Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2010

Long live Harry Belafonte!

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

August 27, 2010


Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

(A guest post by Dan DiMaggio)

The War in Afghanistan Hits Home: Michael Enright, Restrepo, and the Heart of Darkness

By Dan DiMaggio

On Tuesday, 21-year old Michael Enright stabbed a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim. Enright grew up in upstate Brewster, New York, the town next to mine, in an overwhelmingly white and conservative county that was the only one east of the Hudson River won by John McCain in 2008. He just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a group of soldiers who he was making a film about for his senior thesis.

There has been a concerted attempt to distance Enright’s crime from the Islamophobia being whipped up by the right wing. James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online editorial page, actually claimed it’s “a plausible theory” that Enright really stabbed the cab driver as part of his own personal left-wing conspiracy to “advance the narrative that America is filled with anti-Muslim bigots whose hatred is behind the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque.” Yet the Daily News reports a police source divulged they found a journal belonging to Enright calling Muslims “killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience.” Presumably this was all part of his master plan, according to Taranto.

It seems more likely, though, that whatever Enright saw in Afghanistan had a severe impact on him. He said he was making his film, titled “Home of the Brave” (see trailer at: ), because he “realized there’s never been an introspective look into what it’s like being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier … They grow up really fast, and also they’re still young and youthful. I thought that could be a really interesting story”.

It does make for an interesting story – but Enright was not alone in seeking to document it. Restrepo, a 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does what Enright claims he hoped to do. Their film provides an insightful glimpse of the transformation of U.S. soldiers over the course of the war – a transformation that at times resembles scenes from the Heart of Darkness. Enright himself was clearly not immune to this process.

Junger and Hetherington say they aimed to make “a documentary that does not contain political commentary and is purely experiential … We wanted to give people the experience of what it’s really like [in Afghanistan].” Because Restrepo lacks the usual devices found in Hollywood glamorizations of war, Junger says, “We’ve been told our movie has no commercial value”. Yet it is of major value in helping to understand a war little understood by most Americans, despite the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops there and growing media attention, Afghanistan, and the war there, remain little understood by most Americans. WikiLeaks’ recent release of 92,000 pages of documents should help, but for those looking for a more concise accounting of the futility of this war (and its possible impact on people like Enright), Restrepo is highly recommended.

Junger and Hetherington “embedded” themselves with a single company during their tour in the Korengal Valley, one of the areas which has seen the most fighting, in 2007. While there is much that is unique about the Korengal, it also serves as a microcosm of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, in particular the experience of U.S. soldiers there.

Although this is now the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan is still a far-off locale of which almost all Americans are ignorant. One soldier recounts how he heard monkeys howling the first night, and could not sleep because he thought it was the Taliban, pressing close. While the troops eventually become more accustomed to this environment, the people of Afghanistan, in whose interests this war is supposedly being fought, remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. One of the film’s shortcomings is its limited portrayal of the experience of ordinary Afghans, but their sparse appearance serves to highlight the soldiers’ alienation from Afghan society.

Most of the Afghans we see are village elders who arrive for weekly “shuras” (councils) with U.S. military officers. These appear to routinely descend into farces, with U.S. officers treating the elders like children, a characteristic behavior of more “civilized” colonial occupiers. The officers promise the elders that “we will make you richer” by flooding the Korengal with roads, jobs, and health care if they cooperate in rooting out “the bad guys” (the Taliban). The Afghans respond, “You kill the enemy, that’s okay – but our concern is that you’re killing ordinary people on their land.”

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Afghans have seen more than enough over the past 9 years to know that no change in command will result in any meaningful differences in the war or their lives. Indeed, one of the first operations carried out under the new command in the Korengal results in 5 “enemy” dead, along with 10 women and children. More recently, at the national level, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has even appeared on national TV in Afghanistan to apologize for the deaths of civilians – yet all the while, the death toll continues to increase under his watch, with the official count of civilian casualties up 31 percent over the past year. Military officials profess shock when Afghans blame the occupying forces as much, if not more, than the Taliban for these casualties – as if the Afghans had asked U.S. and NATO forces to come occupy their country, or as if grief and outrage followed the simple laws of arithmetic. Somehow, by the twisted logic of the U.S. military, the Taliban – and now WikiLeaks – are to blame for the violence in Afghanistan, rather than the U.S. government.

These are necessary imperial fantasies, to go along with the idea that U.S. can somehow manage to win over Afghan hearts and minds, at the same time as bombing wedding parties and conducting nighttime raids on homes. The cynical wisdom of the soldiers in Restrepo at times bursts through this charade. Reminiscing about home, one soldier tells another about his family’s ranch, the charm of which he struggles to describe, ultimately settling on defining it as a place with a lot of land where you can go hunting. “Just like here [in the Korengal],” the other responds. “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people here,” sighs the soldier with the ranch. “Hearts and minds!” concludes the other.

It’s chilling to watch the process of dehumanization at work among the troops. As they see their friends killed or severely wounded, as they are continually shot at, as any hopes of winning over the support of the local population seem to disappear, the frustration and anger grows, along with a desire to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. In a Heart of Darkness moment, some of the soldiers report that they get excited when Taliban forces come close, because they yearn to see the faces of those they are killing.

