Later On

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Archive for the ‘Bush Administration’ Category

At some level, George W. Bush recognizes what he did in Iraq

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Written by Leisureguy

19 May 2022 at 1:10 pm

War sent America off the rails 19 years ago. Could another one bring it back?n

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Mission accomplished? Not quite. In this May 2003 photo, George W. Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard an aircraft carrier off the California coast. The war dragged on for many years after that. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

The US invasion of Iraq was an act of hubris that killed hundreds of thousands and cost hundreds of billions of dollars and left a stain on the US that persists to this day. Jason Opal, Associate Professor of History and Chair, History and Classical Studies, McGill University, writes in The Conversation:

At the start of 2022, the right to vote, the rule of law and even the existence of facts seemed to be in grave peril in the United States.

Explanations for this crisis ranged from the decades-long decline of the American middle class to the more recent rise of social media and its unique capacity to spread lies.

In truth, many factors were at play, but the most direct cause of America’s harrowing descent — the one event that arguably set the others in motion — began 19 years ago.

War by choice

On March 19, 2003, George W. Bush and his neoconservative brain trust launched the Iraq war because of the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s mothballed weapons [and many pointed out that this threat was fictitious – LG]. Bush and his advisers believed in using military force to spread American political and economic might around the globe.

It was an ideology both foolish and fanatical, the pet project of a tiny circle of well-connected warmongers. Bush himself had lost the popular vote in 2000 and was slumping in the polls before Sept. 11, 2001.

But no one wanted to look weak after the terrorist attacks, and so, in one of the last bipartisan gestures of the past two decades, U.S. senators from Hillary Clinton to Mitch McConnell voted for war in the Middle East.

Having sold the invasion with bad faith and bluster, the neocons planned it with hubris and incompetence. Against the professional advice of the U.S. military, they sought to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime with minimal ground forces, whereupon they would dismantle the Iraqi state and invite private contractors to somehow rebuild the place.

At first, their fantasies swept to victory. But by 2004, the country they had shattered began to lash out at both the invaders and itself, and by 2006 the singular disaster of our times began to spread.

Butterfly effects

Some two million Iraqis decamped to Syria and Jordan and even more fled to places within Iraq, where the ghoulish seeds of ISIS began to grow.

When ISIS spread following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, a second wave of refugees sought shelter in Europe. This stoked nationalism and helped propel Brexit to a stunning win in the United Kingdom. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. 

The US started the sequence, and the dominoes continued to topple in turn. Karl Rove famously said that Bush administration created its own reality, but he failed to recognize what a slipshod job it was doing.

Written by Leisureguy

20 March 2022 at 2:15 pm

Great movie: “The Ghost Writer”

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Directed by Roman Polanski, with Ewan MacGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, et al. Worth watching closely. Netflix. From 2010

Written by Leisureguy

4 January 2022 at 12:00 am

The Cost of Sentimentalizing War

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Carlos Lozada reviews a new book by Elizabeth Samet in the New Yorker:

The terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, supposedly launched a new kind of American war, with unfamiliar foes, unlikely alliances, and unthinkable tactics. But the language deployed to interpret this conflict was decidedly old-school, the comfort food of martial rhetoric. With the Axis of Evil, the menace of Fascism (remixed as “Islamofascism”), and the Pearl Harbor references, the Second World War hovered over what would become known as the global war on terror, infusing it with righteousness. This latest war, President George W. Bush said, would have a scope and a stature evoking the American response to that other attack on the U.S. “one Sunday in 1941.” It wouldn’t be like Desert Storm, a conflict tightly bounded in time and space; instead, it was a call to global engagement and even to national greatness. “This generation will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future,” Bush avowed.

Elizabeth D. Samet finds such familiarity endlessly familiar. “Every American exercise of military force since World War II, at least in the eyes of its architects, has inherited that war’s moral justification and been understood as its offspring: motivated by its memory, prosecuted in its shadow, inevitably measured against it,” she writes in “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). A professor of English at West Point and the author of works on literature, leadership, and the military, Samet offers a cultural and literary counterpoint to the Ambrose-Brokaw-Spielberg industrial complex of Second World War remembrance, and something of a meditation on memory itself. It’s not simply that subsequent fights didn’t resemble the Second World War, she contends; it’s that the war itself does not resemble our manufactured memories of it, particularly the gushing accounts that enveloped its fiftieth anniversary. “The so-called greatness of the Greatest Generation is a fiction,” she argues, “suffused with nostalgia and with a need to return to some finest hour.” Those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it, but those who sentimentalize the past are rewarded with best-seller status.

The mythology of the Second World War features six main elements, by Samet’s tally: that the United States joined the war in order to rid the world of tyranny and Fascism; that “all Americans were absolutely united” in their commitment to the fight; that “everyone” in the country sacrificed; that Americans got into the war reluctantly and then waged it decently; that the war was tragic but ended on a happy note; and, finally, that “everyone has always agreed” on the first five points.

The word choices here—“all,” “absolutely,” “everyone,” and “always”—do stretch the myths to the point of easy refutability, but some of the best-known popular chronicles clearly display the tendencies Samet decries. “Citizen Soldiers,” Stephen Ambrose’s 1997 book about Allied troops in Europe, presents the reticence of American G.I.s in describing their motivations as a kind of self-conscious idealism and aw-shucks humility. “They knew they were fighting for decency and democracy and they were proud of it,” Ambrose writes. “They just didn’t talk or write about it.” But, without such oral or written records, can one really divine such noble impulses? Samet dismisses Ambrose’s œuvre, including the nineteen-nineties best-sellers, “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” as “less historical analysis than comic-book thought bubble.” Obsessed with notions of masculinity and chivalry, Ambrose indulges in “a fantasy that American soldiers somehow preserved a boyish innocence amid the slaughter,” she writes. If anything, the boyish innocence may belong to Ambrose himself, who admits that he grew up venerating veterans of the Second World War, a youthful hero worship that, Samet notes, “tends to overwhelm the historian’s mandate.”

For a more accurate account, Samet highlights a multivolume study, “The American Soldier,” by the sociologist Samuel Stouffer and a team of collaborators. During the war, they studied the ideological motives of American troops, and concluded that, “beyond acceptance of the war as a necessity forced upon the United States by an aggressor, there was little support of attempts to give the war meaning in terms of principles and causes.” Samet finds this real-time depiction of a nonideological American soldier to be credible. In the words of the military sociologist Charles C. Moskos, who studied the motivations of soldiers in the Second World War and in Vietnam, each man fights a “very private war . . . for his own survival.” Or, as John Hersey put it in a later foreword to “Into the Valley,” his narrative of U.S. marines battling on Guadalcanal, the soldiers fought “to get the damn thing over and go home.”

Samet argues that Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie “Saving Private Ryan,” from 1998, is “wholly unrepresentative” of Second World War attitudes toward the individual soldier. She contrasts the 1949 film “Twelve O’Clock High,” in which a brigadier general (played by Gregory Peck) insists that his men place collective loyalties above personal ones. After one pilot breaks formation, during a sortie over Nazi Europe, in order to assist a fellow-aviator at risk of being shot down, Peck lashes out, “You violated group integrity. . . . The one thing which is never expendable is your obligation to this group. . . . That has to be your loyalty—your only reason for being.” By focussing on the fate of a single survivor, Samet writes, Spielberg’s film “effectively transforms the conflict from one characterized by mass mobilization and modern industrial warfare to something more old-fashioned, recalling the heroism of ancient epics,” in which individual glories and tragedies take narrative precedence over the wider war.

Samet is particularly harsh on Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” also from 1998, with its “explicitly messianic agenda” of showing us a cohort so packed with honor and honesty and self-sacrifice that it was, as the newsman writes, “birthmarked for greatness.” In a section titled “Shame,” Brokaw acknowledges the racism that was so “pervasive in practice and in policy” in this greatest of eras, but he responds with uplifting sketches of members of racial minorities who manage to overcome it. (“It is my country, right or wrong,” one of them concludes. “None of us can ever contribute enough.”) Samet dissents, stressing, for instance, that the conflict in the Pacific, “begun in revenge and complicated by bitter racism” against the Japanese, has been overshadowed by the less morally troubling sagas of European liberation.

“Unity must always prevail,” Samet writes of the war myths. “Public opinion must turn overnight after Pearl Harbor, while the various regional, racial, and political divisions that roiled the country must be immediately put aside as Americans rally toward a shared cause.” A more complicated reality emerges in Studs Terkel’s 1984 “ ‘The Good War’ ” (the title includes quotation marks because the notion of a good war seemed “so incongruous,” Terkel explained), an oral history that amasses the recollections of wartime merchant marines, admirals, U.S.O. entertainers, G.I.s, and nurses. Their views on the war span “the sentimental and the disillusioned, the jingoistic and the thoughtfully patriotic, the nostalgic and the dismissive,” Samet writes.

To investigate cultural attitudes toward G.I.s in the aftermath of the war, she considers such novels as John Horne Burns’s “The Gallery” (1947), in which American soldiers in Italy engage in black-market transactions with locals; and such movies as “Suddenly” (1954), in which Frank Sinatra portrays a veteran turned contract killer who hopes that his war record will win him sympathy. (“I’m no traitor, Sheriff. I won a Silver Star.”) In other noir films of the era, returning G.I.s are loners disillusioned not just with the war and the years taken from them but also with what their country seemed to have become in their absence: hard, greedy, indifferent. Samet even scours military handbooks, including a 1945 one, memorably titled “112 Gripes About the French,” which admonished American G.I.s that they “didn’t come to Europe to save the French,” or “to do anyone any favors,” so they should stop stomping through the Continent as though expecting everyone’s gratitude. Not exactly “Band of Brothers,” is it?

There is a before-and-after quality to the Second World War in American political writing. The adjective “postwar” still clings to this one conflict, as if no American soldiers had wielded weapons in battle since. But if memories of one conflict shape attitudes toward the next, Samet writes, then the Good War legend has served “as prologue to three-quarters of a century of misbegotten ones.” There’s plenty of support for this quandary. In “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (1988), Neil Sheehan identified the “disease of victory,” wherein U.S. leaders, particularly in the military ranks, succumbed to postwar complacency and overconfidence. Samet recalls the reflections of Rear Admiral Gene La Rocque, a Second World War veteran who retired during Vietnam, and who told Terkel that “the twisted memory” of the Good War “encourages the men of my generation to be willing, almost eager, to use military force anywhere in the world.”

Memories of the Good War also helped shape the views of military life held by the men who fought in Vietnam. Samet takes up Philip Caputo’s Vietnam memoir . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — or just read Samet’s book.

I think what the book discusses why the US is the most war-inclined nation on earth, constantly involved in formal wars and in covert military operations, nonstop.

