The Long War: Just Say 'No'

Military violence has such a death-grip on national policy in America, it’s hard for citizens to grasp there are real alternatives to war.

Marine General James Mattis, the man appointed by President Obama to replace General David Petraeus as leader of the Central Command that oversees all US operations in the Iraq/Afghanistan theater, is a colorful case in point.

Mattis is famous for his tough guy statements. My favorite is: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

His most quoted remark is about how much fun killing is, specifically referring to killing Afghan men who slap their women around.

“You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Harrison Ford is to play the 59-year-old bachelor general in the upcoming film No True Glory, which is about Mattis commanding the First Marine Division as it tore up Falluja in 2004. (Mel Gibson must have been too busy slapping around his Russian girlfriend.)

General James Mattis in 2005 telling a San Diego audience how much he loves to kill Afghan menGeneral James Mattis in 2005 telling a San Diego audience how much he loves to kill Afghan men

General Mattis is co-author, with General David Petraeus, of the new, improved counterinsurgency manual. He is said to be a brilliant, creative general. As the story goes, he once thwarted an anti-American Shiite rally planned by Moqtada al-Sadr by renting all the buses in southern Iraq so people could not get to the rally.

With the two principal movers in the COIN revolution now in the two key command positions over Afghanistan, it can only mean one thing: The so-called “Long War” is on. Turning back now would mean a loss of prestige for these men whose careers are both bound up in the audacious notion we can win something in Afghanistan and that, even more audacious, we could have prevailed in Vietnam — if only we had known then what we know now.

War as theory and practice

Carl von Clausewitz defined war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” This definition was not altered if a general chose to restrain his army from indiscriminate slaughter. “The tendency to destroy the adversary which lies at the bottom of the conception of War is in no way changed or modified through the process of civilization.”

So the mantra that this “long war” in Afghanistan is different because it is a political war, or in COIN-speak, “a protracted politico-military struggle,” is PR to sell it at home. War, no matter how you chose to fight it, Clausewitz says, is a “political instrument.” And, in this case, it costs trillions of dollars and a steady dribble of dead and maimed Americans.

All the nice guy development talk aside, General Mattis’ remarks make it clear the bottom line of our mission is still to kill people to bend the population to our will.

The key word is “protracted.” The United States can’t beat the Taliban guerrillas and other insurgent networks quickly, so the solution is to deconstruct the basic processes of war into various components and then stay long enough to wear everybody down. As the gangster assures the bar-owner on his route, it’s really about his protection.

You allocate many billions of US dollars on development and the training of local soldiers and police into an armed force with the top priority loyalty to the US. This new society must be built slowly from the ground up. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke just told a Senate Foreign Relations hearing one of our goals is massive literacy training in Afghanistan. It’s a mission to elevate a fragmented 14th century culture into a modern, neo-colonial nation.

All the while, in the secret shadows, you have special operations hunter-killer teams “taking out” those Afghans who refuse to reconcile to your will.

As this COIN project is digging in, according to The New York Times, General Petraeus is thwarting efforts at diplomacy among the various hostile elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For example, Petraeus is pressing to have fighters associated with Sirajuddin Haqqani, a network long allied with Pakistani intelligence, put on the “terrorist” list so they can be attacked, despite the fact Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to talk with these folks. Karzai, the Pakistanis and the Haqqani network have many things in common. One thing they share is a deep-seated distrust of the United States.

So why would Petraeus get in the way of peace talks? And is it possible our 100,000 foreign military forces occupying Afghanistan are really a de-stabilizing force?

Generals Petraeus, Mattis and others are deeply invested in the war in Afghanistan due to matters of career, honor and pride. They have a stake in proving their COIN program works. So it’s not really strange they might do what generals reflexively tend to do: Encourage the war that sustains their careers and discourage messy human alternatives that diminish their military glory.

Condition White

Clausewitz says war is “a wonderful trinity.” The bottom of his trinity is “blind instinct …hatred and animosity,” the state he associates with the population of a nation at war. “The passions which break forth in War must already have a latent existence in the people.” The middle level is “the play of probabilities and chance,” the level of tactical battlefield decisions — what generals do. At the top, is the government, where the decision is made to employ war as a “political instrument.”

