This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch
How come they get to be the hawks? And we get to be the doves? A hawk is a noble bird. A dove. Well, basically it’s a pigeon. The sort of bird that, in New York City anyway, messes your building’s window sills, is always underfoot, and, along with the city’s rats, makes a hearty lunch for the red-tailed hawks which now populate our parks.
Even a turkey would be less of a turkey than a dove. We get to carry that olive twig–okay, they call it a “branch”–around in our beaks, but you can bet your bippy that they get the olives, or, more likely, the opportunity to trample the olive groves into oil.
They get to swoop and prey. We get to pace the sidelines, cooing our complaints. Their ideas–it never matters how visibly dumb they are–get tried. Ours never do. And when theirs fail miserably, they get to recalibrate and try again. We never get to try once.
That’s because it’s well accepted that they are “realists” and we are “dreamers,” or “utopians,” or maybe, like most doves, vegans. If you’re not addicted to force (and so failure), you’re simply not a part of the grand scheme of things, of the world as it is.
They get hundreds of billions of dollars to play with. We don’t get bus fare to Washington. Oh, and then, at about the point when everything they’ve planned for has gone to hell, they suddenly turn to us and, claiming we’re just so many naysayers, ask belligerently what the hell we’d do now. What’s our plan anyway?
Even though they have a dismal record when it comes to predicting what their plans will do, they don’t hesitate to explain to us with complete confidence just what sort of catastrophes our ideas will surely lead to. If we force them to withdraw from such-and-such a country in such-and-such a way, we’ll be responsible for nothing short of “genocide,” or ensure that a nuclear weapon goes off in an American city, or worse. And the media believes them, despite the fact that they’ve been proven wrong time and again, and so gives them carte blanche as “experts.”
I’m talking, of course, about the US military’s top brass (uniforms and all those medals are just so imposing!), the key civilians in the Pentagon, the rest of the national security establishment, the hordes of think-tank strategists in our capital, and the political leaders who go with them. Talk about failing upwards! Despite everything, hawks rule; doves never even get the chance to take off. And as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.
Force as the Solution
And now for a tad of history…
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, those few who suggested that the appropriate response might be intensive, determined global police action, not the loosing of the might of the US military on Afghanistan, were derisively hooted from the room. It was so obvious that an invasion was not only a necessity, but couldn’t fail against the ragtag Taliban and their Al Qaedan allies, not given the military might of the planet’s “sole superpower.” Even now, when it comes to that invasion “lite” and the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan from which unending disaster ensued, no mea culpas have been offered; nor does anyone in the mainstream pay the slightest attention to those who worried about, or warned against, such an approach.
Nor was serious attention paid when, before the invasion of Iraq, millions of people worldwide poured into the streets of global cities to say loud and clear: Don’t do it! It’ll be a catastrophe!
Instead, they did it. It was a catastrophe and both the antiwar crowds and the critics of that moment have been largely forgotten–those who weren’t simply discredited–while the enthusiasts for the invasion, military and civilian, now often transformed into “critics” of how it and its aftermath were handled, remain the “experts” on what the US should do next. Counterintuitive as it might seem, they are the ones whose assessments still count–and that’s par for the course.
Once the invasion was over, doves said, okay, at least don’t occupy the country long term. Don’t build massive bases. Get out while you can–and quickly. Of course, no one who mattered paid the slightest heed to such wrong-headedness in the wake of such a historic “victory.” And so it went. And so it goes.
In our world as it is, force remains the essential arbiter. And when its application leads to catastrophe, the response is… simply more of the same.
Consider this conundrum logically. On the one hand, you have a method that, in our moment, has failed the United States repeatedly. On the other, you have something largely untried, an attempt to settle problems without resorting to force or, at least, with minimal force or the use of force as a genuine last resort in defense of nation, kin, and self. Yet, their efforts and our money go only into developing better ways of using force, and ever-more-powerful and eerie ways of delivering it.
Or have I missed a sudden proliferation of peace task forces and think tanks in Washington? Has anyone seen the suggestion, first made in 1792 by signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, and more recently by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, for the establishment of a cabinet level Department of Peace go anywhere–other than into the bottom drawer where the dossier on Kucinich’s sighting of a UFO is stored?
On the one hand, failure; on the other, the unknown. You would think that, every now and then, the “opposites” principle the character George on Seinfeld applies to his failed life would hold. As Jerry Seinfeld tells him: “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”
In Washington, though, what our former Secretary of Defense called the “known knowns” are invariably preferred, and so war rooms, not peace rooms, prevail and, as in Afghanistan today, military commanders remain our ultimate experts for whom every day is a potential do-over.
Force as Religion
In these last years in Washington, force became something close to an American religion. The Bush administration’s top officials were all fundamentalists in their singular belief in the efficacy of force. In fact, they arrived convinced that an all-powerful, techno-wondrous military, unrivaled on the planet, left them with the ability to project force in ways no other power ever had. When it came to remaking the world, anything seemed possible.