The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror: 20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives

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Dylan Matthews reports in Vox:

On the evening of September 11, 2001, hours after two hijacked airliners had destroyed the World Trade Center towers and a third had hit the Pentagon building, President George W. Bush announced that the country was embarking on a new kind of war.

“America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism,” Bush announced in a televised address to the nation.

It was Bush’s first use of the term that would come to define his presidency and deeply shape those of his three successors. The global war on terror, as the effort came to be known, was one of the most expansive and far-reaching policy initiatives in modern American history, and certainly the biggest of the 2000s.

It saw the US invade and depose the governments of two nations and engage in years- or decades-long occupations of each; the initiation of a new form of warfare via drones spanning thousands of miles of territory from Pakistan to Somalia to the Philippines; the formalization of a system of detention without charge and pervasive torture of accused militants; numerous smaller raids by special forces teams around the world; and major changes to air travel and border security in the US proper.

The “war on terror” is a purposely vague term. President Barack Obama famously rejected it in a 2013 speech — favoring instead “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists.”

But 9/11 signaled the beginning of a distinct policy regime from the one that preceded it, and a regime that exists in many forms to the present day, even with the US exit from Afghanistan.

Over the past 20 years, the costs of this new policy regime — costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, people and whole communities displaced, bodies tortured — have become clear. It behooves us, then, to try to answer a simple yet vast question: Was it worth it?

A good-faith effort to answer this question — to tally the costs and benefits on the ledger and not just resort to one’s ideological priors — is more challenging than you’d think. That’s largely because it involves quantifying the inherently unquantifiable. If, as proponents argue, the war on terror kept America safe, how do you quantify the psychological value of not being in a state of constant fear of the next attack? What about the damage of increased Islamophobia and violent targeting of Muslims (and those erroneously believed to be Muslims) stoked by the war on terror? There are dozens more unquantifiable purported costs and benefits like these.

But some things can be measured. There have been no 9/11-scale terrorist attacks in the United States in the past 20 years. Meanwhile, according to the most recent estimates from Brown University’s Costs of War Projectat least 897,000 people around the world have died in violence that can be classified as part of the war on terror; at least 38 million people have been displaced due to these wars; and the effort has cost the US at least $5.8 trillion, not including about $2 trillion more needed in health care and disability coverage for veterans in decades to come.

When you lay it all out on paper, an honest accounting of the war on terror yields a dismal conclusion: Even with an incredibly generous view of the war on terror’s benefits, the costs have vastly exceeded them. The past 20 years of war represent a colossal failure by the US government, one it has not begun to reckon with or atone for.

We are now used to the fact that the US government routinely bombs foreign countries with which it is not formally or even informally at war, in the name of killing terrorists. We are used to the fact that the National Security Agency works with companies like Facebook and Google to collect our private information en masse. We are used to the fact that 39 men are sitting in Guantanamo Bay, almost all detained indefinitely without trial.

These realities were not inevitable. They were chosen as part of a policy regime that has done vastly more harm than good.

What America and the world might have gained from the war on terror

Before going further, it’s important to define our terms. . . 

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s a harsh indictment. One of several charts in the article:

After 9/11, a rush of national unity. Then, quickly, more and new divisions.

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Dan Balz had an interesting column in the Washington Post yesterday. (The gift link I used by-passes the paywall.) The column begins:

On Monday, the leaders of Congress are to gather with colleagues at noon for a bipartisan ceremony marking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It will be reminiscent of the gathering on the night of the attacks, when members of Congress, many holding small American flags, stood on the Capitol steps and spontaneously sang “God Bless America.” But so much has changed.

Twenty years ago, members of Congress were joined in a determined and resilient expression of national unity at an unprecedented moment in the nation’s history, a day that brought deaths and heroism but also shock, fear and confusion. Monday’s ceremony will no doubt be somber in its remembrance of what was lost that day, but it will come not as expression of a united America but simply as a momentary cessation in political wars that rage and have deepened in the years since those attacks.

In a video message to Americans released Friday, President Biden spoke of how 9/11 had united the country and said that moment represented “America at its best.” He called such unity “our greatest strength” while noting it is “all too rare.” The unity that followed the attacks didn’t last long. Americans reverted more quickly than some analysts expected to older patterns of partisanship. With time, new divisions over new issues have emerged, and they make the prospect of a united nation ever more distant.

On a day for somber tribute, the man who was president on 9/11, George W. Bush, spoke most directly of those new divisions — and threats — in a speech in Shanksville, Pa., where Flight 93 went down on the day of the attacks. Bush warned that dangers to the country now come not only across borders “but from violence that gathers from within.” It was an apparent but obvious reference to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

The question is often asked: As the United States has plunged deeper into division and discord, is there anything that could spark a change, anything big enough to become a catalyst for greater national unity? But if ­9/11 doesn’t fit that model, what does? And look what happened in the aftermath of that trauma.

For a time, the shock of the attacks did bring the country together. Bush’s approval ratings spiked to 90 percent in a rally-round-the-flag reaction that was typical when the country is faced with external threats or crises.

One notable expression of the unity at the time came from Al Gore, the former vice president who had lost the bitter 2000 election to Bush after a disputed recount in Florida and a controversial Supreme Court decision.

Speaking at a Democratic Party dinner in Iowa less than a month after the attacks, Gore called Bush “my commander in chief,” adding, “We are united behind our president, George W. Bush, behind the effort to seek justice, not revenge, to make sure this will never, ever happen again. And to make sure we have the strongest unity in America that we have ever had.” The Democratic audience rose, applauding and cheering.

Trust in government rose in those days after the attacks. Shortly after 9/11, trust in government jumped to 64 percent, up from 30 percent before the attacks, according to Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm that was closely tracking public attitudes to the attacks. By the summer of 2002, the firm found that trust had fallen back, to 39 percent.

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Five years after the attacks, then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now deceased, was quoted as saying that America was “more divided and more partisan than I’ve ever seen us.” Today, after many contentious elections, political warfare over economic, cultural and social issues and a domestic attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many Americans would say things have become worse.

As he prepared the U.S. response to the attacks by al-Qaeda in the fall of 2001, Bush made clear the United States would go it alone if necessary, assembling what was called a “coalition of the willing.” He put other nations on notice, saying the United States would hold them accountable in the campaign against the terrorists. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight,” he said.

Bush described the world in Manichaean terms: good vs. evil.

Today’s politics at home is often practiced that way. That phrase — “with us or against us” — could stand as a black-and-white expression of the way in which many Americans approach the political battles: all in with the team, red or blue, or not in at all. If you win, I lose. No middle ground.

Lack of imagination on the part of Americans had helped 9/11 to happen. No one in the upper reaches of government  . . .

Continue reading. No paywall on this one.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2021 at 10:35 am

After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong

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In the Atlantic Garrett M. Graff, a journalist, historian, and the author of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, lays out the bad decisions after 9/11 — many of which were strongly opposed at the time (for example, many (including yours truly) vociferously opposed the (stupid) invasion of Iraq):

On the friday after 9/11, President George W. Bush visited the New York City site that the world would come to know as Ground Zero. After rescue workers shouted that they couldn’t hear him as he spoke to them through a bullhorn, he turned toward them and ad-libbed. “I can hear you,” he shouted. “The whole world hears you, and when we find these people who knocked these buildings down, they’ll hear all of us soon.” Everybody roared. At a prayer service later that day, he outlined the clear objective of the task ahead: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press two days later, Vice President Dick Cheney offered his own vengeful promise. “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will,” he told the host, Tim Russert. “We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful.” He added, “That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal.”

In retrospect, Cheney’s comment that morning came to define the U.S. response to the 2001 terrorist attacks over the next two decades, as the United States embraced the “dark side” to fight what was soon dubbed the “Global War on Terror” (the “GWOT” in gov-speak)—an all-encompassing, no-stone-unturned, whole-of-society, and whole-of-government fight against one of history’s great evils.

It was a colossal miscalculation.

The events of September 11, 2001, became the hinge on which all of recent American history would turn, rewriting global alliances, reorganizing the U.S. government, and even changing the feel of daily life, as security checkpoints and magnetometers proliferated inside buildings and protective bollards sprouted like kudzu along America’s streets.

I am the author of an oral history of 9/11. Two of my other books chronicle how that day changed the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts and the government’s doomsday plans. I’ve spent much of this year working on a podcast series about the lingering questions from the attacks. Along the way, I’ve interviewed the Cassandra-like FBI agents who chased Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the attacks; first responders and attack survivors in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; government officials who hid away in bunkers under the White House and in the Virginia countryside as the day unfolded; the passengers aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11; and the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden a decade later. I’ve interviewed directors of the CIA, FBI, and national intelligence; the interrogators in CIA black sites; and the men who found Saddam Hussein in that spider hole in Iraq.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.

The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.

As a society, we succumbed to fear.

The most telling part of September 11, 2001, was the interval between the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, at 8:46 a.m., and the second, at 9:03. In those 17 minutes, the nation’s sheer innocence was on display.

The aftermath of the first crash was live on the nation’s televisions by 8:49 a.m. Though horrified, many Americans who saw those images still went on about their morning. In New York, the commuter-ferry captain Peter Johansen recalled how, afterward, he docked at the Wall Street Terminal and every single one of his passengers got off and walked into Lower Manhattan, even as papers and debris rained down from the damaged North Tower.

At the White House, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called Bush, who was in Florida. They discussed the crash and agreed it was strange. But Rice proceeded with her 9 a.m. staff meeting, as previously scheduled, and Bush went into a classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School to promote his No Child Left Behind education agenda. At the FBI, the newly arrived director, Robert Mueller, was actually sitting in a briefing on al-Qaeda and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole when an aide interrupted with news of the first crash; he looked out the window at the bright blue sky and wondered how a plane could have hit the World Trade Center on such a clear day.

Those muted reactions seem inconceivable today but were totally appropriate to the nation that existed that September morning. The conclusion of the Cold War a decade earlier had supposedly ended history. To walk through Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock today is to marvel at how low-stakes everything in the 1990s seemed.

But after that second crash, and then the subsequent ones at the Pentagon and in the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our government panicked. There’s really no other way to say it. Fear spread up the chain of command. Cheney, who had been hustled to safety in the minutes after the second crash, reflected later, “In the years since, I’ve heard speculation that I’m a different man after 9/11. I wouldn’t say that. But I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities.”

The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.

The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact. James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general during some of the frantic post-9/11 era, told me in 2009 that he had been horrified by the unverified intelligence landing each day on the president’s desk. “When I started, I believed that a giant fire hose of information came in the ground floor of the U.S. government and then, as it went up, floor by floor, was whittled down until at the very top the president could drink from the cool, small stream of a water fountain,” Comey said. “I was shocked to find that after 9/11 the fire hose was just being passed up floor by floor. The fire hose every morning hit the FBI director, the attorney general, and then the president.”

