Why the Afghanistan papers are an eerie reminder of Vietnam

Noam Chomsky’s "The Backroom Boys" was a warning

By Vijay Prashad
December 12, 2019 8:00AM (UTC)
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Afghan security forces inspect the aftermath of Sunday's attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Noam Chomsky recently celebrated his 91st birthday. As an homage to Noam, I spent the day with one of his lesser-known books — "The Backroom Boys" (1973). The book is made up of two spectacular essays, the first a close reading of the Pentagon Papers. To read this book alongside the trove of documents released by the U.S. government as part of its own internal study on the ongoing U.S. war on Afghanistan is telling. Both the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam and the recent Washington Post disclosures on Afghanistan show that the U.S. government lied to its citizenry about a war that could never be won. If you substitute the word “Afghanistan” for the word “Vietnam,” you could read Noam’s essays from 1973 and imagine that they were written today.

Body counts

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There was one quote in the Afghanistan papers that stopped me. It was almost as if I had read this before in the Pentagon Papers. In 2015, an unnamed National Security Council official said, “It was impossible to create good metrics. We tried using troop numbers trained, violence levels, control of territory and none of it painted an accurate picture.” With regard to Vietnam, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) constantly inflated “body counts” — the number of dead Vietnamese — as a metric of impending victory. This is clear in both the Pentagon Papers and in the papers at the Johnson Library (Austin, Texas).

One soldier who worked in MACV would often go along with the generals to observe the battlefield. His words, collected by Toshio Whelchel, are worth reading: “once we flew over an area after a B-52 raid and the devastation was incredible. There were all these plastic bags out there with our guys supposedly counting bodies of enemy killed. But they were merely picking up body fragments — anything to put in the bag — and counting each one as a single kill.” These numbers pleased Washington; they were what was sold to the public as a metric to gauge how well the war was going.

Napalm

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Noam’s essay on the Pentagon Papers begins with the words of a U.S. air force pilot who explains the “finer selling points” of napalm. A certain generation knows exactly what “napalm” is, but younger readers might not be aware of it. Napalm is one of the most hideous weapons ever made — petroleum based, with gel that makes the fuel stick to the human skin. It was used with great gusto against the Korean and Vietnamese people.

The pilot who drops napalm on the civilians says, “We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow [Chemical]. The original product wasn’t so hot — if the gooks were quick enough they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene — now it sticks like shit to a blanket. It’ll even burn under water now.”

These sentences require patience. The airman is talking about the Vietnamese. He uses the term “gooks,” which seems to have had its origins in the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in 1898, and then was used to refer to Haitians and Nicaraguans, Costa Ricans and Arabs — anyone that the U.S. military and air force seemed to be killing. The term was used to describe the “natives,” the people whose bodies were worth only what work they could do for the “masters.” This is the vocabulary that does not go away. It reappears in Afghanistan.

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Chillingly, the airman says that he would like the weapon to be more lethal, the chances of civilians being able to save themselves nullified.

Wars of national liberation

In the backrooms, the scientists make the weapons and the analysts debate the war. What was so stunning about the Pentagon Papers was that the entire establishment knew that the United States would not be able to defeat the Vietnamese people, and that even with the use of such barbaric weapons as napalm and Agent Orange, the Vietnamese would not lose their morale.

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In 1967, eight years before the U.S. quit Vietnam, the director of Systems Analysis at the Pentagon wrote, “I think we’re up against an enemy who just may have found a dangerously clever strategy for licking the United States. Unless we recognize and counter it now, that strategy may become all too popular in the future.” He referred to wars of national liberation. They—not guerrilla tactics — had to be vanquished. National liberation was out of the question. That was the basic premise of why the U.S. government lied to its public. It was fighting a war that it could not win because its adversary — the Vietnamese people—believed in their fight and would not stop until they had triumphed.

Afghanistan does not have an army of national liberation anywhere near the caliber of the Viet Minh. It has the Taliban, whose brutality was born out of the crucible of the war of the warlords from the 1990s. From the ground upward, however, the Taliban — however brutal it has been — appears at least as a force against an alien invader whose asymmetrical warfare does nothing to lift the confidence of the population. The Taliban do not promise land reform or social liberation, but they live and die alongside the rest of the civilian population. That is what makes them more popular than the drones and the Special Forces, and even the Afghan National Army. The “dangerously clever strategy” of the Taliban is that they are rooted amongst their brethren. No bombing raid can break that link.

No surprises

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Ever since the United States government set up the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in 2008, I have read all its reports and engaged many of its staff members. It was clear to them — often very decent people — that this war against Afghanistan was an abomination. It was clear to those of us who covered this war that the United States was going to devastate further this poor country, and then leave because it could not attain ends that it had so poorly defined.

Nothing in the recently released SIGAR documents surprised me, or many of my colleagues. We had heard these things from Afghan officials and from Western intelligence and military officials over the years; such comments have littered the reports that we have filed on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, these documents are welcome, since they — like the WikiLeaks revelations — shine a light on the mendacity of the U.S. governments regarding these wars against Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Colonel Bob Crowley, who was a senior counterinsurgency adviser to the U.S. military commanders in 2013-14, told the SIGAR researchers, “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible. Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.” “Truth,” Crowley said, “was rarely welcome” at the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul; it was rarely welcomed in Washington, D.C., either. The U.S. government was lying to justify its war in Afghanistan. Data is not to be trusted; the words of officials are not to be taken seriously.

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As early as 2003, a CIA analyst told me that there were no territorial gains being made in Afghanistan; after bombing runs, and after troops went in to “capture and hold” the land, they found themselves retreating to their bases, leaving the devastation, and watching as the Taliban came back to take power. No gains were made in the 18 years since the war began.

Silence of the Afghans

The reporting on these documents has nothing from the Afghan side. The outrage is merely this: U.S. citizens have been lied to for a war that was a waste from the very start. The New York Times — using estimates from the Brown University Cost of War Project — ran a full page of graphics to dispel the metrics, and to talk about the waste of this war. These are all undeniable facts.

But what about the Afghans, whose lives have been destroyed further, whose aspirations are reduced to ashes?

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The U.S. press coverage says that the administrations of Bush, Obama, and Trump lied to the U.S. public; but this is not all. What about the war crimes committed against the people of Afghanistan, and what about the fact that this entire operation — without any clear war aim — is a disastrous crime against the Afghan people?

The U.S. government continues to put pressure on the International Criminal Court, refusing to allow any development in the investigation of war crimes in Afghanistan. At the very least, and on behalf of the millions of Afghans whose lives have been eroded, someone needs to stand in the dock, someone needs to take responsibility. They did not for the illegal war in Vietnam and Cambodia; they will not for this war, and therefore — because they have impunity — there will be another war.

Chomsky’s book from 1973 was a warning. He wrote judiciously that the U.S. war on Vietnam and the lies used to justify the war were not a “mad aberration.” That warning was not taken seriously. It is not being taken seriously now.


Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.

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