What No One Noticed

No one noticed, but that’s understandable – people are finally fed up with the police, after what happened in Ferguson, and then Staten Island, and then Cleveland, and seems to happen far too regularly. Young black men die when the police, feeling disrespected, are challenged, and when the police then prefer confrontation to de-escalation, because they are rightly proud of the job they have chosen as a career. They demand respect. When they don’t get it, someone is going to be sorry, or dead.

Too many Americans have had just about enough of that – they’d prefer just simple policing, keeping things calm and orderly, with police who choose to talk down swaggering fools rather than shooting them dead, on the spot. Enough is enough, and the weeks and weeks of nationwide protests continue and grow, but with the police now finally fed up with the people, who just don’t get it. You want things calm and orderly? If you do, well, you’ll have to trust their judgment on the best way to get there from here. They’re damned tired of everyone second-guessing them. Those people aren’t out on the streets every single day. They are.

This basic disagreement will not be resolved any time soon, if ever, and seems to be consuming the nation. There will be more protests, and more angry folks who think marching around with signs, and shouting, is just stupid. Those few will try to shoot a few random policemen here and there, even if that only makes everything worse. It feels as if a small guerilla war against the police, anywhere and everywhere, is beginning, outside the wide and somewhat decentralized protest movement – one with snipers and assassins. The backlash against that will be brutal. Each side will be angrier than ever – so a storm is coming. Expect racial and racist nastiness too, both ways.

People should pay attention to this, when they’re delightfully consumed with wondering what happened to that second airliner that simply disappeared somewhere out there beyond Java, or some such place. Americans are a bit hazy about geography, but this really is spooky, and Americans like spooky. That’ll eat up more than a few news cycles. There will be endless reports that no one knows what happened, and breaking-news bulletins that no one still knows what happened. CNN’s ratings will soar – and in a pinch they can talk about that third-rate movie that pissed off the North Koreans, and how patriots are rightly paying good money to see it in theaters or stream on their personal gizmos. Free speech won again, even if the movie is lame. This too has consumed the American public.

That’s why no one seemed to notice that our war in Afghanistan just ended:

The US-led coalition in Afghanistan ended its combat mission Sunday, marking the formal – if not real – end to the longest war in American history.

American warplanes began bombing the country on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks. Their goal was to drive the ruling Taliban from power, after they had given sanctuary inside the country to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, which had plotted the terror strikes.

That was accomplished on Nov. 13, 2001.

We won that war thirteen years, one month, and sixteen days ago now – but we stayed on, helping the locals build a government and a military that was strong enough to keep the Taliban from returning, and fighting the Taliban for them when they couldn’t, and now even if they’re not ready to do that, we’re pulling the plug anyway, sort of:

The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which peaked at about 100,000 in 2010, will fall to 10,800 in January, aimed at helping the Afghan government hold on to power, even as Taliban units occupy territory increasingly close to the capital. Nearly 1 million U.S. troops pulled at least one tour in Afghanistan. Yet during 2002 and 2003, the average number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan never topped 10,400. That means the U.S. forces left in country following the war will top the number fighting there during its first two years.

A total of 3,485 allied troops died in Afghanistan over the past 13 years, including 2,356 Americans. The war cost U.S. taxpayers, past, present and future, about $1 trillion.

Enough is enough, but now we will have more troops there than we had in each of our first two years, just after we “won” the thing – but Afghanistan’s new president Ashraf Ghani had agreed at the end of September to allow the 10,000-strong contingent of our troops to remain in the country past the end of 2014, and last month, President Obama very quietly authorized that contingent to play a more expansive role, one that he hadn’t mentioned before:

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

That might have been necessary because 2014 is likely to be Afghanistan’s worst year since 2009 in terms of civilian casualties, so the news that this war is “over” may be a bit misleading. Something is over, but it’s hard to say what that is, and the Taliban took the opportunity to boast that the war really was over and they won:

“ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement emailed on Monday. … Vowing to restore their former hardline Islamist regime, Taliban spokesman Mujahid vowed that “the demoralized American-built forces will constantly be dealt defeats just like their masters”. The Taliban have launched increasingly deadly attacks this year. Nearly 3,200 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between the militant group and the army in 2014, and more than 4,600 Afghan army and police died in Taliban attacks.

Maybe they did win, and Dorian de Wind sees a charade:

If it is any consolation, the President and others appear to recognize the risks of our continued involvement in Afghanistan: “Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country… Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation,” Obama said.

But then, we should not call the beginning of an “operation” that leaves 11,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way “the end of the war.” It is almost as fallacious and cruel as the infamous “mission accomplished” was.