According to one report soon after 9/11, a nuclear bomb that terrorists had managed to smuggle into the country was hidden on a train somewhere between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. This tip turned out to have come from an informant who had misheard a conversation between two men in a bathroom in Ukraine—in other words, from a terrible global game of telephone. For weeks after, Bush would ask in briefings, “Is this another Ukrainian urinal incident?”

Even disproved plots added to the impression that the U.S. was under constant attack by a shadowy, relentless, and widespread enemy. Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.”

At the time, some commentators politely noted the danger of tilting at such nebulous concepts, but a stunned American public appeared to crave a bold response imbued with a higher purpose. As the journalist Robert Draper writes in To Start a War, his new history of the Bush administration’s lies, obfuscations, and self-delusions that led from Afghanistan into Iraq, “In the after-shocks of 9/11, a reeling America found itself steadied by blunt-talking alpha males whose unflappable, crinkly-eyed certitude seemed the only antidote to nationwide panic.”

he crash of that second plane at 9:03, live on millions of television sets across the country, had revealed a gap in Americans’ understanding of our world, a gap into which anything and everything—caution and paranoia, liberal internationalism and vengeful militarism, a mission to democratize the Middle East and an ever more pointless campaign amid a military stalemate—might be poured in the name of shared national purpose. The depth of our leaders’ panic and the amorphousness of our enemy led to a long succession of tragic choices.

We chose the wrong way to seek justice.

Before 9/11, the United States had a considered, constitutional, and proven playbook for targeting terrorists: They were arrested anywhere in the world they could be caught, tried in regular federal courts, and, if convicted, sent to federal prison. The mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Arrested in Pakistan. The 1998 embassy bombers? Caught in Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere. In Sweden on the very morning of 9/11, FBI agents had arrested an al-Qaeda plotter connected to the attack on the USS Cole. The hunt for the plotters of and accomplices to the new attacks could have been similarly handled in civilian courts, whose civil-liberties protections would have shown the world how even the worst evils met with reasoned justice under the law.

Instead, on November 13, 2001, President Bush announced in an executive order that those rounded up in the War on Terror would be treated not as criminals, or even as prisoners of war, but as part of a murky category that came to be known as “enemy combatants.”

While civil libertarians warned of a dark path ahead, Americans seemed not . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Meanwhile, for all the original talk of banishing evil from the world, the GWOT’s seemingly exclusive focus on Islamic extremism has led to the neglect of other threats actively killing Americans. In the 20 years since 9/11, thousands of Americans have succumbed to mass killers—just not the ones we went to war against in 2001. The victims have included worshippers in churchessynagogues, and temples; people at shopping mallsmovie theaters, and a Walmart; students and faculty at universities and community colleges; professors at a nursing school; children in elementarymiddle, and high schools; kids at an Amish school and on a Minnesota Native American reservation; nearly 60 concertgoers who were machine-gunned to death from hotel windows in Las Vegas. But none of those massacres were by the Islamic extremists we’d been spending so much time and money to combat. Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by domestic terrorists than by foreign ones. Political pressure kept national-security officials from refocusing attention and resources on the growing threat from white nationalists, armed militias, and other groups energized by the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim strains of the War on Terror.

FDR was right: the thing to fear is fear itself — fear leads to panic, and panic leads to bad and ill-considered decisions.

Update: But see also David Corn’s article  in Mother Jones: “It’s Not Too Late to Learn the Lessons We Didn’t Learn From 9/11.”

Written by Leisureguy

10 September 2021 at 3:57 pm

The road from Nixon

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Heather Cox Richardson lays out recent history in showing how the dominoes topple after Nixon’s criminal presidency:

On this day in 1974, President Gerald Ford granted “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Ford said he was issuing the pardon to keep from roiling the “tranquility” the nation had begun to enjoy since Nixon stepped down. If Nixon were indicted and brought to trial, the trial would “cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”

Ford later said that he issued the pardon with the understanding that accepting a pardon was an admission of guilt. But Nixon refused to accept responsibility for the events surrounding the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.’s fashionable Watergate office building. He continued to maintain that he had done nothing wrong but was hounded from office by a “liberal” media.

Rather than being chastised by Watergate and the political fallout from it, a faction of Republicans continued to support the idea that Nixon had done nothing wrong when he covered up an attack on the Democrats before the 1972 election. Those Republicans followed Nixon’s strategy of dividing Americans. Part of that polarization was an increasing conviction that Republicans were justified in undercutting Democrats, who were somehow anti-American, even if it meant breaking laws.

In the 1980s, members of the Reagan administration did just that. They were so determined to provide funds for the Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting the leftist Sandinista government, that they ignored a law passed by a Democratic Congress against such aid. In a terribly complicated plan, administration officials, led by National Security Adviser John Poindexter and his deputy Oliver North, secretly sold arms to Iran, which was on the U.S. terror list and thus ineligible for such a purchase, to try to put pressure on Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorists who were holding U.S. hostages. The other side of the deal was that they illegally funneled the money from the sales to the Contras.

Although Poindexter, North, and North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, destroyed crucial documents, enough evidence remained to indict more than a dozen participants, including Poindexter, North, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and four CIA officials. But when he became president himself, Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush, himself a former CIA director and implicated in the scandal, pardoned those convicted or likely to be. He was advised to do so by his attorney general, William Barr (who later became attorney general for President Donald Trump).

With his attempt to use foreign policy to get himself reelected, Trump took attacks on democracy to a new level. In July 2019, he withheld congressionally appropriated money from Ukraine in order to force the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to announce he was opening an investigation into the son of then–Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. That is, Trump used the weight of the U.S. government and its enormous power in foreign affairs to try to hamstring his Democratic opponent. When the story broke, Democrats in the House of Representatives called this attack on our democracy for what it was and impeached him, but Republicans voted to acquit.

It was a straight line from 2019’s attack to that of the weeks after the 2020 election, when the former president did all he could to stop the certification of the vote for Democrat Joe Biden. By January 6, though, Trump’s disdain for the law had . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

9 September 2021 at 9:34 am

What Might Have Been at Tora Bora

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Peggy Noonan writes on her website:

A missed opportunity to get bin Laden set the stage for 20 years of frustrating, painful war in Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal: September 1, 2021

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
— Maud Muller, by John Greenleaf Whittier

I keep thinking of what happened at Tora Bora. What a richly consequential screw-up it was, and how different the coming years might have been, the whole adventure might have been, if we’d gotten it right.

From the 2009 Senate Foreign Relations Committee report “Tora Bora Revisited: How We Failed to Get bin Laden and Why It Matters Today”:

On October 7, 2001, U.S. aircraft began bombing the training bases and strongholds of Al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban across Afghanistan. The leaders who sent murderers to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier and the rogue government that provided them sanctuary were running for their lives. President George W. Bush’s expression of America’s desire to get Osama bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ seemed about to come true.

The war was to be swift and deadly, with clear objectives: defeat the Taliban, destroy al Qaeda and kill or capture its leader, Osama bin Laden. Already the Taliban had been swept from power, al Qaeda ousted from its havens. American deaths had been kept to a minimum.

But where was bin Laden? By early December 2001 his world “had shrunk to a complex of caves and tunnels carved into a mountainous section” of eastern Afghanistan, Tora Bora. For weeks U.S. aircraft pounded him and his men with as many as 100 strikes a day. “One 15,000-pound bomb, so huge it had to be rolled out the back of a C-130 cargo plane, shook the mountains for miles.”

American commandos were on the scene, fewer than 100, but everyone knew more troops were coming. Bin Laden expected to die. He wrote his last will and testament on Dec. 14.

But calls for reinforcement to launch an assault were rejected, as were calls to block the mountain paths into Pakistan, which bin Laden could use as escape routes. “The vast array of American military power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines.”

Sometime around Dec. 16, bin Laden and his bodyguards made their way out, on foot and horseback, and disappeared into Pakistan’s unregulated tribal area.

How could this have happened? The report puts responsibility on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. Both supported a small-footprint war strategy, and it was a bad political moment for a big bloody fight: Afghanistan’s new president, Hamid Karzai, was about to be inaugurated. “We didn’t want to have U.S. forces fighting before Karzai was in power,” Gen. Franks’s deputy told the committee. “We wanted to create a stable country and that was more important than going after bin Laden at the time.” Washington seemed to want Afghan forces to do the job, but they couldn’t. They didn’t have the capability or fervor.

Gen. Franks took to saying the intelligence was “inconclusive.” They couldn’t be sure Osama was there. But he was there.

Central Intelligence Agency and Delta Force commanders who’d spent weeks at Tora Bora were certain he was there. Afghan villagers who sold food to al Qaeda said he was there. A CIA operative who picked up a radio from a dead al Qaeda fighter found himself with a clear channel into the group’s communications. “Bin Laden’s voice was often picked up.” The official history of the U.S. Special Operations Command determined he was there: “All source reporting corroborated his presence on several days from 9-14 December.”

Bin Laden himself said he was there, in an audiotape released in February 2003. He boasted of surviving the bombardment. “Warplanes continued to fly over us day and night,” he said. “Planes poured their lava on us.”

There were enough U.S. troops in or near Afghanistan to get him, the report said. It would have been a dangerous fight on treacherous terrain in hostile territory. There would have been casualties, maybe a lot. But commanders on the scene said the reward was worth the risk.

In Washington the White House was already turning its attention to Iraq. Late in November, after the fall of Kabul, President George W. Bush asked Rumsfeld about Iraq war plans. Rumsfeld ordered up an assessment. Gen. Franks was working on air support for Afghan units being assembled to push into the mountains around Tora Bora. Now he was told an Iraq plan would have to be drawn up. The report noted that for critics of the Bush administration, “the shift in focus just as Franks and his senior aides were literally working on plans for the attacks on Tora Bora represents a dramatic turning point that allowed a sustained victory in Afghanistan to slip through our fingers.”

It changed the course of the war in Afghanistan. The most wanted man in the world, the reason those poor souls jumped from the high floors of the twin towers, the man whose capture was an integral part of the point and mission of the war was allowed to . . . disappear. The American presence descended into a muddle of shifting strategies, unclear purpose and annual reviews. The guiding military wisdom in Washington—that too many troops might stir up anti-American sentiment and resistance—was defied by the facts of Tora Bora. The unwillingness to be supple, respond to circumstances and deploy the troops to get bin Laden “paved the way for exactly what we hoped to avoid—a protracted insurgency.”

