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Sunday, June 27, 2010


During this enormously extended serial posting of my Memoirs, I have not been commenting on the passing scene, but Frank Rich's op ed column in the NY TIMES today prompts me to make a few remarks. Rich talks about the Afghan war, and among other things discusses the fact, puzzling and distressing to him, that Afghanistan is getting almost no attention in the mainstream media. The focus of his column is the striking scoop by the Rolling Stone reporter, which led to the firing of General McChrystal. As always, I find Rich extremely interesting and helpful.

In this comment, I should like to offer a somewhat different perspective on the failure of the media to cover Afghanistan. For most of its history, the United States maintained a small standing army, only expanding it with a draft during major conflicts. Like Russia, the United States acquired the principal part of its empire by expanding forcefully into contiguous territories, rather than by sending expeditionary forces overseas. The entire westward movement, conveniently described in standard mid-twentieth century college history textbooks as expansion into "empty land," resulted in a continental empire very much like, but much more successfully integrated than, that of the Soviet Union. [America killed off most of the peoples it conquered, thereby obviating the necessity of integrating them into the imperial homeland] It is worth noting that the Soviet Union, during its entire career, never sent its forces into areas that it could not reach overland from its borders. The United States of course acquired a number of non-contiguous territories, including Alaska and Hawaii, but it shunned extended occupation of any portions of the Eurasian landmass.

After the end of America's brief involvement in the First World War, the military was reduced to a skeleton force. One tends to forget that during the 27 years between America's involvement in the two world wars, the standing army was reduced to practicing close order drill with broom sticks substituted for rifles, and armored manoeuvres with jeeps and trucks labeled "tank."

World War II, which lasted a bit more than three and a half years, was fought by means of a total mobilization of the nation in a vast spasm of activity that reached into every community. The Korean War, five years later, lasted a month over three years, and was, in effect, a continuation of the Great War. America then went on permanent war footing, a condition that has lasted unabated for sixty years.

The great turning point in America's transformation into a true Imperial Power was the Viet Nam War, which America tried unwisely to fight as it had fought World War II. That ten year conflict nearly destroyed the professional military in the United States, and they drew the quite correct conclusion that the United States could only maintain a permanent imperial army by ending the draft and substituting a well-paid, well-trained, superbly equipped cadre of career military men and women.

Since that time, now more than thirty-five years past, the United States has been transformed into a full-scale empire, with permanent bases in more than a hundred countries and military excursions carried out without even the pretense of Congressional approval. The central point of the professional military is to make such excursions possible with little or no serious involvement of the population at large. Like the French Foreign Legion, the Roman Legions, and the British Army, the American military is now an instrument of Administrative policy, not a response to threats to the homeland. It is not at all surprising, consequently, that the Afghan war can be carried on without much attention from the mainstream media.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Afghan war will end badly for the United States. It has already ended badly for the United States. The only questions not yet answered are what the terms will be on which America will accept defeat [as it did in Viet Nam] and what the political consequences will be for the present Administration. On December 1, 2009, I posted an entry to this blog explaining why I believed Obama had made a terrible mistake in embracing and enlarging the Afghan War, and predicting that the war would come to dominate his presidency.

If American is forced to withdraw in a humiliating fashion from Afghanistan before the 2012 elections, Obama may well be defeated for re-election. If he is able to postpone that withdrawal until after 2012, he may be re-elected, but his presidency will come to be about that war.

If the war should cost him re-election, I predict that the mainstream media will, for a moment, take notice of it.


Anonymous said...

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NotHobbes said...

How long do you believe America can sustain a large military presence in Afghanistan Professor?
Surely if for no other reason, then the financial burden will bring this war to an end soon?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am very much afraid that a large and rich country like America can in fact sustain a presence in Afghanistan indefinitely. We have, after all, maintained a sizeable presence in Korea for fifty-seven years! The economic cost of the war is quite manageable for a country that spends a trillion dollars on Defense related things each year, and so long as the American deaths are suffered by the professional military, public outrage is unlikely to force a withdrawal. Remember that a much smaller American lost more than fifty thousand dead in Viet Nam, and they were heavily draftees. That level of loss, widely distributed throughout the society, did bring a political reaction. No, this is what empires look like, alas. One also must recall that the Roman and British empires, among others, claimed and believed that they were bringing civilization to inferior peoples.

NotHobbes said...

You draw a very interesting comparison between modern America and the Roman Empire Professor, I assume you refer to the costly and fruitless expeditions of Septimius Severus in Scotland c.209 AD?
He mistakenly held the belief that our ancestors were tree dwelling barbarians when in fact they were capable of(Amongst other things) producing more sophisticated woodwind instruments than the Romans themselves could(The Carnyx)
It`s true that Severus did obtain a peace treaty of sorts from a few of the tribal chieftans but the peace was shattered the moment he left Scotland in 210 AD. Severus had not fully understood ancient Scots society and had been hoping for a conventional war with an opponent who would engage toe to toe-not embark on campaign of guerrilla warfare which would outlast the Emperor himself(Our ancestors even had a hand in the death of his son and successor!)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I was of course referring to Septimius Severus. What else could I possibly have meant? The carnyx, I confess, is unknown to me, but that is because at about that time, my ancestors were mired [so far as I know[ somewhere in Mittel Europa.

NotHobbes said...

The carnyx was a long trumpet style of instrument, curved so that it would rise several feet above the players head.
The end of the carnyx was shaped like a wolf`s head(even with ridges in the open mouth) and the tune or blast would resonate through the wolfs open mouth and ears. Used in war-to instill terror as though a pack of wolves were approaching

David Pilavin said...

I would not be surprized if your ancestors actually were mired somewhere in the Mittel Ost.


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