Tag Archives: tom engelhardt

Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to our New Syndrome

Summary:  No nation, no matter how powerful, can long prosper (perhaps not even survive) with a broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop).  Like ours.  The primary symptom: an inability to learn.  We cannot learn from our peers’ to fix our health care system.  We cannot learn from our history to cope with 4GW (eg, foreign insurgencies).  Today Tom Engelhardt explains our attempts to forget lessons of the past, and so we repeat them.

The Afghan Syndrome:
Vietnam Has Left Town. Say Hello to the New Syndrome on the Block.

By Tom Engelhardt
Originally published at TomDispatch, 10 April 2012
Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. The Smog of War
  2. A Titleholder for Pure, Long-Term Futility
  3. A Vietnam Analogy Memorial
  4. About the author
  5. For more information

(1)  The Smog of War

Take off your hat. Taps is playing. Almost four decades late, the Vietnam War and its post-war spawn, the Vietnam Syndrome, are finally heading for their American grave. It may qualify as the longest attempted burial in history. Last words — both eulogies and curses — have been offered too many times to mention, and yet no American administration found the silver bullet that would put that war away for keeps.

Richard Nixon tried to get rid of it while it was still going on by “Vietnamizing” it. Seven years after it ended, Ronald Reagan tried to praise it into the dustbin of history, hailing it as “a noble cause.” Instead, it morphed from a defeat in the imperium into a “syndrome,” an unhealthy aversion to war-making believed to afflict the American people to their core.

A decade later, after the U.S. military smashed Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait in the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush exulted that the country had finally “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” As it turned out, despite the organization of massive “victory parades” at home to prove that this hadn’t been Vietnam redux, that war kicked back. Another decade passed and there were H.W.’s son W. and his advisors planning the invasion of Iraq through a haze of Vietnam-constrained obsessions.

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Peter Van Buren explains “What We Lost in Iraq and Washington in 2009-2012″

Summary:  Today we have an account of one man’s experience doing the right thing in the New America.  He dared to tell us the truth about the Iraq War.  We repaid him with illegal punishments and a broken career (the whistleblower laws, like all laws today, were meaningless) — pour l’encouragement d’les autres. I have nothing to add other than: please read this, read his book — and remember this when you’re deciding if to get involved in the election.

“History is made at night. Character is what you are in the dark.”
— Lord John Whorfin in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984 film)

Today we have for your enlightenment “Left Behind – What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012” by Peter Van Buren, originally published at TomDispatch on 8 April 2012 — Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. Introduction by Tom Englehardt: Peter Van Buren Joins The Whistleblowers’ Club
  2. Today’s essay by Peter Van Buren
  3. About the author
  4. Glenn Greenwald’s articles about the New America
  5. For more information: posts about the Iraq War

(1)  Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Peter Van Buren Joins The Whistleblowers’ Club

Peter Van Buren’s journey to publication — and so to whistleblower status — was among the more improbable odysseys of our times.

In 2009-2010, he was a State Department official on a godforsaken forward operating base south of Baghdad, his mind boggled by what he was seeing of the grim farce of American “reconstruction” in Iraq. He was then sending emails home to his wife in the States that would, sooner or later, become part of his Iraq manuscript, and at night wandering the Web trying to learn more about the country and situation he had been plunged into. He stumbled upon TomDispatch and noticed that authors writing for the site sometimes produced books that TD then highlighted.

In 2010, back in the States with a rough manuscript in hand, knowing no one in publishing, not even realizing I was a book editor, he sent an email to the TomDispatch mail box that began: “I am a Foreign Service Officer just returned from a year in the field in Iraq (PRT leader) and I have a completed book draft. Would you be willing to read it as a possible title to publish, for a prepublication comment, and/or for a later excerpt on your site?”

… Normally I would simply have nixed Van Buren’s requests, but something stopped me, maybe the fact that he had recently returned from service in Iraq. I asked him to write a description of his book and himself, and passed it on to Steve Fraser, my partner at our co-publishing venture at Metropolitan Books, the American Empire Project. A few days later Steve told me that I needed to read Van Buren’s manuscript; he was a natural and it was the real McCoy.

Luck turned Steve into his editor and Van Buren into a published author and so dispatched him into the strange, embattled world of Obama-era governmental whistleblowers. As a group, they are just about the only people inside the National Security Complex who get in trouble for their acts. In our era, the illegal surveillers, the torturers, the kidnappers, those who launch and pursue undeclared and aggressive wars, and those who squander taxpayer dollars all run free. Later, if they were important enough, they write their memoirs for millions of dollars, peddle their speeches for hundreds of thousands more, and live the good life.

The only figures in the Complex regularly pursued as troublemakers and possible criminals turn out to be guilty of a single all-American crime: telling the citizenry what they should know about the operations of, and often enough the crimes of, the government they elected. Peter Van Buren did so with his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Now he’s a criminal and I the one who aided and abetted his “crime.”

