An American hero died this month, at the age of 93. As a young lieutenant in the Army Rangers, George Kerchner on D-Day led his company up the 100-foot cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc to take out the German artillery that commanded the beaches of Normandy. Although the guns had already been neutralized, Kerchner and his men destroyed them, then held off Wehrmacht troops for days before being relieved.
That was the Good War.
Today, in another war – as Mark noted — there’s been a spate of Afghan “friendlies” assassinating American and U.N. troops in the wake of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’s alleged murder of 17 Afghan villagers while they slept. This comes on the heels of widespread rioting over the incineration of Korans, which were used by Taliban prisoners to pass messages — and for which the U.S. profusely apologized. Restrictive rules of engagement hamper our troops even as a group of foolish senators – all of them irrelevant to today’s politics — proclaim the fight worth continuing.
This is not a Good War.
#more#In other words, I’m with Andy: It’s time to wrap up this decade-long farce, time for both civilian leaders and military brass to take a long, hard look at the demoralizing mess we’ve made in Afghanistan, and to ask how America can avoid such mistakes in the future.
We might start by forgetting the concept of “nation-building” in places where there are no nations to build. The nation-state, it should be remembered, is very much a Western concept, forged over 1,000 years of often painful European history. We were able to rebuild Germany and Japan after WWII, because Germany was a nation-state (albeit a relatively recent political entity) and Japan had fully become one during the Meiji period, after its opening to the West.
Second, it’s crucial to have a clearly defined military mission and a practical political objective — and then stick to them. That was easy in WWII: Total war leading to unconditional surrender was the only possible path to victory. Between “Bomber” Harris and General George S. Patton, Jr., the Germans were crushed from the air and on land — with, of course, considerable help from the relentless Marshal Zhukov, pushing in from the east with Stalin’s payback in his back pocket. Crushing naval defeats, its inability to stop the Americans’ island-hopping campaign, and the atomic bomb spelled the end of Imperial Japan — as did, crucially, Emperor Hirohito’s abjuration of divinity.
The Middle East is a different story. There, we are not fighting nation-states but religiously fueled figments of the imagination of the British Foreign Office, drawn on a map in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War. Further, our troops are saddled with “humanitarian” rules of engagement that Patton would have thought insane — rules that serve only to put them in even greater danger than normal.
There was nothing wrong with going into Afghanistan in the first place. The Taliban was sheltering Osama bin Laden, and it was there that the 9/11 plot was hatched. The U.S. was right to mount a punitive expedition and remove the Islamic radicals from power — a mission that was quickly accomplished, thanks to a daring, special-ops-led military strategy that quickly routed the fundamentalists.
And that should have been that. We should have declared mission accomplished, pulled out, and left the Afghans to their own devices. It never should have morphed — under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama — into a fruitless exercise in tea-brewing
. Some backwaters will always be backwaters, and deservedly so.
“The graveyard of empires” has an undeserved reputation for ferocity, having “defeated” the British, the Russians and, soon enough, the Americans. But that’s undeserved. Eventually, all three great powers realized that Afghanistan wasn’t worth the life of one more soldier than absolutely necessary to achieve its strategic goals — in Britain and Russia’s case, part of the Great Game
, and, in the Russian-American phase, a skirmish on the outskirts of the Cold War and, later, the opening battle in the War on Terror. A unleashed regiment of Gurkhas
could probably wipe out Afghanistan with their kukris
, and it’s worth remembering, before our national orgy of self-flagellation begins again, that the Taliban was clobbered in a matter of weeks
by the Tenth Mountain Division
: some horses, a couple of laptops, and a set of steak knives.
The hunt for bin Laden? After the fall of the Taliban, that was primarily an intelligence operation — and in any case it turned out he was whiling away the houris in the bosom of our Pakistani “allies.” The Taliban might’ve returned? They probably will anyway, after we leave. Nor has our presence there, and for years in Iraq, left Iran intimidated and cooperative, as some argued it would. Anything but. At the end of a decade of war, we are likely to have very little to show for it.
Tactical and strategic victory — and the difference between them — was a concept American war-fighters used to grasp. The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt told Congress: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. . . . [We] will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.” Die Welt als Wille und Forstellung. Emphasis on der Wille.
True, we’re fighting a different kind of enemy, one more inspired by faith than nation, and spread across half the globe. Still, the need for strategic clarity remains, especially when dealing with an enemy who won’t be appeased. Total victory is the only real answer to the “long war,” but it’s obviously something we no longer have the stomach for.
Strategic and moral clarity alike demand finding some different road, as we settled reluctantly in the 1950s on containment of Communism, rather than rollback or accommodation. Technological and cultural isolation of the Arab world — the very opposite of the path we’re now pursuing — would likely have the same effect on the Muslims as it did on the Soviets. When you’re dealing with backward, highly motivated hostiles, it’s probably best not to sell them guns; Custer found that out the hard way.
The boys of Pointe du Hoc knew what was at stake and what they were fighting for. Then, as now, the West was under attack. Young men like George Kerchner, who’d been a soda jerk and went on to run the family ice-cream company back in Baltimore, knew that the survival of the country depended on their sense of duty — and that the country was behind him. Not only did the U. S. have a strategic objective, so did the soldiers: to win the war and get home alive — or die trying.
Meanwhile, today in Afghanistan, troops may snap and shoot civilians in their beds, or they may be murdered by their Afghan colleagues. Forces have surged and have been withdrawn, according to the shifting political winds, but almost nobody believes that a better Afghanistan will be the result. The tea leaves have been bitter for years, but both parties refused to notice.
Our troops still need the same moral clarity that drove Kerchner up the cliffs. Our muddled, apologetic war-fighting strategy of the last decade has deprived them of that — at their and our peril.