October 29, 2009

Desperately Seeking Peacenik, Pot-Smoking Hippies

There were several issues I wanted to discuss in my previous post about Matthew Hoh and his resignation, but I finally decided I was unable to include them, primarily because they were off the track of my central argument. Since I published the earlier article, Hoh participated in an online chat at the Washington Post. (Many thanks to reader D.K. for alerting me to it.) In that discussion, Hoh made a number of statements that confirm all my major earlier points -- and he also offered some statements about a new subject that demand comment.

I. Give Me the Hippies. Please.

To begin, let's again note this passage from the Washington Post story about Hoh's resignation:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
I discussed the second paragraph in detail in my earlier post, showing why I consider it unspeakably awful. Here, I want to talk about the very first sentence: "I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love."

Many of those deeply opposed to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan seem to regard this statement as strengthening the case for the truth of Hoh's objections to U.S. strategy, as if to say: "See? Hoh isn't some drugged-out nutcase, who's opposed to war like some disgusting appeaser! He's not against all wars, just against this war! That's why we should listen to him!"

They appear to think this is a good argument. People should be careful about the premises they (perhaps) inadvertently accept in their eagerness to advance their case. I have a very different view of Hoh's statement. My immediate reaction when I read that statement has remained unchanged, and it is very simply this:

Why not? What the hell is wrong with that?

Hoh implicitly relies on the fact that what's "wrong with that" is so self-evidently obvious that it need not even be stated. Everyone -- or at least all respectable, serious people -- has nothing but contempt for those peacenik, pot-smoking hippies, so we don't even need to explain why. But, Mr. Hoh, and others who may be of like mind, yes, you do.

If a substantial number of people were seriously and consistently devoted to peace, and if they were genuine embodiments of compassion and empathy for others and urged everyone else to behave in the same way, the world would be an infinitely better place than it is now. And if such individuals did all this in a notably relaxed, non-confrontational way, so much the better.

So I repeat: What the hell is wrong with that? I could offer many more words about the highly dubious nature of a style of argument that trades on negative, cheap and lazy stereotypes and offers them as accurate and truthful judgments, but never mind all that. Fill in the details as you wish. I'll only wonder the following: if we're going to conduct public discussions in this manner, what might be said about a former Marine, "many of [whose] closest friends" are also Marines, who was "never more happy" than when he was "whacking" some bad "dudes" in a criminal war of aggression? Well, I'll leave it to others to say whatever they think appropriate about that. If I have to choose between the two stereotypes, give me the hippie any day. Please.

II. The Online Chat in General, and the Great Danger of the Arbitrary

As I read through the online chat, my major impression was how utterly conventional Hoh sounds. On many specific topics, he sounds no different from many politicians or other national leaders. It is certainly true that no other high level official has resigned over Afghanistan, but see my earlier essay for the reasons as to why I view that as ultimately meaningless given Hoh's overall views, especially his enthusiastic willingness to murder in other criminal wars of aggression. And with regard to Afghanistan, it's not as if Hoh is the only person raising these concerns about U.S. strategy. The fact that these objections are fairly well-known, and that many people oppose continued or increased U.S. involvement on those particular grounds, is one of the primary reasons that Obama has delayed an announcement on his decision regarding any future commitment for as long as he has. Moreover, Hoh's comments in the chat confirm one of my earlier arguments: that all of these facts about Afghanistan were easily accessible to any intelligent layperson long before this latest U.S. involvement, just as was true in Vietnam and in Iraq.

You can read the chat for yourself, and make your own judgment about this issue. But for me, the conventional nature of Hoh's statements and approach made me begin to wonder precisely why he resigned, and if there was some additional reason that he hasn't identified. It's not that I disbelieve him, for I have no reason to. But my question, one which only grew stronger in my mind as I read his comments, is: Why did he draw the line here exactly? Why not somewhere else? And, most importantly, why not in Iraq? But as we know, he was "never more happy" than when he "whacked" some bad guys in Iraq, although neither he nor any other U.S. personnel had any right to be there.

This underscores another of my earlier arguments: Hoh's objection regarding Afghanistan is basically arbitrary. No principle informs it. As I wrote:
The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent -- which it is -- but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level -- and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.
This is an issue of singular importance. Many manifestations of arbitrariness of this kind can be offered. I've written about one of them at length: those Democrats and liberals who vehemently opposed the Iraq invasion but approved and even encouraged Clinton's Balkans policy. See, e.g.: "The Truth Shall Drive You Mad: The Men and Women of the Empire of Death."

