Point of View Columns

Heart of Darkness, Heart of Light

The catastrophe that is the American military incursion in Afghanistan opens its bloody maw daily and consumes more lives and treasure, seemingly by the moment. We have become anesthetized to the daily body count that is broadcast on the televised news channels and printed in a barely legibly font on some miscellaneous page of the newspaper. The detachment between the people of America and the American military in Afghanistan is not imaginary. The disconnection is real, and that separation of the American people from reality endured by the American military makes the entire misadventure all the more tragic and sad.
It is useful to start with some very simple arithmetic. The population of the United States is approximately 300 million. Of that population, it is estimated that approximately one per cent is actually connected to the American military – as members of the armed forces or as direct family members. For the sake of focusing on the larger issues involved, we can offer a guesstimate and double that number to two per cent, meaning that approximately 6 million Americans have some direct connection to the military and the ongoing wars being waged in the name of this country and some elusive and ephemeral notion of national security.
That bit of arithmetic means that over a quarter of a billion Americans have no direct connection to the war effort. Their suffering is limited to the ravages visited upon the global and national economy and the inconvenience of regular news interruptions listing more dead and wounded Americans every day. Approximately half of the quarter of a billion Americans supports the war theoretically, politically, empathetically and sympathetically. But they do not get the dreaded phone call in the middle of the night. They do not answer the front door bell and find uniformed officers informing them of yet another tragically avoidable loss of life. They do not suffer the stress and tension and debilitating helplessness of knowing that a loved one or family member is in harm’s way twenty four hours a day.
I have written of my opposition to the American military incursion in Afghanistan and will continue to do so. I believe that a misbegotten strategy of ten years ago has enmeshed President Obama in Gordian knots of counterintuitive strategies and conflicting policies that will never produce success, if success is to be defined as the men, women and children of America being safer at the end of this woeful conflict. For lives to be lost in a cause with no hope of success is a full color illustration of tragedy writ large.
The price of any war is high. Wars fought for a just cause are full of human errors and human failings that result in the unnecessary loss of thousands of lives. It has happened in every war since Cain and Abel. It happened in Vietnam, it happened in Iraq and we can be sure that it is happening at this very moment in Afghanistan.
I commend to your attention a recent book about the war in Vietnam, Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes. In some ways it is the same story that is told in films ranging from All Quiet on the Western Front to Platoon to The Hurt Locker. Matterhorn plumbs the depths of the human side of the war and the price that is paid in blood and lost limbs and shattered minds because of strategic and policy decisions made by those who never have to suffer the consequences. Read Matterhorn and think Afghanistan and be very afraid.
Undoubtedly there are men and women of good will who are supporting “the tough decisions that have to be made” in Afghanistan. But, as has already been noted, that support is empathetic and theoretical and not visceral. There is a difference.
During the war in Vietnam there was a draft. As the mortal madness swirled in Southeast Asia, the winds caught young American men who had not volunteered for combat. The winds caught young American men who dreamed of going to college or teaching in a university or becoming lawyers. Draftees were different from the enlisted men who joined the armed forces out of a sense of patriotism or from a desire for structure and stability.
As the winds swirled and howled and gathered up more young men, the support for the Vietnam War wavered and opposition to it grew to unprecedented levels, particularly on college campuses. The sons of congressmen and senators rarely have been drafted during the history of this country. But the sons of supporters and voters started being swept up in the gathering storm that was the madness of that was the war in Vietnam and questions started being asked, goals started to be doubted and certainty was yet another casualty, shipped home along with the body bags containing the ruined youth of this country.
The body bags are being shipped home again. Men and women are being maimed and blown up in the name of a strategy that is proven false daily. Even if Afghanistan were totally pacified (however that might be defined), would that make Americans safer in Kampala, Uganda where an al-Qaeda-related bombing killed and maimed Ugandans and Americans a few days ago? Will a housebroken Taliban mean that there will never be another bombing attempt in Times Square or on an American airliner (think Shoe Bomber or Underwear Bomber) or at an American base in the United States (think Fort Hood)?
But there is no draft today. The protests against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are muted because there is no risk presented to the millions of young men and women (and their parents) who go to class, attend football games and drink beer at parties. The members of Congress who are bellicose and are willing to “pay any price” do not have legions of constituents mourning the dead and wounded for the most part. Journalists and commentators supporting “tough decisions” rarely know anyone at risk of dying or losing their legs in Afghanistan.
So the disconnection empowers remote control videogame bellicosity. The disconnection permits this country to allow two per cent of the population to bear one hundred per cent of the burden. The blood and the tears flow but they are unseen or presented in sanitized digital tableaus that we watch between commercials and lamentations over the loss of LeBron. Yet another American Tragedy.