October 27, 2009

The Denial Continues, and the Horror Remains Unrecognized

As soon as I read this Washington Post story about the resignation of Matthew Hoh, I knew I would write this article. The story is significant not only in itself, but also in the altogether predictable reaction it would elicit, particularly from those who criticize the United States presence and strategy in Afghanistan, and most especially from those who criticize our Afghanistan strategy most strongly. And I knew, before I read even one of those responses, that the reaction would miss or ignore what is most crucial to understand about Hoh's resignation and its meaning. In the event, everything I had thought proved to be accurate in every detail.

The opening of the Post story summarizes the key elements:
When Matthew Hoh joined the Foreign Service early this year, he was exactly the kind of smart civil-military hybrid the administration was looking for to help expand its development efforts in Afghanistan.

A former Marine Corps captain with combat experience in Iraq, Hoh had also served in uniform at the Pentagon, and as a civilian in Iraq and at the State Department. By July, he was the senior U.S. civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban hotbed.

But last month, in a move that has sent ripples all the way to the White House, Hoh, 36, became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest over the Afghan war, which he had come to believe simply fueled the insurgency.

"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States' presence in Afghanistan," he wrote Sept. 10 in a four-page letter to the department's head of personnel. "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end."
The critics of U.S. Afghanistan policy are uniformly heralding Hoh's resignation as a rare triumph of "principle" over narrower concerns with career and other personal goals. But as we shall see, such praise is undeserved, and even dangerous because of the issues it avoids.

I view Hoh's resignation as a positive development in only one very limited sense. If a sufficient number of U.S. personnel resigned, for reasons similar to Hoh's or even for no reason at all, if they simply resigned, the U.S. would be unable to continue its current policy. But that will not happen, not in the numbers required.

What about the specific reasons Hoh provides for his resignation? Several aspects of those reasons are noteworthy. Hoh explains them in his letter of resignation (pdf), and the Post story accurately summarizes the key points:
[M]any Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected. While the Taliban is a malign presence, and Pakistan-based al-Qaeda needs to be confronted, he said, the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war.


Hoh's doubts increased with Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, marked by low turnout and widespread fraud. He concluded, he said in his resignation letter, that the war "has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency."

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

American families, he said at the end of the letter, "must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can be made any more."
The first point to be made about this should be obvious, although this is a lesson that few political leaders or commentators ever learn. And the point is this: the U.S. could and should have known all of this before even one soldier set foot in Afghanistan.

This is not specialized knowledge accessible only to alleged "experts." It is information readily available to any reasonably intelligent person, provided he is basically responsible and recognizes the necessity of knowing what he is doing before he acts. These days, many writers are offering comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam; for the most part, those comparisons are notable for what they miss. On this particular point, remember this passage from Barbara Tuchman's analysis of the criminal catastrophe in Vietnam (from The March of Folly):
Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.
As is always the case in tragic and entirely avoidable episodes such as Vietnam, Afghanistan -- and, I emphasize, Iraq, and very possibly Iran next -- it is "[n]ot ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence..." that leads to disaster. The evidence is always available to those who will look, but policy which has already been chosen will override that evidence as required for States to achieve their aims.

I mentioned Iraq, and I will have more to say on that subject in a moment. But I wrote about this same mechanism of deliberately cultivated ignorance -- which, I stress, is not genuine ignorance at all, but a determination to set the evidence aside in favor of predetermined policy -- in "Sacred Ignorance," and in an earlier piece on the same theme, "Embracing Ignorance on Principle: And Still, We Will Not See." In the latter article, I summarized this intentionally cultivated "ignorance" as follows:
This determined refusal to look at and understand the relevant facts, including the crucially relevant history, is a significant part of the reason why Bush's repeated mantra that "everyone wants freedom," and moreover that everyone wants freedom in roughly the same form that we enjoy it, is so hollow and so unconvincing. It was not true in Vietnam, and it is not true in Iraq. Peoples' attitudes, objectives, alliances and enmities are uniquely shaped by their particular history -- not by ours, or by no history at all. And it is the latter that is unavoidably implied by the attitude revealed by Bennet in his article, and by the Bush administration: they seem to believe that "freedom" and "democracy" are abstractions that are plucked by people from the sky overhead -- and then applied by everyone in precisely the same manner, regardless of history, geography, culture and every other aspect of their specific lives.


