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A question for “War of the World” fans: Are we like the Martians, invaders from the sky?

11 October 2009

Are we living during the …

War of the Worlds

London, 1898; Kabul, 2009
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 8 October 2009

An unremarkable paragraph in a piece in my hometown paper recently caught my eye. It was headlined “White House Believes Karzai Will Be Re-elected,” but in mid-report Helene Cooper and Mark Landler of the New York Times turned to Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s “redeployment option.” Here’s the humdrum paragraph in question: “The redeployment option calls for moving troops from sparsely populated and lawless areas of the countryside to urban areas, including Kandahar and Kabul. Many rural areas ‘would be better left to Predators,’ said an administration official, referring to drone aircraft.”

In other words, the United States may now be represented in the Afghan countryside, as it already is in the tribal areas on the Pakistani side of the border, mainly by Predators and their even more powerful cousins, Reapers, unmanned aerial vehicles with names straight out of a sci-fi film about implacable aliens. If you happen to be an Afghan villager in some underpopulated part of that country where the U.S. has set up small bases — two of which were almost overrun recently — they will be gone and “America” will instead be soaring overhead. We’re talking about planes without human beings in them tirelessly scanning the ground with their cameras for up to 22 hours at a stretch. Launched from Afghanistan but flown by pilots thousands of miles away in the American West, they are armed with two to four Hellfire missiles or the equivalent in 500-pound bombs.

To see Earth from the heavens, that’s the classic viewpoint of the superior being or god with the ultimate power of life and death. Zeus, that Greek god of gods, used lightning bolts to strike down humans who offended him. We use missiles and bombs. Zeus had the knowledge of a god. We have “intelligence,” often fallible (or score-settling). His weapon of choice destroyed one individual. Ours take out anyone in the vicinity.

He made his decisions from Mount Olympus; we make ours from places like Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. Those about whom we make life-and-death decisions, as they scurry below or carry on as best they can, have — like any beings faced with the gods — no recourse or appeal. Seen on screens, they are, to us, distant, grainy figures, hardly larger than ants. This is what implacable means.

Soothing the Children

And none of this strikes us as strange. Quite the opposite, it represents reasonable policy.

Comments like the one quoted above are now commonplace. In the Washington Post, for instance, Rajiv Chandrasekaran recently recorded the thoughts of an anonymous U.S. officer in Afghanistan: “If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, he concluded, the overall U.S. effort to stabilize Kandahar — and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan — will fail. ‘We might as well pack our bags and go home… and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the al-Qaeda guys who return.'”

We know as well that, in the Washington debate over what to do next in the Afghan War, Vice President Joe Biden has come down on the side of “counterterrorism.” He wants to put more emphasis on those drones and on special operations forces, while focusing more on Pakistan (though without dropping U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan). At the same time, the Pentagon has just created an Afghan Hands program and a Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, two units focused on improving military performance in the Af-Pak theater of operations over the next three to five years. All of this represents the norm for military and civilian leaders who, whatever their differences, believe wars that go on for endless years thousands of miles from home are the sine qua non of American safety.

And none of this seems less than reasonable to us, especially given the much publicized “success” of the drone assassination program in taking out Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership figures. What does strike us as strange, though, is that the locals, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, find all this upsetting. A recent U.S. poll in Pakistan typically reported “that 76 percent of the respondents were opposed to Pakistan partnering with the United States on missile attacks against extremists by American drone aircraft.”

Then again, we take it for granted that the people of such backward lands are strange, touchy types. Not like us. In George Packer’s recent New Yorker profile of Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, there were some classic lines reflecting this.

Packer describes Holbrooke on a flying visit to Afghanistan this way: “He seemed less like a visiting emissary than like a proconsul inspecting a vast operation over which he commanded much of the authority.” When that same proconsul makes it out of impoverished, shattered Afghanistan (where the U.S. Embassy, at one point, had to deny he had engaged in a “shouting match” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai) and into Pakistan, a fractious, disturbed, unnerved country of genuine significance, he packs the proconsul away and, according to Packer, becomes Washington’s cajoler-in-chief. As Packer writes, “In moments when I overheard him talking to Pakistani leaders, he took the solicitous tone of someone reassuring an unstable friend. ‘It’s like dealing with psychologically abused children,’ a member of his staff said. ‘You don’t focus on the screaming and the violence — you just hug them tighter.'”

