It was the summer of 1981. I was working on an ambulance in Philadelphia, transporting a cancer patient to a hospital for radiation treatments. The man was in his sixties, and I felt he knew his days were numbered.
In my conversations with the man, it came up that I was a Vietnam veteran. He told me he was in the CIA in Saigon in the early 1970s.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I delivered bags of money. That’s pretty much all I did in the end. I was a bagman. I’d get an order to carry a bag of money to some character somewhere in Saigon. And that’s what I did.”
We both smiled grimly, as if to say, our war had turned out to be a moral debacle.
So it was a case of déjà-vu when I read in The New York Times that the CIA has for some time been delivering “bags of money” to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. You can be sure they were also delivering bags of money to a host of other nefarious actors in the corrupt mix of people loyal to our cause in Afghanistan. Afghan writer Qais Akbar Omar calls it “ghost money” and writes, “If ghost money were going to the people who needed it, Afghanistan would have a lot fewer ghosts.”
My dying, ex-CIA friend, it seems, was one in a long tradition of bagmen in US imperial history. Now, of course, we must also have bagwomen to provide the strategic sugar to accompany the salt of our bombing campaigns.
When I returned from Vietnam I began reading a lot of history, from Bernard Fall’s great books on the French Indochina War to Robert J. Lifton’s early work on PTSD, Home From The War. I had been a 19-year-old radio direction finder in the mountains west of Pleiku locating Vietnamese radio operators so our forces could kill them and all the men and women in their units with artillery, aerial bombardments or infantry search & destroy missions. I have their blood on my hands, indirectly.
From my reading, I realized too late I was the “bad guy” in Vietnam and that the Vietnamese had never done anything to me or, more important, to my country. In fact, the Viet Minh were our ally and critical in helping us fight the Japanese toward the end of World War Two. After the war, like the Indians, the Indonesians and others colonized by European powers, they had had enough of colonialism and wanted to control their own destiny. Naively, they thought the US would help them in that goal. Looking back from 2013, it’s clear if we had left them alone — had not killed two to three million southeast Asians over ten years and devastated the nation — the Vietnamese would have ended up exactly where they are now, like their regional enemy China, a hybrid socialist/capitalist state. All we did was slow them down.
In Vietnam, then decades later in Iraq and Afghanistan, we unleashed a blitzkrieg of lethal violence to intimidate a people into compliance with our wishes. We did it with a combination one-two punch, violence on one hand and bags of money on the other. In all three places, the endgame was/is a mess covered up with secrecy and propaganda. The fact is, the clarity of US domestic propaganda aside, serious history finds few legitimate justifications for the drawn-out brutality of our actions. In all these wars, in the end we fight on to save face, to remain top dog in the world, the role we gave ourselves following World War Two when the European colonial powers ended up bankrupt. It’s a history most Americans are simply ignorant of. And that is no accident.
The White Man’s Burden
For those who don’t trust the left on colonial/imperial history, there’s Ralph Peters, one of the most extreme right wing militarist voices in America. He’s a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served ten years in Germany and in the US during the end of the Cold War. He has published 22 books, many of them fiction, and writes a regular column for The New York Post. He’s a contributing editor at Armed Forces Journal. Here’s Peters from his 2007 book Wars of Blood and Faith: Conflicts That Will Shape the Twenty-First Century:
“No matter how vociferously, even sincerely, we deny it, our wars will be fought over religion and ethnic identity. Those wars will be cruel and hard.” Globalization and the internet, he says, will further polarize “the most privileged of the world’s citizens” against the rest of humanity, who will disintegrate into “narrower tribal and religious affiliations.”
Here’s where he gets interesting: “The post-colonial era has barely begun. … The notion that the post-colonial era was a mid-twentieth century phenomenon is utter nonsense. After European imperialism deformed the world for five hundred years, the damage could not be undone in a generation or two. We shall be lucky if the post-colonial era concludes in another two centuries.”
