Who wants to be the last person to die in a war?
Last week, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, "became the last U.S. soldier to board the final C-17 transport plane flight out of Afghanistan a minute before midnight on Monday," as a Reuters report described the moment:
Taken with a night vision device, the ghostly green and black image of the general striding toward the aircraft waiting on the tarmac at Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport was released by the Pentagon hours after the United States ended its 20-year military presence in Afghanistan.
As a moment in history, the image of Donahue's departure could be cast alongside that of a Soviet general, who led an armored column across the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan, when the Red Army made its final exit from Afghanistan in 1989.
America's 20-year war in Afghanistan is now technically over.
There are still hundreds of American civilians in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, there are still American covert operatives in Afghanistan from the CIA and other agencies. The thousands of Afghans who fought alongside American and allied forces or otherwise aided them are still trying to escape the Taliban, who now control the country and will likely pursue deadly reprisals.
So much blood and treasure was spilled and spent in Afghanistan by the United States during 20 years of war. At least 2,456 U.S. service members were killed, along with an estimated 3,846 contractors and Department of Defense civilians. At least 66,000 members of the Afghan military and police were killed, fighting for a government that finally collapsed almost overnight. during the war. At an extreme low-end estimate, at least 47,000 Afghan civilians were also killed during the war.
Back home in the United States, the consequences may have been worse. More than 30,000 veterans and active-duty U.S. military personnel are estimated to have died from suicide during the years of the Afghan conflict. Many thousands of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq will require lifelong care for the emotional and physical injuries they suffered.
America's ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves behind many "what ifs" that will haunt the nation's collective memory for years to come. For example, what if the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had been treated as a law enforcement problem and not a military crisis that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq? (Especially since the latter nation had no connection to al-Qaida or the 9/11 attacks.)
What role did the War on Terror and its thousands of U.S. casualties (disproportionately concentrated in the Rust Belt and the American South) play in the election of Donald Trump and the rise of American neofascism? Would Trump ever have become president if there had been no endless war in the Middle East?
The withdrawal from Afghanistan also illustrates how poorly America's collective memory reflects facts and history. Too many members of the media and political classes, still haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, the Afghan retreat is being invoked as somehow equivalent to the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is not.
The perhaps-apocryphal warning from a Taliban commander to the U.S. and its allies, "You have the watches but we have the time" — also attributed to legendary North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen — has been repeated ad nauseam during these last few weeks as providing some secret wisdom explaining why the U.S. was defeated by the Taliban. But in the real world, the outcomes of war are more complicated than any single explanation, however pithy, can encompass.
Our political climate of hyper-partisanship has created dueling narratives about Joe Biden and the American defeat in Afghanistan. From one point of view, this moment is akin to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's concessions to Adolf Hitler, which (in some historical accounts) led to the beginning of World War II. On the other extreme, the withdrawal from Afghanistan is being presented as an example of Biden's mature leadership, something only he could have achieved, and all failures are the fault of his immediate predecessor.
Truth and reality, as it almost always does, lies somewhere outside or between those extremes. These first drafts of history about America's retreat from Afghanistan are very much works in progress.
As writer and cultural critic Gore Vidal once observed, "We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing." To that point, the American people will not be asked to make sense of Afghanistan and the War on Terror in the context of a much larger history. (And if they were asked, would not generally be able to answer, or interested in doing so).
Here is the central question that is being avoided: What does all this illustrate or exemplify? The answer: America is addicted to war. Since the end of World War II, the country has been involved in dozens of conflicts and interventions around the world. In that sense, America's war in Afghanistan is part of a much older and much longer story.
To discuss both that longer story and the one before us now, I recently had a conversation with author, activist and journalist Norman Solomon (a frequent contributor to Salon). He is the author of many books including "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" and "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State." Solomon is the national director and co-founder of the online activist initiative RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy,
In this conversation, Solomon explains how he believes the American people are propagandized into supporting war by political leaders, the mainstream news media and other elites. He also reflects on how Afghanistan, Iraq and the larger War on Terror have been counterproductive on their own terms — leaving the American people less safe and less secure — as well as profoundly immoral and ruinously expensive.
He explains how human rights and justice demand that the American people learn to practice radical empathy for the Afghan people and others around the world who have suffered immeasurably from American military power. Toward the end of this conversation, Solomon explains that the lives of average Americans could be greatly improved if the U.S. did not spend vast sums of money on a military machine used almost entirely for destructive ends.
As a whole, the news media and the pundit class are generalists and professional "smart people." They have little specific policy expertise on America's forever wars or the Middle East, yet are presented as authoritative voices on that subject and too many others. How does the business of "expertise" and "punditry" actually work?