[T]his is yet another reason why I maintain, as I explained yesterday, that we should leave immediately, or as close to immediately as we can -- and set a time limit of six months at the outside, for example, for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Not only are we a significant source of the ongoing violence, but we continue to refuse to learn about the nature of the Iraqis themselves, and what their perspectives and their aims are.
Of course, we are not leaving Iraq, and we are not leaving Afghanistan. U.S. forces may be reduced or their particular composition may be altered, but we are not leaving.

Hoh's identifications of the reasons for the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan are certainly true, but I repeat that all those reasons have been readily apparent for years and even decades, if only those who fashion and implement U.S. policy cared to acknowledge them. But a more fundamental problem in analysis arises at this point: none of these reasons for failure have anything whatsoever to do with U.S. policy or why our leaders are so insistent on pursuing it.

The endless appeals to "spreading democracy," fostering "stable governments," and all the rest are nothing but marketing and public relations. They are the camouflage for the actual purposes of our government's actions. You can dissect and demolish those purported justifications for U.S. policy all you wish; our leaders don't care about any of that, no matter how successful your demolition efforts are, because all of that is completely irrelevant. But our leaders and most commentators do love the marketing, so with only very rare exceptions, their analysis and even their criticisms remain on this superficial level.

The actual reasons that drive U.S. policy aren't hidden. Again, the evidence is spread before you in plain sight: all you have to do is look at and understand it. I discussed the general contours of U.S. foreign policy for over the last hundred years in a piece just the other day: "The Empty Establishment: No One's Home in an Intellectual Wasteland." With regard to our presence in Afghanistan, a presence which will continue in one form or another for decades to come barring unforeseen developments (or possibly a regional conflagration, which would most likely be set off by a U.S. attack on Iran), I direct you to an invaluable article by the indispensable Robert Higgs. The article first appeared over a year ago, and I've been meaning to discuss it ever since.

I strongly recommend you read every word of it, several times at a minimum: "CENTCOM's Master Plan and U.S. Global Hegemony." For our purposes here, these are the critical paragraphs:
Many people deny that the U.S. government presides over a global empire. If you speak of U.S. imperialism, they will fancy that you must be a decrepit Marxist-Leninist who has recently awakened after spending decades in a coma. Yet the facts cannot be denied, however much people’s ideology may predispose them to distort or obfuscate those facts.

How can a government that maintains more than 800 military facilities in more than 140 different foreign countries be anything other than an imperial power? The hundreds of thousands of troops who operate those bases and conduct operations from them, not to mention the approximately 125,000 sailors and Marines aboard the U.S. warships that cruise the oceans, are not going door to door selling Girl Scout cookies. United States of America is the name; intimidation is the game.

Of course, the kingpins who control this massive machinery of coercion never describe it in such terms. In their lexis, American motives and actions are invariably noble. Listening to these bigwigs describe what the U.S. forces abroad are doing, you would never suspect that they seek anything but “regional stability,” “security,” “deterrence of potential regional aggressors,” and “economic development and cooperation among nations.” Inasmuch as hardly anybody favors instability, insecurity, international aggression, economic retrogression, and mutual strife among nations, the U.S. objectives, and hence the actions taken in their furtherance, would appear to be indisputably laudable.

Yet, from time to time, a U.S. leader lets slip an expression so revealing that it warrants a thousand times greater weight than the vague, mealy-mouthed banalities they routinely dispense. I came across such a statement recently. In seeking funds in 2007 for construction of a $62 million ammunition storage facility at Bagram Air Base, Admiral William J. Fallon, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), referred to Bagram as “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia.”

Pause to savor this phrase for a moment; let it roll around in your mind: CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia. What an intriguing expression! What dramatic images of future U.S. military actions it evokes! But can those actions be anything other than the very sort that empires undertake? Ask yourself: why does the U.S. military anticipate conducting operations in Central Asia, a region that lies thousands of miles from the United States and comprises countries that lack either the capacity or the intention to seriously harm Americans who mind their own business in their own national territory? Indeed, what is the U.S. military doing in Central Asia in the first place? Have you ever heard of “the Great Game”?

