Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.

Summary: What have we learned from our experiences in Afghanistan? My guess: not much. Certainly not the vital lessons we need to learn in order to prosper in the 21st century. This is thousand words raising questions. In the comments post your thoughts, and pointers to works by others grappling with these issues.

Every society experiences defeat in its own way.  But the varieties of response within vanquished nations — whether psychological, cultural, or political — conform to a recognizable set of patterns or archetypes that recut across time and national boundaries.  A state of unreality — of dreamland — is invariably the first of these.

From the Introduction to Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003)

Afghanistan war

The closing of Abu Muqawama (run by Andrew Exum) and The Oil Drum were greeted with tears by their fans, Probably undeserved tears. Both played large roles in major issues during the past decade, but perhaps not useful contributions.

Abu Muqawama focused on providing expert, fact-rich, but horrifically wrong advice during our “small wars” (small but expensive wars). The Oil Drum provided fact-rich discussions with wrong conclusions about “energy and our future”. Both were nodes for concerned, educated, knowledgeable professionals and laymen. It’s disturbing that these cohorts of our best and brightest could not the errors in their analysis — or question them after years of failed forecasts.

For ten years I’ve written about America’s broken Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop. Here we have two tangible examples. This post looks at Abu Muqawama.

The Afghanistan War

Anrew Exum was a paid propagandist at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). CNAS is one of the leading pro-war think-tanks, started in 2007 with lavish funding (now their roster of corporate donors). In August 2009 he ran a debate about “why we fight” in Afghanistan.  The pro-war submissions were bizarrely weak. The anti-war submissions and comments (e.g, Bernard Finel, Col. Gian Gentile) were more strongly reasoned and factually supported.  In broader terms, most of the comments were anti-war.  Probably not how Exum intended this to run. But at the end he wrote a predictable pro-war screed, with more of our hawks patentable bad advice.

Take a stroll on memory lane, see for yourself the confidence of the hawk’s advice.

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Afghanistan war
Source unknown
  1. Exum’s Introduction – Including my note.
  2. The first salvo – Weak start for the hawks
  3. Bernard Finel fires the second salvo
  4. Day Three
  5. Day Four
  6. Day Five
  7. Day Six
  8. Day Seven
  9. Exum’s concluding thoughts

Not to worry — the war has had a happy ending for our war-mongers. Despite it being an obvious failure in Summer 2009, four years later the war still continues, producing its annual harvest of American and allied and Afghanistan dead (although it’s slowly running down).  Rivers of blood, vast sums of money desperately needed at home — all wasted in a mad vain adventure under the advise of highly credentialed, brilliant people. And most of them have profited from the career boost given to them by the war.

Yes, it was obvious in 2009 that the War was futile

Leaving Afghanistan: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper“, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2013 — Excerpt:

I don’t know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn’t going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn’t going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to “surge” there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.

Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave.

Conclusions

Wars’ ends, especially failed wars, should bring forth questions. It’s not just good sense, but something we owe to those who personally paid for the war. The must-read on this subject is Wolfgang Schievelbusch’s masterwork: The Culture of Defeat – On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003). Here’s my list of questions, with no attempt at comprehensive answers (long books will be written about these matters).

(a)  Effect on Afghanistan?

Bad, perhaps terrible. Although we cannot reliably assess this until Afghanistan sorts itself out after we leave. Also, let’s not forget our other war — in Iraq, which ran for a shorter time but appears to have more seriously destabilized them. The fighting continues, racking up body counts far beyond anything Saddam would have done.

It’s not just that both wars failed to produce benefits to American (although many individuals and corporations profited). Look at what we have done to the nations we intended to help. Both once had secular governments. Thanks to our help women in both live under some form of Islamic law, far more restrictive — even punitive — than that of the governments we helped overthrow.

(b)  How did this happen?

This cannot just be repeated mistakes.  My guess: decades from now historians will look back at us, easily seeing some structural flaw in our society.  Our thinking, our organization, perhaps our values.  They will wonder why this flaw was not apparent to us.

That question, at least, we can answer.  The problem is not apparent to us because we do not look. Blinded by our exceptional awesomeness, we toss mistakes down the memory hole. Forgotten!  Now let’s contemplate our wonderfulness, so shiny we need to don sunglasses before looking in the mirror.

(c)  Portents for the future?