What this meant was that an extreme version of military fundamentalism went hand-in-hand with an extreme version of economic fundamentalism. Today, both of these fundamentalisms are collapsing, even if a pared down version of the military half of the equation is anything but dead.
In those same years, Americans also began to genuflect before the idea of our military in ways previously unimaginable. They pledged their unending support for “our troops,” now commonly referred to as “warriors,” who were repeatedly hailed as the bravest, most valiant, most successful fighters around, part of the most awesome military ever. It–and they–simply could do no wrong. Given this faith, when things did go wrong, mistakes would never be blamed on the military.
As a result, while actual American soldiers were sent halfway across the planet in a distinctly unreverential way on their third, fourth, and fifth tours of duty (with few here giving much of a damn), Americans treated the idea of those “warriors” and their “mission” with ritualistic fervor.
A cold-eyed look at the record of the US military in these last years, however, tells quite a different tale. It’s no small thing, after all, that US military actions in two disastrous wars managed to burnish the reputation of one of the uglier fallen dictators on the planet and pave the way for the return, as a national resistance force, of a brutish, retrograde, failed regime almost universally rejected by its own people when it fled in November 2001. I’m speaking, of course, about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the Taliban of Afghanistan. Worse yet, the ever greater application of force, including recently the repeated firing of missiles from CIA-operated drone aircraft into the Pashtun borderlands of Pakistan, has resulted in the spread of the Taliban, religious extremism, terrorism, and war into the heartland of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now being destabilized.
What makes all this more remarkable is that, unlike the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, twenty-first century America had no impressive enemies to face in September 2001. In losing its brutal Afghan War, the Soviets confronted a superpower that was more than its match–us. In Afghanistan today, it’s estimated that the Taliban consists of but 10,000-15,000 relatively lightly armed guerrillas. The Iraq insurgency was probably only marginally larger than that at its height. Al-Qaeda, with a capability for major operations every couple of years, was even less impressive, despite the 9/11 televisual spectacular it put on.
You would have to go back to Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century to find the match for this moment. Then, the most advanced military in Europe, Napoleon’s army, an imperial force advancing (like the American military in recent years) under the banner of liberty, ran into a meat grinder of an insurgency from the Sunni fundamentalists of that day–enraged Catholic peasants, often led by their priests. (If you want to know what that was like, check out Goya’s unforgettable series of prints, The Disasters of War.)
In Iraq, over nearly six years, the US military has recalibrated so many times it’s dizzying. Who now recalls the “revolution in military affairs” that created the “lite,” high-tech military which launched a “decapitation” campaign that killed plenty of Iraqi civilians but left all of that country’s leaders with their heads still firmly on their shoulders; or the “shock and awe” campaign, which mainly awed Washington–and that was before the occupation, the Sunni insurgency, and a civil war took root, after which tactical changes came and went with names like “get tough,” “oil spot” and “ink blot,” the “Salvador option,” “clear and hold,” and “the surge” as well as the “clear, hold, and build” counterinsurgency strategy which is now supposedly being transferred to Afghanistan.
Today, Iraq, still one of the most dangerous places on the planet, is far quieter than at the height of the civil violence of 2005-2006 and so the “surge,” overseen by Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, is said in Washington to have worked, even if it hasn’t succeeded in resolving the underlying ethnic, political, and religious tensions let loose by the American invasion. A recent article on the inside pages of the New York Times, however, offers a somewhat different perspective on the effectiveness of military force in Iraq in these last years. Little aid, Times journalist Timothy Williams reports, is now available to Iraq’s estimated 740,000 widows, most made so, it seems, by years of war and violence; and that figure, he indicates, may be an undercount, given the chaos in which that country remains.
If you were capable of adding to the dead husbands of those hundreds of thousands of “war widows,” the dead wives, dead sisters, dead daughters, dead grandmothers and grandfathers, as well as the children who died thanks, in one way or another, to the violence of those years, not to speak of the large group of dead young men who were not yet married, you would surely have a staggering figure, a toll of perhaps a million or more Iraqis from an estimated prewar population of perhaps 26 million. That level of slaughter might qualify in scale as near genocidal. (It’s worth adding that, as in the Vietnam era so many decades ago, mainstream critics of antiwar critics continue to regularly suggest that any kind of “precipitous” withdrawal of American troops would almost certainly result in a genocidal slaughter, even as such a slaughter has taken place with the troops there.)
If the staggering numbers of dead civilians in Iraq’s post-2003 killing fields, and those who are still dying, are a measure of Washington’s “success,” it’s the success of the undertaker.
Taking Options Off the Table
Let’s face it, the US is addicted to force, and when force fails to achieve its purposes (for failure, too, is addictive), yet more force is applied in marginally different ways under radically different names.
Now much of Washington and the media have indeed reached a consensus that the Bush administration’s use of force was a disaster of the first order. As a result, they have generally concluded that, in Iraq, we must be especially careful not to stop applying it too quickly lest we destabilize what’s left of that country and, in Afghanistan, that achieving “stability” calls for the deployment of significantly more forces which, of course, will use significantly more force.