This takes a toll psychologically, as the filmmakers chronicle through post-combat interviews at a military base in Italy. It hurts to see Cortez, a good, light-hearted soldier, always smiling, explain, through an awkward grin, how he is incapable of sleeping, preferring to stay awake rather than see his friends die again in his nightmares. The soldiers in Restrepo suffer an understandable pessimism about being able to re-integrate into society. The film helps provide a glimpse into why a record 245 Army members killed themselves in 2009 (and a monthly record of 32 committed suicide in June 2010). One wonders whether similar psychological processes occurred for Michael Enright, leading him to stab the Muslim New York City cabbie. No one emerges from these wars the same, and for all the talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, the war has done much to continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S.

What is all this for? Why does the U.S. have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Restrepo does not deal with this question. The single point it does drive home is the absolute futility of the war in Afghanistan. As the film ends, the screen reports that for all the efforts of these soldiers, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from the Korengal in April 2010. As the Washington Post reported, “A new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.” Eventually, no matter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan, no matter how many drones are flown, and no matter how many billions are spent, the U.S. will be forced to draw the same conclusion on a national scale.

Why, then, does this war continue, if it’s doomed to failure? Because the U.S. cannot just admit defeat without doing major damage to its military prestige and its ability to boss around the rest of the world. Because the U.S. political system is dominated by cowards who are more than willing to sacrifice lives for votes – the leaders of the Democratic Party must not allow themselves to be outhawked by the Republicans, must pose as vigorous and responsible defenders of the empire, in order to continue to reel in big money donations and the fawning praise of the corporate media. Because Afghanistan, for all its remoteness, is located in a strategic area of the globe – not only does it border Pakistan, it also borders China, Iran, and the resource-rich former Soviet republics. The Bush administration launched the war initially not just as a display of U.S. power, but also as a brazen attempt to establish a foothold in areas formerly securely locked in the Russian sphere of influence.

The mainstream media continues its claims that the war is really about helping the Afghan people, or about eliminating Al-Qaeda. Time Magazine recently featured a front-cover picture of a woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the title “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The NY Times, in its latest editorial on “The State of the War in Afghanistan,” repeats the fantasy that this war is going to stop Al-Qaeda, and says the U.S. would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.” Yet as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative writes, “In its nine long years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing to improve the conditions for people in Afghanistan, especially for women… There has been a general increase in violence and civilian deaths because of occupation. By 2009, the U.N. human development index ranked Afghanistan 181 out of 182 countries. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan reveals the highest ever documented.. .The United States has consistently chosen the side of fundamentalist allies at the expense of Afghan women, and has always sought its own gains in the region.” You can imagine the Taliban’s counter to the NY Times – “The Taliban would do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it simply abandoned the country to U.S. brutalities.”

What then, is to be done? Unfortunately, the anti-war movement has all but disappeared. Even the WikiLeaks revelations have generated almost no response, aside from some important but small demonstrations in defense of Private Bradley Manning. In response to the Obama administration’s recent attacks on the “professional left,” the most prominent anti-war politician, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, just pledged not to run against the president in the 2012 presidential primaries, because, he said, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As if pledging unconditional support to Obama, the man responsible for escalating the war in Afghanistan, instead of threatening to run against him for his pro-war policies, is a good strategy for ending the wars. It feels as if the anti-war left has never been in more of a state of demoralization and disarray. And yet opposition to the war is at an all-time high, at 43 percent in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (8/3/10).

There is really no shortcut to ending the wars other than rebuilding a powerful anti-war movement, from the bottom-up. This means starting or revitalizing anti-war organizations (such as Bradley Manning defense committees), organizing speaking tours of anti-war vets or prominent anti-war journalists, writing letters to the editor, passing out leaflets, developing websites, writing songs and poems and organizing fundraising concerts, collecting petition signatures to demand politicians stop funding the war, running independent, anti-war candidates for office (who will not get sucked into the quagmire of the two-party system), taking a stand against Islamophobia like the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, and linking up with other social movements, from immigrant rights to the movement to defend education.

But it can start with something as simple as going to see Restrepo, and telling your friends about it.

August 4, 2010

IED attacks in Afghanistan 2004-2009

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm

August 3, 2010

Rethink Afghanistan: women’s rights under Karzai

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Read more here

August 2, 2010

Time Magazine: still setting the ruling class agenda

Filed under: Afghanistan,media,oil — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

Admired Mussolini

Time Magazine still has the capability of defining the agenda of the ruling class even though the magazine no longer has the reach it once did. In the 1950s, it was practically de rigueur for working class and middle class families (like my own) to have a subscription. This magazine was not just where I learned about Jack Kerouac. It was also where I learned to hate Communism, which in my adolescent mind was interpreted as the world’s greatest threat to abstract expressionist art, atonal music and “freedom” more generally.

This week the mendacious newsweekly made bold attacks on behalf of the national-security state on two fronts. Michael Grunwald (possibly related to former chief editor Henry Grunwald?) told Time Magazine readers on Thursday July 29 that the damage to the Gulf of Mexico has been “exaggerated”, citing a local scientist:

LSU coastal scientist Eugene Turner has dedicated much of his career to documenting how the oil industry has ravaged Louisiana’s coast with canals and pipelines, but he says the BP spill will be a comparative blip and predicts that the oil will destroy fewer marshes than the airboats deployed to clean up the oil. “We don’t want to deny that there’s some damage, but nothing like the damage we’ve seen for years,” he says.

