Thursday, February 19, 2009

Iraq War Veterans Should Demand a Voice in Foreign Policy

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 2/20/09

Yesterday morning on Fox News they were all in a huff about the addition of 17,000 troops – a de facto surge - in Afghanistan while Obama and Smokin’ Joe Biden, neither of whom have ever fired a shot in anger – railed against the Bush administration not so very long ago for just such a surge in Iraq.

Worth consider though. Those who did not serve are often compelled to wish they had in hindsight and later in life it can cause all kinds of problems. They can get a little over confident and headstrong about warfare. See Dick Cheney. And as Nicholson Baker has pointed out in Human Smoke, passifists can become militant war hawks overnight as they did in WW II when those who refused to fight for Eisenhower and Churchill suddenly became bellicose when Joseph Stalin was attacked. And New England’s Transcendentalists – Henry David Thoreau in particular, who literally wrote the book on non-violent opposition, Civil Disobedience, during the war with Mexico - went gangbusters on the South after John Brown’s hanging.

Ulysses S. Grant poignantly discusses these attitudes in his autobiography; opposition to war can linger in the heart as cowardice and those who legitimately opposed may be considered traitors by the culture and even by themselves. So support for Obama’s war in Afghanistan could suddenly awaken in those who just recently opposed Bush’s war.

In travels this week and last I’ve felt that the heartland – and the vast majority of enlisted and officers in Afghanistan and Iraq are from red states - are about tired of war. The war to git Saddam was linked to vengeance for 9/11. Different in policy, feeling and in operations entirely than the systematical drudgery today that is Afghanistan.

And what exactly is going on in Afghanistan? And how did we get to this point anyway?

I have every confidence in Secretary Robert C. Gates and General Petraeus. I trust their judgment. But they were brought in both when the circle of auspicious possibility and hope was completely shattered. I expect that most women and men who enlisted to fight in Iraq did so on simple and clear motives; feelings of patriotism, feelings of compassion for the victims of 9/11, possibly complex feelings of revenge but a desire to take action and do the right thing.

In hindsight, they should seek out the beginnings of the war that so changed their lives and ours. The war is widely considered to have been mismanaged at the beginning. But who formulated this original vision of the war in Iraq? Was it formulated in the offices of The Weekly Standard and even longer before that by naïve but very influencial undergraduates with political agenda in the student cafeterias of Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins? Who are these people anyway? How did they manage to so take control of our lives when we weren’t paying attention?

Iraq war veterans need to begin asking themselves these questions because they are policy questions. And the same people are still making plans for them and for us ten, 20 years into the future and on into generations yet unborn. It is the lives of soldiers and veterans who are being traded here and soldiers and veterans need to take hold of their situation.

It is an iron-clad law of history that post-war periods find their creativity and life force in the public lives of veterans. Post war in the Revolutionary period, the Civil War and World War II, it was veterans almost exclusively, after saving the country’s bacon, who created a new America. And so we need Iraq war veterans today to begin to conceive policy and execute it.

Haviland Smith, a former CIA officer and one of the last of the old breed of New England Yankees (flinty, old school), asked in a column recently, what is our ultimate goal in Afghanistan?

Because, he said, if it is security and stability, that simply cannot be achieved militarily.

“If Afghanistan were ever to be pacified,” he writes, “which it never has, it would take hundreds of thousands of troops. Afghans have never accepted foreign domination of any kind. They have even been unwilling to accept central indigenous governance.”

Our current moment might be considered “post statehood” or “post regional.” States and regions have no power; it has all voluntarily been sent up to the feds. Few of us have a sense of place anymore except maybe Texas and Alaska. We have come instead to identify with themes and ethnicities and that is where power lies; pseudo and ad hoc tribes often like the wandering and stateless of old Egypt. We have distinct political entities of gay people, women, black people, religious groups, etc., each seeking their own specialized agenda, each with lobby groups and expensive lawyers, even presidential candidates.

We need to start hearing from Iraq combat veterans as a group on these issues. They need to find leadership among themselves and make their presence felt.

What do they think about Afganistan? What do they think about everything? Do they trust Obama? Do they like John McCain? Ron Paul? Are they amused because Sarah Palin speaks to Hockey Moms and her daughter got pregnant and her husband drives a snow machine? Are these Alaska country folk and their common ways as alienating and laughable to West Virginia soldiers and Montana veterans as they are to the Saturday Night Live crew and the editorial board of The New York Times, cheering on Obama yesterday in his Afghanistan surge? I doubt it.

After Vietnam, veterans were despised, spurned, exploited, hated, patronized, driven into hiding and very many of them driven to despair. They figured it out later, but it was too late.

This moment is starting to feel strangely like that moment. Iraq vets need to find their fate today and ours and take it and hold on to it and own it and don’t let go.