First, we do not appear to learn from our experiences. Failure to learn does not end well for individuals or nations. To give one of many examples, the people whose advise proved disastrous are still considered experts, not pariahs (paging Prof van Crevald. Please come to the Bridge). Those whose advice was correct but ignored remain obscure. Just like after Vietnam. Painful memories driver reform. This amnesia I see in so many of our public policy debates is a national disability, and perhaps a symptom of a deeper and more serious problem.

Second, and I cannot formulate this coherently, I believe reform must start with a clearer vision of ourselves and the world. Our concerned citizens organize into mutual admiration societies in which internal criticism is verboten. Peak oil, global warming, our holy wars, the evil liberals/conservatives — that’s how much of today’s dialog occurs. In my experience, to little effect. We must learn to work better together.

Learning is Fun
Not if the tuition is paid in blood & failure

For More Information

Archives of posts about:

A few special posts about our long war in Afghanistan, from the mid-war years:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  3. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  4. Exum & conpany recommending new ways to lose: at the all-star CNAS Conference in June 2009
  5. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  6. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  7. Foust describes the case for our war in Afghanistan, 28 August 2009
  8. Another attempt to justify our Af-Pak war, and show the path to victory, 31 August 2009
  9. The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
  10. Every day the war’s advocates find new reasons we should fight in Afghanistan!, 7 September 2009
  11. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009 — Lots.
  12. A new reason to kill thousands of people? Stay tuned for the answer!, 24 September 2009
  13. We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire., 20 November 2009

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34 thoughts on “Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.

    1. Robert,

      I totally agree. I have given many excerpts showing the correspondence of our processes with those of America during the 1960s Vietnam War.

      Thanks for mentioning this!

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  1. The entire so-called “War on Terror” does not represent failure to learn; rather it represents refusal to learn.

    Following Vietnam, a muthos built up that “the troops,” who had been “spat upon” were “stabbed in the back.” The entire story is very well known.

    Accordingly, the belief developed that had Vietnam been done right, then the United States would have won. The entire “War on Terror” was an effort to do Vietnam right, thereby proving this thesis.

    Unfortunately, the United States military was not stabbed in the back in Vietnam; rather it was defeated. For similar reasons it has accordingly suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it may learn similar lessons in Africa and Central America.

    For those Americans who presently have learned this lesson, considering the admonition “Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way!”, I can only suggest that – as best they can – they get out of the way.

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    1. The last paragraph of your comment reminds me of what a relative of mine — a career officer in the Air Force, now retired — has often said about his experience of being stationed at the Pentagon (which he considered to be his worst post, and not just because he was confined to a desk).

      He compared the Pentagon to a tank. When you first arrive at the Pentagon (he says), you get behind the tank and push it in an effort to make it move faster. After a while — especially after you are forced to acknowledge the futility of this — you begin to realize that the tank is moving in the wrong direction and you start pushing it from the side in an attempt to keep it from going where it’s headed and make it go in a more beneficial direction. This is, of course, every bit as futile as pushing it from behind — and at that point, you come to the conclusion that you really only have three choices (none of which are ideal). The first is to get run over, the second is to climb on top of the tank and simply let it take you wherever it’s going, and the third is to walk away from the tank completely. The family member of whom I speak made the third choice…in fact, his experiences at the Pentagon played a significant role in his decision to retire from the Air Force not long thereafter and seek employment with a commercial airline.

      Bear in mind that when he was posted there — if memory serves, and it usually does — the Cold War was not yet over. As bad as it was back then, there’s every reason to believe that the culture at the Pentagon has not improved much if at all in the iintervening time…in fact, if anything, my guess is that the War On Terror has probably made things much worse.

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    2. Bluestocking,

      That’s a powerful analogy.

      It reminds me of the “To be or to do” speech the late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) would give to promising young officers. Go for career success or a painful & probably futile attempt to effect important changes.

      The logical response was, IMO, to plan a career change. It’s nice to visit Oz or go thru the looking glass, but neither are great places to plan a career.

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    3. Duncan,

      “represent failure to learn; rather it represents refusal to learn.”

      Thank you for the correction. You have stated this more precisely.

      Now for the big question: why? What cause? As usual, “why” is the most important and most difficult of questions.