What’s so interesting about this is this historic line has, until lately, been the mantra of the left. Peters digs in even deeper:
“The struggles in which we now are engaged, as well as the wars that will haunt our future, are bloody manifestations of a deformed world struggling to return to its natural condition.”
That is, we in the US are doomed to fight much of what has been called the third world to sustain the “deformed” conditions — “the damage” — established by 500 years of European colonialism. So where does this put the United States? “By attempting to preserve a perverted European design for the world, we have placed ourselves on the wrong side of history.”
A man like Peters, a regular on Fox News, gives the term “war-monger” new life. What he’s done is take the anti-colonial/anti-imperialist arguments used for decades by the antiwar left, which have been denied and ridiculed by the right, and he has turned them on their head to use them as casus belli to justify more war in the name of imperial power. In other words, continue doing what you concede has been disastrous.
This kind of thinking, in my mind, makes the essential bankruptcy of the militarist right quite clear. All that’s left for them is the fear of losing imperial power — and, of course, their incredible military lethality. Oh yeah, and their bags of money. Nowhere does Peters even consider the obvious logical conclusion to what he’s saying, which is, why continue to doom ourselves to sustaining the mess created by European colonialism and its tragic aftermath? Why not, albeit belatedly, re-evaluate our post-colonial mission in the world? Instead, Peters comes to a conclusion akin to that of Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove:
“We have the capabilities to win any conflict on our own terms,” Peters writes. “[B]ut our sheltered political class and the media and the academic circles to which it looks for reassurance lack the strength of character and will to fight for anything beyond personal advancement.”
He forgot to mention saving our precious bodily fluids.
Just to round out Colonel Peters’ nutty vision of the future, we need to understand that the media is the enemy. “The media’s sense of entitlement-without-responsibility results in an establishment that doesn’t report reality but willfully shapes it.” Writers and video producers reporting and commenting on our wars have become so menacing, he writes, “we must regard the media as a whole as a combatant in our conflicts. … Future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media.”
I realize as I’m writing this that he’s talking about me.
From the sinister, he moves to the absurd and becomes an international feminist. “Women’s freedom,” he writes, “is the defining social issue of our time.” Yes, you heard that right. “The Islamists’ horror at the prospect of equal rights for women is the most powerful underlying cause of the turmoil we face in the Muslim heartlands.”
We have seen this anti-Muslim, pro-women’s-liberation meme evolving out of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has never been articulated so clearly with such blood lust attached.
The international gender issue is obviously incredibly complex. In fact, for some time I’ve questioned whether our wars in Muslim countries have not exacerbated a reverse trend to feminism in our own ranks. For lack of a better term, we might call this a trend toward increased “masculinism.” War naturally encourages a masculine identity. But on top of that, with our American soldiers and intelligence operatives engaging violently with extremist Muslim fighters on the battlefield for over a decade, does the inexorable rise of rape and other power-based forms of gender expression in our military suggest a seepage of intolerance for women into our own ranks? This would be pretty ironic, given all the hoopla about Zero Dark Thirty and women now being allowed into combat. The same may work for homosexuals in the military, since male rape is steadily rising as well.
If the right-wing fulminations of Ralph Peters are at all prescient, the future will be more of the same tragic, bloody blundering. More use of sophisticated lethal weaponry and more bags of money. Rudyard Kipling, of course, famously wrote the poem that heralded all that Peters reveals about the legacy of European colonialism for the United States. He wrote that it was the United States’ duty to pick up “the white man’s burden.”
If democracy exists in this vast nation of ours as anything more than meaningless self-promotion, Americans of all classes, races and political affiliations face a major decision concerning the future. Either we belatedly face up to the legacy of European colonialism and its extension in US imperialism and learn the humility to help diplomatically forge a new, more just world order. Or we don’t. In which case we’ll live out Ralph Peters’ nightmare.
I know which side I’m on.