Archive for category War
The blame game is going in full force. Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it. Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do. But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power. The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.
The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad. Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq. Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists. The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.” His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden. He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success. He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.
At first it worked brilliantly. Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans. By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos. At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.
He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq. In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals. The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests. Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave. In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam. The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South. Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat? If so, who’s to blame?
The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization. When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.
So what went wrong? Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government. In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail. Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization. With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.
So what can the US do? Very little. Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders. Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war. Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh. Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place. Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary. So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.
The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded. The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure. The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks. The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering. The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.
The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century. We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure. We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives. Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.
The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize. Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader. That era is over. Gone. Kaputt.
Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace. The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target. The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other. But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.
But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies. That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.
Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval. To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.
The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war. The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress. All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act. When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days. If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.
While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans. In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.
Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive. Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military. Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war. This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.
Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge. This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush. So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!
Obama still may go that route. But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down. That is a very wise decision.
My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent. Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong. It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely. Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense. Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial. To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.
Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy. America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago. After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power. The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference? Would it be moral?
This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad. There are big issues at stake. Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty? What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?
And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse? Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror? If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage? Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help. But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.
The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing. This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.
My mantra: You cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian. You can not be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll either keep killing each other or find a way to live together. There is one feasible solution: a viable Palestine alongside a secure Israel.
The frustrating thing about violence like this is that observers tend to join the combatants in forming two camps. The pro-Israeli side condemns the Palestinians for engaging in terrorism, and dismisses concern about innocents by simply blaming Hamas. In the US sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza is dismissed by pro-Israel hawks as “anti-Semitic,” or akin to support of the Nazis. Never mind that a large number of Jews in Israel form the backbone of an Israeli peace movement even more radical, the pro-Israel side often paints the world in stark good vs. evil tones.
On the other side are the defenders of the Palestinians, pointing at the big bad Israeli military hurling massive weapons into Gaza, killing women, children and other defenseless folk. They rationalize Hamas’ missile attacks into Israel by pointing out the horrid conditions in the occupied territories and how Israel’s grip limits economic opportunity and leaves millions with no real political and economic rights. For them it’s good vs. evil as well, but the Palestinians are the victims, fighting out desperation for a better future against a ruthless foe.
Go on line and follow blogs and news sites for each side and you’ll find two self-contained narratives wherein it is absolutely clear that one side is right and the other wrong, with little ambiguity or uncertainty. Of course, which one is right depends on the side you’re following.
The reality is that ambiguity and misunderstanding define this conflict, while the capacity to paint it in stark black and white terms makes it harder for each side to truly understand the other. In turn, that makes it more difficult to solve the conflict. But the Arabs won’t drive the Jews into the sea and the Jews won’t drive the Arabs into the desert.
Consider this case. Border clashes leave a Palestinian youth dead. Mad at that and other IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actions Hamas shoots missiles into Israel. In Hamas’ mind it’s a tit for tat, they’re retaliating. For Israelis shooting missiles into residential areas is an escalation – the IDF was engaged simply in protecting Israel’s security. So they retaliate hard against Gaza. Hamas then retaliates back, upping the ante.
Emotions are ignited on both sides, the conflicts grows in intensity, and soon we have a full blown crisis that apparently neither side planned or wanted. Protests world wide show sympathy to the residents of Gaza, while supporters of Israel grumble that the media is unfair and doesn’t understand that no country could tolerate missiles being launched across the border into residential areas. Two legs good, four legs evil. Or was it four legs good, two legs evil?
The reality is far more complex. The Palestinians have suffered and often have been treated unfairly and denied dignity by the Israelis. Hamas did send missiles into Israel in an action no state could ignore or just accept. Hamas is a terror organization which could end this by renouncing its terror tactics and stopping the bombardment. Israel does keep the Palestinians on the leash that naturally breed resentment and anger. That’s why each side is so adept at seeing themselves as the good guys – each side has evidence to that effect.
At this point its foolish to try to say one side is “more to blame.” That falls victim to that same capacity to choose evidence and make interpretations that will see one side as essentially good and the other as the cause of the violence. The first step out of this is to see it as a problem to be solved, rather than enemies to be defeated. Neither side can win unless they both win. That can only happen if they solve the fundamental problems they face.
There is a reason why war maker Yitzak Rabin became a peacemaker, reaching agreements with the PLO in 1993. There is a reason why ultra-hawk Ariel Sharon ultimately proposed unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories after running a much a different platform. An objective look at Israel’s security interests makes clear that on going conflict is harmful to Israel, especially with the rise of non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The Arab states never really could pose an existential threat to Israel. The non-state actors? That’s a different story.