In Iraq, where President Obama is indeed talking about a withdrawal that would remove all US forces by the end of 2011, we also know, thanks to Thomas Ricks’s latest book The Gamble, that America’s top generals, including Centcom commander Petraeus and General Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, believe we’ll still be fighting in that country in 2015. In the meantime, the general who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, is already talking about years more of fighting at surge levels–and suggesting that yet more U.S. troops will be needed. (“I think… that this is not a temporary force uplift, that it’s going to need to be sustained for some period of time. I can’t give you an exact number of–the year that it would be. But I’ve said I’m trying to look out for the next three to four or five years.”)
In the meantime, the Obama administration is hoping to find some extra help by calling together a regional conference of interested countries, possibly including Iran, and by using the military to negotiate with and peel off “moderate” Taliban backers, while it sends in at least 17,000 more troops. This is what passes for new foreign policy thinking in Washington.
In the meantime, the Afghan chain of command has been further militarized. It now stretches from retired Marine General Jim Jones, the new national security advisor, through Centcom commander Petraeus and Afghan commander McKiernan to a soon-to-retire Army general, Karl Eikenberry, who reportedly will be appointed US ambassador in Kabul. Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, as well as along the Pakistani border, peace and stabilization will involve the further application of force with results that shouldn’t surprise us.
To summarize: They can be wrong a hundred times and when they are, they get to try every cockamamie scheme and call it anything they want. We don’t even have names for whatever peace strategies might be used. And while Iran is, however grudgingly, however imperially, being invited to the Afghan table, antiwar activists and critics, no matter how on the mark they might have been, remain the equivalent of an American Hamas.
On the other hand, if you’ve been a “hawk” and a pundit, or one of those retired generals who talked us, however ineptly, through our latest wars (like the TV financial analysts who, in mid-meltdown, were still calling on us to buy more stocks and assuring us of the solidity of AIG and Citigroup), you can’t be wrong often enough to be asked to leave the table at which the Great Game is played.
Oh, and with this in mind, a small tip for prospective “doves” within the Obama administration: Be careful not to be too on the mark in your analysis or, at least, too loud about proclaiming it. On this subject, history is a suicide bomber and it’s coming for you. After all, the worst thing in any administration is to be a dove and be right.
As David Halberstam memorably wrote in his history of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, of hawkish future Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “So [he] was once again promoted (the best people, who had correctly predicted the fall of China, would see their careers destroyed, but Dean Rusk, who had failed to predict the Chinese entry into the Korean War, would see his career accelerate.) There had to be a moral for him here: if you are wrong on the hawkish side of an event you are all right; if you are accurate on the dovish side you are in trouble.”
Leaving the Comfort Zone
Let’s be clear here. In our world, any application of imperial force is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It doesn’t work. We can’t afford it. It’s not in “the national interest.” The last seven years have made this abundantly clear for those who care to look.
Let’s be clear on this, too: If we keep sending military people in to solve our problems, they will, not surprisingly, turn to military solutions. Whatever lip service they offer to diplomacy and other possible paths, they will, in the end, prefer force by whatever label. It’s what they know. However uncomfortable its results, it’s still their comfort zone.
That’s why the American president is commander-in-chief–exactly so that military men aren’t left to “solve” our problems for us.
Let’s be clear on this as well: Nobody knows what antiwar solutions would make sense, no less succeed, since so little effort or money or time or experimentation has gone into them, but we know a lot about what force can’t do in our world.
Wouldn’t it make sense to put a small percentage of the long-term effort and money that the Pentagon now profligately invests in force and the means to deliver it into strategies for peace, and into the de-escalation of the use of force as a solution (and of the global imperial mission that goes with it)? Shouldn’t somebody consider, for instance, whether the principle found in so many individual martial arts–that defense, and even striking reserves of power, can be found not in meeting force with blunt force, but in giving way before force–might apply to more collective situations? Don’t such groups as the Taliban and Al Qaeda feed off of, thrive and recruit off of, military action against them as well as the human destruction and the attention that goes with it?
Isn’t it time for us to begin to take force off that “table” on which, officials in Washington always insist, lie “all options,” but especially smash-mouth ones? Isn’t it time to suggest that there can be no national interest when it comes to military action in Iraq or Afghanistan, only an imperial interest? Isn’t it time to suggest that, as bad as things are, as little as we know how to do anything else, simply fighting on in Iraq or Afghanistan until 2015 or 2020, as our economic system collapses around our ears, can’t be a solution to anything?
Decades ago, after visiting American troops in Vietnam, singer Johnny Cash was asked by a reporter whether that didn’t make him a hawk. “No, no, that don’t make me a hawk,” he responded. “But I said if you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for ’em and try and do your best to cheer ’em up, so they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Later, he would call that image “stupid.” Maybe that’s because he didn’t go all the way. Maybe he meant “a falcon of peace.”