During a recent debate between the Colorado senatorial candidates in Denver, Republican Ken Buck gave his considered assessment of the occupation of Afghanistan. "It’s a fundamental mistake to assume that a people as backward as the Afghans are going to be able to build the industrialized nation and the democracy that it takes to be able to achieve what we would consider a Western-style democracy."
Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs would certainly agree. In written and videotaped evidence to Army investigators, a member of his brigade described Gibbs as harboring "pure hatred for all Afghanis," saying he "constantly referred to them as savages." So to prove his Western-style sophistication, Gibbs would allegedly order civilians to be "waxed" for sport. Then he and his fellow soldiers would pose with the corpses and, sometimes, keep skulls and other body parts as trophies.
As Buck was speaking, the race was on for the military to recall all the pictures that had been circulating in the unit before the "backward" Afghans got hold of them and drew their own conclusions about the kind of civilization their occupiers had in store for them.
This, of course, should not be confused with the raid in February that killed two pregnant women, a teenage girl and a police commander (all innocent) or the execution-style murder of eight teens and preteens in Kunar province just after Christmas—both of which were originally covered up. Or any other atrocities that we have not yet heard about or may never hear about.
But if Buck’s comments were a gaffe, it is not clear by whose standards. Unlike Christine O’Donnell’s flirtation with witchcraft or Meg Whitman’s nanny saga, his statements made no headlines, sparked no comment and drew no fire. Among the hundred or so liberals in an overspill room watching on the big screen, there was nary a howl of derision or disbelief. Buck’s Democratic opponent, Michael Bennet, did not see fit to challenge him. His remarks moved neither polls nor people nor pundits. The race did not change.
The American people, it seems, are bored with war. Like a reality show that’s gone on too long, it ceases to shock, shame or even interest. In September, when pollsters asked what the most important problems facing the country are, just 3 percent mentioned Afghanistan. Even when combined with Iraq it has not reached double digits for several months. In a CBS poll in early October it did not register at all. A Pew poll the same month found that just 23 percent said they were following the situation closely. And they do not like what they see. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans believe Afghanistan is a lost cause, and roughly half compare it to Vietnam and favor a timetable for withdrawal.
Unlike Iraq, however, which was electoral kryptonite for the GOP, the Afghan war is absent from this electoral moment, suggesting that nobody will be asked to pay—let alone be made to pay—for these mistakes. "The essential characteristic of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common," wrote nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan, "and must have forgotten many things as well."
It is not difficult to understand why Americans would want to forget Afghanistan. This, remember, was the "smart war." The war the entire political class agreed about. Both Bush’s war and Obama’s war. A war of necessity. A war for which no excuses of poor intelligence or poor planning were needed. The war that only apologists for Islamic terrorism, anti-Americans and self-hating Americans opposed. The war in which Afghan casualties are not only not counted but actively discounted, and US fatalities have doubled since Obama came to power. The war that only one Representative, Barbara Lee, dared vote against.
Remembering that war and all that has happened in it, and placing it in a political and electoral context, would demand a reckoning with US militaristic impulses and affections, not to mention a recalibration of America’s self-image as a force for unalloyed good in the world. It would force a recognition that although US military strength may be unrivaled, US power and influence are limited, and there were other options after 9/11. It would force Americans to remember what Afghans cannot forget—the sheer brutality, incompetence, futility and recklessness of an invasion and occupation that have achieved neither peace nor democracy nor security.
This situation was not only entirely predictable but was actually predicted. In her speech to the House on September 14, 2001, after which she received numerous death threats, Barbara Lee said, "We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control…. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other noncombatants will be caught in the cross-fire…. Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes."
But you can if you forget them, and at times amnesia seems to be America’s only renewable resource. It was inevitable that at some point America’s concentration would be diverted from war-related issues, not least during a savage recession. What is stunning is that it has happened while the wars are continuing. Whether it was Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s escape of the draft, Kerry’s Purple Heart or Obama’s "connection" with Bill Ayers, Vietnam kept flowing through the electoral bloodstream long after the original donor had died. But with Afghanistan and, in a different sense, Iraq, where the occupation has been rebranded rather than ended, people are managing to forget about something that has not yet finished. The conversation has moved on; the trouble is, the troops haven’t.