But, but, but – our longest war had ENDED! That’s a milestone, even if it looks like a millstone around our neck. That’s probably why this was buried in the other news. Maybe the Obama administration actually wanted no one to notice. Obama didn’t address the nation, probably because of details like this:

The ceremony in Kabul honoring 13 years of mostly-American and British troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan had to be held in a secret location because the war has gone so badly that even the capital city is no longer safe from the Taliban.

That’s from Max Fisher, who adds this:

The country is probably headed for collapse, and the Taliban has refused all offers for a peace deal, understandably believing it can now win outright. The future for Afghans is dark. But, for the US, this is the “defeat with honor” sort of slow withdrawal that Americans wanted and probably needed.

We did what we could, as well as we could, and Kevin Drum argues that is how our foreign policy must work:

I continue to think that Obama’s foreign policy has been better than he gets credit for. He’s made plenty of mistakes, but that’s par for the course in international affairs. There are too many moving parts involved, and the US has too little leverage over most of them, to expect great outcomes routinely. When I look at some of the worst situations in the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine) I mostly see places that the US simply has little control over once you set aside straight-up military interventions. Unfortunately, that’s a big problem: the mere perception that an intervention is conceivable colors how we view these situations.

But military intervention is seldom conceivable:

Take the long, deadly war in the Congo, for example. Nobody blames Obama for this because nobody wants us to send troops to the Congo – and everyone understands that once a military response is off the table, there’s very little we can do there. Conversely, we do blame Obama for deadly civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria. Why? Not really for any good reason. It’s simply because there’s a hawkish domestic faction in US politics that thinks we should intervene in those places. This, however, doesn’t change the facts on the ground – namely that intervention would almost certainly be disastrous. It just changes the perception of whether the US has options, and thus responsibility.

But that’s a lousy way of looking at things. US military intervention in the broad Middle East, from Lebanon to Somalia to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, has been uniformly calamitous. In most cases it’s not only not helped, but made things actively worse. No matter what Bill Kristol and John McCain say, the plain fact is that there’s very little the US can do militarily to influence the brutal wars roiling the Middle East and Central Asia. Once you accept that, Obama’s recognition of reality looks pretty good.

So we should cut Obama some slack:

For the record, I’d give Obama an A or a B for his responses to Syria and Ukraine. Is that crazy? Perhaps – but the hard truth is that these are just flatly horrible situations that the US has limited control over. When I consider all the possible responses in these regions, and how badly they could have turned out, Obama’s light hand looks pretty good.

The hawkish domestic faction in US politics doesn’t see it that way – there is no such thing as “defeat with honor” and there never will be. Obama may be continuing the war, almost full force, to placate those guys, while calling it something else, the end of this war, to placate everyone else. No wonder this wasn’t the big news story of the year. No one noticed. This was a rebranding effort. Maybe the next time the cops shoot an unarmed black kid dead they can call it community outreach.

How is it that we continue with our wars with no one quite noticing what we’re really doing? How did it come to this? It’s not a war anymore, but it is, and either way it’s not news. It’s just what we do.

James Fallows tries to answer that question:

In mid-September, while President Obama was fending off complaints that he should have done more, done less, or done something different about the overlapping crises in Iraq and Syria, he traveled to Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There he addressed some of the men and women who would implement whatever the U.S. military strategy turned out to be.

The part of the speech intended to get coverage was Obama’s rationale for reengaging the United States in Iraq, more than a decade after it first invaded and following the long and painful effort to extricate itself. This was big enough news that many cable channels covered the speech live. I watched it on an overhead TV while I sat waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. When Obama got to the section of his speech announcing whether he planned to commit U.S. troops in Iraq (at the time, he didn’t), I noticed that many people in the terminal shifted their attention briefly to the TV. As soon as that was over, they went back to their smartphones and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.

This just wasn’t news:

Usually I would have stopped watching too, since so many aspects of public figures’ appearances before the troops have become so formulaic and routine. But I decided to see the whole show. Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic tsunami there. He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”

If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money.

People get upset with the police, but not the military, for a reason:

At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty – which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.

Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million-plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military – many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military – nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.

Fallows wonders how historians will write about this:

If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness. …

Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win.