So, if Afghan and Pakistani peasants in the mountainous tribal borderlands are so many ants or rabbits, Pakistani leaders are “children.” It matters little that Holbrooke has a reputation himself as an egotist and a screamer who demands his way. (Among diplomats back in the 1990s when he was negotiating in the former Yugoslavia, one joke went: What’s the most dangerous place in the Balkans? The answer: Between Dick Holbrooke and a camera.)

Packard reports Holbrooke’s disappointment over the amount of aid Congress is ponying up for Pakistan ($7.5 billion) and, to add to his set of frustrations, there’s this: “Because of Pakistan’s sensitivity about its sovereignty, he had been unable to persuade its military to allow American helicopters to bring aid to the refugees,” who had been driven from the Swat Valley by the Taliban and a Pakistani military offensive.

Let’s think about that for a moment, especially since it’s a commonplace of American reporting from the region and so reflects official thinking on the subject. Karen DeYoung and Pamela Constable, for instance, write in a Washington Post piece: “Pakistanis, who are extremely sensitive about national sovereignty, oppose allowing foreign troops on their soil and have protested U.S. missile attacks launched from unmanned aircraft against suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan.” In fact, let’s reverse the situation.

Imagine that, after the next Katrina, Pakistani military helicopters based on a Pakistani aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Mexico are preparing to deliver supplies to New Orleans. Of course, you also have to imagine, minimally, that the Pakistanis are in the process of building a three-quarters of a billion dollar fortress of an embassy in Washington D.C. (to be guarded by armed Pakistani private contractors), that Pakistani drones are regularly cruising the Sierra Nevada mountains, launching missiles at residences in small towns below, that the Pakistanis are offering billions of dollars in desperately needed aid to a hamstrung American government and military in return for not complaining too much about whatever they might want to do in the United States, that top Pakistani military and civilian officials are constantly shuttling through Washington demanding “cooperation,” and finally that Pakistani reporters covering all this regularly point to an “extreme American sensitivity about national sovereignty,” as illustrated by a bizarre unwillingness to accept Pakistani aid delivered in Pakistani military helicopters. Then again, you know those Americans: combustible as spoiled kids.

Such reversals are, of course, inconceivable and so, nearly impossible to imagine. Today, were a Pakistani military helicopter to approach the U.S. coast with anything on board and refuse to turn back, it would undoubtedly be shot down. So much for American touchiness.

But here’s a question that comes to mind: Why is it that Americans like Holbrooke seem to feel so at home so far away from home? Why, for instance, do U.S. military spokespeople so regularly refer to our indigenous enemies in Iraq as “anti-Iraqi forces,” and in Afghanistan as “anti-Afghan forces”? Why does our military in Iraq speak of the neighboring Iranians as “foreign forces” without ever including our own military in that category?

Resistant as Washington may be to the thought, the obvious has recently been crossing some influential minds. Amid the debate over war options — more troops, more training of the Afghan military and police, more drone attacks in Pakistan, or some mix-and-match version of all of the above, but certainly not a withdrawal from the country — it has become more common to express concern that deploying up to 40,000 more U.S. troops might create too big an American “footprint.” As Peter Baker and Thom Shanker of the New York Times wrote in a profile of Robert Gates, the secretary of defense “has repeatedly declared his concern that more troops would make Americans look increasingly like occupiers.”

After almost eight years of war, only now does the danger that we might “look increasingly like occupiers” rise to the surface. Since “occupier” is a role Americans just can’t imagine occupying, let’s consider a fantasy alternative instead, one perhaps easier to imagine: What if it turns out that we are the Martians?

Crushing the Rabbits

The first Martian invasion of this planet — they landed near the town of Woking in England and, before they were done, laid waste to London — took place in 1898, thanks to the Tasmanians, and if you don’t think that’s worth considering more than a century later, think again. In fact, General McChrystal, President Obama, Proconsul Holbrooke, as you’re doing your reassessments of the Afghan War, do I have a book for you.