(2)  Today’s reading

Left behind – What We Lost in Iraq and Washington, 2009-2012
By Peter Van Buren

People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, often via a long digression, but my answer is always the same: no regrets.

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The Obama Doctrine: we will attack and destroy all non-nuclear rivals

Summary:  Obama announced a new grand strategy for America, and we didn’t notice (being in a deep stupor).  It’s a logical evolution of our increasingly aggressive strategy since 9-11.  It’s almost certain to end badly for us.  Today Tom Engelhardt explains the path our leaders have put us on.  Listen and you can hear the rapids in the distance.


Today’s guest post:  “War as the President’s Private Preserve – Obama Breaks New Ground When It Comes to War With Iran
By Tom Engelhardt, originally published at TomDispatch, March 2012 — Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. The Obama Doctrine
  2. The Power of Precedents
  3. War and the Presidential “I”
  4. About the author
  5. For more information

(1)  The Obama Doctrine

When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble — dangling by  his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock.  There would always be people  all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice.  The  tagline was: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”

Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented  forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably  radical.  Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli  preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked  Americans — but just about nobody noticed.

I don’t mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president’s  statements.  Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the  press and by pundits.  Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them.  Fox News highlighted their restraint.  (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”)  The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies  Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.”)  Israeli Prime Minister  Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli  dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East.  But somehow, amid  all the headlines, commentary, and analysis, few seemed to notice just  what had really changed in our world.

The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against  this country and a new war doctrine to go with it.  He would, he  insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking  us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a  nuclear weapon — and he would act even if that country were incapable  of targeting the United States.  That should have been news.

Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the  arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the  president gave a 45-minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.  A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had  produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined “The Point of No Return.”  In it, based on interviews with “roughly 40 current and past Israeli  decision makers about a military strike,” he had given an Israeli air  attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July.  From the recent  interview, here are Obama’s key lines:

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The end nears for our expedition to Afghanistan. Time to reflect on what went wrong.

Summary:  After writing over 100 posts since September 2003 about our war in Afghanistan, I faced the grim task of writing about its ugly end.  Fortunately, here are two articles that do it better than I could.  They deserve your attention, as we walk away from a project for which we borrowed so much money and spilled so much blood — probably in vain (as so many said when we began).  What have we learned from this experience?


  1. Powerful article about the cost of not knowing the terrain on which you fight
  2. Feature article: Blown Away – How the U.S. Fanned the Flames in Afghanistan
  3. About the authors
  4. Other articles sounding the death knoll for our war in Afghanistan
  5. For more information

(1)  About knowing the terrain

One cannot hope to win in fourth generation warfare without understanding the human terrain. As explained by Ralph Peters in “The Human Terrain of Urban Operations“ (Parameters, Spring 2000).  After a decade we remain ignorant, like a heavily armed but blind soldier — a horrific testamony to our military’s incapacity to adapt to the 21st century.  For details see “The causes of the protests in Afghanistan“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 26 February 2011.

(2)  Today’s feature article

The first of many post-mortums about the end of the expedition to Afghanistan:  “Blown Away – How the U.S. Fanned the Flames in Afghanistan“, by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse, TomDispatch, 29 February 2012.  Reposted on the FM website with their generous permission.


Is it all over but the (anti-American) shouting — and the killing?  Are the exits finally coming into view?

Sometimes, in a moment, the fog lifts, the clouds shift, and you can  finally see the landscape ahead with startling clarity.  In Afghanistan,  Washington may be reaching that moment in a state of panic, horror, and  confusion.  Even as an anxious U.S. commander withdrew American and NATO advisors from Afghan ministries around Kabul last  weekend — approximately 300, military spokesman James Williams tells  TomDispatch — the ability of American soldiers to remain on giant  fortified bases eating pizza and fried chicken into the distant future  is not in doubt.

No set of Taliban guerrillas, suicide bombers, or armed Afghan  “allies” turning their guns on their American “brothers” can alter that  — not as long as Washington is ready to bring the necessary supplies  into semi-blockaded Afghanistan at staggering cost.   But sometimes that’s the least of the matter, not the essence of it.   So if you’re in a mood to mark your calendars, late February 2012 may be  the moment when the end game for America’s second Afghan War, launched  in October 2001, was initially glimpsed.

Amid the reportage about the recent explosion of Afghan anger over  the torching of Korans in a burn pit at Bagram Air Base, there was a  tiny news item that caught the spirit of the moment.  As anti-American  protests (and the deaths of protestors) mounted across Afghanistan, the  German military made a sudden decision to immediately abandon a 50-man outpost in the north of the country.