Why didn’t Washington move and get him? Maybe it was simply a mistake—“the fog of war.” Maybe leaders were distracted by Iraq. Maybe it was a lack of imagination: They didn’t know what it would mean to people, their own people, to get the bastard. And maybe this: Maybe they consciously or unconsciously knew that if they got the guy who did 9/11, killed him or brought him to justice, that would leave a lot of Americans satisfied that justice had been done. That might take some steam out of the Iraq push. Maybe they concluded it would be better not to get him, or not right away . . .

Bin Laden was found almost 10 years later, in May 2011, and killed in a daring operation ordered by Barack Obama, who was loudly, justly lauded. He made the decision against the counsel of Vice President Joe Biden.

But what if we’d gotten Tora Bora right?  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 September 2021 at 1:45 pm

Where are the anti-war voices?

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Judd Legum has another excellent piece in Popular Information, which begins:

Yesterday’s newsletter detailed how the media is largely overlooking voices that supported Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Instead media reports are almost exclusively highlighting criticism of the withdrawal — often from people complicit in two decades of failed policy in Afghanistan.

We have reason to believe that this is not an accident. On Wednesday, Popular Information spoke to a veteran communications professional who has been trying to place prominent voices supportive of the withdrawal on television and in print. The source said that it has been next to impossible:

I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…

I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.

I turn on TV and watch CNN and, frankly, a lot of MSNBC shows, and they’re presenting it as if there’s not a voice out there willing to defend the president and his decision to withdraw. But I offered those very shows those voices, and the shows purposely decided to shut them out.

In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.

Who is on TV? As Media Matters has documented, there are plenty of former Bush administration officials criticizing the withdrawal.

Is it really about execution?

Much of the criticism of Biden’s decision to withdraw has focused on the administration’s “execution.” The critics claim the withdrawal was poorly planned, chaotic, and unnecessarily put Americans — and their Afghan allies — in danger.

Some of these claims may be true. It’s hard to know, for example, how many people have been left behind since evacuations are ongoing. But, with a few exceptions, the criticisms of Biden’s execution are being made by people who opposed withdrawal altogether.

For example, in a scathing column published in the Washington Post, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticizes the execution of the withdrawal. But she also makes clear that she does not think the U.S. military should have left.

Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.

Rice’s argument for why the withdrawal was executed poorly is very similar. She says that waiting a few more months, until winter, would have made it more difficult for the Taliban to fight and “given the Afghans a little more time to develop a strategy to prevent the chaotic fall of Kabul.”

But Rice’s argument makes clear that it is impossible to disentangle the execution of the withdrawal with the broader policy failures of the last two decades. It may be more difficult for the Taliban to fight in the winter, but the Taliban did not need to fight. Afghan security forces simply evaporated.

The twenty-year effort to build up these institutions — touted by Rice and much of the national security establishment — was a total failure. A . . .

Continue reading. There may be a paywall, unfortunately, but the newsletter is excellent.

The media’s systemic failure on Afghanistan

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Judd Legum has a particularly strong column today. It may be protected by a paywall, but it’s worth checking out if you can. He writes:

After two decades of war, President Biden finally made the decision to fully withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. It did not go as planned. The Afghan government and security forces, which the United States spent two decades building up, evaporated in days. The Taliban, the Islamist group which harbored Al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks, quickly regained control over the country.

This was a failure that comes with real consequences for innocent Afghans. At particular risk are the Afghans that assisted US efforts, who may face retribution if they remain in the country, and women and girls, who may be stripped of their rights by the repressive Taliban regime.

But was this primarily a failure by Biden, for deciding to withdraw now? Or was it the unavoidable conclusion of failed policies in Afghanistan across four presidential administrations? Most coverage has focused criticism on Biden. And to bolster that argument, media outlets are relying on many of the people responsible for two decades of failure in Afghanistan. While there are legitimate criticisms of the way Biden executed the withdrawal, the result is an extremely distorted narrative.

Inside the Washington Post’s “straight news” piece on Afghanistan

Let’s examine, for example, this piece in the Washington Post: “Biden’s promise to restore competence to the presidency is undercut by chaos in Afghanistan.” Although this is presented as a “straight news” piece, the entire premise is that Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects his own incompetence. The author, Matt Viser, reports that the decision and its execution reflected “an inability to plan” and “an underestimation of a foreign adversary.”

As proof, Viser cites, “leading lawmakers and others” who believe that “the chaotic, and deadly, implementation of [Biden’s] decision reflects a failure by Biden at a critical moment to deliver the steady leadership and sound judgment he promised.” Who are these “leading lawmakers and others”? The same people who have been consistently wrong about Afghanistan strategy for the last twenty years.

The lead quote comes from former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who said Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects the fact that Biden “didn’t really spend much time on the issue” and the Biden administration was simply “crossing their fingers and hoping chaos would not result.”

But is Panetta a credible voice on how policies will play out in Afghanistan? In a November 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, Panetta said that the military campaign in Afghanistan had “seriously weakened the Taliban” and now the Afghan people were “able to control their own fate.” He said that the development of the Afghan army and police force was “on target” and they were “doing the job.”

This was a consistent refrain during Panetta’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. “[W]e are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” Panetta said in December 2011.

After a March 2012 visit to Afghanistan, Panetta was even more optimistic. “Afghanistan needs to be able to govern and secure itself,” Panetta said. “We are very close to accomplishing that.” In January 2013, Panetta announced we had entered “the last chapter of establishing a sovereign Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.”

Panetta, of course, was wrong about all of this. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

. . . But neither Panetta’s role in the failed mission, nor his history of poor judgments about the trajectory of the country, are mentioned in the Washington Post. Instead he’s given free rein to paper over his involvement and place the blame on Biden.  . .

And there are more: others who were making disastrous decisions and misjudgments at the time, but quoted by the Washington Post as though they were impartial experts (rather than men trying to ignore their own role by placing blame on Biden).

It’s pieces like this — and there’s much more — that make me subscribe to Popular Information.

Another snippet from the piece:

Crocker’s role in covering up the corruption of the Afghan government is not mentioned in Viser’s Washington Post article or the other outlets that quoted him for criticizing the withdrawal — NBC NewsThe HillAxios, and Fox News.

Written by Leisureguy

18 August 2021 at 6:35 pm

The Afghanistan Debacle: How Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden Bamboozled the American Public

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David Corn’s newsletter The Land is available three times a week through a paid subscription, but the current issue — on the very interesting topic of how the public was betrayed by a succession of Presidents — is available free. It begins:

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the calamitous collapse of Kabul are the result of years of American failure to understand that nation and that war—an immense failure that was covered up by the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.

It was Bush and Dick Cheney who led the United States into what would be the longest-running quagmire in American history. And they did so with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing Osama bin Laden out of Afghanistan and running the al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban out of power. Most notoriously, before figuring out how to proceed in Afghanistan after the initial attack, they launched the even more misguided war in Iraq on the basis of lies and, in similar fashion, without a clear plan for what would come after the fall of Saddam Hussein. As a result, over 4,400 American soldiers would perish there, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians would die in the years of post-invasion fighting. Meanwhile, nearly 6,300 American GIs and contractors would lose their lives in Afghanistan. The arrogance and ineptitude of Bush, Cheney, and their henchmen have led to the horrible images and tales we have seen reported from Afghanistan in the past few days—which themselves are the continuation of many years of horrible images and tales from the double-debacle of these two wars.

But the Obama and Trump administrations were complicit in the Afghanistan catastrophe, particularly for perpetuating the national security establishment’s delusions—and lies—about the war. In 2019, the Washington Post obtained access to a trove of confidential US government documents about the Afghanistan war that were produced as part of an inspector general’s project that investigated the root failures of the war by conducting interviews with 400 insiders involved with the effort, including generals, White House officials, diplomats, and Afghan officials. The findings were damning. As the Post put it, “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

That was a helluva secret to keep from the public. A sharp indictment came from Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who was the White House Afghan war czar for Bush and Obama. In 2015, he told the project’s interviewers, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan­—we didn’t know what we were doing.” The guy in charge of Afghanistan remarkably added, “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” Lute also observed, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction.” Yes, imagine if we did—though the vast corruption that undermined the massive US rebuilding endeavor was well reported repeatedly over the years. As were the continuous failures within the war itself. Yet Congress, the media, and the citizenry paid insufficient attention to this never-ending, going-nowhere conflict.

Several officials interviewed noted the US government—military HQ in Kabul and the White House—consistently hoodwinked the public to make it seem the US was winning in Afghanistan when it was not. Remember the steady stream of assurances the Afghan military was becoming more capable of beating back the Taliban? That was BS. A senior National Security Council official said there was pressure from the Obama White House and the Pentagon to concoct stats showing the American troop surge was succeeding: “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. The metrics were always manipulated for the duration of the war.”

John Sopko, who headed the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which ran the project, bottom-lined this for the Post: “The American people have constantly been lied to.”

Think about that. Americans have paid about $1 trillion for the war in Afghanistan. Thousands have given their lives; many more have suffered tremendous injuries. And the public was not told the truth about this venture. It was bamboozled by successive administrations. The Post had to twice sue SIGAR to force the release of these papers under the Freedom of Information Act. The Trump administration preferred to keep this material under wraps.

These documents were somewhat akin to the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000-page long history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the media by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and showed that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had routinely deceived the public about supposed progress in that war. (The Afghanistan papers, unlike the Vietnam study, were not classified.) Yet the Post’s big get did not detonate a major controversy, as the Pentagon Papers did. This holy-shit scoop was duly noted, and then, as is often the case, we all moved on. The Afghanistan war had long since become a non-story, relegated to p. A15, if covered at all.

Now we are worried, perhaps angered, by the fall of Kabul, and we fear for the Afghans—especially the women and girls, the human rights activists, and those who aided US forces and Western journalists—who are about to become inhabitants of the Taliban’s fundamentalist hellscape. But however we reached this point—and whether or not President Joe Biden committed a grave error with the US troop withdrawal and its management—one thing is clear: US presidents, military officials, and policymakers were not straight with the American public about Afghanistan. We never had an honest debate about what was being done there and what could—and couldn’t—be accomplished. (For a snapshot of the absurdity of the Afghanistan war, see this recent thread from Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.)

As Afghans in Kabul, including President Ashraf Ghani, fled the incoming Taliban this past weekend, the blame game kicked in. Who lost Afghanistan? Well, it wasn’t ours to lose in the first place. But everyone is to blame, for everyone lied or got it wrong: Bush and Cheney, Obama and Biden, Trump and Pence, and now Biden and Harris. When Trump in February 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban obligating the US troop withdrawal that has just occurred, he told Americans that he expected the Taliban would act responsibly. He claimed the Taliban was “tired of war.” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called it a “hopeful moment.” Months later, there was intensified fighting. In July, President Joe Biden, who had the choice of abiding by this deal or confronting an anticipated expansion in Taliban attacks, presented a false impression of what to expect with the troop pullout Trump had negotiated: “The jury is still out, but the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”

Ending the US military involvement in Afghanistan is a noble goal. But while it was too easy for the United States, in the wake of 9/11, to launch a forever war in the land that previously defied the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and other outsiders, extrication was never going to be smooth and cost-free. History doesn’t lie. And with no honest dialogue about the war, this brutal finish is even more shocking.