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  2. beware you are caught in a temporal loop that is a tangled hierarchy
    the light at the end of the tunnel is another train
    you must reach out in the darkness to reach into the light
    in this maneuver you become the other train and expose your subjectivity

    you only know what you know by understanding what you did not know before. in order to understand one must at least temporarily presuppose that the other is true and correct. you create your future out of your memories of the past.

    http://www.control-z.com/storage/Zizek-The%20Parallax%20View.pdf
    http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/contagion/contagion2/contagion02_dupuy.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exformation

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    1. I’m sorry Greta, but your comments generally are so abstract as to be essentially meaningless.

      If you were to ask me what are my thoughts on the war in Afghanistan, and I were to respond with “thoughts are mearly a manifestation of the mind”, would that mean anything at all to you?

      I think you would contribute more to the discussion if you presented your ideas in a more direct way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. did we really suffer a defeat? before you jump all over me–let me say that i agree, Afghanistan and Iraq were enormous strategic failures, colossal wastes of money, blood, and time, whose legacies may prove to have caused more damage to the US than simply ignoring them might have done to the world.

    but did we really suffer a defeat?

    i ask, because in the current composition of society we don’t really feel “defeat” any more than we might “victory.” in 1812, the White House burned down (Jackson redeemed us some weeks late). in the Civil War, WW1, WW2, the fighting corps were so large it would have been difficult not to know someone who perished. even if you were somehow insulated from the violence, you were aware of the war time shortages and political deprivation. Vietnam, with its relatively limited casualties, still left an indelible mark on our society–friends and neighbors killed, a raft of laws passed to reign in the political class, resignations from high office, politicians and citizens still debating the legitimacy of the war and its warriors decades later in the early 2000s, a collective burden that we will probably continue to bear until the last boomer passes.

    but Afghanistan? Iraq? sure, many if not most folks probably have some (distant) personal connection to the conflicts. there was some outrage over the Bush era justification for Iraq and issues with tactics used by both Bush (now a popular president) and Obama (who will also probably be remembered favorably). yet even as both wars end with low popularity, people don’t seem aggrieved by them. i wonder if that’s because they don’t really feel them. the blow back is so large scale and intangible to the average person that they don’t associate the consequences in the economy and society at large with imperial adventurism. and while they may not be remembered as successful wars, i am not sure Americans at large will ever see them as defeat.

    defeat would require us to navel gaze. it would necessitate that we question the underpinnings of our ‘grand strategy’ and those who would lead. difficult questions to ask because inevitably we have to ask some things of ourselves–is it worth protesting? do we want to spend months and years reliving our defeat in prosecutions and realignment of foreign policy goals? do we exit stage left and allow ideological rivals to (presumably) fill the gap in world leadership as the hegemon reconsiders existential questions about itself? do we really want to take Tuesday off and vote? is this work more precious to us than the pleasure to be had in football, beer, reality TV, and the easy self affirmations provided by talking heads?

    some people will answer that question yes. they are exceptional. i think most folks would rather avoid the question because they don’t feel the burden of defeat, of broken vets, of painful taxes, of contrition and surrender at the terms of the enemy. for them, they’d rather assume that the ideas were ok but the follow through was bad. so to revisit the opening question, i don’t think we were ‘defeated.’ we just didn’t win. and that’s the fault of [insert preferred political scapegoat here].

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    1. underscore,

      Perhaps we define “defeat” differently.

      I use the conventional definition: failure to obtain national objectives after expending blood and treasure.

      I do not understand in what sense you use the word. Knowing people who suffered — or other first person effects — is IMO trivializing it. Most wars in the modern era did not affect the bulk of the population.

      The world wars are exceptional in that respect, as in so many other ways, but are neither define the nature of war or represent the nature of most wars.

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    2. as i prefaced my comment, i agree with your definition of defeat. however, it is the definition of statesmen and generals, political and intellectual elites. i do not think this is a shared definition with the population at large. as trivial as personal connection may seem to you, it is the lens by which most people view the world. few people understand the social security obligation vis a vis our national debt. many understand FICA deductions and social security checks. likewise in war, people may understand that we fight “over there.” how many get the “why?” how many actively seek to evaluate our performance against our goals? how many are motivated to engage with hard questions of national objectives without the visceral motivation of seeing first hand consequences of war?

      you write about the broken OODA look of the country. this is it. you look at Afghanistan and see defeat. i bet that if you polled American voters, few would say it was successful, but less would call it a defeat. therefore the rest of the action chain will be skewed by this observation. they will question the performance of individuals, but not the underlying strategy that gets us involved in foreign turmoil. because for America, this was not defeat.

