The president negotiates our withdrawal from Afghanistan, proclaims mission accomplished — and the wars of the last decade continue winding down to nothing.
We’ll be leaving behind an unstable country with one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates and hundreds of armed insurgent groups. We haven’t rescued or rebuilt the country or accomplished any objective that begins to justify the human and financial cost of this adventure. We just lost.
But we’re the most powerful nation on the planet. How is that possible? And, as Tom Engelhardt asks, “who exactly beat us? Where exactly is the triumphant enemy?”
He goes on, in an essay that ran this week on Common Dreams: “Did we in some bizarre fashion fight ourselves and lose? After all, last year, more American servicemen died from suicide than on the battlefield in Afghanistan; and a startling number of Americans were killed in ‘green on blue’ or ‘insider’ attacks by Afghan ‘allies’ rather than by that fragmented movement we still call the Taliban.”
Did we fight ourselves and lose? This is a question for the millennium — a question in which the human future hangs in the balance. A rich, arrogant and unbelievably powerful nation, riding a tide of opportune vengeance, pursuing its global interests, invades a poor, backward country, then a year and a half later invades another. It pours multi-trillions of dollars into the adventure and unleashes the most sophisticated high-tech weaponry the world has ever seen. On the home front, the war is backed by at least 80 percent of the population. It’s a good war, a righteous war, proclaimed by the prodigious public relations arm of the military-industrial consensus as a “war on terror” . . . a war on evil itself.
And we lost. Or sort of lost — at least in the sense that we didn’t win. As Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2010: “By 2007, the American officer corps itself gave up on victory, although without giving up on war. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, priorities shifted. High-ranking generals shelved their expectations of winning . . . . They sought instead to not lose. In Washington as in U.S. military command posts, the avoidance of outright defeat emerged as the new gold standard of success.”
His essay was titled, “Is War Becoming Obsolete?” That is, is war becoming an ineffective means of achieving, not merely the aims of its own propaganda (the defeat of evil), but its actual, limited goals of regional dominance, the looting of natural resources, the containment of geopolitical rivals? And if so, does it matter?
Beyond such questions, I sense that a larger question lurks: Might it be that war isn’t something we wage, so much as a force that wages us? And if that’s the case, it doesn’t particularly matter whether we win or lose because it’s not in our control anyway, at least not in the way we think it is. War has been obsolete for at least the last century, in that the damage it inflicted shattered winner and loser alike, almost to the point of mutual suicide — not counting the United States, which emerged powerful and prosperous and on top of the world after World War II. It took another half-century or so for the lose-lose nature of war to catch up to us, and thus for us to begin noticing its obsolescence.
This may be a good time to begin assessing the nature of our loss in the war on terror, beyond the non-achievement of geopolitical ends and non-fulfillment of whatever our mission actually was. Certainly this loss includes expenditures in the trillions of dollars, contributing enormously to the national bankruptcy.
And it also includes the thousands of American combat deaths and the hundreds of thousands of soldiers wounded, both physically and psychologically, during their extended deployments, or suffering from an array of mystery nerve, respiratory and multiple other illnesses— now called chronic multisymptom illness and declared, in a recent report by the federal Institute of Medicine, to be the same symptoms that several hundred thousand vets from the 1991 Gulf War still suffer from — which are the result of the toxic hell that modern warfare inflicts on its battle zones.
In the process of inflicting all this harm on ourselves, of course, we inflicted infinitely more harm on the nations we invaded, killing hundreds of thousands, displacing millions, and polluting Iraq and Afghanistan with radioactive waste from depleted uranium munitions and the toxins of unregulated burn pits, among much else. In 2010, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published the results of a study showing that Fallujah, Iraq, was experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945.
Is war becoming obsolete? When war's toxic aftermath is endured only by the defeated “enemy,” the winners can still cheer. But today there’s no cheering on any side of the erstwhile war on terror. The pertinent question is: How do we stop our mad preparation for future wars?
And there’s only one answer: Stop inventing enemies, whom we proceed to dehumanize. Once we begin the dehumanization process, we lose — not just figuratively, but literally, and in almost incalculable ways. Philip Zimbardo coined the term “the Lucifer Effect” to describe the sadistic corruption that consumes good-hearted men and women when they are given overwhelming power over others. We wage war thinking we can control the Lucifer Effect. We’re always wrong.