Tag Archives: war

Choosing our lessons

Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky (South Vietnam) and President Lyndon B. Johnson, 02/08/1966I have to admit to a certain fondess for Peggy Noonan. What I Saw at the Revolution, her memoir of her time as a speech writer in the Reagan White House, is insightful and, especially in the chapter on the Challenger disaster, often poignant. And any conservative columnist who early on saw through the cult of Palin is a good egg in my book.

So I give her credit for the sentiment, at least, in her column calling for President Obama to follow the example of Kennedy’s speech on the Cuban Missile Crisis in addressing the public on his decisions for continued war in Afghanistan. Rather than offering fine rhetoric and an appeal to the emotions, the President should make a blunt, factual case for his decision:

Now of all times, and in this of all speeches, sheer, blunt logic is needed. He must appeal not to the nation’s heart but to its brain. America is not in a misty-eyed mood, and in any event when the logic of a case is made, when the listener’s head is appealed to, his heart will become engaged, because the heart is grateful.

Honest and factual talk about war is rare at any level, and especially so at the highest. When weighing the decision to enter or extend or end a war, moral calculus is far too often cast aside in favor of ringing appeals to patriotism and honor and fear. We are in two wars now, after all, precisely because the highest levels of government were criminally dishonest about the facts.

Interestingly, Noonan wrote almost exactly the same column, with the same “Dragnet” reference, in September 2002, addressing a different President and a different war:

This is the year when the president and his advisors will or will not make the case, as they say, on Iraq. The president thinks a key part of the war on terror will be moving against Saddam Hussein and liberating Iraq from his heavy hand. But if Mr. Bush is to make the case it will not be with emotional rhetoric, with singing phrases, with high oratory. It will not, in this coming cooler time, be made with references to evil ones. All of that was good, excellent and Bushian the past passionate year. But now Mr. Bush should think in terms of Sgt. Joe Friday. “Just the facts, ma’am.”

“Saddam is evil” is not enough. A number of people are evil, and some are even our friends. “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” is not enough. A number of countries do. What the people need now is hard data that demonstrate conclusively that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction which he is readying to use on the people of the U.S. or the people of the West.

Of course, Mr. Bush did not make his case with “hard data that demonstrate conclusively that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.” He made his case with flimsy evidence propped up by appeals to fear, with bald assertions so outrageous that many people were duped into believing them because of their outrageousness.

The hearings going on in Britain to understand the course that took that country into the war in Iraq are happening about seven years too late. But that they are happening at all is somewhat heartening; we should have similarly open, honest, and heated investigations here, where that war originated. It’s far too late for the thousands killed, maimed, and forever damaged by the war, but it may help make nations more reluctant in the future to plunge into war behind craven lies.

President Obama faces an impossible decision in Afghanistan; there really is no blameless course of action. Withdrawing immediately would lead to chaos and death as the Kabul government collapses; withdrawing gradually prolongs the agony, costing lives in dribs and drabs rather than in a bloody cataract; but staying the course, or building up forces to no clear strategic end, is also a morally repulsive approach. We cannot continue to do more of the same and expect a different result.

Kennedy is not the President whom Mr. Obama should be studying for guidance; Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, is the executive who faced a situation most like that in Afghanistan. Johnson’s bold domestic initiatives were scuttled on the shores of a post-colonial nation engaged in a civil war between a series of kleptocratic puppets and an insurgency fueled by a mixture of ideology and nationalism. There was no sustainable endpoint in Vietnam; the end toward which Johnson’s policy led would have been a constant low level of violence, frequent and violent coups, and an occupation with no clear conclusion. The end that came–a humiliating final withdrawal, years of torture and imprisonment for American allies, a dictatorship that is gradually liberalizing economically if not politically–may not have been much worse, horrible though it was.

Afghanistan is a poor candidate for a centralized government and liberal civil society. While Kabul has a history of cosmopolitanism, the mountainous tribal regions hew to a course of fierce independence and mistrust of outsiders. As in Vietnam, where we failed to learn the lessons of the Chinese, Japanese, and French, in Afghanistan we seem to think the experiences of the British and Russians don’t apply.