      i understand that i am playing a semantics game here. it may be annoying. i think it is extraordinarily important. if most Americans do not agree with your conventional definition of defeat, they do not hold our leaders accountable to it. this is why the same experts are still well paid to give the same advice on setting up democracy franchises in the middle east. maybe our reluctant nonintervention in Syria marks a departure from this thinking, but i doubt it. more likely it’s a reaction to Russia’s strategic interests.

      you wonder at the flaw that keeps us from recognizing defeat. i think it’s pretty obvious. Americans don’t feel defeated. they don’t see the trappings of defeat. they don’t see the reason to force their government to change and restrain its foreign policy. maybe we will emerge from Schievelbusch’s dreamland into a clearer view of reality, but i have a feeling we still have some adventuring left.

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    3. Underscore,

      We’ve been involved in at least 71 nations since our inception with mixed results. And, 71 is a conservative number.

      (1) American Indian nations (1776 onwards, American Indian Genocide; 1803, Louisiana Purchase; 1844, Indians banned from east of the Mississippi; 1861 onwards, California genocide; 1890, Lakota Indians massacre), (2) Mexico (1836-1846; 1913; 1914-1918; 1923), (3) Nicaragua (1856-1857; 1894; 1896; 1898; 1899; 1907; 1910; 1912-1933; 1981-1990), (4) American forces deployed against Americans (1861-1865, Civil War; 1892; 1894; 1898; 1899-1901; 1901; 1914; 1915; 1920-1921; 1932; 1943; 1967; 1968; 1970; 1973; 1992; 2001), (5), Argentina (1890), (6), Chile (1891; 1973), (7) Haiti (1891; 1914-1934; 1994; 2004-2005), (8) Hawaii (1893-), (9) China (1895-1895; 1898-1900; 1911-1941; 1922-1927; 1927-1934; 1948-1949; 1951-1953; 1958), (10) Korea (1894-1896; 1904-1905; 1951-1953), (11) Panama (1895; 1901-1914; 1908; 1912; 1918-1920; 1925; 1958; 1964; 1989-), (12) Philippines (1898-1910; 1948-1954; 1989; 2002-), (13) Cuba (1898-1902; 1906-1909; 1912; 1917-1933; 1961; 1962), (14) Puerto Rico (1898-; 1950; ); (15) Guam (1898-), (16) Samoa (1899-), (17) Honduras (1903; 1907; 1911; 1912; 1919; 1924-1925; 1983-1989), (18) Dominican Republic (1903-1904; 1914; 1916-1924; 1965-1966), (19) Germany (1917-1918; 1941-1945; 1948; 1961), (20) Russia (1918-1922), (21) Yugoslavia (1919; 1946; 1992-1994; 1999), (22) Guatemala (1920; 1954; 1966-1967), (23) Turkey (1922), (24) El Salvador (1932; 1981-1992), (25) Italy (1941-1945); (26) Morocco (1941-1945), (27) France (1941-1945), (28) Algeria (1941-1945), (29) Tunisia (1941-1945), (30) Libya (1941-1945; 1981; 1986; 1989; 2011), (31) Egypt (1941-1945; 1956; 1967; 1973; 2013), (32) India (1941-1945), (33) Burma (1941-1945), (34) Micronesia (1941-1945), (35) Papua New Guinea (1941-1945), (36) Vanuatu (1941-1945), (37) Austria (1941-1945), (38) Hungary (1941-1945), (39) Japan (1941-1945), (40) Iran (1946; 1953; 1980; 1984; 1987-1988; ), (41) Uruguay (1947), (42) Greece (1947-1949), (43) Vietnam (1954; 1960-1975), (44) Lebanon (1958; 1982-1984), (45) Iraq (1958; 1963; 1990-1991; 1990-2003; 1998; 2003-2011), (46) Laos (1962-), (47) Indonesia (1965), (48) Cambodia (1969-1975; 1975), (49) Oman (1970), (50) Laos (1971-1973), (51) Angola (1976-1992), (52) Grenada (1983-1984), (53) Bolivia (1986; ), (54) Virgin Islands (1989), (55) Liberia (1990; 1997; 2003), (56) Saudi Arabia (1990-1991), (57) Kuwait (1991), (58) Somalia (1992-1994; 2006), (59) Bosnia (1993-), (60) Zaire (Congo) (1996-1997), (61) Albania (1997), (62) Sudan (1998), (63) Afghanistan (1998; 2001-), (64) Yemen (2000; 2002-), (65) Macedonia (2001), (66) Colombia (2002-), (67) Pakistan (2005-), (68) Syria (2008; 2011-), (69) Uganda (2011), (70) Mali (2013), (71) Niger (2013).