The qualification is largely that you have some type of institutional credential or be in a powerful position in Washington. You also have to stay more or less within the parameters of the bipartisan consensus about American politics, especially in terms of foreign policy.
What is verboten in such conversations?
In terms of U.S. foreign and military policy, there is a type of mass media housekeeping seal of approval. It is not completely monolithic. There are cracks in the wall. However, just because there are cracks does not somehow mean that the wall no longer exists.
The essence of propaganda is repetition. I believe there is a paradigm, a rule where there's terrain that the corporate media tends to be very comfortable having discourse and debate on and within. Essentially, the mass media are part of the war-making apparatus.
How do you make sense of this public rehabilitation project for the likes of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, two of the most prominent figures who made the decisions that led to these disastrous wars?
Consider all the praise, for example, that was visited on the late Donald Rumsfeld during his obituary period. There were so many members of the mainstream American news media who just basically licked Rumsfeld's boots when he was giving his daily briefings during the war. Top journalists in the United States, on camera, were saying to Rumsfeld that he was like a "rock star," that he was a "stud," because he was articulating U.S. policy so well during those first weeks of the bombing of Afghanistan. I think of that spectacle all the time, where the media bows down to the warmakers in this country.
I also think about, for instance, a seven-year-old girl I met in 2009 at a refugee camp in Kabul. She had been sleeping one night in her home in southern Afghanistan, in the Helmand Valley, when U.S. bombs fell on her neighborhood and she lost an arm. I'm standing in the refugee camp talking with her and her father through an interpreter. She's turning so her lack of one arm won't be evident. It would be like somebody with missing front teeth, putting a hand up to the mouth. It was so painful. I asked her about her experiences. There was almost no food in the camp. These were hundreds of people who had been bombed out from their rural homes by the U.S. military. They came to Kabul, and they had hardly any food. And I thought to myself, my own government has the money to bomb these people.
The press is supposed to help the public understand current events so they can make better decisions about government, policy and leadership. But relatively few in the mainstream news media gave extensive coverage to the "Afghanistan Papers," which were leaked not long ago and extensively documented that the war in Afghanistan had been lost for years. There is much fake surprise about the sudden end of the war and the Taliban taking over so quickly. The United States government knew of this highly probable outcome some time ago.
There is tremendous conformity-pressure. Being ahead of the discernment curve is very rarely a career enhancement. Whereas going with the herd, or being a little ahead of the curve but not going too far out on a limb, is a winning strategy for so many people who have risen through the ranks in mass media — and for that matter in government.
Napoleon said that it's not necessary to censor the news. It's more efficient to delay it until it no longer matters. In terms of the dead, it no longer matters. The last mistake is chalked up as in fact being just an error. But people who are going deeper in the analysis are saying, "There's a fundamental dynamic here."
We, the American people, live in a warfare state. As President Dwight Eisenhower warned as he was leaving office, we have a military-industrial complex. It's striking how rarely we even hear that term being uttered by a prominent Democratic or Republican leader in Washington. It's almost verboten.
Being truthful and candid is very important if we're going to change the public discourse. Part of that involves widening the ways of evaluating a war, beyond the question of: Is it "winnable"? More importantly, was it justified? Was it moral? Another way to state this is to ask: Should these wars have even been fought in the first place? It is very difficult to find people in high media positions who raise the deeper questions.
There is such a thing as human decency. There's something called, if you will, morality. There is international law — but that's virtually off the table when it comes to discourse in Washington among the powerful.
A thought experiment: What would coverage of America's war in Afghanistan look like if it was told from the perspective of the average person in that country?
I've been thinking a lot about that in the last few weeks, especially as the anniversaries are rolling around the beginning of the so-called War on Terror. And even setting aside the fact that for many people in other countries, America's supposed war on terrorism means terrorizing them, the experience gap is humongous. If we drop bombs on people, they're not going to figure that the United States meant well, so therefore all is forgiven. If the United States experienced what other countries have experienced because of U.S. war-making, we would be second to none in self-righteousness and claiming victimhood status.
People in other countries, especially the ones that the U.S. has frequently bombed these last few decades, are mostly treated as non-people by the American people and the mass media. It is very rare to have any human connection provided about other human beings when they're at the other end of America's weaponry. It's all about us.
I certainly am sad about all of the US soldiers who've died and been maimed and suffered PTSD. I am also sad about the grief felt by their families. At the same time, there were other people involved in these wars who are rarely noted when we summarize the cost of war. In the United States we are acculturated to the idea that the country goes to war and the people we kill and maim and terrorize don't matter. It's so horrible that maybe we don't want to face it.
