Doug Ollivant, Senior National Security Studies Fellow, New America Foundation
Mr. Trump’s hedge in his August 21, 2017 speech on Afghanistan was to sustain an interminable war, choosing neither to quit the war nor win it in the foreseeable future. He did say, “in the end, we will win,” but he offered no timetable. His definition of victory was rendered in the verb form of the gerund—“attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge”—which expresses a continuous, uncompleted action. His generals advised him there were no feasible options other than holding the line by sending a few thousand more troops to sustain the stalemated war until the Taliban eventually decide they have more to gain from negotiation than armed struggle. Even that, Mr. Trump allowed, might not happen: “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but nobody knows when or if that will ever happen.” Mr. Trump’s new strategy is not “time based.” It is timeless.
In short, there is no foreseeable military solution; the war cannot be won in any meaningful sense of the word; the immediate choice is between losing and not losing. So, Mr. Trump opts to sustain the stalemate, or as one anonymous US military official puts it, “to chart a way forward well into the 2020s.” A way forward does not mean a path to victory. It means more of the same.
Pyongyang, North Korea, 2015. (Credit: Uwe Brodrecht)
Cup of coffee in hand, reading my morning newspaper, I feel a sudden jolt. No, not a jolt from the caffeine. It is the story that brings me up short. The story is about a current revival of fear over the possibility of World War III. That topic draws my attention to the story, but it is not the cause for my surprise or the reason to stop what I am doing. I’ve been worrying about war for as long as I can remember. What brings me up short is a bolt-from-the-blue reminder that for some people, maybe most of my fellow citizens, US militarism is a force for peace, which is not too far removed from the mythic sensibility of war as an angel of redemption.
Sometimes it takes an actual example, a singular statement in ordinary circumstances, to recognize an unspoken assumption and make a disembodied abstraction abruptly palpable. It is one thing to think abstractly that we live and die by the myths that constitute us and shape our sense of reality. It is quite different to feel the force of that truism. That difference is what Rick Hampson’s story in USA TODAY brought home to me. (more…)
Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:
War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. 
Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”
Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)
A warmonger, by definition, is someone who promotes war—urges it, stirs it up. Warmongering is especially foreboding when it comes from a person who is the Commander-in-Chief’s political advisor, chief strategist, senior counsel, and foreign policy guru. Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief, observes that, “Trump considers Bannon a savant and is allowing him to shape his presidency and especially his foreign policy.”[i](more…)
Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:
What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]
Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.
Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii](more…)
Painting of Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984. (Credit: Klettur / Wikimedia Commons)
Halldór Laxness, Icelandic poet, playwright, and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. The saga Gerpla (1952) was among the works recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. Philip Roughton’s new translation of this saga of misguided glory, Wayward Heroes, was published on November 1, 2016.
Wayward Heroes is a story drawn from ancient Icelandic tales of valor in a medieval Norse world of trolls, Viking raids, skaldic lays, dueling Kings, and Christian hypocrisy. It is an allegorical critique of contemporary militarism, the senselessness of violence. Its immediate referent is the Cold War rivalry between the US and USSR. Its continuing relevance, by extension, is to the US colossus and its Global War on Terror.
This tragic tale of comedic critique features the oath-brothers, Thorgeir and Thormod, both obsessed with glory and sworn to avenge one another’s death, whomever dies first. Thorgeir aspired to be an intrepid hero in the service of King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (Olaf the Stout, himself a Viking thug). Thormod was a skald, a poet determined to tell the story of heroic battles fought by his chosen king. It does not end well for any of them. (more…)
USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)
The “gimmick,” Juan Manuel García Passalacqua (aide to two Puerto Rican governors during the 1960s) wrote in a newspaper column over a decade ago, was as follows:
To produce jobs here so that our population could be kept domesticated to prevent social disorder to protect law and order in the archipelago that was essentially and only a very important naval and military base for the United States. We all ended that in Vieques.[i]
Passalacqua was warning of economic disaster given the impending end of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gave “mainland United States companies an exemption from Federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, whether it comes from operations or interest on local bank deposits.” In the aftermath of the closing of the naval artillery range in the small contiguous island of Vieques, and of the closing of the impressive Roosevelt Roads naval base, Passalacqua relayed the conclusion of several economic reports from the US mainland: “Tax exemptions to multinational corporations are not needed anymore” (The San Juan Star, July 9, 2006). (more…)
Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D’Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)
The illustration pictures the (all Puerto Rican) 65th Infantry Regiment in action. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the fabled “Borinqueneers” in recognition of their military service in Korea (the word Borinquen derives from the ancient Taíno name for the island).
In The Docile Puerto Rican and Other Essays 1953-1971, René Marqués once argued:
We are docile. If we were not, Puerto Rico would have obtained its national sovereignty in the 19th century…. Puerto Ricans can be antisocial, defiant, non-conformist occasionally and even heroic as individuals in some cases, but we are certainly docile as a people.
History belies such a categorical judgment by one of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights. From the first Taíno insurrection by Agueybana el Bravo (the Brave) in 1511; to the repulsion of repeated British and Danish invasions under the Spanish colony; to the slave rebellions of the 19th century; to the legendary insurrection against Spanish rule in 1865 known as the “Grito de Lares”; to the Puerto Rican participation in the Cuban Wars of Independence in 1895; in all conflicts Puerto Ricans have demonstrated the same fighting spirit that animated the Borinqueneers during the Korean War. (more…)
The headline caught my attention: “Islamic State Getting Trounced in Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds, Survey Finds.”
The news story, written by Joby Warwick, appeared online on April 12, 2016 in The Washington Post. Warwick reports on national security and the Middle East.
In this story, Warwick features a new opinion poll that shows the Islamic State “is seeing a steep slide in the support among young Arab men and women it most wants to attract.” The “survey suggests” that “overwhelming majorities”—“nearly 80%”—strongly oppose the Islamic State. That’s up from 60% a year ago.
More than half of the young Arabs surveyed ranked the Islamic State as the number one problem in the Middle East, and three-quarters predicted it would ultimately fail to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. “The survey found” that even those who do sign up with the Islamic State are motivated by economic hardships and unemployment, not by religious fervor. Religion is a rationalization, not a motive. Respondents also “tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state.” (more…)
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan waving from the limousine during the Inaugural Parade in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day, 1981. (Credit: White House Photographic Office)
The death of Antonin Scalia and the passing of Nancy Reagan signify the end of the Ronald Reagan era in the political history of the United States. The final days are being heralded by a godless leader (Donald Trump) and his barbarian hordes, who are shattering the Reagan coalition that served the Republican Party well for over three decades.
Mindless devotees of the old president, dedicated to emulating Reagan’s example rather than to cultivating new ideas, do not understand present developments. (Observe, for example, the “puzzlement” on the faces of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as they contemplate the ineffectiveness of notions that once seemed mighty and invincible.) From the perspective of today, the famous “It’s Morning Again in America” campaign ad seems a quant piece of propaganda released by the Ministry of Truth in an Orwellian republic presided by an aging Big Brother. (more…)