Grunwald also cites Ivor Van Heerden, another scientist, to this effect but admits that he “like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds.” Well, what difference does that make? We all know that it is only the conspiracy-minded who would make a connection between somebody making light of the spill and being on the payroll of BP.

If this article gave what amounts to a green light for deep-water drilling, a cover article that displayed an Afghan woman with her nose cut off by the Taliban gave the Obama administration badly needed propaganda support for “staying the course” in Afghanistan:

For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous. An Afghan refugee who grew up in Canada, Mozhdah Jamalzadah recently returned home to launch an Oprah-style talk show in which she has been able to subtly introduce questions of women’s rights without provoking the ire of religious conservatives. On a recent episode, a male guest told a joke about a foreign human-rights team in Afghanistan. In the cities, the team noticed that women walked six paces behind their husbands. But in rural Helmand, where the Taliban is strongest, they saw a woman six steps ahead. The foreigners rushed to congratulate the husband on his enlightenment — only to be told that he stuck his wife in front because they were walking through a minefield. As the audience roared with laughter, Jamalzadah reflected that it may take about 10 to 15 years before Afghan women can truly walk alongside men. But once they do, she believes, all Afghans will benefit. “When we talk about women’s rights,” Jamalzadah says, “we are talking about things that are important to men as well — men who want to see Afghanistan move forward. If you sacrifice women to make peace, you are also sacrificing the men who support them and abandoning the country to the fundamentalists that caused all the problems in the first place.”

For young people fortunate enough to have been spared the kind of diet of Time Magazine that I received in the 1950s, a word or two about this fetid newsweekly might be in order. It was founded in 1923 by one Henry Luce as the first news magazine in history.

Luce was a powerful member of a Republican Party that was more in line with Eisenhower, Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller than the current outfit identified with Rush Limbaugh and the tea party. This was a Republican Party that differed little from the current Democratic Party. Luce was also closely associated with “the China lobby” that pushed for war against Mao’s China. His wife Clare Booth Luce was a major figure in anti-Communist politics who was to the right of her husband, backing Goldwater enthusiastically in 1964.

While not exactly the kind of ferocious attack that Henry Luce deserves, Alan Brinkley’s (a Columbia University history professor) recently published biography reveals how the magazine winked its eye at fascist dictators. Michael Augspurger, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, wrote an article on Luce that contained the following:

In the late twenties and thirties, Henry Luce was accused of harboring fascist tendencies. His accusers pointed primarily to the editorial practices of Fortune and its older sibling, Time. Time, a magazine notorious for its editorializing news copy, was particularly well-known in its support of Mussolini. As Herzstein notes, “When important issues were at stake, one knew where Time’s editors stood…. The magazine approved of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, il Duce” Time’s involvement with fascism was not limited to Italy, either. Time foreign correspondent Laird Goldsborough, for example, called supporters of Spanish fascist leader General Francisco Franco “… men of property, men of god and men of the sword.” And while Luce was not nearly as vocal as Goldsborough, he did support his correspondent’s writing even when it became a highly divisive staff issue at Time, Inc. But there was more to the accusations than just these editorial tendencies. Observers as disparate as Fortune writer Dwight Macdonald, Fortune managing editor Eric Hodgins, and biographer W.A. Swanberg have seen fascist leanings in Luce himself. Macdonald, referring to the anonymous corporate structure of Time, Inc., accused Luce in 1937 of “fascist capitalism.” Hodgins, in his 1973 autobiography, recalled that Luce liked “the purported aims of fascism.” And Swanberg claimed that Luce admired the dynamism, militarism, strong leadership, and anti-Communism of Mussolini’s Italy. Clearly, Luce appeared to some of those familiar with him to be attached to certain fascist ideals.

Returning to the questions of the BP spill and the war in Afghanistan, it first of all has to be understood that the magazine is a cut above the Murdoch press in terms of credibility. In fact, Time Magazine’s website is co-sponsored by CNN, a news organization that is still capable of solid reporting. (Newsweek has a similar connection to MSNBC.)

Michael Grunwald, the author of the BP article, is the also the author of a highly regarded book on the Florida Everglades. He has written for www.grist.com, a highly respected environmentalist online magazine, including a piece on the Everglades that states:

But starting in the 1880s, Americans determined to subdue Mother Nature started trying to drain the Everglades with canals, hoping to create a new paradise for agriculture and development. A few lonely voices warned that ditches could turn the swamp into a desert, but most Floridians agreed with Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who declared in the early 1900s that if drained swamps could really burn, “the great bogs of Ireland would have been ash heaps long before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.”

But sure enough, the early ditches started sucking the marsh dry, ruining wells, damaging soils, and, yes, igniting fires so smoky that children in Miami had to cover their faces at school. And in the summer, southern Florida’s torrential downpours overwhelmed the ditches, converting farmland back to swampland, inspiring the first jokes about buying Florida land by the gallon. The jokes seemed a lot less funny in 1928, when a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy muck dike, killing 2,500 pioneers in the Everglades.

So clearly we are not dealing with John Stossel or Spiked Online, especially since Grunwald hedges his bets:

The potential long-term damage that underwater oil plumes and an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants that BP has spread in the area could have on the region’s deep-water ecosystems and food chains might not be known for years.

Well, I should say so. Not long after the ink was dry on his article—metaphorically speaking—there were reports on dispersants that undercut his article. Even his own magazine was forced to go along with what the Washington Post and New York Times have been reporting about the looming threat:

In humans, long-term exposure to dispersants can cause central nervous system problems or damage blood, kidneys or livers, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

BP’s apparently generous use of dispersants helps explain why so little oil has been spotted on the surface recently, said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

Whether the benefits of dispersants outweigh the possible risks is a “debatable point,” he said, noting that they’ve protected some fragile coastal wetlands from heavier bands of oil.

More to the point, we are dealing with a situation in which BP and the government have a vested interest in controlling the flow of information, something they were much better at than controlling the oil spill. Reporters and scientists were not allowed to conduct their own survey of the troubled waters. In light of this, it is hard to take Michael Grunwald’s bromides seriously. He has only damaged his own reputation through such a specious article, although I am sure that he is rewarded handsomely by Time Magazine for writing such nonsense.

Turning to the question of Taliban cruelty, we wonder if the magazine has a double standard (gasp!) when it comes to such questions. While preaching the need to stay the course in Afghanistan to defend women from sexist brutality, it seems quite content over how things have turned out in Iraq, with a Shi’ite government working assiduously to deny women the limited gains they achieved under Saddam’s government, not to speak of the misogyny of Afghan warlords on “our side”.If the magazine was really concerned about the status of women in Afghanistan, it would publish the speeches and articles of Malalai Joya, a fearless defender of peace, human rights and social justice. As it turns out, Time did recognize her as one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010 but in their typically dishonest fashion as Salon.com blogger Judy Mandelbaum pointed out:

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Homer wrote thousands of years ago. Today human rights activists would be well-advised to beware of major American news magazines passing out honors. Last week, noted Afghan politician Malalai Joya, the author of “A Woman Among Warlords” whom the BBC has called “the bravest woman in Afghanistan,” was named one of TIME Magazine’s “World’s Most Influential 100 People” of 2010. The trouble is, the magazine presented her to the world in a brief but misleading text by Islam critic and American Enterprise Institute fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who concluded her tribute with the words:  “I hope in time she comes to see the US and NATO forces in her country as her allies. She must use her notoriety, her demonstrated wit and her resilience to get the troops on her side instead of out of her country.”

What an odd choice of words, considering that Ali is writing about a woman who wrote in the Daily Beast last week that:

more than eight years of occupation have made life bleak, and we are tired of being pawns in the US and NATO’s game for control of Central Asia. We can longer bear the killing of our pregnant mothers, the killing of our teenagers and young children, the killing of so many Afghan men and women. We can no longer bear these “accidents” and these “apologies” for the deaths of the innocent.

Are Ali and the editors of TIME really entitled to tell Malalai Joya what to think about her country’s plight? To set the record straight and to find out what really motivates this activist, journalist Sonali Kolhatkar of UprisingRadio contacted Ms. Joya yesterday and conducted an interview, which I have excerpted below (you can – and should – read the entire discussion here):

I am very angry with the way they have introduced me [Joya said]. They have a completely painted a false picture of me that does not mention at all about my struggle against the occupation of Afghanistan by the US and NATO, which is disgusting. In fact every one knows that I stand side by side with the glorious-anti war movement around the world and have proved again and again that I will never compromise with the US and NATO who have occupied my country, empowered the most bloody enemies of my people and are killing my innocent compatriots [inaudible] in Afghanistan. What TIME did was like giving an award to someone by one hand and getting it back by another hand. I have sent my protest to it to the Defense Committee [for Malalai Joya] but TIME did not bother to even answer than protest letter. Perhaps this is the kind of freedom of expression exercised by TIME and the USA. …

June 23, 2010

Rules of Engagement and engaging with a NY Times reporter

Filed under: Afghanistan,war — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

CJ Chivers

A key part of the Vietnam syndrome has been how to win American objectives in one armed intervention or another without antagonizing the local population. This has meant fine-tuning the “rules of engagement” that separate normal killing from out-and-out war crimes. James Webb, the Virginia Democratic Party Senator who was Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy (go figure), was executive producer and co-writer of the 2000 movie “Rules of Engagement” that is a convoluted defense of war crimes under extenuating circumstances, including a slaughter of Yemeni protesters who apparently had it coming to them, based on this NY Times review of the movie:

When Childers [Samuel Jackson] becomes involved in a situation in Yemen that seems a contemporary My Lai, he seeks out Hodges [Tommy Lee Jones] as legal counsel. ”I don’t want some Starbucks drinker who’s never seen combat,” Childers growls. In rescuing the United States ambassador (Ben Kingsley, employing the same dead-voiced American accent he used as the vice president in ”Dave”) and his family from the embassy while under attack, Childers ordered a retaliatory strike on a crowd. He’s the only surviving member of his unit to have witnessed the crowd’s fire on the defenders, but to the rest of the world it looks as if he initiated an attack on innocent civilians.

Yes, you don’t want to be associated with a Starbucks drinker who has never seen combat. That’s more or less the vibe I got from NY Times reporter CJ Chivers, a former Marine who has more journalism awards than James Webb has medals. When I took him to task for today’s article that drew attention to American GI’s chafing under the rules of engagement established jointly by Obama and McChrystal, he asked me if I had ever been in a firefight. I replied:

I have been in zero firefights. In 1967 I came to the realization that the USA has no right to police the world and did everything I could to stay out of the army. After reading so many articles in the NY Times about Afghan weddings, etc. being bombed by drone attacks, it just shocked me to see your article. Too bad Chris Hedges is not overseeing what gets printed rather than Pinch Sulzberger.

To Mr. Chivers’s credit, this is the first time I have ever heard back from a NY Times reporter after sending them email. Generally, I don’t expect a response when I do so. For me it is mainly a way to relieve frustration, more or less the function that a “close” button serves in many elevators. The elevator will not go anywhere until a certain amount of time has elapsed, like 30 seconds or so, but allowing the passengers to press the button gives them the feeling that they have some control over their environment. That’s pretty much the function of emailing a NY Times reporter, I’m afraid.

According to Mr. Chivers, the troops in Afghanistan are tired of having their hands tied behind their back:

The rules have shifted risks from Afghan civilians to Western combatants. They have earned praise in many circles, hailed as a much needed corrective to looser practices that since 2001 killed or maimed many Afghan civilians and undermined support for the American-led war.

But the new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.

Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of “being handcuffed,” of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency “in a fair fight.”

Who knows what it means to stop “being handcuffed”? More wedding parties getting blown to smithereens? After 8 years of war, the only thing that makes sense is for the U.S. to withdraw immediately. The controversy over McChrystal’s “insubordination” is practically beside the point. The real question is imperialism, the 800 pound gorilla that the newspaper of record prefers to ignore.

Everything going back to September 11th is related to American imperialism. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was the inevitable outcome of a foreign policy that is designed to safeguard oil resources and uphold American hegemony in Central Asia. I think that Mr. Chivers knows this, like all clever ivy-league educated reporters at the NY Times, but will have to wait until he is retired from the bourgeois media to tell the truth—that is, if he has 1/100th of the guts and integrity that Chris Hedges has.

Finally, it should be understood that despite the undeserved reputation that the newspaper of record has for upholding liberal values after a fashion, it has been the source of many articles in the past that adhere to the “being handcuffed” narrative. This one by Hanson Baldwin titled “The Case for Escalation”, written on February 27, 1966 will live in infamy:

What any military man who is not Genghis Khan must do is to try to wage war as to hurt the enemy the most at the least possible cost to his own men and to innocent bystanders. The United States is trying to do this in Vietnam. This does not mean that there are not lapses, vicious divergences from the norm. But those who shed tears over the horrors of tear gas, the poor, bound Vietcong captives, the children, the civilians wounded and killed should look at the other side of the coin. The American soldier maimed by a grenade thrown by a 10-year old child, the village chief whose family was murdered by the Vietcong—are these, too, not worthy of tears?

Log of exchanges with CJ Chivers:

1. LP:

Unleash the military in Afghanistan? Really? This is the same nonsense I used to hear in the 1960s but not so much from the NYT. It tended to come from people like John Wayne, Georgie Jessel, Al Kapp and my barber.

2. CJ:


i’m surprised you read that article that way. no one said they want to see the military “unleashed.” the troops do have strong concerns that they are being asked to work in ways that neither pressure the taliban nor allow them to protect themselves. you might not like that point of view; fair enough. but it’s a point of view in play on the ground and part of the ongoing discussion about the workings of the war. how many firefights have you been in? do you think those who are in the fighting should have any input in the rules guiding how they fight? things to consider.

thanks for writing, and keeping an eye on our copy.


3. LP:

I have been in zero firefights. In 1967 I came to the realization that the USA has no right to police the world and did everything I could to stay out of the army. After reading so many articles in the NY Times about Afghan weddings, etc. being bombed by drone attacks, it just shocked me to see your article. Too bad Chris Hedges is not overseeing what gets printed rather than Pinch Sulzberger.

4. CJ:

i respect your sense of this, louis. i just would hope that you might differentiate between the troops thinking through, and asking aloud, whether the rules are too tight and advocating bombing weddings.

war is a fucked-up and terrible thing; it presents problems of all forms. some of its miseries and horrors happen to be experienced by soldiers. whatever you think of them or the decisions that send them to afghanistan, their voices have a place in the conversation. that the nyt has covered errant strikes and civilian casualties — i have covered many myself — shows we clearly see the ground-level perspective of the afghans, too. and whoever will be commanding this war going forward faces unrest from the ranks, which is news.

thank you again for writing. really.


April 19, 2010

Video excursion #2

Filed under: Afghanistan,pakistan,Youtube — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

This is my latest excursion into video production. I have a brief introduction, mostly intended to test technology. If you’ll remember, my last video intro was taken directly on the Macbook and used Photobooth. For some reason, the images and sound were out of sync. This time I used the Macbook camera directly feeding IMovie and the problem went away.

The rest of it is multi-part recordings (Youtube has a ten minute limit per clip) of two talks from last month’s Left Forum. Adaner Usmani and Derrick O’Keefe gave very sharp presentations on Pakistan and Afghanistan which I highly recommend.

My next project, btw, will be a lot more ambitious. I plan to go up to Bard College for commencement weekend and a reunion for the class of ’65. God, I can’t believe how old I am. My intention is to do a poor man’s Ross McElwee documentary that amounts to a radical walking tour of the campus. Not that there is anything radical about Bard, only my impudent commentary on Leon Botstein’s monuments to liberalism and excess.

An introduction

A talk about Pakistani politics

A talk about Afghan politics

March 23, 2010

2010 Left Forum: the Sunday sessions

10am-11:50am: Where’s the Outrage?

I wasn’t exactly sure what this would be about, but wondered if it would address the seeming mystery of why American workers remain so passive in the face of repeated assaults from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Owing to a late start downtown and sluggish subway service, I missed the introduction and walked into a Greg Palast documentary that was in progress. It shows him doing a kind of Michael Moore/Sixty Minutes shtick trying to get some answers from what he calls vultures–financiers who buy up the debt of poor countries at reduced prices and then sue them to get inflated repayments. You can see the impact of the vultures on Liberia and Zambia online.

After the screening, Palast honed in on the Obama administration that he sees as a continuation of the Bush presidency, including the lenient treatment of “vultures”—pointing out how hypocritical it was for Obama to complain about corruption in Africa during a one-day stop in Kenya while giving vultures the right to continue their criminal activities.

During the q&a, a “truther” asked about 9/11, using just the flimsiest connection to Palast’s presentation. His reply was brilliant, pointing out that he was being asked to comment on things he had no knowledge about. It was the perfect retort to a truther, since it put him on the defensive. Investigative reporters and Marxists have to operate on the basis of what is known. Anything else amounts to sterile speculation.

Joel Kovel spoke next. I have known Joel for about 25 years and really admire him. It was a talk he gave on ecology at the Brecht Forum back then that got me interested in the topic. He made an interesting point about the title of the 2010 Left Forum—“the center cannot hold”—that presumably referred to the class polarization taking place today. He reminded us that it came from William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem The Second Coming that seemed to anticipate our situation today:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

He thought that the words “The best lack all conviction” applied to people like us, the attendees of the Left Forum who cannot achieve the kind of impact that the tea-party movement has made. Of course, if we had somebody like Dick Armey funneling millions of dollars into the antiwar movement, we might be having more of an impact.

The real problem is that Joel came to the discussion with a completely different idea about where the outrage matters. I don’t think it makes much difference if Joel Kovel or I am outraged about Obama or Bush or whoever. (And we are.) Politics will not change in this country until the working class begins to wake up to the reality that the ruling class wants to drive down their wages and working conditions until they are little better off than the average Walmart worker.

I should add that Joel concluded his remarks by strongly identifying with the millenarian theme of Yeats’s poem (the Second Coming is at hand) but not so much in the kind of apocalyptic Marxism of the small sects that pass out their flyers at the doorways of the Left Forum. Rather it was a statement that unless the left became religious, ie., began to act on the basis of faith, it would remain irrelevant. This is the kind of thing that Chris Hedges is into, but does not try to convert others into believing. Joel said that the liberation theology in Latin America is what he had in mind, but somehow I doubt that his words would have much effect in getting the average radical into adopting a different mindset—especially people like me and Doug Henwood who, unlike Joel Kovel I’ll bet, were forced to go to Hebrew school and Catholic school respectively. That’s enough to get any thinking young person to give up on religion for the rest of their lives.

Later that evening when I was chatting with my wife about the discussion, I brought up what Malcolm X once said about Black people thinking like their white overlords:

There was two kind of slaves. There was the house negro and the field negro. The house negro, they lived in the house, with master. They dressed pretty good. They ate good, cause they ate his food, what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near their master, and they loved their master, more than their master loved himself. They would give their life to save their masters house quicker than their master would. The house negro, if the master said “we got a good house here” the house negro say “yeah, we got a good house here”. Whenever the master would said we, he’d say we. That’s how you can tell a house negro. If the master’s house caught on fire, the house negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house negro would say “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than the master identified with himself.

I couldn’t help but think that this is basically what afflicted the working class-both white and Black. After decades of an expanding economy, it became easy for workers to think like the boss. Until that began to change, there would be no outrage. With the hammer blows of the capitalist crisis, this will eventually take place and the end result will be a cataclysm that makes the riots of the 1960s look like a garden party.

12pm-1:50pm: New Radical Parties and Experiments in Party Building

This is a topic I am greatly interested in since it relates to one of my major preoccupations ever since I hooked up with Peter Camejo in the early 1980s, namely how to wean the “vanguard” left away from sectarianism. All across Europe there are new initiatives that incorporate ideas about how to make this happen and I try to keep track of different developments, both in terms of failure (RESPECT in Britain) or relative success as might be exemplified by Der Linke in Germany and the NPA in France. The panel had members of both parties and I was anxious to hear what they had to say.

Sebastian Budgen, who works with both Historical Materialism and Verso Press, is a member of the NPA and gave a fascinating talk on the difficulties facing the party that had hitherto been unknown to me. They range from strategic to organizational, a function of weaknesses that were inherited from the LCR as I would learn during the q&a. One strategic problem related to the NPA’s decision to not join the CP-led electoral coalition since its partner was a split from the SP. The NPA refused to coalesce with the CP front unless there was an agreement in advance that it would refuse to support the SP. (It should be stressed that the SP in France is mostly a middle-class party unlike the German SP which is based on the trade unions.) The NPA was attacked on the Socialist Unity blog for taking this tack, something that convinced me that they were probably right since the Socialist Unity blog has become (or always was) the voice of Labour Party reformism.

On the organizational (and political, I guess) front, the NPA has had trouble developing and educating its membership. By disavowing the traditional approach of defending a Marxist program within the historical context of the Russian questions, and by eschewing the democratic centralist norms associated with this trend, it means that NPA members are all over the map ideologically and are not exactly ready to move collectively with the rest of the membership when the need arises. The former LCR members tend to be more disciplined than the newer members who more or less function as independent radicals whose activity rises or falls depending on what is going on in France at any given moment.

During the q&a, I asked Sebastian whether the lax norms of the NPA had something to do with the traditionally laid-back norms of the LCR, which operated in a completely different culture than the English-speaking Trotskyists who tended to take their James P. Cannon to heart. He answered that this was the case and that the LCR was always appalled by the efficiency and cleanliness of the American SWP offices. It would seem that they bent the stick too far in the opposite direction since the NPA has only four full-timers to carry out administrative tasks for an organization of 10,000 members! I wondered to myself if there was still a need to develop the kind of professionalism Lenin wrote about in “What is to be done” while dropping all the “democratic centralist” mumbo-jumbo. I wish the NPA luck in their attempt to do something different from what has failed in the past, but nothing is guaranteed in politics—especially revolutionary politics.

Speaking on Der Linke was Luigi Wolf, a leader of their youth group and a member of the Cliffite IST I suspect since he has written for their magazine and comes across as quite an astute thinker. Despite my disagreement with state capitalist theory and their continued adherence to “democratic centralist” dogma, the IST has an impressive cadre.

Wolf gave a very informative talk on the origins of Der Linke which was basically a coming together of a leftwing split from the West German SP and the CP of East Germany. Despite it being a relatively massive organization, it is not capable of the kind of disciplined and energetic activism of the revolutionary left. This is a function of the trade union and social democratic background of the Western membership and the aging and ex-functionary make-up of the East. Despite this, Der Linke has stood up to the neoliberal drift of German politics and has even raised the possibility of a political general strike to defend the working class gains of the Social Democratic era which, like everywhere else in Europe, is eroding rapidly.

3pm-4:50pm: Of Drones, Warlords and the Taliban: Ending the U.S./NATO Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan

There were two speakers, Adaner Usmani, a member of the Labor Party of Pakistan, and my friend Derrick O’Keefe who is co-chair of the Canadian Peace Alliance and author of a book on the courageous Malalai Joya. I don’t want to say too much since I plan to upload their talks to Youtube. But I admit feeling genuine relish when Derrick raised the question about the failure of the American antiwar movement to do anything about the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Leslie Cagan, the chair of the feckless UfPJ, was in the audience. She shook her head no and mouthed the words “not true” in the same manner as Samuel Alito reacting to Obama’s State of the Union potshots directed at the Supreme Court. Or at least that’s the way it seemed to this scurrilous observer.

December 15, 2009

Rethink Afghanistan

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 2:27 am

October 9, 2009

Civilian control of the military

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:10 am

On October first, General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding officer in Afghanistan, made a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that implicitly repudiated Vice President Biden’s proposals for refocusing the war as one against Al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than the Taliban in Afghanistan.  In his speech, the General dismissed the claim that Afghanistan “is a graveyard of empires” as “untrue”. Given the deteriorating situation that more than anything else has prompted Biden’s “dovish” stance, one wonders if McChrystal is whistling in the graveyard.

If you read the speech, you will not find much in the way of Fox-TV rhetoric. Indeed, the main thrust against Biden took place in the Q&A when the General was asked whether he favored a strategy in Afghanistan of killing top insurgent leaders with unmanned drones and missiles that was associated with the peace-loving VP. He replied, “The short, glib answer is no. You have to navigate from where you are, not from where you wish you were. … A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sighted strategy.”

In the days following the speech, the civilian wing of the imperialist war machine asserted itself as the London Telegraph reported:

According to sources close to the administration, Gen McChrystal shocked and angered presidential advisers with the bluntness of a speech given in London last week.

The next day he was summoned to an awkward 25-minute face-to-face meeting on board Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president had arrived to tout Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.

In an apparent rebuke to the commander, Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, said: “It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately.”

When asked on CNN about the commander’s public lobbying for more troops, Gen Jim Jones, national security adviser, said:

“Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

The liberal punditocracy jumped into the fray as well, including Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist and indefatigable Obama apologist who concluded that civilian control of the military had to be upheld even at the cost of dead Muslims:

For the record, this would be my position even if McChrystal were arguing for an immediate pullout — or even if George W. Bush, rather than Obama, were the president whose authority was being undermined. In October 2006, when the chief of staff of the British army said publicly that Britain should pull out of Iraq because the presence of foreign troops was fueling the insurgency — a view I wholeheartedly shared — I argued that he ought to be fired. I wrote that I didn’t like “active-duty generals dabbling in politics, even if I agree with them.” If military officers want to devise and implement geopolitical strategy, they should leave their jobs and run for office.

One of the chief theorists of civilian control in the academy, in fact, was someone who devoted most of the past decade demonizing Muslims and Arabs. I speak of Samuel Huntington, best known for his “clash of civilization” thesis that amounts to Ann Coulter for the carriage trade. Huntington wrote “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations” in 1957, as a reaction to General MacArthur’s defiance of civilian control during the Korean War.

Speaking in the name of the entire ruling class, the Washington Post allowed Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman to make the parallels with MacArthur in an October 5th op-ed piece:

Generals shouldn’t need to be told that it is wrong to lecture their presidents in public. Perhaps McChrystal was misled by the precedent set by Gen. David Petraeus, who strongly supported President Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007. Though Petraeus publicly endorsed the surge, this happened only after Bush made his decision. Petraeus was backing up his commander in chief, not trying to preempt him.

Nevertheless, precedents have the habit of adding up. Unless McChrystal publicly recognizes that he has crossed the line, future generals will become even more aggressive in their efforts to browbeat presidents.

We have no need for a repeat of the showdown between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman faced down his general the last time around, but it was a bruising experience.

The parallels with MacArthur are indeed striking. He was to the Korean War as McChrystal is to the one in Afghanistan. In 1950, Truman began making public statements about the need to escalate the war, specifically to invite the defeated Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek to enter the fray and to strike inside the Chinese mainland if necessary. After MacArthur had sent an expeditionary force into the north that was threatening to cross over into China, Mao felt it necessary to intervene on behalf of the North.

Truman decided to fire MacArthur in after he wrote a letter to Republican Representative Joe Martin in April 1951 disagreeing with Truman. Ironically, the letter was rather mild in comparison to the General’s past bluster-filled statements. But it did end on the same note as McChrystal’s speech, namely that there is no substitute for victory:

It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.

The parallels between 1951 and 2009 are intriguing. Like today, the country was polarized during the Korean War between a Republican Party moving so far to the right that even the Trotskyists had begun to consider Joe McCarthy as a would-be Hitler. MacArthur was the darling of the Republican Party that was all revved up for a total confrontation with the Soviet Union, including the use of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the Democrats were more “reasonable” by comparison, favoring a “containment” strategy and the use of UN troops in peacekeeping missions. In the early 1950s, when cable TV and the Internet did not exist, the primary medium for the ultraright was the myriad of tabloids, especially in metropolitan centers like New York, which provided a bully pulpit for the Glenn Becks of their day, like Westbrook Pegler.

The other parallel is a divided nation, an inheritance of colonialism. The Korean War was precipitated by imperialism’s insistence on keeping the nation divided, just as the war in Afghanistan is largely a product of Pashtun nationalism cross-fertilized by political Islam and peasant resistance to landlordism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Will Obama have the guts to end the war in Afghanistan, the only strategy that in fact is in the long-term interests of American capitalism? In the last few days, there has been jubilation in the ranks of his supporters for appearing to resist McChrystal’s call for an additional 40,000 troops and a refocusing of the war into Pakistan in accord with Biden’s recommendations.

Yesterday the NY Times reported that the President was leaning in Biden’s direction:

President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.

But in his standard triangulation mode learned from Bill Clinton, Obama appeared ready to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to placate the Pentagon Hawks and the Republican Party, as the NY Times reported in rather convoluted prose in tune with the convoluted fence-straddling behavior of the centrist President:

As Mr. Obama met with advisers for three hours to discuss Pakistan, the White House said he had not decided whether to approve a proposed troop buildup in Afghanistan. But the shift in thinking, outlined by senior administration officials on Wednesday, suggests that the president has been presented with an approach that would not require all of the additional troops that his commanding general in the region has requested.

In other words, only 10,000 or so young Americans will be sent to possible death or permanent injury rather than the full complement of 40,000 demanded by McChrystal. Apparently this “dovish” maneuver might be enough to assuage Code Pink leader Medea Benjamin who has become persuaded of the need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan in a kindler and gentler fashion.

One doubts that 10,000 or 40,000 more troops will do much to counteract a growing sense among the men and women stationed there that this is not a war worth dying for, as the Times of London reported today:

American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taleban.

Many feel that they are risking their lives — and that colleagues have died — for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.

“The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families,” said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2-87 Infantry Battalion.

“They feel they are risking their lives for progress that’s hard to discern,” said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division’s 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. “They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through.” The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.

Reflecting the new tilt toward bringing peace, stability and the American way to Pakistan, the United States has conditioned aid to the impoverished country on the basis of it living up to our standards. The NY Times reported today that the Pakistani Generals resent certain conditions, including one that is under discussion here:

The chief of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was so offended by stipulations in the American legislation that he complained to the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, when the two men met in Islamabad on Tuesday, according to a senior Pakistani military officer.

The legislation passed by Congress last week gives Pakistan $1.5 billion over the next year for the Zardari government to build roads, schools and other infrastructure, a gesture intended to shore up the weak civilian government and turn around the widespread antipathy toward the United States among Pakistanis.

Instead, the aid package has served to widen the distrust between the military and the civilian government, even though the new aid comes in addition to America’s aid to the Pakistani military, which had totaled more than $10 billion since 2001.

The section of the legislation that has outraged the army says the secretary of state must report to Congress every six months on whether the government is exercising “effective civilian control over the military.”

Who knows? Maybe the Pakistanis can consult with McChrystal on ways to circumvent this particular section since he has proven rather indifferent to such matters in his own bailiwick.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.