I was perhaps 12 years old when I first read it — under the covers by flashlight long after I was supposed to be asleep — and it scared the hell out of me. Even now, when alien invasion plots are a dime a dozen, I have a hunch that it could do the same for you. I’m talking, of course, about H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. If you remember, that other Welles, Orson, successfully redid it in a 1938 radio version in which the fictional Martians landed in New Jersey, and many perfectly real New Yorkers were reportedly unnerved. (The 2005 Steven Spielberg movie version, the second film made from Wells’s classic, had all the expectable modern pyrotechnics, but none of the punch of the book.)

Back in the era when Wells wrote his book, invasion novels were already commonplace in England, with the part of the implacable, inhuman invader normally played by the Germans. Wells, on the other hand, almost single-handedly created the alien invader genre, arming his brainy monsters from the dying planet Mars with poison gas and a laser-like heat ray, and then supplying them with giant walking tripods (think elevated tanks without treads) — all prefiguring the weaponry of the world wars to come (and even of wars beyond our own).

However, nothing in the book — not the weaponry, not even the destruction — is more terrifying than the attitude of the Martians (“intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”), for this is one of the great role-reversal novels of all time. They are implacable exactly because they see the English as we would see rabbits, or as English colonists in Australia did indeed see the Tasmanians, a people they all but exterminated with hardly a twinge of regret. In fact, that’s where The War of the Worlds evidently began. It seems that Wells’s brother Frank brought up the extermination of the Tasmanians one day and so launched the idea for a book still in print 111 years later. Evidently, the question that came to Wells’s mind was this: What if someone arrived in England with the same view of the superior English that the English had had of the Tasmanians, and the sort of advanced weaponry and technology capable of turning that attitude into a grim reality?

As his unnamed central character comments in the first pages of the novel: “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

The Martians (actually transmogrified Englishmen) advance through the English countryside and into London, frying everything in sight in a version of what, in the next century, would come to be known as total war — that is, war visited not just on the warriors, but on the civilian population. At the same time, they harvest humans and feed off their blood. In the coming century, there would indeed be Martians aplenty on this planet, more than ready to feed off the blood of its inhabitants.

General McChrystal, President Obama, Proconsul Holbrooke, The War of the Worlds, old as it is, offers a rare example of how to imagine us from the point of view of them. I urge you to study it with the intensity you now apply to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies. After all, in our own way, we could be considered the Martians of the twenty-first century and (how typical!) we don’t even know it.

Unlike Wells’s Martians, who arrived on this planet without a propaganda department or a care in the world about English “hearts and minds,” we landed in Afghanistan talking a people-friendly game, and we’ve never stopped, even if much of the palaver has been for home consumption. And yet during the first eight years of our Afghan War, as General McChrystal recently admitted in his 66-page report to the secretary of defense, we could hardly have exhibited a more profound ignorance of the Afghan world, or a more Martian lack of interest in finding out about it, even as we were blowing Afghans away.

Now, the Pentagon is attempting to correct that by setting up a new intelligence unit “to provide military and civilian officials in Afghanistan with detailed analysis of the country’s tribal, political and religious dynamics.” As Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation’s Dreyfuss Report, points out, however, this unit will be based at a center in Tampa, Florida; we will, that is, now study the Afghans as anthropologists might once have studied the Trobriand Islanders. Then we will process that information thousands of miles away, just as our “pilots” do.

Perhaps it’s time to study ourselves instead. What if, from an Afghan point of view, we really are Wells’s Martians? Then, it’s not a matter of counterinsurgency versus counterterror, or more American troops versus more American-trained Afghan ones, or even nation-building versus stabilization. What if — and this is an un-American thought — there is no American solution to Afghanistan? What if no alternative, or combination of alternatives, will work? What if the only thing Martians can effectively do is destroy — or leave? (Remember, even Wells’s aliens finally and involuntary chose to abandon their occupation of England. They died, thanks to bacteria to which they had no immunity.)

