Sunday morning, before dawn, I read in the New
York Times that "the Pentagon is planning to add more than 20,000
troops to Afghanistan" within the next 18 months "raising
American force levels to about 58,000" in that country. Then I scraped
ice off a windshield and drove to the C-SPAN studios, where a picture window
showed a serene daybreak over the Capitol dome.
While I was on C-SPAN's Washington Journal for a live interview, the
program aired some rarely seen footage with the voices of two courageous politicians
who challenged the warfare state.
So, on Sunday morning, viewers across the country saw Barbara Lee
speaking on the House floor three days after 9/11 just before she
became the only member of Congress to vote against the president's
green-light resolution to begin the U.S. military attack on
"However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of
restraint," she said. The date was Sept. 14, 2001. Congresswoman Lee continued:
"Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, 'Let's step
back for a moment, let's just pause just for a minute, and think through the
implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.'"
And she said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we
The footage of Barbara Lee was an excerpt from the War Made Easy documentary
film (based on my book of the same name). As she appeared on a TV monitor,
I glanced out the picture window. The glowing blue sky and streaky clouds above
the Hill looked postcard-serene.
But the silence now enveloping the political non-response to plans
for the Afghanistan war is a message of acquiescence that echoes what
happened when the escalation of the Vietnam War gathered momentum.
During the mid-1960s, the conventional wisdom was what everyone with
a modicum of smarts kept saying: higher U.S. troop levels in Vietnam were
absolutely necessary. Today, the conventional wisdom is that
higher U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are absolutely necessary.
Many people who think otherwise including, I'd guess, quite a few
members of Congress are keeping their thoughts to themselves,
heads down and mouths shut, for roughly the same reasons that so many
remained quiet as the deployment numbers rolled upward like an
odometer of political mileage on the road to death in Vietnam.
Right now, the basic ingredients of further Afghan disasters are in place
including, pivotally, a dire lack of wide-ranging debate over Washington's
options. In an atmosphere reminiscent of 1965, when almost all of the esteemed
public voices concurred with the decision by newly elected President Lyndon
Johnson to deploy more troops to Vietnam, the tenet that the United States
must send additional troops to Afghanistan is axiomatic in U.S. news media,
on Capitol Hill, and as far as can be discerned at the top of
the incoming administration.
But the problem with such a foreign-policy "no brainer" is that
the parameters of thinking have already been put in the rough equivalent of
a lockbox. Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and Lyndon Johnson approached Vietnam
policy options no more rigidly than Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Barack
Obama appear poised to pursue Afghanistan policy options.
I was thinking about this when I left the C-SPAN building in the full
light of day. The morning glow made the Capitol look majestic. Yet it was
almost possible to see, streaked across the dome, an invisible new stain
of blood and shattered bones.
Along with the grim patterns, there's a tradition of brave dissent on Capitol
Hill. It's epitomized by Barbara Lee's prophetic statement just after 9/11
and by an earlier kindred spirit, the fierce Vietnam War opponent Sen.
Wayne Morse. If you'd like to see historic footage of them, retrieved from
the nation's Orwellian memory hole, watch the Washington Journal segment
On Monday, USA Today reported that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan
"has asked the Pentagon for more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines, and airmen"
to raise the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan to 55,000 or 60,000. Gen. David
McKiernan says that is "needed until we get to this tipping point where
the Afghan army and the Afghan police have both the capacity and capability
to provide security for their people." Such a tipping point "is at
least three or four more years away," the general explained. So, "if
we put these additional forces in here, it's going to be for the next few years.
It's not a temporary increase of combat strength."
Is Afghanistan the same as Vietnam? Of course, competent geographers
would say no. But the United States is the United States with
domestic continuity between two eras of military intervention,
spanning five decades, much more significant than we might think.
Bedrock faith in the Pentagon's massive capacity for inflicting
violence is implicit in the nostrums from anointed foreign-policy
experts. The echo chamber is echoing: the Afghanistan war is worth the
cost that others will pay.