So how to solve the problem? First, the two sides need to agree to a cease fire. Israel should not try for a ‘military solution.’ Invading Gaza will be no more effective than invading Lebanon in 2006. Even if they damage Hamas, the conflict will be intensified and Israel will be no more secure.
However, Israel should work to split the Palestinians. There are two groups, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Israel should turn to the PA and work with it, trying to get Arabs around the region to throw their support to the PA as the voice of the Palestinian people. As this is happening, the US needs to pressure Arab states to emphasize the role of the PA as opposed to Hamas, with Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as the primary Palestinian negotiators.
This will create dilemmas for both the PA and Hamas. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning Gaza. The only way they can possibly break from Hamas is if Israeli military action in Gaza has ceased. Israel would also have to renounce some of the new policies they have for settlements in the West Bank, as well taking a softer line on the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.
Some would see that as Israel giving into pressure, but it’s a clever “giving in.” If done in a way that undercuts Hamas it would be a victory for Israel. Hamas might respond by upping the ante with more attacks. But a more likely response would be to communicate to the PA the need to be on the same page and try to influence the negotiations.
Much conspires against such a solution. Can Israel really pivot to a political effort to isolate Hamas rather than a military effort to defeat it? Will Israel and the Palestinian Authority be able to make enough progress on past roadblocks to negotiation to make real communication between the two feasible? Will the PA be willing to risk “selling out” its rival Hamas, and will the Arab world side with the PA over Hamas? Still, despite the mess, this could open up the chance for a real move forward.
The phrase may be over used but it’s true – in every crisis there is an opportunity.
Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good. The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing. Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration. In politics, timing is everything. However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.
Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work. The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one. There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.
The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest. A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.
If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating. Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election. President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war. The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse. And that’s a best case scenario!
In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region. The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.
Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.
From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran. The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small. Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing. And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil. Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it. There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.
Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations. That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control. Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!
Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk. The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases. None of that turned out to be the case.
The main dangers in striking Iran: 1) There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3) After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.
In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran. This would cause unrest in the US. Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression. In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.
To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding. That’s the best case scenario. The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.
I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran. I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.
The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era. Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.
But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran. If so, will Iran be like Iraq? Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?
Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out. He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.
Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided. If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.
They key is to figure out what a state is. German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism. Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system. Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.
In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system. However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war. In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.
Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists. Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.
The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s. Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow. Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states. Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.
As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power. The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil. Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold). China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region. Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.
So what’s going on? First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs. The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely). It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack. The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.
War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown. The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk. Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.
US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts. The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war. If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.
Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring. The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state. This would play into the hands of extremists. Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later. One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.
I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.
In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson. One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory. Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks. It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq. The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.
So war with Iran in 2012? I doubt it. I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.
“Within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later. By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them…Discarded veterans are never a pretty sight. They are troubled and some physically maimed. They often feel betrayed, misunderstood and alone. It is hard to integrate again into peacetime society. Many are shunted aside, left to nuture their resentment and pain.”
– Chris Hedges, from “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.”
As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, expect the same scene to play itself out over and over. Parades welcoming home the troops, signs and cheers from citizens grateful for the sacrifices made. Waves from returning veterans, smiles, and thank yous will be shared. Perhaps a rally or two, hugs and then everyone goes home.
Yet if you look at the statistics, combat veterans have markedly higher divorce rates, suicide rates, incidents of domestic abuse, and depression. Most of this is caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which haunts at least a third of combat veterans. It damages the brain, meaning that it can show itself as a variety of mental disorders from anxiety and stress to even bipolar disorder and other conditions.
There is no way someone like me who has never been in the military can really know what these people go through. We can only imagine what it must be like, as a young man or woman, to enter the service full of enthusiasm to serve ones’ country and protect it from foes, and then be thrown in conditions that nobody can truly be prepared for. Moreover, given multiple deployments, many have to go through this over and over, constantly juxtaposing civilian life with military life.
Not everyone in the military experiences combat the same way. Elite units such as Army Rangers or Navy Seals experience it with more intensity than others. Some units see a lot of combat, for others it’s limited. Some people lose most of their buddies, others only a few. Some people know they’ve killed innocents, usually by mistake, others know they have not. No one leaves unaffected, but most manage to patch things together and go on with life. Some resilient people come out strengthened by the experience, others seek to forget it.
On Thanksgiving it’s normal to thank veterans. Even those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that almost everyone in the military went out of love for the country and its liberties. If the wars were wrong, the blame rests on the politicians, not the soldiers. We assume that the military with its VA hospitals and GI bills takes care of veterans after they come home, integrating them into life. We assume that benefits for veterans are generous.
It’s not that simple. A case here in Farmington of a former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek brings that home. On Saturday November 19th he was shot with deadly force by a member of the Farmington police force. Apparently he had gone to the door of the municipal building (which currently houses the police force) and knocked. When the officer opened it and asked what he wanted a confrontation ensued, with the officer shooting Crowley-Smilek four times.
Crowley-Smilek had been in trouble before, bringing an armed weapon to a University of Maine Farmington basketball game, and allegedly beating up someone outside a bar recently. There have been a few such incidents since he returned from service in Afghanistan. There he had been injured badly and came home with PTSD, taking numerous medications prescribed by the VA. I never met the man, but from all accounts by family and loved ones he knew he had problems and had been trying to deal with them.
He confronted the officer on Saturday with nothing but a kitchen knife, leading many to criticize the officer and wonder why he couldn’t have just shot him in the leg or somehow disabled him. The thing is, a small town cop against an Army Ranger, even one armed with just a kitchen knife, is not a fair fight. I suspect Crowley-Smilek left him with no choice but to shoot. Mostly likely it was the outcome the victim intended.
Studies out there suggest that 40% of returning combat vets seek aid for mental health issues. Many with problems do not seek aid. When we send troops to war we debate a lot of things. We ask if the war is just, discuss the cost, and of course worry about how many soldiers will be killed. We don’t usually think of going to war in terms of dooming many young people to a life time of mental distress. We also tend to ignore veterans after the war ends, except on particular holidays.
For instance, Congress finally passed a plan to help jobless vets. The sad fact is that in this economy coming home from military combat often means leaving a job for unemployment. Yet even that bill took a long time to pass because of political infighting — Republicans wanted to connect it with other jobs bills before they’d give in on this one. Finally, realizing this would be an embarrassment, they joined for unanimous approval.
Yet overall we do a poor job of taking care of veterans after they return. How many suicides, divorces, addictions and messed up lives does it take until people see that ‘support the troops’ does not mean ‘support the war’ or ‘come out and cheer at parades?’
We are entering a new post-war era, as Iraq and Afghanistan both wind down. Hundreds of thousands of vets involved in those wars will be coming home to a society that can either welcome them and give them the care and help reintegrating that they deserve, or cheer and say thanks and then discard them. I did not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of what this would mean for many American military families. Our leaders chose to get into those wars and send young men and women over to often experience events that they can never truly escape.
To be sure, the majority can handle it, but there is a large minority who cannot, and that causes considerable suffering. As a society if we can choose to pay the terrible costs of going to war we have to be prepared to pay whatever the cost is to take care of those who return scarred both physically and psychologically. That is the true way to be thankful for their service and to support the troops.
President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.
I still remember the spring of 2003. I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy. Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq. I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.
I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital. “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up. We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born. In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son. He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.
I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty. Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military. There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.
I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit. At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right. I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies. This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.
Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points. Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form? The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly. “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.
At that point support for the war was high. It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running. The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.
In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005. On June 24, 2005 I wrote:
Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa. That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy. This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around. This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives. If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better. They are out of touch with reality.
By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history. Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave. It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush. He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam: he changed course.
President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion. By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well. There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast. The challenge of counter-terrorism remains. The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.
For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase. President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success. And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.
I have finished Christopher Kelly’s intriguing and riveting book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome. It is a superb read for anyone interested in the fall of Rome, and a period of history where the West slipped into chaotic localism after over 600 years of Roman dominance and peace.
In the second half of the book the Empire falls and we get a much closer look at Attila.
In 447 an earthquake did major damage to the Theodosian walls. 57 towers were destroyed, and much of its defensive ability was gone. Constantinople was vulnerable to a Hun attack. Attila did attack, and the Roman forces lost every battle in an effort to slow down the progress. They didn’t try to come together and decisively win, fearing that if they lost, Attila would rush to Constantinople and take the city. They had to buy time – and did. In an heroic effort to rebuild the walls in 60 days all of the citizens came together and formed work teams. Attila got within 20 miles, and then negotiated a peace. He got chunks of territory along the Danube and a large yearly pay off not to attack.
The result was that by 450 the Roman empire had become a shell of what it was. The western Empire had lost Great Britain, much of Spain, northern Africa and even Sicily. The Eastern Empire fared better. Persia was keeping the peace. By this point, the Emperors were scrambling to keep their empires in tact. Theodosius would die in 450, just before Attila would make a bold dash into France in 451. The Goths and Romans would together defeat the Huns, but only after Attila pushed nearly to the coast and did considerable damage.
They thought that Attila would regroup back on the Hungarian plains, but instead in he attacked Italy in 452, taking Milan and threatening Rome itself. Attila’s forces had cut into the Western Empire in both France and Italy, and had a few times gotten deep into the East near Constantinople. However, in 453 he died. He had taken a new wife and in the celebration after the wedding he died. His sons couldn’t hold the empire and the people they had conquered rebelled and within a few years the Huns were no longer a force in Europe.
Still, the Vandals, Goths and others were too much for the West. In 476 the last western Emperor was deposed. The Eastern Empire, which would morph into what would be known as the Byzantine Empire, would survive until 1453, but only with a shell of the former Roman glory. A great Empire had fallen.
As noted in the previous post, Rome had been built on brutality – on the same kind of cold willingness to kill that so offended the Romans when it came from the Huns. Caesar’s conquests destroyed human life at a pace and scope not to be met until the Spaniards would invade Latin America. A Christian Roman Empire had a different set of values than the pagan Roman Empire.
Thus the Empire did not keep its military science moving forward, culture stagnated, and the number of troops available and the taxes to arm them started to diminish. Instead of taking from those they conquered they started to pay off others so that they would not conquer them.
To the Romans the Huns were savages, lacking Christian values or even the basics of civilization. The Roman historian Ammianus describes them (this quote taken from Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire, pp. 23-25 — get the book to read more, I’m cutting a lot out):
“The Huns exceed any definition of savagery. They have compact, sturdy limbs and thick necks. They are so hideously ugly and distorted that they could be mistaken for two legged beasts…they are so wild in their way of life that they have no need of fire or pleasant tasting foods, but eat the roots of uncultivated plants and the half raw flesh of all sorts of animals. This they place between their thighs and the backs of their horses to warm it up a little.
…They wear garments made of linen or stitched together from the pelts of mice found in the wild; they have the same clothes for indoors and out…Once they have put on a tunic (that is drab colored) it is not changed or even taken off until it has been reduced to tatters by a long process of decay and falls apart bit by bit.
… Like refugees, all without permanent settlements, homes, law or a fixed way of life – they are always on the move with their wagons…in their wagons their wives weave for them the horrid clothes that they wear.
…In agreeing truces they are faithless and fickle, swaying from side to side in every breeze as new possibilities present themselves, subordinating everything to their impulsive desires. Like unthinking animals they are completely ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. They burn with an unquenchable lust for gold, and are so capricious and quick to anger that often without any provocation they quarrel with their allies…Fired with an overwhelming desire for seizing the property of others, these swift moving and ungovernable people make their destructive away amid the pillage and slaughter of those who live around them.”
The Romans contrasted their advanced culture and civilization – and Christianity – with these godless semi-human beasts. Yet almost all of that was propaganda, reflecting traditional Roman views of non-Romans. Ammianus may have believed it, but he was going on hearsay and bias.
In that same book, Kelly tells of another history of the Huns, written later by Priscus. Priscus could speak Hunnish, so he was sent along on a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to meet Attila. Priscus and the Roman envoy Maximillan stayed in Attila’s city for almost two months. Priscus knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and acting like a social scientist he observed and analyzed Hun culture. (The whole story is fascinating, get Kelly’s book to read it in detail!)
The Huns had homes, dressed well and liked fancy clothes. Their food was good and well cooked. They had rituals, customs, treated each other and their guests with respect, enjoyed Roman delights like dried fruits, and were curious about Roman culture. One ex-Roman he met – a farmer who had been attacked by the Huns and ultimately joined them and took a Hun wife – said that Hun culture had the virtue and strength Rome had lost. Priscus puts forth a defense of Roman civilization in his recounting of this encounter, but leaves with the farmer saying that Rome has lost much of what Priscus describes. Priscus does not respond, suggesting that he may agree.
Priscus point is simple: though he doesn’t condone Hun destruction of whole towns and the slaughter of innocents, the caricatured view of the Huns as savages with no regard for the value of human life is absolutely false.