When the Army sought the funds for the new ammunition storage facility at Bagram again this year, its request echoed Admiral Fallon’s sentiments by stating: “As a forward operating site, Bagram must be able to provide for a long term, steady state presence which is able to surge to meet theater contingency requirements.” The statement’s reference to “a long term, steady state presence” would seem to be especially revealing because it takes for granted that U.S. forces will not be leaving this part of the world any time soon. Giving even more weight to this interpretation, Congress approved not only the $62 million for the ammunition storage facility, but also $41 million for a 30-megawatt electrical power plant at Bagram, a plant large enough to serve more than 20,000 American homes.

Along the same lines, Lt. Colonel John Sotham, commander of the 455 Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, which is now stationed at Bagram Air Base, recently described a number of improvements his squadron is making at the base, looking toward giving it “a more permanent footprint.” He added: “It’s pretty clear that the U.S. Air Force will be at Camp Cunningham [a living area at Bagram] and involved in the fight against terrorism for a very long time.” He relished the opportunity to “help drive Bagram from expeditionary to enduring!”

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.
This is the general policy that Obama continues, and that he will continue into the foreseeable future. He made his intentions clear from the beginning of his campaign, and nothing has changed. Nor will it, certainly not insofar as Obama is concerned:
Any individual who rises to the national political level is, of necessity and by definition, committed to the authoritarian-corporatist state. The current system will not allow anyone to be elected from either of the two major parties who is determined to dismantle even one part of that system.
So all of the feigned bafflement and incessant caterwauling about the supposedly indecipherable actions of the United States -- Why, oh why, did we invade Iraq?, and Why, dear God, are we in Afghanistan? -- represent only the capitulation of the purported critics to precisely those arguments U.S. leaders hope you will engage. They want you to spend all your time on those arguments, because they're only marketing ploys having nothing at all to do with their actual goals. As I said the other day, if you want to stop this murderous madness -- and I dearly hope you do -- forget about what they say their goals are (fostering "democratic" governments, “regional stability,” “security,” and all the associated claptrap), and focus on the real problem: the carefully chosen policy of U.S. geopolitical dominance over the entire globe. On the day Obama announces the scheduled closure of at least one-third of the U.S.'s worldwide empire of bases, I'll believe he's serious about altering any of this, and not a moment before. He never will, and you know he won't. (I myself would prefer the closure within three to six months of three-quarters of them at a minimum. But contrary to some of my critics, I actually do reside in this world, and not the one I would prefer.)

Higgs' argument and those I consistently make explain the U.S. presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in countless other places around the world. And Iraq returns us to Matthew Hoh, and why his resignation is ultimately meaningless. In fact, it is much worse than that. To underscore the very limited nature of Hoh's protest, consider the conclusion of the Washington Post story:
If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.

He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.

"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."
In this passage, you see how even Hoh supports the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy. He refers to "combat forces," but this is deceptive terminology, which I analyzed in detail when the same device was used in connection with Iraq. And Hoh urges "more support for Pakistan," and "more pressure" on Karzai -- that is, he recommends continued and even greater involvement in countries that should not concern us because they do not threaten us, but he suggests we alter the emphasis and particular form of our involvement. This is tinkering around the edges, and it does nothing to address the actual problem.

But the worst is this passage earlier in the story:
"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."
The critical facts are few in number, and remarkably easy to understand: Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any serious manner. Our leaders knew Iraq did not threaten us. Despite what should have been the only fact that mattered, the U.S. invaded and occupied, and still occupies, a nation that never threatened us and had never attacked us. Under the applicable principles of international law and the Nuremberg Principles, the U.S. thus committed a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. Those who support and continue the occupation of Iraq are war criminals -- not because I say so, but because the same principles that the U.S. applies to every other nation, but never to the U.S. itself, necessitate that judgment and no other.

While it may be true that some "dudes" threatened Hoh's life and the lives of those with whom he served, Hoh could never have been threatened in that manner but for the fact that he was in Iraq as part of a criminal war of aggression. In other words, he had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. And if he had not been, he would never have been in a position to "whack[] a bunch of guys."

