The first lesson about recent events in Afghanistan—Koran burning and civilian killings—is that, after over 10 years, the U.S. Army has failed to train its personnel properly and lacks command and control over its troops.
I take no joy in making such a flat, unvarnished statement about military incompetence—I am a Vietnam veteran—and I respect the sacrifice that our uniformed personnel make to serve the country as they are directed and led to serve it. But their leadership, political and military, has failed over and over again. Worse, they have the bluster to get us into wars but have not the background to get us out when our efforts fail.
I recall the mantra in Vietnam: win hearts and minds. I remember the behavior of ordinary troops, not in battle, but along boulevards in Saigon. It was rude, crude, and social unacceptable anywhere, but even more so in a country which we purportedly wanted to protect and a people whom we purportedly wanted to support.
But our representations were bogus. We were there for ideological and political reasons. One, we opposed communism and pretended that the South Vietnamese opposed it (or, in our arrogance, presumed that they would want to oppose it if they understood its evils, etc.), too. Two, so we assumed that the Vietnamese would take over the fight from us as their own; but it was always ours, never theirs, and they never supported or fought it. Three, we could not back out without loss of political face. From the start, lip-service about hearts and minds substituted for an appreciation of, and respect for, the Vietnamese, who they were, what they wanted, how they liked to live.
Afghanistan is déjà vu all over again. Our goal number one was to hunt down and kill (or capture) Osama bin Laden. We imagined that Afghanistan troops shared this goal and would like the lead in doing our work. So, in the pretense that all agreed on this goal, we let them engage (or not) bin Laden at Tora Bora, with the predictable result: he escaped. We learned nothing from that crucial event. Our goal number two was to drive the Taliban, which had allowed and abetted Al Qaeda in the country, out of the country. We thought that we could drive Afghanis from their families and fields, and leave, and that the Taliban would not return. Are we crazy, or what?
Then, once we had driven the Taliban out of Afghanistan, we tried the same kind of failed cross-border attacks into Pakistan which proved so spectacularly unsuccessful in Laos and Cambodia 40 years ago. Did today’s generals sleep through their classes at West Point? And, of course, since Americans think that American lives are worth much more than the lives of the people whom we are there to save from their fellows, we use military weapons which prove to be wonderfully potent in killing civilians mistakenly targeted by poor intelligence—over and over again. But we do apologize. I imagine that West Point offers a 1-credit class in apologies and a 1-credit sequel in restitution.
Since most of the country—Kabul, a beautiful city, excepted—consists of feuding warlords and people who grow poppies as the main cash crop and who hate foreigners more than they love/hate each other, what in the name of h-e-double-hockey sticks do we think that we are doing in trying to make it into a different kind of country? If we do not want to live under Sharia law, why do they think that they want to live under English Common Law, revised? Can we learn enough respect for others to let them live as they want to live, not as we wish them to live?
Are we fighting these wars because we still think of ourselves as shouldering a “white man’s burden,” only now renamed as America’s burden shouldered by integrated troops? Our military adventurism makes no sense. But the middle class is to blame. It did not want to send its sons to Vietnam. So politicians, instead of ensuring the American people supported a war, ended the draft and developed the all-volunteer army of the poor, the unlucky, the criminal, and the careerists from traditionally military families. So the all-volunteer army is America’s cop-out from well-considered decisions about peace and war—a troops-as-play-toys for Washington elites and the military-industrial complex.
So let me conclude with two suggestions. One, end the all-volunteer army, return to a draft for all men and women, with two years of military service or national service for all high school dropouts or graduates. Two, require that, in any hostilities other than counter-terrorist operations, all service-age children or grandchildren of elected federal officials must serve during those hostilities, in combat branches, and in combat zones. They commit as leaders; then we commit as followers.
In short, no more free-ride, let-George-do-it military engagements—no more Vietnams and Afghanistans—without a national consensus, a national commitment, and a national sacrifice, first and foremost by the nation’s leaders who vote for war or its budgets and second by us by paying war taxes. And no more pretending that our wars are doing our friends a favor. We must resolve never again to fight in a war with indigenous allies who do not want to fight it at least as much as we do.