Perhaps of even greater significance here is another essay, "The Lies in Your Head," and especially the excerpts from Jean Bricmont's, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. Bricmont traces the connections in policy between the Clinton administration's interventions in the Balkans and the Bush administration's war in Iraq, connections that many (if not most) liberals will not confront to this day. Certainly, the Bush administration offered multiple, shifting rationales for the Iraq invasion, only one indication that they never told the truth. (The truth was the drive to U.S. global hegemony, as explained by Higgs.) But it is also true that alleged "humanitarian" concerns were one justification put forth. For many liberals, such concerns were irrelevant in Iraq, but determinative in the Balkans -- and made intervention an absolute necessity in the latter case. Why that factor necessitated intervention in one case and not the other has never been satisfactorily explained, and it cannot be.

And humanitarian concerns are offered today in connection with Afghanistan, and Hoh mentions some of them in his chat. In fact, this argument is only another example of the camouflage used by the ruling class to disguise its true purposes. Just as our leaders will never willingly surrender the base at Bagram, so they were intent on establishing a major base in the Balkans, Camp Bondsteel. Humanitarian justifications had little or nothing to do with what was actually going on.

Even if we take the humanitarian argument on its own terms, it's incoherent, as Bricmont demonstrates at length. He writes:
During the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, a certain number of Western intellectuals fancied themselves following in the Spanish footsteps of Malraux, Orwell, and Hemingway. But, unlike their predecessors, they largely remained at home or ensconced in the same hotel, rather than entering the fray, while the International Brigades and the Spanish Republican Army were replaced by the U.S. Air Force. Now, nothing in United States policy indicates the slightest sincere concern for human rights and democracy. Assigning it the prime task of defending these values is strange indeed. Moreover, to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive vision of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, "surgical" wars. The example of Iraq shows that it is possible to know when a war starts but not when it will end, and it is totally utopian to expect an army that is under constant attack from guerrilla forces not to have recourse to torture in order to obtain information. The French used it massively in Algeria. The Americans used it in Vietnam and again in Iraq. Yet both the French and American torturers were citizens of "democratic countries, respectful of human rights" -- yes, but when they were at home, and in periods of relative social peace.
To make the point again: if you wish to oppose these immensely destructive wars, bombings and interventions, you must ignore all the superficial marketing and camouflage -- all the talk of "humanitarian" concerns, promoting "democracy," "regional stability," and so on -- and focus relentlessly on the intentionally and carefully chosen policy of U.S. geopolitical dominance. And that is the policy Hoh accepts in all its essentials. He argues only one particular war, and only on narrow, strategic grounds. He offers no opposition that can genuinely encourage change, which must always be opposition on principle.

III. The Immorality and Destructiveness of a Draft

As important as all these issues are, and I consider them very important, there is one critical respect in which they almost pale into insignificance when compared to Hoh's remarks on one additional subject. Here are Hoh's remarks on that topic:
Washington, D.C.: Would a little more thought go into the why of going to war, if the Congress actually had to declare war and that upon a declaration of war, the military draft was reinstated for the duration of said war?

Matthew Hoh: Absolutely. As a former professional military officer I am against the draft because I don't believe it leads to an effective military. However, as a private citizen I feel that a draft would engage our population in the debate. I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft.
These comments are both immoral and ignorant. Certain aspects of them are loathsome in the extreme. Let me explain why.

Compulsory national service of any kind, military or otherwise, attacks the idea of individual liberty on the most fundamental level. If you can be meaningfully said to have any rights at all, you must have the right to your own body and to your own life. Without those rights, no other rights are possible. How is it possible to maintain you have a right to speak freely, or a "right" to an education or a "right" to a job, if the State may forcibly wrest years from your life, and even order you into combat, perhaps to be killed? And for anyone who might speak of a "right" to health care and simultaneously advocate a draft, how can you entertain such a ludicrous argument even for a moment in any remotely sane universe? The government will keep you healthy and fit, precisely so that it might kill you? It's obscene.

I point you to two earlier discussions of this issue. In "On Evil, Guilt and Responsibility: The Culture of War, and the Culture of Chicken Shit," I excerpted a magnificent speech by Paul Fussell. Toward the conclusion of my essay, I noted that Fussell mentions the draft (Fussell: "It is customary to maintain that American wars are all fought on behalf of freedom, but few notice that for the sake of freedom millions of young men are enslaved for years, Shanghaied by conscription into a life whose every dimension is at odds with the idea of freedom.").