The American public has been conned about Afghanistan for two decades by successive administrations. Did any of those lies do the Afghan people any good? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Government Report: Pentagon Had ‘Willful Disregard’ for Reality in Afghanistan

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Matthew Gault reports in Motherboard:

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog group that chronicled America’s failures in the country, has released a new report summing up two decades of war. The 140-page report, titled What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, is a damning list of failures. It tells the story of an ineffectual empire with no plan, no will to learn, and no idea how to do anything but spend money.

Much of the report is a brutal condemnation of a historic failure, and some of the anecdotes—one of which explains how officials used the TV shows Cops and NCIS to teach policing concepts—are simply mind-boggling. “The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly,” the report states. And, it says, “U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation to understand the impact of their efforts.”

The report, based on hundreds of interviews and done by a government entity that has studied the war in Afghanistan for more than a decade, portrays the United States as a country that attempted to do nation building in a nation it didn’t understand and didn’t care to learn about. It said that the turnover within the rebuilding efforts’ ranks was such that the U.S. made the same mistakes over and over again, which SIGAR likened to an “annual lobotomy.”

“U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions,” it said. “Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available.”

From the very beginning of the report, which tallies the dead and the amount of money spent, the report explains how the U.S. government failed its own people and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan: “The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense has also spent $837 billion on warfighting, during which 2,433 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured,” the report said.

“Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll,” it said. “At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001—both likely significant underestimations.”

The report has seven lessons it wants America’s leaders to learn from Afghanistan. In a list, they feel like a tallying of major failures. According to SGIAR, the U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve, set unrealistic timelines that fostered corruption, poured money into unsustainable infrastructure projects, hired and trained the wrong people poorly, and underestimated the violence that would plague an occupied country.

It’s a big-picture report with specific anecdotes that explain how terrible America’s efforts were. Facing a shortage of cops to train local civilian forces, America hired helicopter pilots to do the job. Helicopter pilots knew little about policing and had to be trained themselves. “The training many military advisors did receive was not even Afghanistan-specific,” the report said. “With such a training deficiency, some policy advisors turned in desperation to television shows like Cops and NCIS to become more familiar with policing.”

In 2009, when America realized it didn’t have enough people to build out the country’s infrastructure, “it tried to mass-produce these teams by taking chemical warfare response units and giving them a four-week-long PowerPoint training, with poor results.”

When these chemical warfare experts turned their sights to civil engineering, they began to turn in policy proposals with information copied from each other and the PowerPoint slides. “Another senior military officer told SIGAR that some justifications even included references to ‘sheikhs,’ indicating they were being copied from proposals written in Iraq.”

Staffing ambitious projects were a perennial problem in Afghanistan, the report found. The more than $144 billion the U.S. spent in the country on reconstruction went, largely, to buildings. It often couldn’t find people to do the jobs it needed done. “The United States government repeatedly undertook new projects without first guaranteeing enough personnel resources were available to see them through,” it said. “At one point, a USAID employee noted that the organization was so desperate for additional staff that they were hiring anyone with ‘a pulse and a master’s degree.’”

Those who did come to work didn’t stay very long, and by the time a competent person had gotten a handle on their job, it was often time for them to go home. “With personnel taking critical information with them as they rotated out, the reconstruction effort essentially experienced an annual lobotomy, as newly arriving staff made the same mistakes as their predecessors,” SIGAR said.

SIGAR documented the various problems of America’s war in Afghanistan for 12 years. The mistakes of the past were available for any U.S. official or general who cared to learn. According to SIGAR, its warnings were mostly ignored. “The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan,” the report said. “The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity.”

As new political parties and new leaders took control in America, . . .

Continue reading. There’s (sadly) more.

Leaving Afghanistan

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Kevin Drum has an excellent post on where much of the blame for the US debacle in Afghanistan lies: the military. That conclusion was also reached by Mike Jason, who retired in 2019 as a U.S. Army colonel after 24 years on active duty during which he commanded combat units in Germany, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, he asks why the military failed so bad at its task. His entire article is worth reading; here’s its conclusion:

. . . Over these past 20 years, there have been many failings. We checked the box when it came to saying that we had trained our partners, spun a rosy narrative of progress, and perhaps prioritized the safety and well-being of our troops over the mission of buttressing partner capacity. (When our Afghan partners shot at us, killing our comrades in the now infamous “green on blue” incidents, we tightened up our security procedures but didn’t address the hard questions of why they were shooting at us in the first place.) We didn’t send the right people, prepare them well, or reward them afterward. We rotated strangers on tours of up to a year and expected them to build relationships, then replaced them. We were overly optimistic and largely made things up as we went along. We didn’t like oversight or tough questions from Washington, and no one really bothered to hold us accountable anyway. We had no capacity or experience with some of our tasks, and we stumbled.

Yet these failings—egregious as they were—make it easy to focus on the armed forces as a scapegoat. In fact, the military, our allies, and our Iraqi and Afghan partners were responding to a lack of coherent policy and strategy.

We invaded Afghanistan with righteous anger after 9/11, but then what? Why was the United States in Afghanistan for years afterward? What about our fraught relationship with Pakistan and its influence in Afghanistan? A coherent strategy to address these questions would have made my job easier on the ground. First and foremost, a clearly articulated end goal would have assured our Afghan partners and our allies from other nations (as well as our foes) of our determination. Instead of leaving the entire effort to the Department of Defense, a coordinated strategy with commensurate resources across government could have produced better results in multiple Afghan institutions. Further, 20 years ago, a commitment to law enforcement might have been very attractive to our allies, many of whom have their own national police force and a track record of success in performing such missions. Perhaps most crucial, a clear and forceful foreign policy regarding Pakistan, coupled with a commitment to supporting and employing a new Afghan army, would have provided much clarity and focus for our military.

We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction. The U.S. military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan—I hold us responsible. The current collapse keeps me up at night. In the military, the main effort gets the best resources and the best talent available. For more than 20 years, no matter what was reported, what we read in the headlines, efforts to build and train large-scale conventional security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have mostly been an aimless, ham-fisted acronym soup of trial and error that never became the true main effort, and we are to blame for that.

But we are not the only ones responsible. Someday we will ask young men and women to do this again—to fight a war overseas, to partner with local forces, to train them and build them up. Before we do, we owe it to those young people to ask the tough questions of how, and why, we all failed.

Heather Cox Richardson offers a good summary in her post this morning. I recommend reading the entire post; here’s the conclusion:

. . . By 2018 the Taliban, which is well funded by foreign investors, mining, opium, and a sophisticated tax system operated in the shadow of the official government, had reestablished itself in more than two thirds of Afghanistan. Americans were tired of the seemingly endless war and were eager for it to end.

To end a military commitment that journalist Dexter Filkins dubbed the “forever war,” former president Donald Trump sent officials to negotiate with the Taliban, and in February 2020 the U.S. agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops, along with NATO allies, by May 1, so long as the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. troops and cut ties with terrorists.

The U.S. did not include the Afghan government in the talks that led to the deal, leaving it to negotiate its own terms with the Taliban after the U.S. had already announced it was heading home. Observers at the time were concerned that the U.S. withdrawal would essentially allow the Taliban to retake control of the country, where the previous 20 years had permitted the reestablishment of stability and women’s rights. Indeed, almost immediately, Taliban militants began an assassination campaign against Afghan leaders, although they did not kill any American soldiers after the deal was signed.

Meanwhile, by announcing their intentions, American officials took pressure off the Taliban to negotiate with Afghan leaders. The Pentagon’s inspector general noted in February that “The Taliban intends to stall the negotiations until U.S. and coalition forces withdraw so that it can seek a decisive military victory over the Afghan government.”

Hoping to win voters with this deal to end the war, the Trump administration celebrated the agreement. In September, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “A vote for Joe Biden is a vote for forever war in the Middle East. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to finally bring our troops home.” Then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested the U.S. would have “zero” troops left in Afghanistan by spring 2021.

When he was Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden had made it no secret that he was not comfortable with the seemingly endless engagement in Afghanistan. By the time he took office as president in January 2021, he was also boxed in by Trump’s agreement. In April, Biden announced that he would honor Trump’s agreement—“an agreement made by the United States government…means something,” Biden said—and he would begin a final withdrawal on May 1, 2021, to be finished before September 11, the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

In July, 73% of Americans agreed that the U.S. should withdraw.

On July 8, Biden announced that the withdrawal was taking place quicker than planned and that the military mission of the U.S. in Afghanistan would end on August 31. He said the U.S. had accomplished what it set out to do in Afghanistan—kill bin Laden and destroy a haven for international terrorists—and had no business continuing to influence the future of the Afghan people. Together with NATO, the U.S. had trained and equipped nearly 300,000 members of the current Afghan military, as well as many more who are no longer serving, with all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military. While we will continue to support that military, he said, it is time for the Afghan people to “drive toward a future that the Afghan people want and they deserve.”

For those asking that we stay just a little longer, especially in light of the fact the U.S. has lost no personnel since Trump cut the deal with the Taliban, he asked them to recognize that reneging on that deal would start casualties again. And he asked, “Would you send your own son or daughter?”

Biden insisted the U.S. would continue to support the Afghan government and said the U.S. was working to bring to the U.S. Afghan translators whose lives are in danger for working with U.S. forces. He also seemed to acknowledge the extraordinary danger facing Afghan women and girls under the rule of the Taliban as it continues to sweep through the country. And yet, he said, “I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”

Instead of using troops, Biden has focused on cutting off the flow of money to terrorists through financial and economic sanctions. (Today, a U.S. official told CNN that the “vast majority” of the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank are not held in Afghanistan and that the U.S. will freeze whatever assets are in the U.S.)

As the U.S. pulled out of the country, the Afghan military simply melted away. Regional capitals fell to the Taliban with little resistance, and Kabul today fell with similar ease. Just five weeks after Biden’s July speech, the Afghan president has left the country and the Taliban is in power.

Already, Republicans are trying to blame the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan on Biden, ignoring former president Trump’s insistence that Biden speed up the exit because “getting out of Afghanistan is a wonderful and positive thing to do.” So eager are Republicans to rewrite history that they are literally erasing it. Tonight, Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel noticed that the Republican National Committee has scrubbed from its website a section celebrating the deal the Trump administration cut with the Taliban and praising Trump for taking “the lead in peace talks as he signed a historic peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which would end America’s longest war.”

Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who served in Afghanistan and who opposed Biden’s plan for withdrawal, has been highlighting the past statements of pro-exit Republicans who are now attacking the president. “Do not let my party preten[d] to be outraged by this,” he tweeted. “Both the [Republicans] and [Democrats] failed here. Time for Americans to put their country over their party.”

Daniel Hale exposed the machinery of America’s clandestine warfare. Why did no one seem to care?

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Relevant to the story: Eye in the Sky, with Helen Mirrin and Alan Rickman—Alan Rickman’s last movie, in fact, and a terrific movie.

Kerry Howley writes in New York:

Daniel Everette Hale was the best dishwasher in Nashville. He was faster, more efficient, more knowledgeable about the machinery that makes a restaurant run. He could predict when the kitchen would need bowls and when small plates; he could take apart the dishwasher and deliver an impromptu lecture on the proper cleaning thereof. He was 31, slight, with a buzz cut and tattoos down his taut forearms, and while he thought himself the best, in the minds of the men for whom he worked he was a touch too invested. If something broke, such as a spray nozzle, he’d show up the next day with a new spray nozzle and tools to install it, having never checked with management at all, at which point management might say, “Daniel, we already had a backup spray nozzle.” Despite the excellence of his washing, he had been fired many times from many kitchens for generally being a pain in the ass. He was, for instance, persistently pressing the staff to demand higher wages and was repeatedly disappointed that the staff seemed uninterested.

There was only one restaurant that lived up to the standards of the best dishwasher in Nashville. This was Folk, which Daniel recalls as a “beautiful, just beautiful brand-new restaurant with, like, impeccable aesthetics and these big ceiling-high windows that let the light shine in during the midday and a beautiful marble bar and all these fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” The staff was disciplined and well trained and not given to the episodes of sexual harassment he had seen in other restaurants. In the open kitchen, he discovered “this really cool dish machine, a single-rack dish machine I hadn’t used before.” The staff was “like a family,” and the much-celebrated chef was “always, always there,” not at all like the “complete asshole dirtbag restaurant guys” he’d worked for before. But eventually, as he had in many other Nashville kitchens, Daniel became too difficult an employee to manage, too time-consuming in his ever-expanding list of ideas for improvement, and one evening in May 2019, the chef let him go.

Daniel got drunk, met a woman, went home with her, and immediately regretted it. In the night, he opened a condom but didn’t use it. He returned to his apartment early the next morning and called a close friend to whom he would lament the loss of his job. “I loved it there,” he was telling his friend, there on the porch on a wet May morning in Nashville. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”

Daniel heard a rustling in the leaves beside the porch and thought perhaps it was his roommates, though in retrospect they would not be up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. He stopped speaking.

A man in black ran toward him with a drawn gun. Then two more men. Then six.

This is it, Daniel thought. Finally.

The FBI agents swarmed him, searched him. Last time this had happened, the agents had seemed to Daniel contemptuous, but these guys seemed slightly embarrassed, as if to acknowledge that it was all “a little excessive.” An FBI agent stuck his hand in Daniel’s pocket and pulled out the unwrapped condom.

“You couldn’t have warned me?” the agent said.

On the drive to work that morning, the chef turned on NPR, which is how he learned that the dishwasher he had just fired had been seized for stealing documents about the secret assassination program we have come to call the drone war.

Anyone can build a combat drone. If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give the machines they build — Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone — but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots, vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, and waterways. Sometimes they simply go silent and float away, never to be found again. Hundreds and hundreds of military drones we have lost this way, scattered across the globe. It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.

What is notable is not the drone but the network that keeps it aloft. This is where American power asserts itself: the satellites we rocket into the sky and the shallow-bowled receivers we nail to the ground. Concrete bases, trucks dragging satellites in their beds, the cables American soldiers lay in ditches they’ve dug into someone else’s desert. (“A fuck-ton of cables,” as one whistleblower explained it to me.)

Most of this hard and heavy infrastructure is maintained in a secrecy upheld by the CIA, which runs one drone program, the military, which runs another, the agencies that serve them, and the contractors that serve the agencies. In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. The Intercept published an eight-part series centered on these documents that became a book. “A ‘second Snowden’ Leaks to The Intercept,” announced CNN, an alliteration that would prove irresistible across media; “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs,” read a headline in WiredAmnesty International called for a congressional investigation. First Snowden called it “an astonishing act of civil courage.”

Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.

In November 2020, his housemate coaxed him out for a beer at a place called Moreland’s Tavern in Northwest D.C. When Daniel arrived, eight people he knew were seated at tables outside in the cold. The intervention had been arranged by the housemate and by one of Daniel’s closest friends, an activist named Noor Mir, who knew that Daniel was hesitant to impose on people and that he needed help. “I think it’s hard for men to understand that it’s okay to feel really, really scared,” Mir told me.

They went around the table, one by one, and told Daniel that he had to get his shit together. He needed to participate in his defense. He needed to prepare for the possibility of prison. He needed to consider the future care of his cat. He needed to tell his story, because if he failed to do that, the prosecution’s story would stand unchallenged. Daniel had his feet on a chair, his arms around his knees, supremely uncomfortable. Two hours in, the last person said what he had come to say. They waited for Daniel to respond.

“All right, everybody,” he said, half-smiling for the first time that evening. “Can we shut the fuck up now?”

Daniel told none of his friends he was ready to talk, but on April 4, he called me. He said he didn’t want to be called a whistleblower. He preferred the word traitor.

No one owns a secret state, and no one answers for it. There was a moment in 2012, 2013, when various people outside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan began to notice that inside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. was waging constant, secret war under a set of rules known to few. It was May 2013 when Obama finally felt it necessary to give his big drone speech, in which he acknowledged that drones were morally complicated, promised to “review proposals to extend oversight,” deemed them an unfortunate necessity for the safety of Americans, and generally gave the impression that he would make the program accountable. But everything of note that happens in this story happened after such gestures were forced, and made, and forgotten.

aniel did not come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone” — country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.

By the time he finished high school, Daniel trusted a single source of information, which was Democracy Now! Daniel’s father had, from a very young age, suggested the military as a way out of poverty, but Daniel was already on an intellectual journey in which he would come to see Edward Snowden as insufficiently extreme; he wanted nothing to do with it. He tried enrolling in a regional UVA campus and dropped out. He tried community college and dropped out. He met a friend on the internet playing World of Warcraft, moved to Vegas to look for work at a casino, could find no such work (“I was kind of a dipshit at the time,” he says), and moved back home. He answered a job ad that said it did not require experience and was given a bus ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he joined a bunch of kids he describes as “mostly runaways.” The company put them up, two to a room, in hotels, and had them selling magazines door-to-door. You could get rich, the managers said, if you kept at it. You could be like them. It would be hard to imagine a worse salesman than Daniel Hale, who once told me he has frequent nightmares because “any person of conscience in America builds up a sense of dread.” Humiliated, he asked his dad for a ride home. Now he was in Bristol again, 21, with no real prospects and a sense of how brutal the world could be to a man with no skills for which the world had asked. He and his father got into a fight that became physical. Daniel walked into a military-recruitment office in a strip mall near a Walmart. He took a test, aced it, and was told he could do anything he wanted.

It wasn’t so bad, the life he had accepted when no others made themselves known, under a new president who made promises in which it was tempting to believe: the closing of Guantánamo, an end to forever war. Daniel assumed it was impossible to be a president without becoming a war criminal, but he had attended an Obama rally in his hometown. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, he studied Mandarin for the greater glory of the state. He adored his classmate Michael, with whom he had long conversations about politics and indie rap. He thought a lot about ways to get dishonorably discharged, but he woke up in the morning and went to class.

Obama did not in fact close Guantánamo in his first 100 days. He did not end the drone program or usher in a new age of transparency. Not a week into office, he authorized two drone strikes that killed 14 people, many of whom were not the targets. Obama increased the tempo of attacks and would, two years later, introduce the novel element of killing American citizens. At first the strikes had been limited to “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” but gradually they were found useful for forces it was extremely hard to argue were associated with Al Qaeda. It was useful, Obama found, to employ drone strikes against the tribal enemies of various governments the U.S. was supporting. It was useful to target not just high-ranking members of various organizations but low-level members; useful to evolve the whole thing from an assassination program to a holistic counterinsurgency machine. In parts of Pakistan, locals had stopped drinking Lipton tea, out of fear that the tea bags were homing devices used by the CIA to attract drones.

In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.

Obama, Daniel concluded, was “a clown,” “just a complete fraud,” who would uphold the worst policies of his secretive predecessor. But now it was 2010, and the national security state’s ability to keep its secrets was beginning to break down. While at the Defense Language Institute, Daniel says, an officer came into his classroom and forbade them from searching for a term relatively new to the world: WikiLeaks. If they did so, they’d lose their security clearance. Julian Assange had packaged, edited, and dramatically unveiled leaked footage of American soldiers shooting a man holding a camera because they had thought the camera was a gun. On YouTube, one could watch the photographer die and one could watch a van pull up and a man jump out to help the photographer the Americans had shot. One could watch, on YouTube, as the Americans shot up the van, though if one were watching closely, one would already have seen that in the front of the van were two small children. One could hear a deep silence as the American soldiers watched the limp children being carried from the van.

“Well, it’s their fault,” one hears a soldier say, “for bringing their kids into battle.”

Daniel was sent to Fort Meade, which he describes as . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

Rachel Maddow speaks on Frederick Douglass

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Rachel Maddow:

In 1845, Frederick Douglass, the great American abolitionist, published the first of what would become three autobiographical accounts of his life. The first one was called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.

Frederick Douglass is, of course, one of the greatest Americans of all time. His autobiographies about life as a slave and his struggle to become free, in addition to everything else he did in his life, those written works are some of the most influential written American accounts of anything on any subject.

In Narrative of the Life, which is the most widely read of the three of his three autobiographical accounts but also in the subsequent autobiographies he wrote as well, including the next one, My Bondage and My Freedom, one of the most harrowing things that Frederick Douglass describes about his own life is a yearlong period when the man who owned him as a slave decided that young Frederick Douglass was incorrigible.

Douglass’ owner decided that Frederick Douglass needed in effect to be tamed, to be broken. And so he shipped Frederick Douglass off to a man that is literally known as a slave breaker. The slave breaker was named Edward Covey. C-O-V-E-Y.

This is part of how Frederick Douglass describes him in My Bondage and My Freedom. He says, quote, “I have now lived with him [meaning his slave owner] nearly nine months, and he had given me a number of severe whippings, without any visible improvement in my character or my conduct. Now he was resolved to put me out as he said, quote, to be broken.”

