I came of age during the War in Vietnam. If I’d been just a year or two older, I would probably have been drafted and sent to Southeast Asia to wade through rice paddies in what turned out to be America’s most humiliating military defeat till then.
Thankfully, by the time I turned 18, the war was almost over. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam signed an agreement to end US military involvement in Vietnam.
Nixon promised America “peace with honor” via a strategy of “Vietnamization” and negotiation. Vietnamization, he said, would train and equip the South Vietnamese to defend themselves without American troops.
But Nixon knew it would never work. “South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway,” the president said in a conversation recorded on the thousands of hours of secret tapes he compiled.
Nixon’s advisors didn’t believe it would work, either. They were almost unanimous in their assessment that South Vietnam would never survive as an independent country “without U.S. combat support in the form of air, helicopters, artillery, logistics and major ground forces.”
And it didn’t. In April 1975, North Vietnam captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The images captured as the last Americans evacuated from the US Embassy in Saigon have been etched in my memory ever since. If you’re too young to remember them, or would like a reminder, see this link.
At the time, I sincerely believed that our country had learned an important lesson about meddling in the affairs of other countries where we simply didn’t belong. But it turned out that Vietnam was only a temporary setback to those interventionists who advocated for US involvement in foreign disputes. Thus, the 1980s became a hotbed for American military or involvement in Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama, among other countries.
Despite considerable loss of life among American service members (not to mention the far higher body count among enemy combatants and civilians), the “success” of these missions emboldened the interventionists. Thus, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, President George H.W. Bush vowed to evict him. Bush assembled an international coalition with dozens of countries and nearly 700,000 troops. The result was “Operation Desert Storm,” a four-day war which evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
But this was merely the warmup act. Only seven days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Authorization for Use of Military Force to commence military operations in Afghanistan. The campaign was dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Over the next two decades, presidents of both parties enthusiastically escalated the war, even though there were no signs whatsoever we were “winning” it. We don’t need to remind you of the outcome two decades later.
At his July 8th press conference, President Biden concluded that a Taliban takeover was “highly unlikely.” And as the Taliban rapidly captured huge swathes of the country, America’s foreign policy elite and political leadership told us they were “shocked” by the speed of the Afghan military collapse,
But they were lying – just like Nixon lied to the American people about Vietnam. The Pentagon regularly reported to Congress that the Afghan army, which on paper was four times stronger than the Taliban, was both incompetent and unreliable. The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released only days before the Taliban takeover, concluded that the “advanced weapons systems, vehicles and logistics used by Western militaries were beyond the capabilities of the largely illiterate and uneducated Afghan force.”
Indeed, anyone who spends a few minutes reviewing the history of Afghanistan could have predicted the eventual outcome of the two-decade debacle. To call Afghanistan a “country” is a misnomer. It has geographical borders that were established by the agreement of European colonial powers, but the dozens of tribes living within those confines have been fighting each other for centuries. They usually just band together to fight off foreign invaders.
And they’ve done so many times dating back nearly 3,000 years. In more modern times, Great Britain invaded the country twice, and failed to conquer it in the 19th century. The Soviet Union tried and failed in the 1980s. And now, of course, the United States.
But there were winners. To understand who they were, it’s important to understand that, as journalist Matt Taibbi puts it,
Armed conflict has gone from being an occasional unpleasant political necessity to the core product line of the American corporation. Wars are what we make, and like blue jeans or Louisville Sluggers, we build them to last, with Afghanistan the prime example. Just as we’re always designing new rifles and tanks and jet fighters, we’ve become adept at manufacturing fresh intellectual justifications for deploying troops, churning out everything from “humanitarian war” to “benevolent hegemony” to “regime change” to “nation-building.”
The fact is that, like a longtime heroin user, America is addicted to war. In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell address that a “military-industrial complex” was acquiring national influence that could cause a fundamental shift in the way the United States was governed. He warned of “destroying from within that which you are trying to protect from without.”
Eisenhower’s words were sadly prescient. The only real winners of the Afghan war are the corporations manufacturing weapons and those investing in them. Indeed, a $10,000 investment equally divided among the America’s largest defense contractors in 2001 would today be worth nearly $100,000.
President Biden says America’s role of nation-building is over now that our troops have come home from Afghanistan. But even if he really believes that – he’s wrong. The United States still has armed troops stationed in more than 150 countries to defend US interests. In more than 80 of them, American troops remain actively involved in “counterterrorism” operations.
So is there a way forward? We think not. War is America’s top export and has been for decades. The military-industrial complex is simply too pervasive to easily be displaced. It pervades every segment of American society. The most reliable sources of jobs and income in our country is with defense contractors or companies that provide services to assist the “War on Terror.”
What politician is going to risk the loss of jobs in his or her district, however desirable the long-term outcome might be? And what politician dares question the consensus view that curtailing civil liberties and the rule of law is an acceptable price to pay to fight terrorism?
Financial links between the military-industrial complex and the legislative and executive branches make it even more unlikely it will easily be dismantled. Top political officials, including cabinet members, frequently serve as officers of major defense contractors before or after their government service. Defense contractors participate in the political process by supporting candidates and political parties that support their desire for a powerful and expanding US military presence at home and abroad.
Building the military-industrial complex has been a bipartisan affair and has extended over nine presidencies, from both major parties. Nothing suggests this will change with Joe Biden, despite his announced intention for America to cease “nation-building.”
Maybe it’s time to consider your Plan B.