Wednesday, December 11, 2019

More Papers About Another Problematic War

As Karl Marx famously wrote in his 1852 essay, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. ... He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (And it would be a farce instead of tragedy were it not for the lives lost, injuries inflicted, and societies disrupted!)

Marx's famous line is an irresistible analogy, nonetheless. In this instance, the first time was The Pentagon Papers, the second time is what The Washington Post in a recent expose entitled "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War." (The above photo shows the front page of The NY Times on Sunday, June 13, 1971, the opening salvo in the release of The Pentagon Papers.)

Now I only know what I have read in The Washington Post and heard about on the news. But it really does sound a lot like a repeat performance of The Pentagon Papers - a collection of government documents, "Lessons Learned," intended to examine the history of the now 18 years-long US war in Afghanistan, including interviews with many who were directly involved, an internal government study that seems to confirm that the entire effort has been fundamentally and fatally flawed. If the accounts about these documents are accurate as presented, then like The Pentagon Papers from another failed war of the last century, they illustrate sadly how few lessons really have been learned.

I have always been wary of the isolationist wings of our two political parties - both the isolationist tendencies in the Democratic party that helped Obama's rise as an "anti-war" alternative to Clinton in 2008 and the isolationist tendencies in the Republican party that Trump played to in 2016. Still, the most effective argument against a continuing and substantial American involvement in its role as the major power in the world has long been the failures of a certain sort of American international adventurism and the failure of so much of the political class honestly to acknowledge and reckon with the consequences of these military and moral disasters.

Admittedly the American war in Afghanistan had a clear, coherently articulated, and eminently justifiable purpose when it was launched in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Quaeda (then apparently based in Afghanistan with the acquiescence of Afghanistan's fanatical and tyrannical Taliban  government). But the sense one gets from accounts of the contents of these documents is that all that changed as the war dragged on - seemingly without end and without any clear strategy to lead to an end. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing," one army general is quoted as saying, in what may be the most widely quoted line in the early coverage of these documents.

In the wake of such a study, obviously, there needs to be a properly nuanced, non-ideological, non-partisan investigation and accounting (all overshadowed at the moment, of course, by more partisan preoccupations on both sides).  But the greater damage has already been done - a long war with an unconscionable number of military and civilian casualties, with tragically little to show for it, and another deadly blow inflicted on trust in government and the culture of truth which needs to underlie that trust.

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