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450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet – The Pentagon’s Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops

Summary:  While the evidence accumulates that we’re accomplished little in Afghanistan, we continue to pour vast sums into building bases there.  Perhaps in time to be abandoned like the vast bases in Iraq, also built at great cost.  Meanwhile components of our vital infrastructure rots away, with people unemployed who could be rebuilding them.  Seldom has the wealth of a great nation been so foolishly wasted.  Today we have a report from the front by Nick Turse.  Read it and cry for America.  And remember:  we hold elections every two years.  We have responsibility for their outcomes.

Reprinted from the TomDispatch website, 12 February 2012, with his generous permission.

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

In Afghanistan, “victory” came early — with the U.S. invasion of 2001.  Only then did the trouble begin.

Ever since the U.S. occupation managed to revive the Taliban, one of  the least popular of popular movements in memory, the official talk,  year after year, has been of modest “progress,” of limited “success,” of  enemy advances “blunted,” of “corners” provisionally turned.  And always such talk has been accompanied by grim on-the-ground reports of gross corruption, fixed elections, massive desertions from the Afghan army and police, “ghost” soldiers, and the like.

Year after year, ever more American and NATO money has been poured  into the training of a security force so humongous that, given the  impoverished Afghan government, it will largely be owned and paid for by Washington until hell freezes over (or until it disintegrates) — $11 billion in 2011 and a similar figure for 2012.  And year after year, there appear stories like the recent one from Reuters that began: “Only 1 percent of Afghan police and soldiers are capable  of operating independently, a top U.S. commander said on Wednesday,  raising further doubts about whether Afghan forces will be able to take  on a still-potent insurgency as the West withdraws.”  And year after  year, the response to such dismal news is to pour in yet more money and  advisors.

In the meantime, Afghans in army or police uniforms have been blowing away those advisors in startling numbers and with a regularity for which there is no precedent in modern times.  (You might have to reach back to the Sepoy Mutiny in British India of the nineteenth century to find a similar sense of  loathing resulting in similarly bloody acts.)  And year after year,  these killings are publicly termed “isolated incidents”  of little significance by American and NATO officials — even when the  Afghan perpetrator of the bloodiest of them, who reportedly simply  wanted to “kill Americans,” is given a public funeral at which 1,500 of his countrymen appeared as mourners.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pursue a war in which its supply lines, thousands of miles long, are dependent on the good will of two edgy “allies,” Russia and Pakistan.  At the  moment, with the cheaper Pakistani routes to Afghanistan cut off by that  country’s government (in anger over an incident in which 24 of their  troops were killed by American cross-border air strikes), it’s estimated  that the cost of resupplying U.S. troops there has risen six-fold.  Keep in mind that, before that route was shut down, a single gallon of fuel for U.S. troops was cost at least $400!

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Awesome reading for your weekend

Summary:  The Internet need not be an instrument promoting ignorance and prejudice.  On it are gems, brilliant and insightful.  Here are some for your weekend reading.   All about topics often discussed on this website; links to related posts follow each excerpt.


  1. The War Addicts – 2016 and Then Some“, Tom Engelhardt, 30 September 2010
  2. What I Think About Atlas Shrugged“, John Scalzi (sci-fi writer, bio), 1 October 2010
  3. Hayek’s Zombie Idea“, John Quiggin (Professor of Economics and Political Science, U Queensland), 1 October 2010
  4. Update:  “Be very afraid – we are being fleeced by purveyors of fear“, Simon Jenkins, op-ed in The Guardian, 1 October 2010


(1) The War Addicts – 2016 and Then Some“, Tom Engelhardt, 30 September 2010 — Conclusion:

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It’s not too soon to begin planning for the next war

How to Fight a Better War (Next Time) – Three Fixes for the American Way of War

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, 2 March 2010 — Reprinted with permission.

Iraq remains a mess from which the U.S. military seems increasingly uninterested in withdrawing fully and Afghanistan a disaster area, but it’s never too soon to think about the next war. The subject is already on the minds of Pentagon planners. The question is: Are they focusing on how to manage future wars so that they won’t last longer than the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II combined?

There’s reason to worry, especially since the lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan are clear: it takes years after a war has been launched for the U.S. military to develop tactics that lead to stasis. (“Victory” is a word that has gone out of fashion.) Here, then, are three modest suggestions for recalibrating the American way of war. All are based on a simple principle — “preventive war planning” — and are focused on getting the next war right before it begins, not decades after it’s launched.

1. Make the Apologies in Advance

Who can doubt that the American way of war has undergone changes since, in December 2001, a B-52 and two B-1B bombers using precision-guided weapons essentially wiped out a village celebrating a wedding in Eastern Afghanistan? Of 112 Afghans in that wedding party, only two women survived. Similarly, in August 2008, in the village of Azizabad in Herat Province, at least 90 Afghans, including 60 children, were killed in a series of U.S. air strikes, while in May 2009, up to 140 Afghan civilians died in a U.S. bombing attack in Farah Province.

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