Blogs > There's No There There > Are Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, etc. Worth the Life of a Single U.S. Soldier or Marine?

Nov 12, 2014

Are Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, etc. Worth the Life of a Single U.S. Soldier or Marine?

tags: George Ball; Murray Polner; Barry Posen; James Webb; Andrew Bacevich

Murray Polner is a blogger, writer and HNN Book Department editor.

Some years back when an off-Broadway play opened with the delicious title  “Now That Communism is Dead My Life Feels  Empty” I immediately thought of Mark Danner’s classic quote that, years after the collapse of Soviet Communism, we were more than ever “marooned in the Cold War.”  Stranded and beached in the past, still drilling into the minds of loyal, patriotic and distracted Americans that the world is desperate for our armies, flow of trillions of dollars, and instructions how to govern themselves. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, China are only our most recent needy pupils -- cheered on by our well-subsidized home front neocon warriors and the Imperial City’s horde of private contractors, lobbyists for our merchants of death eager to produce a never-ending supply of advanced killing machines, and the cloistered foreign policy experts and think tankers ready to do the bidding of the rich and powerful so long as there’s money to be made.

Now that John McCain and his wrecking crew are back, we’ll soon be yearning  for renewed American “hegemony” and global responsibilities. What we could instead are a few memorable  razor-sharp portrayals of our failed and failing imperial policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the explosive Middle East to jack us up. So here’s General (ret.) Daniel Bolger’s Veterans Day Op Ed in the New York Times: “If insanity is defined a s doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I think we’re there.”


Still, I long for another George Ball, the model ‘60s White House dissenter. When JFK -- very reluctantly, we are repeatedly told by his uncritical admirers—decided to send 16,000 “trainers” (see Obama and Iraq and ISIS) to Vietnam to teach the South Vietnamese how to fight the Reds from sweeping over all of Southeast Asia, billions were shipped to Saigon’s corrupt rulers and  their cohorts while more and more “advisors” kept arriving.

Ball, the only nonconformist in Kennedy’s “Best and Brightest” posse pleaded with JFK to keep in mind France’s Indochinese defeat. “Within five years we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again” he warned the liberal icon. But JFK knew better, caustically answering, “George, you’re crazier than hell. That just isn’t going to happen.”

Ball also tried but failed to convince LBJ to stand down in Vietnam before it destroyed his presidency and the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, not to mention a few million Asians. But LBJ wasn’t going to be the first president to lose a war. Failing to stop Ho & Co., LBJ’s advisors argued, would sooner or later have us fighting them on Waikiki Beach.

But, hold on, there’s some good news. As William Greider, a shrewd  observer of Washington goings-on,  wrote in The Nation, “the real meaning of America’s Catch-22 now is “a self-made trap in which the nation can neither win the endless, borderless conflict nor get free of the impossible obligations claimed for the US military.”

More promising, insists Barry Posen, Director of the Security Studies Program at MIT and author of Restraint,  are “A small but growing number of US scholars, policymakers and politicians who are beginning to subscribe to a new view of US grand strategy,” “We believe,” he wrote, “the US needs to restore discipline to its foreign policy—set priorities more rigorously and calculate the costs and chances of success with a more skeptical eye"—unlike the Iraq fiasco,  In late October, Posen criticized our failed and failing bipartisan foreign policy, calling for an ethic of moderation and self-control opposed to the “liberal hegemony” backed by party leaders.

And there’s more hope. Posen’s talk in Washington was sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute—yes, the  very same Charles Koch liberals like myself oppose -- a meeting designed to bring left and right in one room by introducing  libertarians to foreign policy “realists.” An observer, J. Arthur Bloom, was present and asked if left liberals like myself would “prefer Rand Paul to a  Democratic Party controlled by machine-gun-toting messiahs like Samantha Power?”

It’s a trick question, of course, but I hope this early dissatisfaction leads to an abandonment of the bogus fantasy of regime change and toward the adoption a non-interventionist foreign policy foregoing preventive wars, freezing new commitments and  reassessing our far too many obligations so we can determine what’s really, seriously, honestly in the national interest.  If the Chinese decide to take over one of the barren and rocky  isles in the South China Sea does this mean that our pact with Japan and/or the Philippines means War? Or if Estonia, a NATO member, gets in a tussle with Moscow, are we obligated then to drop a few nukes on Moscow? Looking for a sharper definition, I like The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison characterization of non-interventionism (“a rather clunky and unappealing label for a  set of very appealing ideas”) which has the US minding its own business and acting with restraint (echoing Posen), respecting other nations, and pursuing peace. Peace. How un-American.

And more potentially good news: Former Senator James Webb, a Vietnam veteran who opposed the Iraq war, called Bush’s decision to invade “the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory.” In his sympathetic review of Andrew Bacevich’s new and essential book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War, Webb would only commit the US military if the country was directly endangered. Webb, who could very well end up opposing Hillary the hawk for the 2016  Democratic nomination, disparaged Washington’s warriors as "a group of theorists, most of whom have never seen the inside of a military uniform," whose Trotskyist notion -- presumably referring to the late ex-Trotsky follower Irving Kristol, who was a WWII veteran -- and his legacy of opportunistic and belligerent neocons, "that America should be exporting its ideology around the world at the point of a gun."

Like Webb, Andrew Bacevich is a Vietnam vet and a former colonel, who recently retired as a Boston university professor of history and international relations. Unlike all those pro-Iraq, pro-regime change amateurs and experts, his lieutenant son was killed in Iraq.

 “Today,” wrote Bacevich, in The Limits of Power,  “a new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power” have produced a series of “reckless misjudgments” and  misread and overstated fears. In another of his necessary books, Washington Rules; America’s Path to Permanent War, he says that even the cause of the Vietnam War remains a mystery. No single factor can explain it. Badly informed about Vietnamese history and the impact of French rule and its defeat, regarding communism as monolithic and Hanoi’s historic sense of nationalism as unimportant, intimidated by the bogus Munich analogy, wedded to the non-existent domino theory and domestic anti- communism, it was easy at first  to maintain Washington’s “consensus” by dispatching  58,000 to fight the Red Horde and die in battle.

Alyssa Rubin, an intrepid Times reporter in Iraq, returned home in the plane she was traveling in with a silent companion,” a coffin of a dead 20 year old soldier. He was killed when  a roadside bomb hit his Humvee.

“What were his parents thinking, his sister or brother, his fiancée—if he had one? A haunted and saddened Rubin asked herself.  “I hoped he had died quickly. I wondered what exactly he had died for” [my italics]. “And although I did not know him, I felt melancholy as we flew onward, accompanied now by ghosts and memories of loss.”

Meanwhile, Cheney is alive and well and still offering sage advice about the conduct of foreign policy and Bush 43 is now celebrating his new book about 41, his father, and pleased, as the Times put it, enjoying “his own more modest revival in public standing since leaving office, according to polls.”

Unlike the former president and his veep, Harry Browne, long forgotten, once ran for the White House on the hugely ignored Libertarian ticket in 2000 but who unforgettably -- at least for me — said: “War is genocide, torture, cruelty, propaganda , dishonesty and slavery. War is the worst obscenity government can inflict upon its subjects. It makes every political crime—corruption, bribery, favoritism, vote-buying, graft, dishonesty—seem petty.”

So I’m a latter day Diogenes, looking Right, Left and Center and to likes of Posen, Webb, Bacevich, Larison,, for a new  way that will save kids now in junior and senior high school from our inevitable and entirely unnecessary and ideologically-driven future wars. A way that says only vital  national interests trump ideology.

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