I worry that all the promise of the Obama administration will be squandered on trying to staunch the errors of his predecessor. That was certainly the case with Johnson, who ended his years in office as perhaps the bitterest President in history. There is a great risk that all of his capital will be spent on shoring up a doomed enterprise in Afghanistan, leaving precious little to fulfill the domestic hopes we placed in his term in office.

I hope that Obama finds some new approach, something different from simply throwing more lives into the bonfire. This is precisely the situation for which his preemptively-awarded Nobel Peace Prize could be most useful: building a coalition of interested parties, including Iran, Pakistan, and India, who can work together to defuse the sources of violence in Afghanistan and build the core infrastructure–schools, roads, agriculture–that a century of war and neglect have made impossible to construct. Such a project would be ambitious, difficult, prone to criticism and ridicule, and certainly at risk of the same sort of failure that has plagued most of the smaller aid projects in the region. But it would, at least, be a fresh approach to what is fast becoming a tired recapitulation of the not-distant-enough past.


When I was eight,
I kept a picture on my wall
of my father, another man,
and a sea of smiling children.
Behind them was a helicopter
(black in my picture, green in Asia)
and in front of them
(though not in my picture)
were little homes of straw and mud.
In my picture,
he was not much older than I am now.

Not much older,
as I walk along Caille Duarte,
stepping over goat shit and mango pits,
greeted by four little boys
yelling, “Hola, Miguel! Miguel!”
I lose my straw hat to them,
I juggle stones and mangoes for them,
I chase them over cracked pavement
and past rusted barbed wire
covered with wet clothes.
They chatter at me,
as they must have chattered at him,
and I am powerless against their talk
and their tugs and their laughter.

Little Juan took me home one day–
grabbed my hand and my hat after Mass
and led me from the church to the river
on the edge of town, where his mother
kept a tin-roofed shack.
How proud he was of his, pig, his puppy,
his swing made of a stick and a rope!
He climbed into trees for fruit to give me,
and he threw round stones to knock mangoes loose
then led me back to the pastor’s house
and I gave away all my mangoes
walking back to Caille Duarte.

My hat always disappeared during Mass,
as though it crept stealthily
from under my seat and then flitted
from head to tiny head like a yellow-brown parrot.
I always retrieved it from a little cabellero
who wore it nearer his chin than his ears.
Now it’s torn and cracked in places
where small fingers plucked it roughly
like a hard yellow mango.

When I was eight,
I asked my father what had happened
to those children who hung on his arms,
and passed his green hat from head to head.
When I was eight,
he told me that they had to lock him in a room
when that village was burned,
and that he still feels rage at that fire.
If they had lived,
they would be not much older than me.

When I was in the Dominican Republic, I was a favorite of the little kids, who stole my hat and gave me fruit; I could juggle, sing silly songs, and was always up for a game of tag. Kids are great: fearless, funny, and resilient.

My father loved kids, too, and I had a picture of him, snapped for the Stars & Stripes newspaper, playing with a bunch of kids in Vietnam. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that many of those kids were later killed by the Viet Cong, because the village had been too friendly to the Americans. Of course, a good many kids were also killed by the ARVN or American bombs because their villages were too friendly to the VC. One of the many horrors of war is that friendliness can kill you.

I suppose I have a somewhat rosy view of American soldiers because of my father (and my grandfather, who passed out chocolate and gum to kids in Belgium and Germany during the Second World War); at their best, they’re overgrown kids themselves, even though they’re often called upon to do things horribly un-kid-like. The soldiers in the Dominican Republic were a different breed entirely: they swaggered around, swinging their rifles, buoyed by their unquestionable power, bullies every one. Thuggery in arms is a terrifying thing to see.

Of all my leftover poems of twenty years ago, I like this one the best, and I think I’ll end the series with it.

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