How come they get to be the hawks? And
we get to be the doves? A hawk is a noble bird. A dove – well, basically
it's a pigeon. The sort of bird that, in New York City anyway, messes your
building's window sills, is always underfoot, and, along with the city's rats,
makes a hearty lunch for the red-tailed hawks that now populate our parks.
Even a turkey would be less of a turkey than a dove. We get to carry that
olive twig – okay, they call it a "branch" – around in our beaks, but you can
bet your bippy that they get the olives, or, more likely, the opportunity to
trample the olive groves into oil.
They get to swoop and prey. We get to pace the sidelines, cooing our complaints.
Their ideas – it never matters how visibly dumb they are – get tried. Ours
never do. And when theirs fail miserably, they get to recalibrate and try again.
We never get to try once.
That's because it's well accepted that they are "realists" and we are "dreamers,"
or "utopians," or maybe, like most doves, vegans. If you're not addicted to
force (and so failure), you're simply not a part of the grand scheme of things,
of the world as it is.
They get hundreds
of billions of dollars to play with. We don't get bus fare to Washington.
Oh, and then, at about the point when everything they've planned for has gone
to hell, they suddenly turn to us and, claiming we're just so many naysayers,
ask belligerently what the hell we'd do now. What's our plan anyway?
And to make matters worse, even though they have a dismal record when it comes
to predicting what their plans will do, they don't hesitate to explain to us
with complete confidence just what sort of catastrophes our ideas will surely
lead to. If we force them to withdraw from such-and-such a country in such-and-such
a way, we'll be responsible for nothing short of "genocide," or ensure that
a nuclear weapon goes off in an American city, or worse. And the media believes
them, despite the fact that they've been proven wrong time and again, and so
gives them carte blanche as "experts."
I'm talking, of course, about the U.S. military's top brass (uniforms and
those medals are just so imposing!), the key civilians in the Pentagon,
the rest of the national security establishment, the hordes of think-tank strategists
in our capital, and the political leaders who go with them. Talk about failing
upward! Despite everything, hawks rule; doves never even get the chance to
take off. And as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes.
Force as the Solution
And now for a tad of history...
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those few who suggested that the appropriate
response might be intensive, determined global police action, not the loosing
of the might of the U.S. military on Afghanistan, were derisively hooted from
the room. It was so obvious that an invasion was not only a necessity, but
couldn't fail against the ragtag Taliban and their al-Qaedan allies, not given
the military might of the planet's "sole superpower." Even now, when it comes
to that invasion "lite" and the subsequent occupation of Afghanistan from which
unending disaster ensued, no mea culpas have been offered; nor does anyone
in the mainstream pay the slightest attention to those who worried about, or
against, such an approach.
Nor was serious attention paid when, before the invasion of Iraq, millions
of people worldwide poured into the streets of global cities to say loud
and clear: Don't do it! It'll be a catastrophe!
Instead, they did it. It was a catastrophe and both the antiwar crowds and
the critics of that moment have been largely
forgotten – those who weren't simply discredited – while the enthusiasts
for the invasion, military and civilian, now often transformed into "critics"
of how it and its aftermath were handled, remain the "experts" on what the
U.S. should do next. Counterintuitive as it might seem, they are the ones whose
assessments still count – and that's par for the course.
Once the invasion was over, doves said, okay, at least don't occupy the country
long term. Don't build massive bases. Get out while you can – and quickly.
Of course, no one who mattered paid the slightest heed to such wrong-headedness
in the wake of such a historic "victory." And so it went. And so it goes.
In our world as it is, force remains the essential arbiter. And when its application
leads to catastrophe, the response is… simply more of the same.
Consider this conundrum logically. On the one hand, you have a method that,
in our moment, has failed the United States repeatedly. On the other, you have
something largely untried, an attempt to settle problems without resorting
to force or, at least, with minimal force or the use of force as a genuine
last resort in defense of nation, kin, and self. Yet, their efforts and our
money go only into developing better ways of using force, and ever-more-powerful
and eerie ways
of delivering it.