That’s the essence of Fallows’ long piece, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

If you’re as old as I am and remember the Vietnam War era, you have to be constantly struck by the radical change in public sentiment towards active-duty military and veterans these days. Scarcely an opportunity is passed up to “respect the troops” and “honor their service.” It’s become an obligatory part of every public event, from football games to television specials. And while it provides a refreshing contrast to the indifference and quick amnesia Americans so often displayed towards Vietnam War participants and vets, it often feels over-the-top, strained, and formulaic, reflecting a guilty conscience and a lack of genuine interest. …

All civilians, from the president on down, are getting in the habit of offering the military this “overblown, unlimited praise” instead of the kind of detailed and sometimes critical scrutiny – the investment of attention – they deserve. And so we continue to throw money at the Pentagon for missions we barely understand or acknowledge, and only become alarmed when U.S. casualties occur, which ratchets up the sense of guilt while creating grievances among career military members that their fellow-citizens have no idea what they experience, which is true.

Kilgore is just not sure what to do about this:

Some people (myself included) think a restoration of the idea of national service – not a draft, and not universal military conscription, but well-funded opportunities for most young Americans to spend a brief period of time in civilian or military service as a quasi-universal right-of-passage – would help enormously. Barring that, a reassertion of the idea that civilian control of the military is essential to civil health should replace the sort of cringing and begging a lot of politicians now express when addressing the armed forces, which undermines real respect on everyone’s part.

And just as importantly, Americans need to take the military and its often violent role seriously enough to pay close attention to it – respectfully, but not superficially – even when they are not directly and personally affected by its triumphs, failures and risks. That’s more difficult in an age of shadowy limited wars waged by Special Forces and drones. But it’s the only way to avoid waking up some fine day and realizing we’ve created, authorized, and ritualistically praised a war machine we barely recognize as our own.

That just happened with the police, didn’t it? There we did create, authorize, and ritualistically praise a war machine (we even gave them military equipment) that we now barely recognize as our own. We finally noticed that, and we didn’t like it much. The news is full of how much we don’t like that, but no one seemed to notice the war in Afghanistan just ended, in a way – which isn’t news, really. One day it will be – but just not now. Support the troops. Just don’t ask why.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to What No One Noticed

  1. Rick says:

    Concerning never-ending war — in this case, Afghanistan:

    We won that war thirteen years, one month, and sixteen days ago now – but we stayed on…

    It’s not that I don’t agree with you — I absolutely do — but by that measure, Afghanistan was not “the longest war in American history”, Korea was.

    In fact, Korea is, since even if, for all intents and purposes, it ended long ago, it’s still technically going on under a ceasefire agreement. And every once in a while, the fighting there threatens to resume, maybe with more missiles this time, or maybe it will continue as it is now, on into the foggy future.

    Which is to reiterate something that we’ve always known, that all talk of whether our wars are declared or undeclared, or whether they’re “wars” or “police actions”, and when they end or don’t, and whether we win them or lose them, is essentially meaningless. We always wish things were that clear-cut but they hardly ever are.

    And indeed, there is a problem with all this fawning over the troops, which is surely a result of many veterans of Vietnam feeling unappreciated back in the day. Of course, it was pretty complicated back then; how could we Americans who objected to our government’s policy express our displeasure with the war without taking it out on those who were only doing what we Americans had asked them to do? The next time around, we’d remember to “honor the troops”, no matter what we thought of the war they were fighting.

    But yes, that could lead to us overdoing it, much like what is happening in New York City today, with ex-Mayors and their minions urging Bill de Blasio to slavishly kowtow to the misbehavior of the police union. This seems ironical, since it’s mostly conservatives pushing this point of view, even though, isn’t it traditionally conservatives who don’t believe in public employees unions? I’m sure these pols think paying tribute is just “realism”, when in reality it’s just plain old-fashioned cowardice.

    As for James Fallows’ “autopilot”:

    But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.

    Frankly, that was my main objection to Vietnam, a war the country seemed to wander into without much thought. In fact, rather than demanding discussion, Americans old enough to vote automatically rallied behind it, since that is what is expected of patriots during wartime. After all, they reasoned (or would have reasoned, had they given it any thought ), they weren’t going over to fight, somebody else’s kid was.

    But while I do believe in debates, I have also become so weary of them right now that I almost don’t care if Obama has put one over on us in Afghanistan.

    Yeah, the war is over — or was over a month and six days after it started, for those who are keeping track — but maybe it would be nice to keep a few troops there to help out President Ashraf Ghani, since he, at least, seems to want his country to prevail over the Taliban, something that couldn’t be said for his bipolar predecessor, Hamid Karzai. And so I know I shouldn’t say this, but maybe this time it’s not such a bad thing to let things stay on autopilot. After all, autopilots are only bad things when you look up and suddenly notice your plane is headed straight into a mountain.

    But stay tuned, I will probably feel differently tomorrow, after I look up and suddenly notice our plane is headed straight into a mountain. These are confusing times. People can’t always be expected to be consistent.


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