Hoh joined the U.S. military voluntarily. He was obliged to understand this. Ehren Watada understood it, and he therefore refused to go ("My participation would make me party to war crimes."). Without further information, I decline to pass a definitive, final judgment about the meaning of Hoh's actions in Iraq, for the complicated reasons explained in, "No, I Do Not Support 'The Troops.'" But I must acknowledge that this particular statement of Hoh's, especially his casual dismissal and even celebration of his willingness to murder people in what is, in fact, a criminal war of aggression, is a profoundly bad sign, and very likely an irreparably negative indication of his views. For those who repair to one argument in particular, please note that I discuss the "following orders" defense in the earlier essay. But as I noted there, almost all writers (including even those of the liberal-progressive variety) will recognize the invalidity of that defense in certain well-known historical instances of its use, while they simultaneously seize on it eagerly when they seek to deny moral autonomy to U.S. soldiers. "American exceptionalism" has many guises, and that is only another of them. Ehren Watada and the other individuals who emphatically said, "No," and who meant it even on pain of severe punishment, should be our honored guides on this question.

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.

Against all this, read Glenn Greenwald on Hoh's resignation. Greenwald begins by praising Hoh's action in precisely the terms that I anticipated would be the reaction from critics of U.S. Afghanistan policy: "Hoh's resignation is remarkable because it entails the sort of career sacrifice in the name of principle that has been so rare over the last decade, but even more so because of the extraordinary four-page letter (.pdf) he wrote explaining his reasoning." Greenwald focuses on Hoh's explanation of the reasons for the failure of U.S. policy, but he mentions none of the issues I discuss above.

And then comes the most revealing passage of all:
Hoh told The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung that he's "not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love" and that he believes "there are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," adding: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." Plainly, there's nothing ideological about his conclusions; they're just the by-product of an honest assessment, based on first-hand experiences, of how our ongoing occupation of that country is worsening the very problem we're allegedly there to solve.
In his use of the word "ideological," Greenwald appears to mean that Hoh's criticisms regarding Afghanistan are not driven by some predetermined, superficial political opposition. Instead, in Greenwald's view, Hoh's position is "an honest assessment, based on first-hand experiences..."

Greenwald considers this a good aspect of Hoh's more general position, in that it strengthens Hoh's particular criticisms of Afghanistan strategy. But as I explained above, all of Hoh's observations could and should have been understood long before our engagement in Afghanistan began, just as they could and should have been understood in Vietnam -- and all of the same reasons apply to Iraq as well. That Hoh cannot or will not see the application to Iraq of the issues he himself identifies is only one symptom of his inability or refusal to come to terms with U.S. policy and its actual motives and purposes. And that Greenwald glosses over all of this, and all of the arguments about Iraq set forth above, is another instance of the same inability or refusal to grapple with the much more basic problems in U.S. policy -- precisely those problems that all but guarantee another and possibly even worse future disaster with Iran, or North Korea, or some other country that is rarely mentioned today.

For me, the worst omission on Greenwald's part is his failure to comment on [what is most significant about]* this statement from Hoh: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." I urge you to consider again the arguments as to why the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq constitute an ongoing series of monstrous war crimes, and how Hoh's actions are only one part of an incomprehensibly awful larger criminal project. But Hoh "was never more happy" than when he "whacked a bunch of guys" -- "guys" that neither Hoh nor any other U.S. soldier should ever have been in a position to kill. And Greenwald finds none of this worthy of even momentary interest.

Yet in that single statement of Hoh's, and in all the assumptions that underlie it and all the policies to which it necessarily leads and to which it will lead again as long as those policies remain unaltered, lies a world of endless horror -- a world of agony, dismemberment, maiming, torture, of countless personal tragedies and lives forever changed and ended, and of growing instability and threats that are increased by U.S. actions. As long as the forces that drive U.S. policy are ignored or denied, as long as we do not engage this argument on those terms that are most crucial -- and as long as we will not identify the nature of U.S. actions for what they are, and in these instances, they are war crimes -- these horrors will continue without end.

In preparing this essay for publication, I happened to see just moments ago the final paragraphs of the post in which I included the Tuchman passage set forth above (a longer Tuchman excerpt will be found in the earlier entry). I wrote this over two years ago, and it tragically remains true today:
When we come upon a murderer covered with the blood of victims who never threatened him, we do not defend him by appealing to his "good intentions" or by claiming that "he meant well" -- at least, we do not if we seek to remain civilized.

In terms of its foreign policy of aggressive, ceaseless, violent interventionism, the United States has been a murderer of this kind on the world stage for over a century. And our ruling class continues to state repeatedly, in a manner demanding that we credit the assertions, that their infernal and bloody work is far from done.

*The phrase in brackets was added only for additional clarity, although this meaning should be entirely clear in the context of the immediately preceding discussion.