      Dr Zoltan Grossman, “From Wounded Knee to Libya : a century of U.S. military interventions”, ” http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html .

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    4. FM,

      My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn 1. blunt trauma and 2. mindless repetition.

      Now that we’ve bored of the Middle East, it’s off to Africa for some more practice.

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    5. Mike,

      You have won another Best of Thread.

      But this is dark. Very dark. There are two sins the gods always punish: slow and stupid. Being so stupid as to learn slowly is a double violation; punishments probably will be severe.

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  4. “People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy They are wrong. The Pentagon does have a strategy; it is: Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.” — Col. John R. Boyd, U.S. Air Force

    The Pentagon has not failed to learn from our stalemate in Korea and our defeats in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not refused to learn from these defeats. The Pentagon has learned how to stifle antiwar protests, how to keep the American peoples’ kneejerk patriotism cranked up to a fever pitch, how to keep the money for these endless unwinnable wars flowing, and most of all the Pentagon has learned how to gin up enthusiasm for more endless unwinnable new wars no matter how many endless unwinnable old wars America loses.

    That’s an impressive learning curve. How many other cultures can continue an unbroken string of defeats while accelerating the tempo of their doomed military operations and continuing to increase their funding for those hopeless wars as their populace cheers with delight?

    I think this is the real secret of the superhero movies that clog our theaters. In the movies, American heroes are always wise and just. In the movie, America always wins its wars against the evil villains. In the movies, America never blows up innocent children or rains napalm on pregnant women who happen to be innocent bystanders. in the movies, America never attacks and invades some evil enemy only to discover it was all a mistake.

    The recent movie “The Avengers” proves interesting to deconstruct if you imagine it in reverse. Suppose that the evil alien superpower invading the huge city is America, and the city they’re invading is Kabul in Afghanistan. Imagine that the lone heroes who fight against hopeless odds (in the movie, the Avengers) are actually Taliban villagers. And now imagine that those ragtag loners manage to beat the superhuman evil invaders, who finally leave their country alone.

    I would submit that superhero films like “The Avengers” provide powerful encouragement for the peoples of Third World countries who see themselves in the place of the lone heroes, fighting their hopeless fourth generation wars against a limitlessly superior foe, and that the rest of the world sees the evil alien monsters with superweapons and Americans.

    If so, that provides a clear explanation for the popularity of America’s superhero films.

    The clip of the forthcoming Captain America movie proves even more provocative. The S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is a useless superweapon, apparently easily wrecked by a lone enemy (the Winter Soldier, I’m guessing). A vast organization filled with superheroes and chocked to the gills with Buck Rogers hi-tech weaponry rushes around madly in futile pursuit of a single lone soldier — reminiscent of Osama bin Laden’s statement:

    “It is easy for us to provoke and bait. . . . All that we have to do is . . . raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.”

    Source: “Terrorphobia: Our false sense of security,” The American Interest magazine, May/June 2008.

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  5. “First, we do not appear to learn from our experiences. Failure to learn does not end well for individuals or nations….This amnesia I see in so many of our public policy debates is a national disability, and perhaps a symptom of a deeper and more serious problem.”

    Indeed. think the saddest, most tragic, and most terrifying aspect of all this is not just the fact that we as Americans are reluctant to remember and learn from our military mistakes. The mounting evidence strongly suggests that we are becoming increasingly reluctant to remember and learn from much of *anything*.

    AT ALL.

    As I mentioned in another comment on this site a few days ago, math and science scores for American students are disturbingly low and have been for quite some time — beneath those of students in most other fully-industrialized nations, and well below those of students in other countries which we might consider comparable to us in most other respects (such as the United Kingdom). The 2008 study of civic literacy among American adults conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute suggests that the overwhelming majority of American adults do not know much about their own history and system of government, never mind anyone else’s — fewer than 10% of the 2508 subjects scored 70% or higher on a 30-question test (facts about the test and the results can be found here: http://www.americancivicliteracy.org/2008/summary_summary.html).

    Numerous other studies (whether formal or informal) have found surprisingly large numbers of Americans to be similarly lacking in knowledge of basic subjects such as geography (adults who are unable to identify their own state on a map of the US and/or unable to identify where Iraq and Afghanistan are on maps of the world) and current events (adults unable to identify or recognize important political figures such as the Speaker of the House). The fact that so many people can and do remain so incredibly ignorant in a country as advanced and as prosperous as this one (allegedly/supposedly) is positively boggles the mind…especially considering the wide variety of potential resources at their disposal.

    Taking all this together, is it really any surprise that Americans are reluctant to give our recent and current military conflicts the kind of critical analysis they deserve? It shouldn’t be…if anything, it seems probable that this is merely another manifestation and illustration of our apparent preference for wanton ignorance (or stupidity, if you like). Granted, America as a nation has never had much of a taste for self-examination…but what makes this absolutely terrifying at this particular point in time is the fact that the planet’s greatest military superpower is largely populated by people who are not only becoming less educated and increasingly ignorant but doing so quite happily and willingly (in some cases, eagerly). If this is allowed to continue much longer, it is difficult to see how it can possibly end in anything other than a disaster — for other nations, certainly, if not for ourselves. In fact, more and more these days, my image of the United States is that of a cherub-faced toddler with a loaded gun in his hands…a lamentable tragedy just waiting to happen, and completely ignorant of the fact.

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  6. I believe (ha!) that the structural flaw which Fabius speaks of, if it exists, is the replacing of truth with the good. Or rather, deriving truth from beneficial events in the future, rather than what has happened in the past.

    In this way a moral good becomes confused with the objective truth. In Afghanistan, the objective truth, the historical facts, all that had gone on up till that point, were replaced with the moral good of taking action. If we build a democratic Government with equal rights for all, Afghanistan will be a better place. This took place in isolation of the historical and cultural reality of the country.

    This view of the truth, moral rather than objective, is in my opinion, one of the defining characteristics of American public life. It is a combination of Protestantism (a man controls his own salvation) and the power philosophies of the 19th century, embodied in the industrial positivism of men such as John Dewey and William James (men of very great merit).

    I don’t think that the philosophies of such men shaped such modes of thought, merely that they reflected best thinking that was already current in American society.

    I see such thinking everywhere in America, and to a lesser extent in Europe. The rejection of a historical truth, for truth based on a moral good.

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    1. Merocaine,

      That is a fascinating perspective, of the sort that I suspect if pursued will lead to new opportunities for America.

      I do not believe that reform can be built on technocratic new policies, or ever more intense denounciations of political opponents — which might have peaked during the Bush Jr-Obama Administration, with both parties calling the other NAZIs.

      I doubt our secular society can take the next step of calling opponents the AntiChrist, demons in human forms, with elections as exorcism. But this might make campaigns more entertaining, and the cosplay of politics more diverse.

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    2. “In Afghanistan, the objective truth, the historical facts, all that had gone on up till that point, were replaced with the moral good of taking action. If we build a democratic Government with equal rights for all, Afghanistan will be a better place. This took place in isolation of the historical and cultural reality of the country.”

      Call me a cynic if you must (I admit that the shoe — or stocking? — fits to some extent)…but this argument rests on an assumption for which there is very little reliable evidence. Yes, the road to Hell is said to be paved with good intentions — but the possibility cannot (and should not) be discounted that the intentions of the people directly responsible for the decision to invade Afghanistan were not quite as noble as you’re suggesting. I’m not trying to insinuate that their intentions were evil and their motivation malicious as such…but the fact remains that morality is not necessarily (or at least not always) an either/or proposition. When people insist on choosing to view a situation as if it existed in a vacuum — something which human beings unfortunately seem rather prone to do — they can very easily become fixated on an idea to the point that they lose sight of (or lose interest in) the potential consequences of their actions for other people. There are motivations such as self-interest which are natural and understandable, but which can become destructive and tempt other people to label them as evil when they are taken to extremes.

      For the record, there is some evidence suggesting that the American government’s reasons for wanting to establish a more democratic government in Afghanistan may have been driven firest and foremost by mercenary motives. Even before George W. Bush’s first term in office, there had been discussions in Congress about the possibility of building a Unocal pipeline through Afghanistan — the presence of the Taliban was described as an impediment to this endeavor. (Think this might provide some people with an incentive to agitate for regime change?) Representatives from the US government also met with representatives of the Taliban several times in 2001 prior to 9/11 with the goal of establishing a relationship which would enable the US to challenge Russia’s domination of the Central Asian oil and gas reserves. The members of the Taliban delegation were reluctant to accept the terms of the American delegation — with the result that at one point in the proceedings, a member of the American delegation is reported to have said “either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.”. The last meeting between the delegations of the Taliban and the US government took place in August 2001 — just five weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Either way, it could be argued that this represented a win-win situation for the Americans in terms of gains for one or the other of two very influential groups — the “carpet of gold” would mean increased profits for the oil industry, while the “carpet of bombs” represented opportunities for the Miitary Industrial Complex (something in which the members of the neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century — a roster which included many high-ranking officials in the Bush administration — had a vested interest).