Or have I missed a sudden proliferation of peace task forces and think tanks
in Washington? Has anyone seen the suggestion, first
made in 1792 by signer of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush,
and more recently by Congressman Dennis Kucinich, for the establishment of
a cabinet level Department of Peace go anywhere – other than into the bottom
drawer where the dossier on Kucinich's sighting
of a UFO is stored?
On the one hand, failure; on the other, the unknown. You would think that,
every now and then, the "opposites" principle the character George on Seinfeld
applies to his failed life would hold. As Jerry Seinfeld tells
him: "If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have
to be right."
In Washington, though, what our former secretary of defense called the "known
knowns" are invariably preferred, and so war rooms, not peace rooms, prevail
and, as in Afghanistan today, military commanders remain our ultimate experts
for whom every day is a potential do-over.
Force as Religion
In these last years in Washington, force became
something close to an American religion. The Bush administration's top officials
were all fundamentalists
in their singular belief in the efficacy of force. In fact, they arrived convinced
that an all-powerful, techno-wondrous military, unrivaled on the planet, left
them with the ability to project force in ways no other power ever had. When
it came to remaking the world, anything seemed possible.
What this meant was that an extreme version of military fundamentalism went
hand-in-hand with an extreme version of economic fundamentalism. Today, both
of these fundamentalisms are collapsing, even if a pared-down version of the
military half of the equation is anything but dead.
In those same years, Americans also began to genuflect before the idea
of our military in ways previously unimaginable. They pledged their unending
support for "our troops," now commonly referred to as "warriors," who were
repeatedly hailed as the bravest, most valiant, most successful fighters around,
part of the most awesome military ever. It – and they – simply could do no
wrong. Given this faith, when things did go wrong, mistakes would never be
blamed on the military.
As a result, while actual American soldiers were sent halfway across the planet
in a distinctly unreverential way on their third, fourth, and fifth tours of
duty (with few here giving much of a damn), Americans treated the idea of those
"warriors" and their "mission" with ritualistic fervor.
A cold-eyed look at the record of the U.S. military in these last years,
however, tells quite a different tale. It's no small thing, after all, that
U.S. military actions in two disastrous wars managed to burnish the reputation
of one of the uglier fallen dictators on the planet and pave the way for the
return, as a national resistance force, of a brutish, retrograde, failed regime
almost universally rejected by its own people when it fled in November 2001.
I'm speaking, of course, about Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the Taliban of Afghanistan.
Worse yet, the ever greater application of force, including recently the repeated
firing of missiles from CIA-operated drone aircraft into the Pashtun borderlands
of Pakistan, has resulted in the spread of the Taliban, religious extremism,
terrorism, and war into the heartland
of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now being destabilized.
What makes all this more remarkable is that, unlike the Soviet Union in Afghanistan
in the 1980s, 21st-century America had no impressive enemies to face in September
2001. In losing its brutal Afghan War, the Soviets confronted a superpower
that was more than its match – us. In Afghanistan today, it's estimated that
the Taliban consists of but 10,000-15,000
relatively lightly armed guerrillas. The Iraq insurgency was probably only
marginally larger than that at its height. Al-Qaeda, with a capability
for major operations every couple of years, was even less impressive, despite
the 9/11 televisual
spectacular it put on.
You would have to go back to Spain at the beginning of the 19th century to
find the match for this moment. Then, the most advanced military in Europe,
Napoleon's army, an imperial force advancing (like the American military in
recent years) under the banner of liberty, ran into a meat grinder of an insurgency
from the Sunni fundamentalists of that day – enraged Catholic peasants, often
led by their priests. (If you want to know what that was like, check out Goya's
unforgettable series of prints, "The
Disasters of War.")