I then wrote:
About a draft, I will briefly note that most of its advocates and defenders will never acknowledge what compulsory national service of any kind actually is: slavery. If the government, backed by brute force and the threat of legal penalty (either imprisonment or in any other form), has the power to compel young men and women as to how they must spend several years of their lives -- and if the government can even order them into battle, perhaps in a cause they absolutely oppose, and possibly to be killed -- then individual rights have been obliterated at the most fundamental level. This kind of servitude to the state is slavery, pure and simple. Compulsory national service of any kind, including a military draft, is one of the greatest evils known to mankind, and it is no wonder that its defenders absolutely refuse to identify its true nature.
And in "Of Abortion, and Women as the Ultimate Source of Evil," and even though it was not the main subject of the essay, I explicitly drew a connection that many liberals seek to avoid:
In terms of the political theory involved, the basic question is a stark and simple one: if you cannot control your own body, what other rights can you possibly have? If your body is not yours, what does it matter if you can freely express your political and religious convictions? The principle involved is similarly simple: as long as you are not violating anyone else's rights, your right to control your own body is absolute. Period.


I must note that the same principle makes any kind of military draft or mandatory national service equally invalid, and equally destructive of individual rights. If the government can take control of your body for two or four years, and possibly even send you to your death, what does it matter if you have the right of free speech, or any other right? Liberals in particular ought to note that the argument is the same with regard to abortion and in connection with a draft or national service. If they want to engage in blatant contradictions, and support abortion rights and simultaneously advocate a draft or national service, they surrender any claim to intellectual coherence and consistency, and they will get precisely what they deserve. Tragically, many women and many other citizens will also suffer the consequences.
Now note the only objection to a draft that Hoh offers: as "a former professional military officer, I am against the draft because I don't believe it leads to an effective military."

Not that compulsory service destroys the foundation of individual liberty -- which it does. Not that compulsory service destroys lives and families, even if those who serve mercifully survive conflict. None of that even enters into the calculations. Hoh is against the draft because it's ineffective. Obscene is the only word that accurately describes an argument of this kind. Further note that this is the same argument that Hoh uses against U.S. involvement in Afghanistan: not that it's a war crime -- which it is -- but that it's ineffective. Moral principles would appear to have no place in Hoh's worldview.

(For those who will object to my argument about the immorality of a draft and how deeply wrong it is, perhaps noting that in 1918 the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the draft and held that it was not involuntary servitude, I will shock the children and note that the Supreme Court can, indeed, be profoundly wrong. I surely hope I need not remind readers of several instances of the Court's errors where the historical implications and costs, including human suffering on a vast scale, were beyond reckoning. But perhaps some have forgotten. They only concerned slavery, internment, and sexual acts in private between consenting adults, to name three.)

Hoh goes on to say: "However, as a private citizen I feel that a draft would engage our population in the debate. I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft." This represents massive historical ignorance. I will provide you one example that utterly destroys Hoh's contention: Vietnam.

Take a look at this timeline of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. That involvement began at the conclusion of World War II, and it did not end until 30 years later. With the exception of the last two years, the draft was in force during all that time. (The specific form in which the draft was implemented somewhat varied during that time, but it was always in effect until 1973.)

Obviously, there was a growing antiwar movement in the U.S. during the 1960s, reaching its climax in the latter part of that decade, but I have yet to come across any evidence to suggest that those protests were a significant factor in the U.S. decision to leave Vietnam, as it finally did in 1975. In fact, I think three elements were most critical, and not one of them had anything to with the draft or antiwar protests. In general terms, this is how that argument goes. (I do not consider this a full proof, but I think the following is persuasive and supported by much historical evidence.)

By the early 1970s, the deep idiocy of the "domino theory" was becoming apparent, at least as far as Vietnam was concerned, even to those who had strongly believed in it. But even less than a decade earlier, many national leaders considered the domino theory to be a fully accurate prediction of what would happen if the U.S. left Vietnam. Remember Barbara Tuchman's description of Johnson's beliefs, and note her assessment at the conclusion of this paragraph:
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.
As the numbers of American troops in Vietnam rose, and as the casualties also increased, the undeniable costs became apparent. To be sure, in themselves such factors are no deterrent whatsoever to the ruling class in its relentless pursuit of its objectives.

But as the toll grew heavier, a key element came into question: was Vietnam itself actually worth it? I consider it almost certain that if Vietnam held significant reserves of a prized natural resource, U.S. forces would still be there today in some numbers and form. In this respect, contrast Vietnam with Robert Higgs' description of the critical importance of Bagram in Afghanistan, and of a permanent U.S. base of operations in Central Asia (this is from a passage from Higgs that I excerpted the other day):
It comes as no surprise, then, that of all the unified commands, CENTCOM is the one in which, in today’s world, the U.S. empire’s rubber meets the road most abrasively. The command’s area of responsibility includes a great part of the world’s known petroleum and natural gas deposits, a preponderance of Israel’s enemies, and the places in which the George W. Bush administration has chosen to focus its so-called Global War on Terror. Of course, the region also includes Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been fighting for years, and, sandwiched between these two battlefields, Iran, where Dick Cheney and the rest of the neocons ardently desire to extend the fighting at the earliest opportunity.
The same factors that ultimately led those who determine U.S. foreign policy to abandon Vietnam ensure that the U.S. will not leave the CENTCOM area of operations for decades, if ever.