What if the Afghans will never see those Predators — our equivalent of the Martian “tripods” and death rays combined — as their protectors? After all, our drones represent the technologically advanced, the alien, and the death-dealing along with, as Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis wrote recently, the whole panoply of our “B-1 heavy bombers, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, Apache and AC-130 gunships, heavy artillery, tanks, radars, killer drones, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, rockets, and space surveillance.” Even our propaganda, dropped from the air (as if from another universe), can kill. Recently, an Afghan girl died after being hit by a box of propaganda leaflets, released from a British plane, that “failed to come apart.” Her heart and mind may be stilled, but rest assured, those of her parents, her relatives, and others who knew her, undoubtedly aren’t.

Here’s a little exchange, as reported at a New York Times blog from an alien “encounter” in another land. A U.S. Army major, Guy Parmeter, had it near Samara in Iraq’s Salahuddin province in 2004 (“[I]t made me think: how are we perceived, who are we to them?”):

Maj. Guy Parmeter: “Seen any foreign fighters?”
Iraqi farmer: “Yes, you.”

Sometimes it takes 66 pages to report on a war. Sometimes a century old novel can do the trick. Sometimes you can write tomes about the “mistakes” made in, and the “tragedy” of, an American counterinsurgency war in a distant land. Sometimes a simple “yes, you” will do.

Note on sources and resources

I thought I might mention several websites that I read avidly and rely on in writing pieces like this one, starting with … Robert Dreyfuss’s invaluable work at his Dreyfuss Report blog at the Nation magazine. On Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it should not be missed.

In addition, there are …

  • my long-term favorites: Antiwar.com (and Jason Ditz’s regular news summaries there);
  • Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website — always a must read, but lately he’s been producing remarkable columns day after day; and
  • the War in Context, another website I simply couldn’t do without.

I also find Noah Shachtman’s Danger Room blog at Wired magazine of special interest on military matters.

On the Afghan War, check out

Finally, a small bow to Michael Maddox who, in a letter to the New York Times, brought Major Parmeter’s exchange to my attention.

Copyright 2009 Tom Engelhardt

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Other notes from the past on the FM site:

  1. Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
  2. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  5. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
  6. Napoleon’s advice to President Obama about the financial crisis, 29 April 2009
  7. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009
  8. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
  9. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009
  10. A note from America’s diary: “My power proceeds from my reputation…”, 22 September 2009 
  11. Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian, 25 September 2009

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. Oblat permalink
    11 October 2009 11:32 am

    I read this before and found it a bit strange. This Toms dispatch only makes sense in an American cultural perspective. To everyone else it’s going to read a little strange. The main difference is that things like:

    >Why is it that Americans like Holbrooke seem to feel so at home so far away from home? Why, for instance, do U.S. military spokespeople so regularly refer to our indigenous enemies in Iraq as “anti-Iraqi forces,” and in Afghanistan as “anti-Afghan forces”? Why does our military in Iraq speak of the neighboring Iranians as “foreign forces” without ever including our own military in that category?

    Outside of American culture the answer to this is American exceptionalism, and then the rest of the Martian thing doesn’t have much of a point.

    But within America the implicit answer is “because that’s what they appear like”, and then the Martian thing is about well we must appear as Martians to them.

    >Since “occupier” is a role Americans just can’t imagine occupying

    This is a way of sidestepping the exceptionalism. Because when you ask why not it starts getting uncomfortable very fast. It would be better to tackle exceptionalism head on, but hardly anyone is doing it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Those are the very points Englehardt is making. I don’t understand this comment. This is written to shock Americans into awareness of our odd perspective.

    Like

  2. Mikyo permalink
    11 October 2009 2:54 pm

    Why didn’t they name those UAVs ‘Terminator,’ haven’t they seen the movie??

    Like

  3. Xiaoding permalink
    11 October 2009 3:44 pm

    The problem is, there are, like, 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, fighting a war, and we can’t leave until they do.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any evidence to support this assertion (assuming you do not refer to NATO troops)?

    Like

  4. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    11 October 2009 3:59 pm

    Xiaoding: What 100,000 foregn troops that aren’t NATO or us?

    Like

  5. Mikyo permalink
    11 October 2009 4:22 pm

    Sooner or later, we will leave. And the fighting might well continue without us.

