44 Years Later, LBJ's Ghost Hovers Over the 44th President
A few days after the inauguration, in a piece celebrating the arrival of the Obama administration, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote that the new president has clearly signaled: "No more crazy wars."
Last week -- and 44 years ago -- there were many reasons to celebrate the inauguration of a president after the defeat of a right-wing Republican opponent. But in the midst of numerous delightful fragrances in the air, a bad political odor is apt to be almost ineffable.
Right now, on the subject of the Afghan war, what dominates the discourse in Washington is narrowness of political vision -- while news outlets are reporting that the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to "as much as double this year to 60,000 troops."
It's heartbreaking now to read the admixture of profound humanity and nascent war madness in the inaugural address of Lyndon Johnson. "In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty," he proclaimed. "In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry. In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die unattended." And that wasn't just rhetoric. LBJ went on to launch Great Society programs with great effects and far greater promise.
But the same inaugural speech foreshadowed the massive slaughtering of people in Vietnam, and the undermining of the United States -- with what Martin Luther King Jr. two years later likened to "some demonic destructive suction tube" -- bringing home terrible depths of human pain and bitterness. "If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know," Johnson said at his inauguration, "that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant."
Pundits and congressional leadership nodded sagely as the president cited the threat of communism and proceeded to boost U.S. troop levels in Vietnam. Similar nodding -- and nodding off -- is now underway as the president cites the threat of terrorism and prepares to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
Down the line, some key words from Obama's inaugural address -- telling dubious foreign leaders that "your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy" -- will need to face a reflection in the mirror.
Lyndon Johnson's capacity to deliver on hopes for a Great Society shattered on the jagged steel of a war that, year after year, few pundits were willing to acknowledge was crazy. The war effort in Vietnam was the essence of supposed rationality.
Now, hopes for the Obama administration are vulnerable to destruction from an escalating war. "Afghanistan could quickly come to define the Obama presidency," the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Many independent journalists and authors, such as Chris Hedges and Sonali Kolhatkar, have written from depths of knowledge about the derangement of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. That effort won't bring "victory," but it can multiply the suffering endlessly.
Several weeks ago, a Bob Herbert column made a practical moral argument: "Sending thousands of additional men and women (some to die, some to be horribly wounded) on a fool's errand in the rural, mountainous guerrilla paradise of Afghanistan would be madness."
Days after the inauguration, the news has included a fresh spate of stories about Afghan civilians killed by U.S. missiles. Hamid Karzai, in effect the president of Kabul, declared that the Pentagon's frequent killing of civilians in Afghanistan "is strengthening the terrorists." And so it goes.
Escalation of a crazy war will make it crazier. Pretending otherwise will not make it any less insane -- or any less destructive.
And, as we heard in Obama's inaugural address, "people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."