Someday, when historians look back, they will undoubtedly be struck by the utter inanity, not to say collective insanity, of the United States fighting what our president has called a “war of necessity,” now in its tenth year, in Afghanistan, as well as a “covert” war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands. It will undoubtedly look like a classic case of a declining empire overextending itself, squandering its treasury, and then, in its moment of crisis, extending itself yet further. After all, the date to get U.S. “combat troops” out of Afghanistan has already been officially put off to the end of 2014, more than three years away, and that doesn’t even include U.S. trainers and other supposedly noncombat troops, possibly numbering in the tens of thousands, who may remain for years more.
General David Petraeus, the present American war commander, has been a key figure in pushing that deadline off as well as in pursuing a war that is becoming ever more destructive, and doing so by ever more violent and covert means. Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, has similarly been deeply involved in ratcheting up the Agency’s covert drone war in Pakistan. Now, the two of them are part of what’s being called a “reshuffling” of posts in Washington, with Panetta replacing Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, while Petraeus takes over the CIA, and Ryan Crocker, ambassador to Iraq while Petraeus ran Bush’s war there, is sent to the American embassy in Kabul.
Think of it as the war shuffle, a version of musical chairs among the war-makers in whom the urge to surge remains powerful. Many reporters and commentators have observed that these changes are symbolic of the post-9/11 militarizing of Washington and, as the New York Times put it, of “the blurring of lines between soldiers and spies in secret American missions abroad.” More important, perhaps, these changes symbolize the rise of covert war as a dominant way of life. The men now changing posts will continue to command vast secret armies cocooned inside our military and intelligence agencies, and a secret drone air force to go with them (all aided and abetted by a burgeoning set of private contractors of whom Blackwater, now Xe, is the best known). With such “secrecy” increasingly out in the open, the ability to conduct war in a realm beyond accountability only grows. It’s a frightening, if little attended, fact of our moment.
Obama’s latest appointments have another significance as well. They represent a clear decision that no new thinking should enter the realm of American war making. In a command world in which everybody has worked with everyone else, in which nowhere is there a hint of new blood, in which, by the look of it, all the air is being squeezed out of Washington, the war shuffle practically ensures that the way we were is the way we will be. Elsewhere, from Pakistan to Tunisia, the world is threatening to turn upside down. In Washington, as we head into the 2012 election season, all is as ever (despite Osama bin Laden's death). Consider this yet another crippling folly in a season of American decline.
Prize-winning author Adam Hochschild is intimately knowledgeable when it comes to war’s folly in the twentieth century, having spent years working on his latest book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, a magnificent history of World War I (which also focuses on a birthing moment for the citizenly urge to oppose modern war in all its madness). As a historian, he’s had the strange experience recently not of looking back, but of looking forward into our own unnerving, unending world of war. In his latest piece -- “Where Have All the Graveyards Gone?” -- he writes a future epitaph to this era of perpetual war: “Someday, I have no doubt, the dead from today’s wars will be seen with a similar sense of sorrow at needless loss and folly as those millions of men who lie in the cemeteries of France and Belgium -- and tens of millions of Americans will feel a similar revulsion for the politicians and generals who were so spendthrift with others’ lives. But here’s the question that haunts me: What will it take to bring us to that point?” Amen.