    Like

  6. anna nicholas permalink
    11 October 2009 7:49 pm

    The UK seems to have loadsa Pakistanis , Iraquis and Afghans ( pleeeze dont invade Iran , we havent got room for them too , we are in gridlock ), so we may one day have the pleasure of your drones . Rumour has it , we already do . I think , and Brer Rabbit might agree , you should do lots more with drones and robots .

    Like

  7. Major Scarlet permalink
    11 October 2009 10:45 pm

    why do you always give a voice to anti-war voices? is there any issue that would cause you to recommend war as an option?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What makes you state these wild guesses with so little evidence, often despite my clearly expresed opposite opinions?

    ” is there any issue that would cause you to recommend war as an option?”

    War tends to kill many many people and accomplish few or no good things, so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. The Civil War and WWII are the examples of good wars, but they hardly justify the many many bad ones.

    “why do you always give a voice to anti-war voices?”

    These posts are not about wars in general, but about specific instances. Surgery is often useful, but I doubt you accept that as justification for forcible removal of your left kidney right now. Specifics matter in all things, but esp wars.
    * The Iraq War was clearly based on lies and accomplished little or nothing for America (replacing a secular opponent of Iran with a Shiite ally of Iran).
    * The Af-Pak war was clearly based on lies (e.g., it was launched from AQ bases in Afghanistan, the Tailiban refused our demands to surrender Bin Laden, the Taliban might conquer Pakistan).

    ” is there any issue that would cause you to recommend war as an option?”

    I have said this many times in various ways, but it’s worth repeating:

    On a personal level I have no problem with the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the resulting regime changes (as I have discussed at length on this site). The first was a salutary warning to other nations — don’t even think of allying with those who might strike at America. The second was, like Panama, a nice reminder that tin-pot dictators should keep a low profile (they’re only dictator for life). If we had made our point and pulled out, that would have had OK results and been considered a perk of hegemony.

    But both morphed into occupations, attempting to install puppets, establish long-term bases, and gain colonial-type commercial advantages. In Iraq we have so far gained only 1 of these 3 (the bases). These efforts are more expensive than we can afford (in both money and diversion of both military and political resources) — and the likely gains are too small vs. the costs.

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  8. Mikyo permalink
    12 October 2009 12:17 am

    Maybe. If we could dispose of all these nuclear weapons. And if we didn’t have to worry about running out of gas. And if Detroit could still crank out 10,000 panzers and stukas per month. If we still had a draft. And War Bonds. If we could find an evil empire.

    On second thought, why bother with an actual war? Lets just all get busy preparing for one, and being ready around the clock. Mr. Putin, are you listening?

    hehehhehehhee

    Like

  9. Xiaoding permalink
    12 October 2009 12:45 am

    No one ever gets my jokes. I need a smarter audience.

    Like

  10. Major Scarlet permalink
    12 October 2009 1:01 am

    FM..
    do you have any proof that we are trying to install a puppet government in iraq and afghanistan?

    War tends to kill many many people and accomplish few or no good things, so should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. The Civil War and WWII are the examples of good wars, but they hardly justify the many many bad ones.

    so? i’m sure chamberlain felt the dame way. it’s confusing that you can agree with the beginning of the iraq war and the afghan war but say something like this. the key point is to apply the proper amount of force with the right objectives and to put victory first. we haven’t executed any of our wars properly since WWII. you would think that we could learn from history about what is successful that what isn’t. getting involved in drawn out wars is disastrous.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is silly. Not every threat is Hitler, not every situation is like 1938, not every agreement making peace is the Munich Agreement. WWII is not a magic wand you can wave to justify any way.

    This is the essence of Godwin’s Law — references to Hitler in dissimilar situations indicates a failure to have any substantive arguments.

    The only one capable of dealing with such incisive analysis is Fablog, as in “Q&A: Our Threatiest Threat“, 8 October 2009.

    Like

  11. Mikyo permalink
    12 October 2009 2:13 am

    UH OH! I KNEW IT!!

    Like

  12. Major Scarlet permalink
    12 October 2009 2:18 am

    FM.. it’s just like you to twist someone’s comment without having to answer the question. this isn’t about hitler or godwin’s law.. it’s about committing american power for the right reason. as i’ve said before.. i hardly think you care about your credibility because the point was obvious.

