I don’t have any personal war stories to tell. In my twenty years in the U.S. Air Force, I never saw combat. I started as a developmental engineer, working mainly on computer software, and morphed into a historian of science and technology who taught for six years at the USAF Academy. I worked on software projects that helped pilots plan their missions and helped the world to keep track of objects in Earth orbit. I taught military cadets who did see combat and served as the dean of students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, where I saw plenty of young troops cross the graduation stage with language skills in Arabic and Pashto and other languages as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But no combat for me.
I got lucky. As one friend, an Army colonel, told me: any day you’re not being shot at is a good day in the Army. The result, however, is that I can’t tell exciting war stories that begin: “There I was” in Baghdad, or Kandahar, or Fallujah, or the Korengal Valley.
Growing up, I watched a lot of James Bond movies. That super-tough, super-sexy, British secret agent, played with such brilliance by Sean Connery, always seemed to have great fun as he saved the world from various dictators, terrorists, and megalomaniacs. I wanted an Aston Martin like Bond had in “Goldfinger,” tricked out with all the latest gizmos and gadgets provided by Q Branch. But more than anything I wanted Bond’s competence, his swagger, his ability to win the day while getting the girl as well. Such movies are harmless male fantasy flicks – or are they harmless?
While Ian Fleming was writing his “Bond” books and Sean Connery was breathing life and fire into the character, another sort of male fantasy was being promulgated and promoted in men’s adventure magazines with titles like “Stag” and “Man’s Life” and “Man’s World.” These pulp magazines appeared at a time when men’s masculinity was threatened (then again, when hasn’t masculinity been under threat?), in the 1950s and 1960s, a new nuclear age in which America seemed stuck behind the Soviet space program and stuck fighting wars (Korea, Vietnam) that ultimately proved unheroic and unwinnable.
It’s easy to dismiss such men’s magazines as a simplistic variety of pulp fiction, but we’d be wrong to do so, argues historian Greg Daddis in his new book, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines. Daddis is quite convincing in showing how this pulp fiction advanced a view of Western, and specifically American, chauvinism in which war served as an adventure, an opportunity to demonstrate the innate superiority of the American male over various foreign, often Asiatic, opponents, while getting the girl, of course, with the girl usually scantily clad and stereotyped as vulnerable and/or duplicitous and/or sexually available.
Remember when those who advocated for peace were dismissed as “dreamers”? The great John Lennon imagined a world where peace could reign, and he wasn’t afraid of the dreamer label, because he knew it could be more than a dream. Peace is often presented as a fantasy embraced by soft-hearted people. War, by comparison, is a harsh reality embraced by hard-headed realists, or so we’re told.
What if it’s the opposite? What if peace is really based on pragmatism, and war on fantasy? What if the hardheaded realists are really those who advocate for peace via dialog, diplomacy, treaties, and the like? And it’s the warmongers who are truly the soft-headed dreamers?
Consider the results of recent American wars. The wars in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) were total disasters. Ditto interventions in Iraq and Libya. The Afghan War approaches its third decade with no end in sight. How are these wars pragmatic or preemptive or necessary or productive? They’ve been based on fears and fantasies. They’ve been colossal mistakes based on lies and fantasies of power.
You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.
This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir. I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.
Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War. This was the idea the US military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the antiwar movement.
The Afghan Papers have revealed widespread, systemic, and enduring lying about the course and progress of the Afghan War by U.S. military and civilian leaders. So, what’s the punishment for all this lying? Record-setting Pentagon budgets! The more they lie, the more money they get. Is it any wonder why these wars persist, without apparent end, when no one is punished for lies that lead to the death of American troops (not forgetting all the foreign innocents who are killed and wounded because of these lies)?
This may seem hard to believe, but “Integrity First” is the fundamental core value of the US Air Force. But what happens when the system is revealed to have no integrity? When the system sends young Americans to die in a lost war, a war that our most senior leaders have lied about since almost the very beginning?
I know we’re all jaded and cynical, but this is a monstrous failure, a horrendous betrayal of trust.
Trump was elected president in 2016 partly because he railed against America’s wasteful wars. So, what did his advisers talk him into? A mini-surge of troops to Afghanistan. I still recall the odd news of Trump being shown photos of Afghan women in skirts (vintage 1972) to convince him that westernization and modernization of Afghanistan was possible.
Several thousand additional U.S. troops were sent to Afghanistan in 2017, predictably achieving nothing of note. A little more than two years later, we have another item of “big” news today, according to CNN:
The Trump Administration is preparing to announce a long-awaited reduction of US troops in Afghanistan, a senior administration official confirmed to CNN. There are between 12,000 and 13,000 US troops in the country right now, and the US has maintained a solid presence throughout the 18-year war in the area. This drawdown would remove up to 4,000 troops, with more possible reductions in the future, the official said. That matches the claim Trump made on Fox News Radio in August that his administration would take the number “down to 8,600.” The reduction comes at the same time the US is restarting peace talks with the Taliban, and some worry the troop drawdown could be seen as a concession to the terrorist group.