There was, in the Bay Side, a man named Edward Covey, who enjoyed the execrated reputation of being a first rate hand at breaking young Negroes. Breaking.

Frederick Douglass then goes on in chapter after chapter after chapter in this autobiography. Look at this. The experiences at Covey’s, unusual brutality at Covey, driven back to Covey’s. You know, Covey’s manner of proceeding to whip, right? Chapter after chapter after chapter, he describes this experience, the way that Edward Covey tortured him and beat him nearly to death and worked him nearly to death all the try to destroy Frederick Douglass’ spirit, to try to destroy his mind, to turn him into a docile slave who would work out question whereupon he would then be returned to his owner.

And because Douglass is so capable and so brilliant, his own recounting of what happened to him in that period of his life, what happened to him when his slave owner sent him to Edward Covey, what happened to him at Edward Covey’s hands, what happened to him when he stayed for a year at Edward Covey’s farm and Covey was tasked there with breaking him, because Frederick Douglass is such a luminous, important, brilliant, inspiring, incredible figure, unparalleled figure in American history, because of what we know he is capable of, because of what we know what his mind was capable of and what he did for his country in his life, when he recounts what happened to him at the hands of Edward Covey, it is the most dispiriting and desolate and just miserable thing that Douglass writes about.

He wrote:

I shall never be able to narrate the mental experience through which it was my lot to pass during my stay at Edward Covey’s. I was completely wrecked, changed and bewildered, goaded almost to madness at one time and at another reconciling myself to my wretched condition. I suffered bodily as well as mentally.

“The overwork and brutal chastisements of which I was the victim, combined with that ever gnawing and soul devouring thought, I am a slave, a slave for life, a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom, it rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness.

That was Frederick Douglass’ account of his own life in that lowest period in his own life. And that written account did more than any other to galvanize the American abolitionist movement to bring an end to slavery. Of course, it was not fiction. It really happened and it happened as Frederick Douglass said it did and Edward Covey was a real person who operated a slave breaking operation at his farm to which Frederick Douglass was sent.

Now, if you go back to that initial description, Douglass describes Covey’s farm as being on the Bay Side. What he meant by that is that the farm was on the far side of Chesapeake Bay, the far side of Chesapeake Bay from the mainland of Maryland, which is where Douglass was being sent there from.

Edward Covey’s farm, his slave breaking operation which he tortured Frederick Douglass and countless others was this house and its surrounding farmland on the eastern shore of Maryland, in a town that’s now called St. Michael’s.

The farm and the house at the farm itself had a name, a fitting name. It was called Mount Misery.
About 15 years ago now, a literature professor wrote a very thoughtful piece in the Baltimore Sun newspaper suggesting a new future for Mount Misery, suggesting that the United States of America should consider buying Mount Misery to make it a commemorative site. He argued, would not the most fitting outcome for Mount Misery be as a monument or museum wherein a key moment from the country’s past can find a rightful place in the public memory. The old Edward Covey house deserves our understanding and preservation, the fight between slave and slave breaker that took place there is emblematic of two of the elemental themes of American history, the horrors of legally sanctioned racial violence and also the nobility of the struggle against it.

And then her;`s actually the kicker from that piece. The professor writes, “Preserving Mount Misery as a public site of contemplation where the meanings of democracy and despotism are given a human face also would help keep St. Michael’s from being merely a resort for the wealthy.”

A resort for the wealthy? Check this out. The occasion for that call that well-argued piece in the Baltimore Sun that Mount Misery should be purchased and preserved by this country as a monument to the epic violence committed there against slaves in great numbers but specifically against one of the greatest Americans of all time, the key role that the torture in that house played in turning on our American conscious to eventually overthrow slavery, the occasion for that call to preserve Mount Misery as a monument to the hell that happened there, the reason the Baltimore Sun published that just less than 15 years ago now was this revelation that was published in the New York Times exactly 15 years ago today.

On June 30th, 2006, it’s titled “Weekends with the President’s Men.” It is kind of a kicky sidebar piece in the New York Times that was published in the summer of 2006. And that piece revealed that that site on the eastern shore of Maryland, Mount Misery, that house, that farm had actually been recently purchased and was now being lived in as a private home.

Can you imagine, right? First of all, the house is still called Mount Misery today. That`s still the name by which it is known. Who would want to live in a place called Mount Misery?

But then you get to the reason that it`s called Mount Misery, right? It was the home, the same building standing there since 1804. Frederick Douglass was tortured there in 1833 and 1834. It`s the same actual physical place in which the great Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten and worked nearly to death every day for a year.

Whether or not you think that place should be purchased by this country and made into a memorial for the worst most violent evils of slavery and their role on turning on American’s conscious to end slavery, again, that’s a substantive and interesting proposal. Whether or not you are into that idea, would you want to live there yourself? Would you like to wake up there in the morning and plan breakfast, have that be your home? Who would do that?

That article published in the New York Times“15 years ago today was actually controversial at the time that it was published because in writing that piece it did reveal the exact home address of a senior government official who in fact had made Mount Misery his private home. His name is Donald Rumsfeld, and he was at the time, the summer of 2006, struggling to the end of his disastrous tenure as Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration.

He lived at the time at Mount Misery. He bought the place in 2003 as he was leading the nation into the invasion of Iraq. That was where he went to get away from Washington while running two disastrous wars. He would like to have the Chinook helicopter drop him off at the slave breaker’s home where Douglass was tortured to death. He could relax there.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 10:31 pm

How Rumsfeld Deserves to Be Remembered

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George Packer vocally and enthusiastically backed the idea of the US invading Iraq by the US during the George W. Bush administration, when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and Dick Cheney was Vice President. Cheney and Rumsfeld seemed to work closely together. Packer now writes in the Atlantic:

In 2006, soon after I returned from my fifth reporting trip to Iraq for The New Yorker, a pair of top aides in the George W. Bush White House invited me to lunch to discuss the war. This was a first; until then, no one close to the president would talk to me, probably because my writing had not been friendly and the administration listened only to what it wanted to hear. But by 2006, even the Bush White House was beginning to grasp that Iraq was closer to all-out civil war than to anything that could be called “freedom.”

The two aides wanted to know what had gone wrong. They were particularly interested in my view of the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and his role in the debacle. As I gave an assessment, their faces actually seemed to sag toward their salads, and I wondered whether the White House was so isolated from Iraqi reality that top aides never heard such things directly. Lunch ended with no explanation for why they’d invited me. But a few months later, when the Bush administration announced Rumsfeld’s retirement, I suspected that the aides had been gathering a case against him. They had been trying to push him out before it was too late.

Rumsfeld was the worst secretary of defense in American history. Being newly dead shouldn’t spare him this distinction. He was worse than the closest contender, Robert McNamara, and that is not a competition to judge lightly. McNamara’s folly was that of a whole generation of Cold Warriors who believed that Indochina was a vital front in the struggle against communism. His growing realization that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable waste made him more insightful than some of his peers; his decision to keep this realization from the American public made him an unforgivable coward. But Rumsfeld was the chief advocate of every disaster in the years after September 11. Wherever the United States government contemplated a wrong turn, Rumsfeld was there first with his hard smile—squinting, mocking the cautious, shoving his country deeper into a hole. His fatal judgment was equaled only by his absolute self-assurance. He lacked the courage to doubt himself. He lacked the wisdom to change his mind.

Rumsfeld was working in his office on the morning that a hijacked jet flew into the Pentagon. During the first minutes of terror, he displayed bravery and leadership. But within a few hours, he was already entertaining catastrophic ideas, according to notes taken by an aide: “best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” And later: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.” These fragments convey the whole of Rumsfeld: his decisiveness, his aggression, his faith in hard power, his contempt for procedure. In the end, it didn’t matter what the intelligence said. September 11 was a test of American will and a chance to show it.

Rumsfeld started being wrong within hours of the attacks and never stopped. He argued that the attacks proved the need for the missile-defense shield that he’d long advocated. He thought that the American war in Afghanistan meant the end of the Taliban. He thought that the new Afghan government didn’t need the U.S. to stick around for security and support. He thought that the United States should stiff the United Nations, brush off allies, and go it alone. He insisted that al-Qaeda couldn’t operate without a strongman like Saddam. He thought that all the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, except the dire reports that he’d ordered up himself. He reserved his greatest confidence for intelligence obtained through torture. He thought that the State Department and the CIA were full of timorous, ignorant bureaucrats. He thought that America could win wars with computerized weaponry and awesome displays of force.

He believed in regime change but not in nation building, and he thought that a few tens of thousands of troops would be enough to win in Iraq. He thought that the quick overthrow of Saddam’s regime meant mission accomplished. He responded to the looting of Baghdad by saying “Freedom’s untidy,” as if the chaos was just a giddy display of democracy—as if it would not devastate Iraq and become America’s problem, too. He believed that Iraq should be led by a corrupt London banker with a history of deceiving the U.S. government. He faxed pages from a biography of Che Guevara to a U.S. Army officer in the region to prove that the growing Iraqi resistance did not meet the definition of an insurgency. He dismissed the insurgents as “dead-enders” and humiliated a top general who dared to call them by their true name. He insisted on keeping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq so low that much of the country soon fell to the insurgency. He focused his best effort on winning bureaucratic wars in Washington.

By the time Rumsfeld was fired, in November 2006, the U.S., instead of securing peace in one country, was losing wars in two, largely because of actions and decisions taken by Rumsfeld himself. As soon as he was gone, the disaster in Iraq began to turn around, at least briefly, with a surge of 30,000 troops, a policy change that Rumsfeld had adamantly opposed. But it was too late. Perhaps it was too late by the early afternoon of September 11.

Rumsfeld had intelligence, wit, dash, and endless faith in himself. Unlike McNamara, he never expressed a quiver of regret. He must have died in the secure knowledge that he had been right all along.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 6:31 pm

Donald Rumsfeld, despicable person, dies at age 88

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Update: See also “The Hell Donald Rumsfeld Built.”

Spencer Ackerman has a good obituary of Rumsfeld in the Daily Beast:

The only thing tragic about the death of Donald Rumsfeld is that it didn’t occur in an Iraqi prison. Yet that was foreordained, considering how throughout his life inside the precincts of American national security, Rumsfeld escaped the consequences of decisions he made that ensured a violent, frightening end for hundreds of thousands of people.

An actuarial table of the deaths for which Donald Rumsfeld is responsible is difficult to assemble. In part, that’s a consequence of his policy, as defense secretary from 2001 to 2006, not to compile or release body counts, a PR strategy learned after disclosing the tolls eroded support for the Vietnam War. As a final obliteration, we cannot know, let alone name, all the dead.