    Like

  13. Nicholas Weaver permalink
    12 October 2009 4:40 am

    Major Scarlet: A good deal of evidence that we want a puppet government in Kabul is seen by the complete US, UN, and NATO non-reaction to truely massive electoral fraud.

    A good estimate of the scale (admittedly from a likely biased viewpoint, but still…):
    Nasrine Gross, Massive Fraud in Afghanistan Election, (Informed Comment guest contribution). Yet apart from Peter Galbraith, the silence is almost deafaning.

    Like

  14. pluto permalink
    12 October 2009 12:46 pm

    >> No one ever gets my jokes. I need a smarter audience.

    Or dumber jokes ;-)

    Like

  15. phageghost permalink
    12 October 2009 4:36 pm

    Continuing the martian invader theme, the comedy Mars Attacks contains a ironic gag that for me, works as a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy. As the martians rampage through the U.S., vaporizing everyone in sight with great gusto, their translator device keeps repeating phrases like: “We come in peace! Don’t run, we are your friends!”

    Like

  16. Burke G Sheppard permalink
    12 October 2009 11:58 pm

    To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t let loose any clouds of black smoke on the Afghans, and the collateral damage from our campaign there would seem to be substantially less than that inflicted by the Martians on Weybridge and Shepperton. And I believe we have fed our soldiers mistly on MREs, not the blood of the local inhabitants. In general, we have operated under rules of engagement that have spared the enemy to the dertiment and peril of the mission. And if the Martians needed to consult a lawyer before deploying the heat ray, Wells does not speak of it.

    I personally would not advocate using the black smoke, although a working heat ray would be pretty neat and I would be in favor of using it if we had one.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe that DoD has the equivalent of black smoke, and is working on the heat rays. The neat flying machines and interplanetary craft remain beyond our reach, for now.

    Like

  17. Oblat permalink
    13 October 2009 6:14 pm

    FM: “Those are the very points Englehardt is making. I don’t understand this comment. This is written to shock Americans into awareness of our odd perspective.”

    Englehardt avoids the issue of why Americans are seen as occupiers by the Afghans by suggesting an alternative scenario – the war of the worlds. The problem is that the points he makes:
    1) We appear alien, god-like and inexplicable to the Afghans.
    2) The Afghans appear touchy but we would react the same way.
    3) Because we appear as an alien invasion we cant be accepted by the afghans and thus win the insurgency.

    Are actually all about Afghan perception and all completely explainable by American exceptionalism and its surrounding cultural infrastructure. It actually confirms it:
    1) We are misunderstood by the rest of the world
    2) Our cultural values are universal.
    3) Because ordinary people don’t understand our values they resist our actions.

    That is why the story resonates so well with Americans, rather then shocking people it actually doesn’t challenge the basic cultural assumptions. Assumptions are often still held implicitly by people who are aware of and disavow the concept of exceptionalism .

    Even if he was to press the more disturbing question – why Americans are seen as occupiers the typical answer would be because the Afghans are mistaken. Englehardt gets points for digging deeper than that, but he also shows that it is very hard to escape the all encompassing logic of any culture. And in some ways it would be better to argue along the line that the afghans are not mistaken because the pat answers are often a sign of a fault line in the culture.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All good points. Thanks for posting this different perspective.

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  18. Major Scarlet permalink
    15 October 2009 3:19 pm

    so the afghans see us as occupiers and for the sake of argument.. lets say we are (i don’t buy it). i’ve no doubt they have some form of culture shock.. having lived under the primitive Taliban for so long while the rest of the “alien” world evolved around them. i think most americans also understand (right or wrong) we attacked afghanistan and freed the afghan people from barbarians. most afghans also understand this and they don’t want to go back to taliban rule.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We appreciate your candor, displaying your boundless self-esteem. Perhaps the Afghanistan people should genuflect before your awesomeness. But I doubt they will. Nor will anybody aware of the historical record of actions by folks with such belief in their their superiority, as it is almost uniformly one of woe.

    Also, IMO this is a certain to fail reason to wage the Af-Pak war. The American people do not share your love of crusading. Perhaps you could raise funds and recruits for a mercenary army, to bring your brand of civilization to the dark corners of the world at gunpoint. It would be interesting to watch.