In Iraq, over nearly six years, the U.S. military has recalibrated so many
times it's dizzying. Who now recalls the "revolution in military affairs" that
created the "lite," high-tech military which launched a "decapitation"
campaign that killed
plenty of Iraqi civilians but left all of that country's leaders with their
heads still firmly on their shoulders; or the "shock
and awe" campaign, which mainly awed Washington – and that was before the
occupation, the Sunni insurgency, and a civil war took root, after which tactical
changes came and went with names like "get
tough," "oil spot" and
"ink blot," the "Salvador
and hold," and "the
surge" as well as the "clear,
hold, and build" counterinsurgency strategy that is now supposedly being
transferred to Afghanistan.
Today, Iraq, still one of the most
dangerous places on the planet, is far
quieter than at the height of the civil violence of 2005-2006, and so the
"surge," overseen by Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, is said in Washington
to have worked, even if it hasn't succeeded in resolving the underlying ethnic,
political, and religious tensions let loose by the American invasion. A recent
on the inside pages of the New York Times, however, offers a somewhat
different perspective on the effectiveness of military force in Iraq in these
last years. Little aid, Times journalist Timothy Williams reports, is
now available to Iraq's estimated 740,000 widows, most made so, it seems, by
years of war and violence; and that figure, he indicates, may be an undercount,
given the chaos in which that country remains.
If you were capable of adding to the dead husbands of those hundreds of thousands
of "war widows," the dead wives, dead sisters, dead daughters, dead grandmothers
and grandfathers, as well as the children who died thanks, in one way or another,
to the violence of those years, not to speak of the large group of dead young
men who were not yet married, you would surely have a staggering figure, a
toll of perhaps a million or more Iraqis from an estimated prewar population
of perhaps 26 million. That level of slaughter might qualify in scale as near
genocidal. (It's worth adding that, as in the Vietnam era so many decades ago,
mainstream critics of antiwar critics continue to regularly suggest that any
kind of "precipitous" withdrawal of American troops would almost certainly
result in a genocidal slaughter, even as such a slaughter has taken place with
the troops there.)
If the staggering numbers of dead civilians in Iraq's post-2003 killing fields,
and those who are still dying, are a measure of Washington's "success," it's
the success of the undertaker.
Taking Options Off the Table
Let's face it, the U.S. is addicted to force,
and when force fails to achieve its purposes (for failure, too, is addictive),
yet more force is applied in marginally different ways under radically different
Now much of Washington and the media have indeed reached a consensus that
the Bush administration's use of force was a disaster of the first order. As
a result, they have generally concluded that, in Iraq, we must be especially
careful not to stop applying it too quickly lest we destabilize what's left
of that country and, in Afghanistan, that achieving "stability" calls for the
deployment of significantly more forces which, of course, will use significantly
In Iraq, where President Obama is indeed talking about a withdrawal that would
all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, we also know, thanks to Thomas Ricks' latest
book, The Gamble, that America's top generals, including CENTCOM commander
Petraeus and Gen. Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, believe we'll still be
fighting in that country in
2015. In the meantime, the general who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan,
David McKiernan, is already talking
about years more of fighting at surge levels – and suggesting that yet
more U.S. troops will be needed. ("I think… that this is not a temporary force
uplift, that it's going to need to be sustained for some period of time. I
can't give you an exact number of – the year that it would be. But I've said
I'm trying to look out for the next three to four or five years.")
In the meantime, the Obama administration is hoping to find some extra help
by calling together a regional conference of interested countries, possibly
Iran, and by using the military to negotiate with and peel
off "moderate" Taliban backers, while it sends in at least 17,000 more
troops. This is what passes for new foreign policy thinking in Washington.
In the meantime, the Afghan chain of command has been further militarized.
It now stretches from retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, the new national security
adviser, through CENTCOM commander Petraeus and Afghan commander McKiernan
to a soon-to-retire Army general, Karl
Eikenberry, who reportedly will be appointed U.S. ambassador in Kabul.
Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, as well as along the Pakistani border,
peace and stabilization will involve the further application of force with
To summarize: They can be wrong a hundred times, and when they are, they get
to try every cockamamie scheme and call it anything they want. We don't even
have names for whatever peace strategies might be used. And while Iran is,
however grudgingly, however imperially, being invited to the Afghan table,
antiwar activists and critics, no matter how on the mark they might have been,
remain the equivalent of an American Hamas.
On the other hand, if you've been a "hawk" and a pundit, or one of those retired
generals who talked us, however ineptly, through our latest wars (like the
TV financial analysts who, in mid-meltdown, were still
calling on us to buy more stocks and assuring us of the solidity of A.I.G.
and Citigroup), you can't be wrong often enough to be asked to leave the table
at which the Great Game is played.
Oh, and with this in mind, a small tip for prospective "doves" within the
Obama administration: Be careful not to be too on the mark in your analysis
or, at least, too loud about proclaiming it. On this subject, history is a
suicide bomber, and it's coming for you. After all, the worst thing in any
administration is to be a dove and be right.
As David Halberstam memorably wrote in his history of the Vietnam War, The
Best and the Brightest, of hawkish future Secretary of State Dean Rusk,
"So [he] was once again promoted (the best people, who had correctly predicted
the fall of China, would see their careers destroyed, but Dean Rusk, who had
failed to predict the Chinese entry into the Korean War, would see his career
accelerate). There had to be a moral for him here: if you are wrong on the
hawkish side of an event you are all right; if you are accurate on the dovish
side you are in trouble."
Leaving the Comfort Zone
Let's be clear here. In our world, any application
of imperial force is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It doesn't
work. We can't afford it. It's not in "the national interest." The last seven
years have made this abundantly clear for those who care to look.
Let's be clear on this, too: If we keep sending military people in to solve
our problems, they will, not surprisingly, turn to military solutions. Whatever
lip service they offer to diplomacy and other possible paths, they will, in
the end, prefer force by whatever label. It's what they know. However uncomfortable
its results, it's still their comfort zone.
That's why the American president is commander in chief – exactly so that
military men aren't left to "solve" our problems for us.
Let's be clear on this as well: Nobody knows what antiwar solutions would
make sense, much less succeed, since so little effort or money or time or experimentation
has gone into them, but we know a lot about what force can't do in our world.
Wouldn't it make sense to put a small percentage of the long-term effort and
money that the Pentagon now profligately invests in force and the means to
deliver it into strategies for peace, and into the de-escalation of the use
of force as a solution (and of the
global imperial mission that goes with it)? Shouldn't somebody consider,
for instance, whether the principle found in so many individual martial arts
– that defense, and even striking reserves of power, can be found not in meeting
force with blunt force, but in giving way before force – might apply to more
collective situations? Don't such groups as the Taliban and al-Qaeda feed off
of, thrive and recruit off of, military action against them, as well as the
human destruction and the attention that goes with it?
Isn't it time for us to begin to take force off that "table" on which, officials
in Washington always insist, lie "all options," but especially smash-mouth
ones? Isn't it time to suggest that there can be no national interest when
it comes to military action in Iraq or Afghanistan, only an imperial interest?
Isn't it time to suggest that, as bad as things are, as little as we know how
to do anything else, simply fighting on in Iraq or Afghanistan until 2015 or
2020, as our economic system collapses around our ears, can't be a solution
Decades ago, after visiting American troops in Vietnam, singer Johnny Cash
asked by a reporter whether that didn't make him a hawk. "No, no, that
don't make me a hawk," he responded. "But I said if you watch the helicopters
bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for 'em
and try and do your best to cheer 'em up, so they can get back home, it might
make you a dove with claws." Later, he would call that image "stupid." Maybe
that's because he didn't go all the way. Maybe he meant "a falcon of peace."
Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt