The sight of men in suits bedecked with brass buttons, epaulets with stars, and chests festooned with military ribbons is always a bit startling for us civilians, even in this town where uniforms are part of the passing governmental scene. Even more startling is the transformation of President Barack Obama into a stern-faced commander-in-chief, flanked by General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, asserting constitutionally-mandated civilian authority over the military officers in a moment when General Stanley McChrystal’s careless words threatened to destabilize the established order. President Obama acted swiftly to accept General McChrystal’s resignation stemming from the Rolling Stone debacle. General Petraeus will take charge of Afghanistan now, having managed to bring the War in Iraq to a place where American withdrawal is possible.
The War in Afghanistan is now America’s longest war, almost nine years and counting. Back in the day when Vietnam claimed that title, when that ugly war raged in the swamps and jungles of southeast Asia, Americans followed the war more closely, knew the names and faces of the generals and admirals (Westmoreland, Abrams and Zumwalt), and the daily death toll rang alarm bells that triggered protests across the nation. Vietnam compelled the attention of regular citizens for one overwhelming reason: the draft. At age 18, every young man became a potential soldier, and the draft lottery became the dreaded “great mandala” determining who lived or died. The draft ended in 1973, replaced by the all-volunteer Army. Young men between the ages of 18 and 25 must still register in the Selective Service System, but no one has been drafted since 1973.
Ironically, in the Vietnam Era, the last place you’d expect to find a profile of an American war commander was in Rolling Stone, known far more as the newspaper of choice for the counterculture hippies, druggies, musicians and camp followers than a mouthpiece for mouthy generals. Maybe McChrystal was so deeply into his studies at West Point that he missed the counterculture back then. Did he think that Rolling Stone was some kind of tank magazine?
But I digress.
With no draft, Americans pay far less attention to military issues unless they are part of the volunteer service or families of those in service. This diminishment of the general public’s interest in issues of war and peace gives both politicians and military commanders more space to pursue various war strategies without having a greater sense of urgency to conclude the conflict and bring the troops home. A collateral consequence in both Iraq and Afghanistan appears to be higher civilian casualty tolls as well, something we hear on news reports but don’t seem to get too excited about.
The situation in Afghanistan is complicated, messy and unlikely to end well for the United States if history is any guide. We went there to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Rumor has it that he’s elsewhere. Meanwhile, the necessary compromises of American strategy, including partnership with the increasingly dubious Hamid Karzai (who appeared to be trying to tell President Obama how to handle the McChrystal situation), reveal an entanglement with the Taliban and other local powers that seem eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam quagmire. As an article in The Nation recounted last year, “Welcome to the wartime contracting bazaar in Afghanistan. It is a virtual carnival of improbable characters and shady connections, with former CIA officials and ex-military officers joining hands with former Taliban and mujahedeen to collect US government funds in the name of the war effort. In this grotesque carnival, the US military’s contractors are forced to pay suspected insurgents to protect American supply routes. It is an accepted fact of the military logistics operation in Afghanistan that the US government funds the very forces American troops are fighting. And it is a deadly irony, because these funds add up to a huge amount of money for the Taliban.”
ABC News updated the story just this week: “The United States military is helping fund both sides of the war in Afghanistan, knowingly financing a mafia-like collection of warlords and some of the very insurgents American troops are battling, according to Afghan and American officials and a new Congressional study released today. The military has turned to private trucking companies to transport the vast majority of materiel it needs to fight the warthe Taliban to try to guarantee the trucks’ safe passage, the reports charge. — everything from bullets to Gatorade, gas to sandbags — and in turn, the companies are using American money to pay, among others, among others, the Taliban to try to guarantee the trucks’ safe passage, the reports charge. Trucking executives and investigators from the House Subcommittee on National Security say the United States military knew it was helping fund the people it was fighting but did nothing about it, choosing to satisfy short-term delivery requirements and ignore fears that payments to the enemy help perpetuate Afghanistan’s long-term security problems.”
We need to pay more attention. The Day of the Generals yesterday was good political theater on a hot day in Washington, but the McChrystal debacle belied the far more dangerous and consequential issues of this protracted war. We are not winning, that’s for sure. President Obama campaigned on a promise to bring the troops home. As commander-in-chief he certainly needs to make good military choices. But as our national leader he also needs to live up to the will of the people who elected him. In our form of government, it’s not up to the generals; it’s up to the people.
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