Who in America Remembers Afghanistan?

How will we ever see the end of a war that everyone seems to have forgotten—everyone except the families and friends of the wounded and the dead?

“We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. . . . If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other non-combatants will be caught in the crossfire. . . . Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.” —Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), the lone vote against the war in Afghanistan, Sept. 15, 2001 (video)

Guardian columnist Gary Younge, who writes on American politics and society, penned a sensitive and saddening piece last week titled “Forgotten War Is Everyone’s Orphan” (print edition). The subtitle reads, “Admiration for soldiers may be widespread and deep in America, but interest in what they are doing is shallow and fleeting.” Younge opens with the funeral of a 23-year-old soldier in Bordentown, New Jersey, then comments:

There is a reverence for the military in the US on a scale rarely seen anywhere else in the west that transcends political affiliation and pervades popular culture. On aeroplanes the flight attendant will announce if there are soldiers on board to great applause. When I attended a recording of The Daily Show, John [sic] Stewart made a special point before the show of thanking the servicemen in the audience.

But while the admiration for those who serve and die may be deep and widespread, interest in what they are doing and why they are doing it is shallow and fleeting. During November’s midterm elections it barely came up. In September just 3% thought Afghanistan was one of the most important problems facing the country. When Pew surveyed public interest in the war over an 18-week period last year, fewer than one in 10 said it was the top news story they were following in any given week, including the week Stanley McChrystal—the four-star general commanding troops in Afghanistan, was fired. The country, it seems has moved on. The trouble is the troops are still there.

100,000+ U.S. troops in Afghanistan
Since 2001, 2,255 coalition deaths (1,402 Americans)

Although the Afghan War is unpopular—a poll in December 2010 found 63% opposed, 56% thinking it’s going badly (very badly say 21%), and 60% believing it’s not worth fighting—it was bipartisan, almost unanimous: “a war of necessity,” as the phrase went after the 9/11 attacks, and so it has not been a partisan electoral issue the way the Iraq War was. Younge notes that the war in Afghanistan was “supported by Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and Susan Sontag.” In the U.S. Congress, only Barbara Lee of California, quoted above, voted against authorizing force. Perhaps she foresaw complications we are only belatedly recognizing. (She also received death threats.)

. . . as the principal retaliatory response to the terror attacks of 9/11, [the Afghan War] has failed. It hasn’t brought liberty, democracy or stability. It has killed untold thousands of civilians: untold because they are regarded as expendable. And not only has it not captured the perpetrators of the terror attack, there are far more acts of terrorism globally today than there were in 2001, in no small part because of the chaos wrought by the war on terror.

To really engage with what has gone wrong with the war in Afghanistan, Younge says,

would demand a sharp reckoning with why so many thought it would was right to begin with. The country would have to interrogate its militaristic reflexes and proclivities, and face the fact that while there were few good or certain options after 9/11 (ranging from the diplomatic to containment) this was one of the worst—and the others were never seriously considered.

The United States has never seriously examined why the nation was attacked by al Qaeda. The grievances of Osama bin Laden have been blocked from view—for example, by the direct intervention with network news outlets by former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice in 2001. We have been told that the atrocities of September 11 were launched because “they hate our freedoms,” among other simplistic explanations and warnings that helped set the groundwork for a follow-on invasion of Iraq.

Among other things, bin Laden was outraged by the presence of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia, his native land but more importantly the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; by U.S. support of Israel and indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians; and by the West’s (mainly America’s) getting for cheap the oil wealth of the Muslim lands—again, mainly from Saudi Arabia. (Bin Laden’s aims are explained in some detail in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America [2002] by Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit.) To be sure, the royal family of Saudi Arabia benefits from the arrangements as well (though most U.S. troops have been removed), but these are among bin Laden’s objectives that get little airing in the American media. We obviously do not condone the hyper-violent means that al Qaeda (“the base”) has taken to avenge these conditions, but what bin Laden has articulated are legitimate political grievances. Ignoring the widespread sense of injustice in the Arab and Muslim world only increases the likelihood of further radicalization and retribution. Especially after the revolution in Egypt, you can believe the Saudi royal family is nervous. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Do You Support Rep. Charles Rangel’s Call to Reinstate the Draft?

There is no draft, so there is little public outrage. Congressman Charlie Rangel, will you renew your calls to reinstate a draft that you voiced so eloquently during the George W. Bush administration? (He said so in mid 2010, according to the New York Post.) Rangel himself served four years in the army and was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in the Korean War. He has stated that if a war is just, then sharing the sacrifice across the society is the right thing to do. As he wrote in his memoir, And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since (2007):

As I arrived at the funeral of a young Dominican soldier in my district . . . I saw a dead soldier who was about twenty years old. He had on the same brown uniform . . . that I had worn with such swagger more than fifty years ago. When I saw how much he looked like me when I was his age, my knees buckled. . . . The sight of that young Dominican put me right back to my beginnings as cannon fodder in a questionable war.

If you support Congressman Rangel’s proposal to reinstate the draft—to let the entire population share in national service—let his office know: WDC: 202-225-4365; NYC: 212-663-3900. See also Andrew J. Bacevich’s Nation article “Unequal Sacrifice.”

Unless we know personally a soldier or family member of one, there is little likelihood we’re touched in our daily lives by this war that has been going on for ten years now. The Republicans support the war’s continuation more than the president does; all Obama has to worry about is an anti-war rebellion from his left, which does not appear imminent or even likely.

Gary Younge’s sad conclusion is, “It seems American soldiers are not so much dying for their country, but because of it.”

Meanwhile in the president’s 2012 budget request for the Defense Department rises slightly (FY2012 request: $553 billion; FY2011 request: $549 billion) while the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that helps the poor pay their heating bills is slated for a 56% reduction. Senator John Kerry urges Obama not to cut this funding. (Click here for White House Budget Fact Sheets.) And the “fiscally conservative” House Republicans are chopping away with their bloody meat-axes . . .

Cost of U.S. wars since 2001 (as of this writing): $1,152,657,735,123 | Iraq War: $774,428,779,902 | Afghan War: $378,229,244,523. Learn more at the National Priorities Project. See how fast the numbers rise.


Read these other Levees Not War posts on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (a selection):

Deeper into Afghanistan: 360 Degrees of Damnation

10th Year of Afghan War Begins

Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America

As Combat Troops Leave Iraq, Where’s Our National Security?

Afghanistan: More Insane Than a Quagmire

Declare Independence from Endless War

“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests

Omigod! Infinite Iraqi Freedom! We’re Never Leaving!


Black-and-white photographs above are by Platon from a portfolio on American soldiers and their families published in the Sept. 28, 2008, issue of The New Yorker. Top photo: Jessica Gray, whose husband, Staff Sergeant Yance Gray, was killed in Baghdad in 2007 while serving in the 82nd Airborne. Middle photo: Sergeant Tim Johanssen and his wife, Jacquelyne Kay, in a rehabilitation unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital. Bottom photo: Juan Casiano at the grave of his fiancée, Captain Maria Ines Ortiz, in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. [Subscription may be required to view the online portfolio.]





Who in America Remembers Afghanistan?