facts, figures and explication of Tom Hayden’s “Understanding the Long War” (The Nation, 7 May 09) are indispensible and breathtaking.
George Evans first witnessed and experienced martial violence as an Air Force medic in Libya during the Six‑Day War of 1967, then in Viet Nam. His books include The New World (Curbstone Press), and Sudden Dreams (Coffee House Press).