      If there’s any truth to these allegations, it punctures a pretty sizable hole in the idea that we went into Afghanistan with anything other than our own interests in mind…regardless of what the government might want the American people to believe, or even what they might prefer to believe about themselves. In fact, it suggests that believing the government had any sort of noble intentions is based on not much more than naivete and wishful thinking (General Smedley Butler said as much all the way back in the 30’s with his book “War Is A Racket”). After all, if the American government had said quite candidly “we’re invading Afghanistan so that we can get at the oil and gas in Central Asia,” it’s extremely unlikely that many people — either in the US or elsewhere — would have been willing to stand for it. (Can you think of any country in human history which has ever launched pre-emptive war against another country with an admission that their actions are unjustified?) For that matter, it’s quite possible that representatives of the US government invested so much effort in persuading everyone else that their motives were justified that they began to believe their own lies. This is not at all unusual. Human beings, whether individually or in groups, have a strong desire to believe that they are moral and to deny the dark urge within ourselves that encourage us to behave unethically without regard for anyone else. As the author Robert Heinlein has been quoted as saying “man is a rationalizing animal, not a rational one.”

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    3. Bluestock,

      “but the possibility cannot (and should not) be discounted that the intentions of the people directly responsible for the decision to invade Afghanistan were not quite as noble as you’re suggesting”

      Thank you for writing this response. Seeing such a delusional comment — that our crusades that have devastated Iraq & Afghanistan were well-intended philanthropic ventures — was a discouraging reply to a post urging us to more clearly view the world.

      I grow increasingly convinced that the missing link to reform is in our heads, our minds. Reform will lie forever out of reach for a people so guillible.

      Perhaps our leaders are correct. There is no point in speaking truth to Americans, any more than when addressing an audience of dogs. Perhaps we must be ruled by baser means: lies, fear, and greed.

      I refused to believe this, but it is a matter of faith over evidence.

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    4. “Perhaps our leaders are correct….Perhaps we must be ruled by baser means: lies, fear, and greed.”

      If so, then this is (sadly) a very powerful argument in favor of the idea that anyone living in the United States who is still capable of relatively rational, intelligent, and perceptive thought should consider “getting out of Dodge” and find somewhere else to live if they can find the means to do so.

      (Believe me…if I were lucky enough to have any claim to citizenship in another country, such as by virtue of jus solis or through a near blood relative, I would be giving that serious thought.)

      As Alexander Pope said, “when ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Let’s not forget that the critics, the dissidents, and the other assorted intelligentsia are nearly always the first ones to go if and when there’s a purge…including those who simply see and understand too much (thinking of Syme in George Orwell’s “1984” here, even though Syme was not only never a dissident but in fact a supporter of the Party).

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    5. Bluestocking,

      ” very powerful argument in favor of the idea that anyone living in the United States who is still capable of relatively rational, intelligent, and perceptive thought should consider “getting out of Dodge” and find somewhere else to live ”

      That is a logical analysis. But it is the kind of logic that built America. Whatever the odds I will stay and work to fix this nation.

      This is the logic that our enemies, foreign and domestic, have failed to understand.

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    6. I’m not saying that is the only reason. But that was the publicly declaimed reason for staying in Afghanistan over the long term. Its interesting that for many pro intervention guys, that was enough to justify the mission, regardless of the actual facts.

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    7. Merocaine,

      “I’m not saying that is the only reason. But that was the publicly declaimed reason for staying in Afghanistan over the long term.”

      It has been a long time since our leaders did not routinely lie to us, or since what they said represented what they believed.

      Do I really need to say this? Is this not blindingly obvious by now?

      “Its interesting that for many pro intervention guys, that was enough to justify the mission, regardless of the actual facts.”

      As the saying goes, to war mongers any cause justifies a good war.

      A larger group of the wars’ advocates are courtiers , whose career is justifying and shilling for the Court’s wishes. See today’s post for examples.