There are parallels between the above example and how some Americans look at Arabs or Muslims. Describing and attacking whole groups as having weird and even inhumane (e.g., ‘they don’t value life as we do’) traits is a common way to portray an enemy. This fed into Roman notions that they were defending Christian civilization from barbarism and paganism. That’s how many have portrayed the US ‘war on terror.’
One could compare Attila and Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden has been portrayed as the inhumane essence of evil. But like Attila, he was shrewd, even brilliant, and rationally pursued his goal. For Attila it was to build the most profitable protection racket he could; for Osama it was to try to get western influence out of the Muslim world. Neither had moral qualms about killing innocents. For Attila this was to instill fear so people would pay; for Osama it was to use the little power he had to weaken and potentially manipulate a great power.
I hopes that there is yet another similarity. After Attila died, the Huns became a non-factor, fighting amongst themselves as the people they once subjugated rose up and crushed the Hun Empire. Osama Bin Laden is now dead; hopefully his movement will also dissipate and the Arab spring will crush violent extremism.
My second on line course is “War and Peace,” looking at theories of why people go to war, and how peace can be built. I am by principle opposed to military action and war in most cases. The costs of war in human lives, social stability, and the psychological state of both soldiers and the populations involved is immense. Most of the time wars could be avoided through better communication, diplomacy and clear signals of intent. I’m not foolish enough to think humanity is at a point where war can simply be abolished — but I also don’t think war is natural.
My eight year old son is right now fascinated by war. He draws detailed pictures of various weapons and scenes, including a soldier with some kind of missile launcher destroying the Eiffel tower saying “USA Rocks!” While drawing it he asked me what the German word for their army was, so I told him “Bundeswehr.” He wrote that in front of guys defending the Eiffel tower. (The Eurocorps, perhaps?) He later had the same kind of seen with Big Ben, with the clock falling on the defending forces below.
I have friends who would be shocked if their children drew those kinds of pictures, but he’s eight — and he does know the difference between imagination and reality. One time when Ryan showed me a picture of some dead soldiers I said, “gee, I bet their dads and moms aren’t happy.” He stopped a second and said, “Dad, it’s just a picture, it’s imaginary, not real.” Anyway, I’m not going to stifle his creativity because of adult ideas of political correctness. And it was nice that both the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were in Cars 2 that we saw this weekend.
So, besides the fact that I’m not an overly protective or controlling father, what does it mean that my son gets enamored with the idea of war and weapons? I think culturally it shows how we learn to see war, weaponry and conflict. It is cool, exciting, and one can have victory! The bad guys are defeated. Death is sanitary. “It’s imaginary, not real.” The ideals of honor, heroism and strength become part of who we are. It infiltrates video games, television shows and movies.
First, an aside to those who think I should try to protect my son from that culture: I understand the concern, but disagree with trying to shield children too much. Parents who think they can control the cultural inputs and produce a child that has their own exact values are naive. The more a child is protected and forced to follow paths that parents think are politically/socially/religiously correct, the more likely it is that a child will rebel or be unable to cope with the cultural forces that he or she will inevitably face. Better to let the child learn the culture, but reinforce lessons along the way. For me that means talking a bit about the drawings — acknowledging how cool it looks, how “awesome” the missile launcher is, and how gross the pool of red blood looks. But then at other times talking about the difference between real and imaginary. I actually have surprisingly “grown up” conversations with Ryan about war, religion, and life. In order not to be hypnotized by the culture, one has to be able to navigate it.
Yet the danger is that the glorification of war will desensitize children as they grow, and war will be seen as a big video game, covered by CNN, abstracted to the point that the spectators have no clue of what the participants in war endure — either the civilians caught in the cross fire “over there,” or the soldiers who have to deal with the reality of death and destruction around them. In such a case, the cultural messages of war as honorable, cool, a way of showing strength, and an abstract struggle of good vs. evil will overwhelm that part of war we don’t see — the grotesque, sickening, revolting and tragically sad destruction of families, lives and even cultures.
Is war natural? I think not. Conflict is natural. Self-defense is natural. Anger is natural. Aggression is natural. Sometimes these things turn into actual fights, but rarely does a participant die.