How do we better explain to the American people the role of profiteering by private interests and big business in the country's wars?
When we hear that the war in Afghanistan was a "failure," it really depends on what vantage point one is talking about. Every war is a colossal success for the military-industrial complex and huge numbers of Pentagon contractors. We call it the "defense industry." That is a benign term.
I'm not against a defense budget. Too bad we don't have one! We have a military budget that's so much larger than a genuine defense budget would be. The profit-taking is enormous.
Where does the $700-something billion a year from the Pentagon go? Add in nuclear weapons and other items that are outside the Pentagon budget, and the number rises to $1 trillion. So much of that money is just going to these huge corporations. How often do we see a serious examination in the mainstream news media of the corporations that are making a killing, literally and figuratively, from the misery and death that's part of the U.S. warfare state?
How has war been sold to the American people by the country's leaders? What narratives are used to propagandize them into supporting American empire and war-making?
It is not supposed to be acknowledged that an empire exists. I really believe in breaking the silence. Some of the ways that war is sold to the American people are that if this war is wrong, the media will tell us. Or here is another one: If this war is wrong then Congress will stop it.
Here are some others: We're getting the truth from our leaders and politicians. We're fighting for freedom. They are terrorists, we aren't. We can't withdraw now because so many Americans have already died. The motives of our leaders are for the most part fairly pure.
These are messages that are not usually stated in such bold terms. The most powerful messaging is just implicit. It's assumed.
Predictably, many on the right are summoning up the old narrative: "If we don't fight the Taliban and the terrorists over there, then we are going to have to fight them here." How do you push back?
It's hard to refute such an absurd claim. It is boilerplate and we have been hearing it since Vietnam. The narrative then was: "Do you want to fight the communists in Southeast Asia or on the U.S. border?" The same type of preposterous thing was said by Reagan administration officials about the war in Nicaragua. We had to support the murderous Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s, who were waging war against the elected Sandinista government, because if we didn't fight them there, they'd end up on the Texas border.
Can anybody make a strong case that the United States has been made safer from the last 20 years of the so-called war on terror? The U.S. government has claimed that for 20 years that it is fighting terrorism by making war on people in one country after another. Yet the desire of people to kill Americans has been greatly exacerbated by the reality that Americans have been killing the very people they love. It is illogical to think that we are made safer by making enemies.
There is also the rhetorical move when discussing terrorism and the Middle East after 9/11, where a public voice summons up the question: Why do they hate us? Why do they hate America? Why do they hate our values? We're a force for good! That rhetoric is intended to silence critical thinking about these questions of U.S. foreign policy.
Terrorism is wrong. Blowing people up is wrong. That's a given. But at the same time, when the U.S. government, as a matter of policy and intentional action, bombs and kills people in other countries, it is a perverse form of psychological exceptionalism to think that such acts are not going to make people angry and seek revenge.
Soon after the six-week Gulf war ended in 1991, Gen. Colin Powell, who was at the time chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the death toll among the Iraqi people during that U.S.-led war. On the same day the Pentagon had publicly estimated that the U.S. in those six weeks had killed 100,000 Iraqi people, the vast majority of them civilians, Colin Powell literally said, "It's really not a number I'm terribly interested in."
How do you explain to the average American what their life would be like if the country did not spend so much on so-called national defense?
Paraphrasing President Eisenhower, every bomb, every bullet and every tank is in a real sense a theft from the children of the world. It's true in 2021. The military budget in its current form is theft. In this country we are spending literally a few billion dollars a day on the military, one way or the other. From the polling data it is very clear that most Americans want to cut the military budget.
If national security is defined as military strength, then we're not acculturated to thinking about real national security as related to better public schools, improving infrastructure, the environment, the global climate emergency, poverty, health care and creating a stronger social safety net and improving social democracy overall, as compared to what we have now.
This is not a "defense" budget. This is not "defense" spending. This is kleptocracy corporate enrichment spending. To call things by their right names would be absolutely revolutionary in this country.
Has the mainstream news media ever seen a war they didn't like?
If there's a deep division on Capitol Hill within or between the two parties, then the mass media, to some significant extent, might be against it. Again, war is framed around the question, "Is it winnable?"
Ultimately, that is the wrong question. Even now there are critics of the Afghanistan war saying, "It was a terrible idea. It could have never been won." I can reasonably conclude that the seven-year-old girl I met with one arm didn't really care if the U.S. won or lost. She didn't care that Barack Obama was a Democrat overseeing the air war that took one of her arms.