This 'bad news' is cause for celebration

WaPo's bombshell Afghan war report is a chance to promote democracy here at home

vol. 1 issue 50


By now, you’re probably aware of the Pentagon Papers redux that exploded off the front page of the Washington Post online last night, or in hard copy this morning, for those of us who still have their paper delivered to their doorstep.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War is an astoundingly good investigation by the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock into how our 18 years of war in Afghanistan has been feckless, utterly and thoroughly without purpose. Not only that, as Whitlock reports by way of thousands of pages of internal Defense Department and other agency documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, even though leaders knew it was a pointless war almost from the get-go, as private papers of President George W. Bush’s former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld show, they sold it to us as a win anyway.

It likely will hurt and anger you to be reminded of the senselessness of such destruction at the cost of life and limb. Also, if, like me, you believe that the reason we enter war so easily is because we have spent so much on warcraft there is a compelling obligation our warrior leaders feel to use all those machines, you will feel vindicated in that belief.

But, best of all, if like me you love this country dearly but wake up each day and wonder at our nation’s pervasive derangement, this is a report that could cause you to rejoice.

The report is a clear lens on how we have allowed The System to subsume our individual rights and threaten democracy.

It is my fervent belief that our national derangement, as evidenced in our partisanship and in our trending high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality, is because we know the rights we always thought of as our birthright as Americans are largely compromised or outright gone. This sense of loss is fueling our national identity crisis: if we are not free, then who are we? And why are we not free?

It’s ironic that the papers Whitlock got access to were called by the federal bureaucrats that created them, “Lessons Learned”, since plenty of lessons had already been learned in a much longer line of bellicose stupidity that began with Great Britain in the early to mid-1800s on through the former USSR’s invasion of the region in the late 20th Century. Both nations suffered crushing and expensive losses there for largely the same reasons: arrogance.

The British and the Soviets mistakenly thought that in exchange for the Afghan territory, they could stabilize the region through occupation. That might have worked except that the Afghan people like their own ways, thank you very much. What I am saying is that it has always been arrogant to assume Afghanis will eventually “see reason” and want what we Westerners tell them they should want, which in our case and that of Britain and the Soviets before them, was to accept occupation so eventually they could modernize.

Judge them as barbaric or worse, Afghanis are proud people who really would rather fight invaders forever rather than adapt, even if the invader is heavily and supremely armed. This is why anyone who invades their homeland is in for whopping losses, as history has plainly shown.

Regardless, dumb and haughty as we were to not look at the lessons already established, what impresses me about “Lessons Learned” is that our leaders were so candidly introspective about what they were doing. Unlike the Pentagon Papers, which President Johnson’s secretive defense secretary Robert McNamara had classified, these observations were conducted in the relative open in what strikes me as an oblique form of group therapy.

In a federally sanctioned effort to understand what was happening with our war in Afghanistan, so many officials were candid and thoughtful in their critique of the war and responded robustly when asked to record their thoughts and emotions about it. Yes, this report points to corruption and graft. I can’t see how this report won’t lead to public debate over why we allow the defense industry to dictate so much of our policies and face so little consequences while profiting greatly.

And yet…

Comment after comment cited in the WaPo story indicates either implicitly or explicitly, that those tasked with carrying out this war were slipping into an existential crisis around what democracy truly is, and what one’s obligation is within it.

Put another way, what freedom is and how it is achieved is at the heart of all of this. That such questions would arise around a war fought in a land where the people historically have fought mightily to preserve their own definition of freedom is more than a little ironic.

One of the most poignant quotes from Whitlock’s report is this from former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins:

“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.”

Aside from begging the question of why we feel the need to be the world’s peacemakers, there is a darker side to this because of how unsettled our “peacemaking” nation is acting at home these days.

Ours is currently a nation where wealth is not just unequally distributed but done so at a level so disproportionate, it is fomenting unrest that threatens our peace. Meanwhile, as we lose our centrist minds to the fringes of partisanship and so edge closer to authoritarianism daily, our own president routinely hints at not abiding by our tradition of a peaceful transition of power.

It makes me think Dobbins’ comments point to a deeper knowing he and the rest of those in the report seemed to be aware of, however consciously or unconsciously they were picking up on it: We do not stand for what we say we stand for in this world. Perhaps we never fully did, but we certainly can’t honestly say we do now.

The collected “Lessons Learned” is filled with introspection about what democracy actually should look like, how it is carried out, how it is sustained, whether it should be achieved by force, whether it is anyone else’s damned business to “export” it by way of invasion is essential if we are to avoid becoming an authoritarian hell in this country. It is also the bedrock for our being able to see that democracy is fragile, and cannot withstand the pressure we’ve placed on it by allowing The System to prevail over the rights of the individual.

Reading this report, it was clear to me that many of these people involved – including Rumsfeld who actually wrote “Help!” when he saw how hopeless the situation was – wanted out. But the momentum was not in their favor, it was in The System’s. There is graft, there is self-serving, there is corruption, there are all the things we will debate and be angry about, but slavishness to The System made it too easy to carry on with the war.

My criticisms of Capitalism lately have prompted some to write me and accuse me of being partial to Socialism. I disagree. As economic systems, each is flawed, but arguing how and why they are defective, and which one is better, is secondary to the argument of whether our democracy is in the ascendant or if “The System” is. Power is neutral, but when The System becomes what we serve first, then democracy is in danger, and no economic notion will fix it. I write critically about Capitalism because it just happens to be the system we’ve let take over and become our boss instead of the other way around.

I am excited about this Washington Post reporting. I haven’t taken in the media commentary on this yet, but I am sure plenty will use it to focus on the depths of the corruption inherent in this story, the hold the defense industry has over us, and the complicity of our leaders in that. Fine. All that will be true and worthy of discussion.

But the real news here is that it shows how there is an impulse to go to the bedrock of our national identity and examine and affirm our shared core values, not the truly bizarre, stupid, bombastic partisan versions of them, but the True ones.

I think this is a day for rejoicing.  


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If you’re in the Washington, DC area, consider attending my mini-course “Deconstructing the News” which I will be teaching at American University’s OLLI Institute in early February. The details have yet to be posted on their website but here’s a preview:

Against the backdrop of "fake news" and an exploded marketplace of news and other information outlets, how can we be sure we are accurately informed? Class participants will learn skills, online tools, and newsgathering techniques journalists use to discern fact from fiction in today’s news and non-news environment. Also covered is how to spot important trends; find under-reported or unnoticed reports that matter; understand and boost the role of local news now facing an existential, democracy-destabilizing threat. The primary objective is for participants to feel confident they are forming opinions about their world based on quality information paired with their own observations.   

I would love to see you there! Class size is limited, so either let me know if you’re interested, or keep an eye on the website or sign up for OLLI’s newsletter for more information.

You can find me online other places, too!

For my reviews of opera, classical and contemporary music:
DC Metro Theater Arts

For my column on creative communities:
The Writer’s Center

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