War is different. War is a social process, and in fact a social construct. A collective group (tribe, state, nation) chooses war against another group as an abstraction. Consider: the most poignant and successful anti-war book ever was All Quiet on the Western Front. It had no overt anti-war message, it simply described WWI as it was for German soldiers on the front. War was not glorious or heroic, but mundane, ugly and sickening. The British hated the book because it portrayed Germans as being as just as human and likable as the British. War requires you imagine the other as having evil traits, they are different from you — they don’t value life, they hate freedom. In order to justify killing them, we latch all sorts of absurdities onto the collective “other.” The Nazis and German militarists hated the book because it portrayed the soldiers as being normal, flawed and confused often afraid humans — not the noble heroes the military was supposed to be. War requires myth to be embraced; the reality of war revolts the senses.
War as we might define it (two collective groups fighting) probably began about the time people started farming, and created the notion of private property. The idea of private property is non-existent in many hunter-gather cultures — but once you farm you have to protect the land in order to get the benefit of your efforts. That means you protect the property.
Still, the formation of collective units is natural. Humans are social creatures, and throughout most of our history we have defined ourselves more as part of a group than as distinct individuals. Individualism is a western construct — one that is more myth than reality. So in that sense protection of and competition for resources by groups can be seen as a natural result of human progress in a world of scarcity.
So in regions where people truly lack, and there is a stiff competition for scarce resources, war may indeed be a natural manifestation of the human struggle to survive. Yet in places where people have enough to survive, that doesn’t cut it. In cases where war is about religion, ethnicity, ideology, conquest for the sake of glory, expansion, social darwinism or even to ‘spread democracy,’ war is human construct made possible by how we abstract it into something most people define and understand as something far different than its reality entails. Calling it ‘natural’ and ‘omnipresent in human history’ rationalizes that kind of approach. How can one condemn the inevitable?
But war is rare. Most states settle all their disputes peacefully; only 2% of the population actually fights in a war. Wars make the news because they are an anomaly from most of what’s happening in the world. Moreover, calling it a social construct does not mean we can easily choose to make it go away. All traditions, cultures, and rituals are social constructs. Yet once constructed people tend to reproduce them, and social reality becomes resilient. It’s difficult to, say, end slavery, racism or gain equal rights for women. Those changes required changing culturally shared beliefs, and people usually hold on to their beliefs, change thus can take generations.
So most war may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to overcome or something we don’t have to try to understand, learn about, deal with and at times experience. My hope in this class is that by learning about war and peace, students are able to see international conflict in a realistic light. That means both seeing through the myths of glory, honor and heroism, and also understanding that naive chants of “no more war” are unrealistic. War may be necessary at times, but if one supports any given war, one should do so understanding what war really is, with a cold sober appreciation of the immense costs and uncertainties it creates.
I’ll go back to posting about the geothermal project later today, but I’ll take a quick foray into politics again.
In the last two days President Obama has hinted that the US pull out of Afghanistan would be faster than anticipated, suggesting it was time for the Afghans to take control. Secretary of Defense Gates claimed that NATO was close to a decisive blow in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in Libya NATO forces have pounded Gaddafi targets as the rebels, for awhile in a stalemate with Gaddafi loyalists, now appear to be taking more towns and heading towards Tripoli. This, along with a flurry of diplomatic activity by China, may hint at a Libya end game.
If by the end of the year the US can point to success in Libya and Afghanistan, the electoral picture for President Obama gets brighter in 2012. The economy is still the main issue, but successful ends to those conflicts could help bring down oil prices (which as of today are down below $100 again). Oil price increases helped drag down job creation last month, and maybe one of the most important variables for job growth in the short term.
Iraq saw the deaths of seven American servicemen yesterday, but as bad as that news is, it accentuates the fact that such news has been extremely rare — Iraq is not a vibrant stable democracy, but it’s also not a hot bed of violence and unrest. In the decade since 9-11-01 we’ve seen wars spread, conflicts go in unexpected directions, and unrest emerge in the Mideast. Only a fool would suggest that is all about to pass.
But if the US can manage to end the decade by putting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya into the past, allowing the President to campaign on a new foreign policy vision, it may be enough to help him overcome a slow paced recovery. More importantly, if the US can finally put these conflicts behind us, it will allow a thorough re-thinking of US foreign policy rather than having to react to circumstances which leave us limited options.
Today the President is meeting with German Chancellor Merkel. They have a lot to talk about. Merkel’s approach to the recession appears to be working better than Obama’s, and perhaps the two of them can coordinate plans to improve the global economy. They will also be talking about NATO, Afghanistan and Libya — Germany was one NATO country very skeptical of military action in Libya. I may be overly optimistic, but I get the sense that we’re nearing the end of a very difficult decade in US foreign policy.