On the same point, I also note this statement from Barbara Tuchman, which is the sentence immediately following the paragraph set forth above: "The purpose of the war [in Vietnam] was not gain or national defense." By the early 1970s, both parts of that truth began to penetrate minds that had earlier been resistant to them. During this same period, another event occurred, one of immense importance historically and to the U.S. ruling class in particular.

Remember the year of Nixon's historic trip to China: 1972. As their previous justifications for the Vietnam catastrophe began to fall away, the ruling class realized that another route was advisable not only for strategic reasons concerning national defense, but because it would be hugely profitable for the ruling class, including many multinational corporations: engagement. We must recognize these truths about the ruling class: it is undeniably insatiable in its thirst for power and wealth and in its willingness to commit any acts to satisfy that desire, including the murder of vast numbers of innocent human beings, and it is ruthlessly determined -- and it also is not stupid. Nixon himself, as deeply damaged an individual as he was and as thoroughly detestable in countless ways, was similarly not remotely dumb by any measure, certainly not when it came to calculations of this kind. Peaceful engagement with China held the promise of many benefits, not least among them immense wealth for the ruling class, an obvious truth that events have borne out.

In the early 1970s, all of these factors came together in a way that recommended a different course of action altogether, and that was the course the U.S. finally followed. We can thus see that neither the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam following World War II, nor the increasing intensity of that involvement throughout the next two decades, nor the decision to finally abandon Vietnam in the 1970s, connected in any major way to opposition to the draft or to this particular war in the manner suggested by Hoh. The initiation of U.S. involvement and its growth occurred with the draft in place throughout that period, and the U.S. left Vietnam for very different reasons. If anything, the draft made possible the U.S. presence in Vietnam for 30 years. So the truth on this question is precisely the opposite of what Hoh suggests, at least insofar as this very significant historical example would indicate.

As to Hoh's contention that "a draft would engage our population in the debate," I can only say that I view this as approaching the delusional. If anything, a draft makes any government's decision and ability to engage in destructive "wars of choice" more likely, not less (and Vietnam is but one example of that principle). Moreover, the American public's astonishing, even sickening, ability to remain apathetic and immovable even when heinous crimes are committed by their government has almost certainly increased immeasurably in recent decades. If the endless crimes committed by the Bush administration demonstrated nothing else, they surely demonstrated that. As the Bush administration launched two wars, were there massive, ongoing demonstrations, protests or, most importantly, systematic acts of civil disobedience? There were a few large protests before the Iraq invasion (which were almost entirely ignored), but otherwise, there was nothing. As the Bush administration tortured, brutalized and regularly set aside the most basic protections of individual liberty, and did all this in broad daylight, did outraged citizens bring government to a standstill, demanding that these depredations cease? They did not.

And as for this: "I don't believe we would have invaded Iraq if we had a draft and I don't believe we would still be in Afghanistan if we had a draft" -- there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is true. I credit that it is what Hoh hopes would be true, but that is not precisely the same thing. It is a common failing to confuse what we wish to be true with what is true, but it is one we should seek to avoid. Hoh would destroy the very foundation of liberty for a fantasy.

IV. Conclusion

To summarize my earlier arguments and what I have said here, especially for those who eagerly embrace Hoh because of his opposition to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but opposition offered only on narrow, strategic grounds: Yes, you have found someone who opposes continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but only involvement in its current form. Hoh fully shares the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy, and he has no objection in principle to wars of aggression. Moreover, we know from his own words and actions that he does not even view the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a war of aggression, when it indisputably is.

Beyond this, and of the greatest importance, Hoh explicitly supports a policy which would undercut individual liberty at the most fundamental level. The entire concept of rights would be gravely imperiled. And if compulsory service were ever reinstated, it would all but guarantee future conflicts and further senseless wars, with all their attendant suffering and death.

By declaring Hoh an ally, you might gain a momentary advantage, but it is an advantage as fleeting as the last vanishing rays of the setting sun. And when that very brief advantage has passed, the blood and the sorrow will remain, and they will be endlessly replenished into a desolate future.