But in 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project put together something that serves as the basis for an estimate. According to Neda C. Crawford, Brown’s political-science department chair, the Afghanistan war to that point claimed about 147,000 lives, to include 38,480 civilians; 58,596 Afghan soldiers and police (about as many American troops as died in Vietnam); and 2,401 U.S. servicemembers.

Rumsfeld was hardly the only person in the Bush administration responsible for the Afghanistan war. But in December 2001, under attack in Kandahar, where it had retreated from the advance of U.S. and Northern Alliance forces, the Taliban sought to broker a surrender—one acceptable to the U.S.-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld refused. “I do not think there will be a negotiated end to the situation, that’s unacceptable to the United States,” he said. That statement reaped a 20-year war, making it fair to say that the subsequent deaths are on his head, even while acknowledging that Rumsfeld was hardly the only architect of the conflict.

Crawford in 2018 also tallied between 267,792 and 295,170 deaths to that point in Iraq. That is almost certainly a severe undercount, and it includes between a very conservatively estimated 182,000 to 204,000 civilians; over 41,000 Iraqi soldiers and police; and 4,550 U.S. servicemembers. As one of the driving forces behind the invasion and the driving force behind the occupation, Rumsfeld is in an elite category of responsibility for these deaths, alongside his protege Dick Cheney and the president they served, George W. Bush.

Rumsfeld’s depredations short of the wars of choice he oversaw—and yes, responding to 9/11 with war in Afghanistan was no less a choice than the unprovoked war of aggression in Iraq – were no less severe. His indifference to the suffering of others was hardly unique among American policymakers after 9/11, but his blitheness about it underscored the cruel essence of the enterprise. When passed a sheet of paper that, in bureaucratic language, pitched a torture technique of forcing men held captive at Guantanamo Bay for hours on end, Rumsfeld scribbled a shrug on it: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day.” Months earlier, when Rumsfeld was banking on using the U.S. military to invade Iraq, a reporter asked about using U.S. forces to provide security for rebuilding Afghanistan at a moment before Taliban resistance coalesced. “Ah, peacekeeping,” he sneered in return, explaining that such tasks were beneath U.S. forces.

But to those forces, for whom he was responsible, he was no less indifferent. In Kuwait in December 2004, National Guardsmen preparing for deployment confronted Rumsfeld in the hope of enlisting his help with a dire circumstance. They were scrounging through scrap heaps for metal to weld onto their insufficiently armored vehicles so the RPGs they were sure to encounter wouldn’t kill them. Rumsfeld let it be known that the war mattered, not the warfighter. “You go to war with the Army you’ve got, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” he replied.

If Rumsfeld was indignant at the question, it reflected the unreality he inhabited and the lies he told as easily as he breathed. He wrapped himself in a superficial understanding of epistemology (“there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns…”) that a compliant press treated as sagacity. He wore a mask of assuredness, a con man’s trick, as he said things that bore no resemblance to the truth, such as his September 2002 insistence that he possessed “bulletproof” evidence of a nonexistent alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. As resistance in Iraq coalesced in summer 2003, Rumsfeld said it couldn’t be “anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance,” even as a reporter quoted U.S. military doctrine explaining why it was. He insisted, “I don’t do quagmires” when quagmires were all he did.

He had reason to suspect he would get away with it. Manipulating the media was, to Rumsfeld, a known known, since reporters loved Rumsfeld before they hated him. U.S. News & World Report put a grinning Rumsfeld on the cover above the headline “Rum Punch.” (“A Secretary of War Unlike Any Other… You Got A Problem With That?”) Vanity Fair dispatched Annie Liebovitz to photograph him amongst Bush’s war cabinet. People magazine called him the “sexiest cabinet member” in 2002. A typical thumbsucker piece, this one in the Los Angeles Times of August 17, 2003, began with the falsity that “Donald H. Rumsfeld has won two wars and won them his way…” The conservative press reflected the subtext. “The Stud” was what National Review called the septuagenarian Rumsfeld as it depicted him in a come-hither pose. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. He wasn’t any good at his job, and he never recognized that nor expressed any regret or remorse. He was a man who couldn’t be bothered.

Written by Leisureguy

1 July 2021 at 10:28 am

Liz Cheney and Big Lies (including lies of omission)

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Maureen Dowd has a good column in the NY Times:

I miss torturing Liz Cheney.

But it must be said that the petite blonde from Wyoming suddenly seems like a Valkyrie amid halflings.

She is willing to sacrifice her leadership post — and risk her political career — to continue calling out Donald Trump’s Big Lie. She has decided that, if the price of her job is being as unctuous to Trump as Kevin McCarthy is, it isn’t worth it, because McCarthy is totally disgracing himself.

It has been a dizzying fall for the scion of one of the most powerful political families in the land, a conservative chip off the old block who was once talked about as a comer, someone who could be the first woman president.

How naïve I was to think that Republicans would be eager to change the channel after Trump cost them the Senate and the White House and unleashed a mob on them.

I thought the Donald would evaporate in a poof of orange smoke, ending a supremely screwed-up period of history. But the loudest mouth is not shutting up. And Republicans continue to listen, clinging to the idea that the dinosaur is the future. “We can’t grow without him,” Lindsey Graham said.

Denied Twitter, Trump is focusing on his other favorite blood sport: hunting down dynasties. “Whether it’s the Cheneys, the Bushes or the lesser bloodlines — such as the Romneys or the Murkowskis — Trump has been relentless in his efforts to force them to bend the knee,” David Siders wrote in Politico.

Yet an unbowed Liz Cheney didn’t mince words when, in a Washington Post op-ed a few days ago, she implored the stooges in her caucus to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”

That trademark Cheney bluntness made Liz the toast of MSNBC and CNN, where chatterers praised her as an avatar of the venerable “fact-based” Republican Party decimated by Trump.

But if Liz Cheney wants to be in the business of speaking truth to power, she’s going to have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s acknowledge who created the template for Trump’s Big Lie.

It was her father, Dick Cheney, whose Big Lie about the Iraq war led to the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Liz, who was the captain of her high school cheerleading team and titled her college thesis “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers,” cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence.

From her patronage perch in the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years, she bolstered her father’s trumped-up case for an invasion of Iraq. Even after no W.M.D.s were found, she continued to believe the invasion was the right thing to do.

“She almost thrives in an atmosphere where the overall philosophy is discredited and she is a lonely voice,” a State Department official who worked with Liz told Joe Hagan for a 2010 New York magazine profile of the younger Cheney on her way up.

She was a staunch defender of the torture program. “Well, it wasn’t torture, Norah, so that’s not the right way to lay out the argument,” she instructed Norah O’Donnell in 2009, looking on the bright side of waterboarding.

She backed the futile, 20-year occupation of the feudal Afghanistan. (Even Bob Gates thinks we should have left in 2002.) Last month, when President Biden announced plans to pull out, Liz Cheney — who wrote a book with her father that accused Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq and making America weaker — slapped back: “We know that this kind of pullback is reckless. It’s dangerous.”

For many years, she had no trouble swimming in Fox News bile. Given the chance to denounce the Obama birther conspiracy, she demurred, interpreting it live on air as people being “uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”

Thanks to that kind of reasoning, we ended up with a president who fomented an attack on the nation at home.

In her Post piece, Cheney wrote that her party is at a “turning point” and that Republicans “must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

Sage prose from someone who was a lieutenant to her father when he assaulted checks and balances, shredding America’s Constitution even as he imposed one on Iraq.

Because of 9/11, Dick Cheney thought he could suspend the Constitution, attack nations preemptively and trample civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. (And for his own political survival.)

Keeping Americans afraid was a small price to pay for engorging executive power, which the former Nixon and Ford aide thought had been watered down too much after Watergate.

By his second term,

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

9 May 2021 at 11:24 am

“I Fought in Afghanistan. I Still Wonder, Was It Worth It?”

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Timothy Kahn, formerly a USMC captain, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and writes in the NY Times:

When President Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, he appeared to be finally bringing this “forever war” to an end. Although I have waited for this moment for a decade, it is impossible to feel relief. The Sept. 11 attacks took place during my senior year of college, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed consumed the entirety of my adult life. Although history books may mark this as the end of the Afghanistan war, it will never be over for many of my generation who fought.

Sometimes there are moments, no more than the span of a breath, when the smell of it returns and once again I’m stepping off the helicopter ramp into the valley. Covered in the ashen dust of the rotor wash, I take in for the first time the blend of wood fires burning from inside lattice-shaped mud compounds, flooded fields of poppies and corn, the sweat of the unwashed and the wet naps that failed to mask it, chicken and sheep and the occasional cow, the burn pit where trash and plastic smoldered through the day, curries slick with oil eaten by hand on carpeted dirt floors, and fresh bodies buried shallow, like I.E.D.s, in the bitter earth.

It’s sweet and earthy, familiar to the farm boys in the platoon who knew that blend of animal and human musk but alien to those of us used only to the city or the lush Southern woods we patrolled during training. Later, at the big bases far from the action, surrounded by gyms and chow halls and the expeditionary office park where the flag and field grade officers did their work, it was replaced by a cologne of machinery and order. Of common parts installed by low-bid contractors and the ocher windblown sand of the vast deserts where those behemoth bases were always located. Relatively safe after the long months at the frontier but dull and lifeless.

Then it’s replaced by the sweet, artificial scents of home after the long plane ride back. Suddenly I’m on a cold American street littered with leaves. A couple passes by holding hands, a bottle of wine in a tote bag, dressed for a party, unaware of the veneer that preserves their carelessness.

I remain distant from them, trapped between past and present, in the same space you sometimes see in the eyes of the old-timers marching in Veterans Day parades with their folded caps covered in retired unit patches, wearing surplus uniforms they can’t seem to take off. It’s the space between their staring eyes and the cheering crowd where those of us who return from war abide.

My war ended in 2011, when I came home from Afghanistan eager to resume my life. I was in peak physical shape, had a college degree, had a half-year of saved paychecks and would receive an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in a few months. I was free to do whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

Initially I attributed it to jet lag, then to a need for well-deserved rest, but eventually there was no excuse. I returned to my friends and family, hoping I would feel differently. I did not.

“Relax. You earned it,” they said. “There’s plenty of time to figure out what’s next.” But figuring out the future felt like abandoning the past. It had been just a month since my last combat patrol, but I know now that years don’t make a difference.

At first, everyone wanted to ask about the war. They knew they were supposed to but approached the topic tentatively, the way you hold out a hand to an injured animal. And as I went into detail, their expressions changed, first to curiosity, then sympathy and finally to horror.

I knew their repulsion was only self-preservation. After all, the war cost nothing to the civilians who stayed home. They just wanted to live the free and peaceful lives they’d grown accustomed to — and wasn’t their peace of mind what we fought for in the first place?

After my discharge, I moved to . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

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