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    8. Merocaine remarked:

      In Afghanistan, the objective truth, the historical facts, all that had gone on up till that point, were replaced with the moral good of taking action.

      One of the hallmarks of barbarism is the substitution of the cult of action for the virtue of prudence. The barbarian views prudence as cowardice and forethought as the mark of a weakling. The barbarian perfers violent immediate action — do something NOW! No matter whether the action produces bad results. Action for its own sake becomes the chief virtue, the sign of virility and leadership.

      As America sliders ever further into barbarism, we can deduce that the cult of action will grow and the contempt for prudence and deliberation will become increasingly acidulous.

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    9. Thomas,

      “The barbarian views prudence as cowardice and forethought as the mark of a weakling.”

      That’s an important point. And, as you note, barbarism is an element of every culture. That view of prudence is an element of the “cult of the offense” that played such a big role in WW1. And, like the big mistakes, it has the eternal occurrence: The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009.

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    10. Thomas More’s comment about the “substitution of the cult of action for the virtue of prudence” reminds me of a (rather cynical) quip with which I recently became re-acquainted, one usually attributed to Georges Clemenceau:

      “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

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  7. Leaving Afghanistan: Not With a Bang, But a Whimper“, Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, 28 October 2013 — Excerpt:

    Afghanistan. I don’t know if the United States and NATO could have achieved a meaningful victory in Afghanistan had the Bush administration not embarked on its foolish misadventure in Iraq. But it was clear by 2009 that doubling down in Afghanistan wasn’t going to produce an effective or fully legitimate Afghan government and wasn’t going to produce a strategically more favorable outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests. But President Obama decided to “surge” there anyway, mostly because he wanted to look tough on national security and feared the domestic backlash if he cut our losses and withdrew.

    Now, some five years later, NATO and the U.S. are preparing to (mostly) leave.

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  8. “The closing of …The Oil Drum were greeted with tears by their fans, Probably undeserved tears. Both played large roles in major issues during the past decade, but perhaps not useful contributions.

    The Oil Drum provided fact-rich discussions with wrong conclusions about ”energy and our future”. Both were nodes for concerned, educated, knowledgeable professionals and laymen. It’s disturbing that these cohorts of our best and brightest could not the errors in their analysis — or question them after years of failed forecasts.”

    So you’re going after The Oil Drum? I’m looking forward to that, and to the backlash once the Peak Oilers get wind of it.

    While a few people, such as Stuart Saniford of Early Warning, have decided that Peak (Conventional) Oil does not mean the imminent collapse of western industrial civilization, as we’ll manage to stumble on through with tight oil and other energy sources, a lot of that crowd has not given up the ghost. Kunstler is predicting DOOM any moment now, The Archdruid is sanguinely waiting for things to wind down so he can lead a new age of magic, and others think that the fracking boom is a Ponzi scheme and bubble. Then again, the Peak Oil Movement may not be about Peak Oil at all, but about discontent over modern industrial civilization. People who like the idea may have attached to it because it’s a way out of the rat race. See the following entry at The Hipcrime Vocab for the thesis and supporting details.

    http://hipcrime.blogspot.com/2012/02/what-if-peak-oil-movement-isnt-about.html

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    1. Neon Vincent,

      Thanks for this fascinating comment!

      “So you’re going after The Oil Drum? I’m looking forward to that, and to the backlash once the Peak Oilers get wind of it.”

      In May 2008 I wrote “Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off” and got 77 comments — most critical (as usual):
      https://fabiusmaximus.com/2008/05/08/doomster/

      I doubt a similar article today would get 7 comments. The juice is gone from that fad. Now climate doomsterism is the fad, but fading fast. My debunking of that would get scores of outraged comments; now they get a few.

      What cause will the doomsters adopt next?

      “Kunstler is predicting DOOM any moment now, The Archdruid is sanguinely waiting for things to wind down so he can lead a new age of magic, and others think that the fracking boom is a Ponzi scheme and bubble.”

      All nonsense. Business as usual for the Leftist Doomsters.

      “Then again, the Peak Oil Movement may not be about Peak Oil at all, but about discontent over modern industrial civilization.”

      I have said that, but never so well!

      Like

  9. Here is an interesting documentary by a journalist who has great sympathy for the participants.
    (Some of the subtitles when the afghans are speaking are hilarious, the gulf between the marines and the Afghan soldiers beggars belief)

    Like

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