July 29, 2014
Make War, Not Love
Posted on Jan 14, 2011
By Nick Turse
Instead, an American lieutenant colonel choppers in to lecture village elders about the evils of “miscreants” in their midst and brags about his officers’ educational prowess and how it can benefit the Afghans. “They stare back unmoved,” writes Junger. “The Americans fly out of Yaka Chine, and valley elders meet among themselves to decide what to do. Five people are dead in Yaka Chine, along with ten wounded, and the elders declare jihad against every American in the valley.” Vignettes like this drive home the reasons why, after nearly a decade of overwhelming firepower, the U.S. war in Afghanistan has yet to prove “winnable,” despite the ministrations of Kilcullen and crew.
Later in the book we read about how Junger survives an improvised explosive device that detonates beneath his vehicle. He’s saved only by a jumpy trigger-man who touches two wires to a battery a bit too early to kill Junger and the other occupants of the Army Humvee he’s riding in. In response, Junger writes: “[T]his man wanted to negate everything I’d ever done in my life or might ever do. It felt malicious and personal in a way that combat didn’t. Combat gives you the chance to react well and survive; bombs don’t allow for anything.”
Junger, at least, traveled across the world to consciously and deliberately put himself in harm’s way. Imagine how the poor people of Yaka Chine must have felt when a $300 million American aircraft swooped in to drop a bomb on them in the dead of night. Junger’s book helps reveal these facts far better than his movie.
Getting a Read on War
Surveying this year’s Afghan War literature from popular best-sellers to little noticed Army monographs is generally disheartening but illuminating. “The moral basis of the war doesn’t interest soldiers much,” writes Junger near the beginning of his book. “[T]hey generally leave the big picture to others.”
America’s fighting men at the front are not alone. Most Americans have similarly chosen to ignore the “moral basis” for the war and the big picture as well. They have been aided and abetted in this not only by a president evidently bent on escalating the conflict at every turn, but also by a coterie of authors—many of them connected to the Pentagon—content to critique only doctrine, strategy, and tactics. Each of them is eager to push for his favorite flavor of warfare, but loath to address weightier issues. Perhaps this is one reason why Junger’s front-line troops—if they are indeed sampling the best the military’s prescribed reading lists have to offer—have a tendency to ignore fundamental issues and skip intellectual and moral inquiry.
If Pentagon-consultant-turned-potential-defense-contractor Kilcullen and the Joint Special Operations University’s author corps aren’t going to address morals and “big picture” issues, then the Sebastian Jungers of the world need to step up and cover the real, everyday face of war: the plight of civilians in the conflict zone. They also should focus on big-picture issues like whether the United States actually has anything approaching a true strategic vision when it comes to its wars and occupations abroad, whether there truly is a global Islamist insurgency as Kilcullen maintains, whether it could ever coalesce into a worldwide threat, and whether whatever it is that exists should be attacked with the force of arms. They need to offer more help in launching serious mainstream debate about America’s permanent state of war and its fallout.
The U.S. military’s reading lists are, not surprisingly, dedicated to combat and counterinsurgency. So are its favorite authors. To them, combat is war. Civilians in war zones know better. They know that war is suffering, because they live with it, not a tour at a time but constantly, day after day, week after week, year after year. Civilians outside war zones should know, too. It would be helpful if they had authors with the skill, intellect, and courage to help them to understand the truth.
Editor’s note: Below is an update that Nick Turse provided to Truthdig this week for publication with his TomDispatch review.
Last month, the U.S. Army War College issued the latest in its annual “Suggested Military Reading List” series. In the new list you’ll find plenty of the usual suspects, including David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla (2009) and Counterinsurgency (2010) as well as Lessons for a Long War: How America Can Win on New Battlefields, a tract published by the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and authored by two of its resident scholars, Thomas Donnelly, the former deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century, and Frederick W. Kagan, who has served as an adviser to Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.
You will, however, also notice that Sebastian Junger’s War and, even more important, retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich’s two most recent works have also made the list. In 2008’s The Limits of Power, Bacevich draws on the work of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and writes “America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities. Modesty implies giving up on the illusions of grandeur to which the end of the Cold War and then 9/11 gave rise.” Not exactly the norm when it comes to Pentagon reads. In 2010’s Washington Rules, he offers the most succinct and astute analysis available of exactly what “propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war.”
Does the addition of books by Bacevich indicate that military reading lists are ready to head in a new direction? We’ll have a pretty good indication of the path if next year’s recommendations include works by Ann Jones, author of the powerful look at war’s terrible effects on women, War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010), and her modern classic Kabul in Winter (2007), and the late Chalmers Johnson, whose 2010 book, Dismantling the Empire, lays out the dire costs of the Pentagon’s endless spending and endless wars—or if there’s a return to the more standard fare of the Pentagon book club.
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation and regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book is “The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan” (Verso Books). Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, and his website is NickTurse.com.
Copyright 2010 Nick Turse
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