At the beginning of our current wars, post-911 hatred and animosity toward al Qaeda certainly filled the hearts of Americans at the bottom of the trinity. And, certainly, lingering xenophobic, anti-Muslim passions still exist, ripe for easy manipulation.

It’s logical that generals would want to keep this war going. But do working and un-employed Americans still have the depth of “passion” in this critical trinity to support a very costly war without end against Afghan Taliban insurgents who never threatened the US in the first place and just want the US military out of their country? We are told al Qaeda has moved on to Yemen.

In the August Harper’s magazine, Dan Baum shows how the war trinity’s people-level passion can be seen in the general state of fear many Americans share these days– especially those who own and carry guns.

In “Happiness Is a Worn Gun: My concealed weapon and me,” Baum tells what it’s like for a liberal-minded man to carry a concealed pistol in America. He encounters a proselytizing NRA culture that disdains anyone not armed and perceptually on-guard against threat at all times.

In NRA classes, he is taught the four “conditions of readiness,” White, Yellow, Orange and Red. White is being totally chilled and not perceptually attuned to danger; Yellow is moderate vigilance as in responsible driving; Orange is being aware of a possible threat; and Red is responding to danger.

“Contempt for Condition White unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as the Second Amendment,” Baum says. He finds the very act of carrying a gun makes you perceive threats. “There’s no way to lapse into Condition White when armed,” he says.

One day, he leaves his pistol in his car to meet someone at a bar.

“I realized how different I felt: lighter, dreamier, conscious of how the afternoon light slanted against Flagstaff’s old buildings.I found myself, as I walked, composing lines of prose. I was lapsing into Condition White, and loving it.”

Then it hits him: “Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens.”

In the end, he decides to stop carrying his gun because, “I miss Condition White.” Being armed, he says, “has militarized my life; all that locking and loading and watching over my shoulder makes me feel like a bit player in the perpetual global war in which we find ourselves.”

Crushing the American spirit

I’m an antiwar activist and I have nothing against owning guns. I concede, while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a disaster for America, we do need an army. My literary mentor George Orwell put it this way: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Some peace activists may have trouble with this. I think Orwell was being realistic. I can almost guarantee that as a great prose artist, Orwell would also have understood the value of not precluding or ridiculing Condition White.

What better source to go to for this than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great secular preacher of the “universal soul” in all men and women. Following a very disturbing financial panic in 1837, Emerson’s was one of the seminal voices of American self-reliance and the vital need to constantly learn from the mistakes of the past.

Emerson would have understood Condition White, which he expressed this way:

“…Every man should be open to ecstasy or a divine illumination, and his daily walk elevated by intercourse with the spiritual world.”

The creative possibilities within this mental state are impossible to anyone who wills himself into a mental space of perceived threat — or, as General Mattis put it, one feels the need to come up with “a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

General Mattis and NRA gun-culture warriors would scoff at this, of course. Emerson today would be slandered as a “communist” or even a “pussy.” Consider this remark to his troops attributed to General Mattis: “When you men get home and face an anti-war protester, look him in the eyes and shake his hand. Then, wink at his girlfriend, because she knows she’s dating a pussy.”

Emerson valued Truth and the wild healing powers of Nature, a view of life shared by many “anti-war protesters.” Not being a reflexive killer and someone who willfully dehumanizes oneself is nothing to be ashamed of. Furthermore, the “pussy” analogy is offensive to the vagina, a creative, generative organ of Emersonian Nature with a purpose in life far beyond a bachelor general’s ridicule of those who oppose his wars.

There is a danger in America that the forces so fervently devoted to opposing and crushing the genius to be found in “Condition White” will end up destroying something wonderful about this country. Historic voices like Emerson’s are just as fundamental to the American genius as imperial war lovers like Teddy Roosevelt.

It’s an important historic and national dialogue, and we’re in for big trouble if one side sees its weapons as a tool in the argument.

In an essay called “Man the Reformer,” Emerson writes: ”What is man born for but to be a reformer, a Re-maker of what man has made, a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good, imitating that great Nature that embosoms us all?”

In a speech to the Boston Masonic temple in 1842, he spoke of the “downward tendency and proneness of things … these cities rotted, ruined by war, by new inventions.” He ends with a plea to his Masonic audience: “Will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable?”