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  19. Oblat permalink
    15 October 2009 7:03 pm

    A large part of the Taliban support was derived from the local village mullahs, quiet apart from the madrassa students.

    So what does Major Scarlett really say from the Afghan point of view – that their priests the men that they trust next to the village chief are primitive barbarians.

    You can see why the Taliban are back in business. These attitudes of superiority are not uncommon in the military and it’s an own goal that just keeps on scoring. The Taliban don’t even need to make stuff up they just have to point out the fact of American contempt for afghan culture.

    Like

  20. Major Scarlet permalink
    15 October 2009 7:22 pm

    you both make some faulty assumptions… in fact.. it wouldn’t be an FM response without some lame ad hom attack however..

    i never said afghans are barbarians.. i said the taliban are. big difference. what you confused as “boundless self-esteem” and “attitudes of superiority” is nothing but me wishing the best for the afghan people. yes, i admit it. call me crazy but i want them to be free to make up their own minds without being forced in to submission at the point of a gun. i want them to have freedoms, music, movies, and a higher quality of life. amazingly, you sneer that someone would actually espouse and encourage these values. it’s pathetic really.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This is so dreamy as to be sad, esp from someone who called me an “idealist”:

    “call me crazy but i want them to be free to make up their own minds without being forced in to submission at the point of a gun”

    So that’s why we have to have a hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan, killing so many people.

    But such rhetoric is little more than an oddity in the historical record. No elected offical dared give this as a major reason for the war, wrapping such lofty nonsense in lies. Once the lies are exposted to the American people, these idealist dreams IMO will not convince many Americans to continue the war. The solid wisdom of most Americans was expressed by John Quincy Adams in Washington DC on 4 July 1821:

    Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all — she is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

    She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

    She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors, and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force; the frontlet on her brow would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre, the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

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  21. Oblat permalink
    15 October 2009 10:05 pm

    >”call me crazy but i want them to be free to make up their own minds without being forced in to submission at the point of a gun. i want them to have freedoms, music, movies, and a higher quality of life.”

    There is an easy way to determine just how moral you really are: How many innocent Afghans are you willing to sacrifice to these noble goals? I’m sure you have nothing to hide

    Like

  22. Major Scarlet permalink
    15 October 2009 10:35 pm

    Oblat,
    how many did the taliban sacrifice to stay in power? how many lives will be saved by us helping to modernize their medical, educational, and government systems? police officers kill people in the united states every day. are you saying we should take away police officers guns and make it illegal for police to use any kind of deadly force to prevent crimes?
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: The call to crusade, an enduring trope in western culture. We have people who wish to wield America’s power to help oppressed women, to save the environment, to spread civilization. How odd that these disparate groups do not recognize their commonality. It would be fun to lock them in a room together and watch the resulting discussion (and beneficial for America).

    However, most Americans do see the common thread in their thinking — and reject it. Which is why the wars in Iraq and Af-Pak required so many lies to build the necessary support among the American people.

    However, Mr. Scarlet, enough. Start your own website to advocate crusades. Please limit your comments here to the specifics of the post.

    Like

  23. Oblat permalink
    16 October 2009 7:24 am

    Unlike FM I think that Major Scarlet should be welcomed to this forum. He is very useful in elucidating the demons America faces.

    There is a popular reading of The Quiet American that says that Pyle shows that you can make mistakes if you don’t understand the situation properly. And certainly that is true

    But the book’s deeper message is that good intentions are not good enough. That the world is not a fairy story where a true heart is all that is needed. But that the consequences of your actions must be part of the moral equation. Not to do so is morally immature.

    At the highest level Green wanted to show that the European cultures with a bloody history had understood that but that the new American one had not.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: There are fine lines all though these debates. Should all views be allowed on your site, or mine? At what point do we become complicit by allowing advocacy of evil — like aggressive war, racisim, or genocide? Is it OK to advocate evil if I justify it as beneficial to the dead, their society, or humanity?

    Everybody must make their own rules about such things, for the tiny bit of space for which each of us has responsibility.

    Like

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