It seems that Barack Obama and John McCain are arguing over which war to fight. McCain says: Keep the troops in Iraq until we “win.” Obama says: Withdraw some (not all) troops from Iraq and send them to fight and “win” in Afghanistan.
As someone who has fought in a war (World War II) and since then has protested against war, I must ask: Have our political leaders gone mad? Have they learned nothing from recent history? Have they not learned that no one “wins” in a war, but that hundreds of thousands of human beings die, most of them civilians, many of them children?
Did we “win” by going to war in Korea? The result was a stalemate, leaving things as they were before: a dictatorship in South Korea, a dictatorship in North Korea—but more than two million people, mostly civilians, were dead, and we dropped napalm on children, and 50,000 American soldiers lost their lives.
Did we “win” in Vietnam? The answer is obvious. We were forced to withdraw, but only after two million Vietnamese died, again mostly civilians, again leaving children burned or armless or legless, and 58,000 American soldiers dead.
Did we “win” in the first Gulf War? Not really. Yes, we pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait with only a few hundred U.S. casualties, but we killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in the process. And the consequences were deadly for us: Saddam still in power, leading us to enforce economic sanctions that led to the deaths (according to U.N. officials) of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and setting the stage for another war.
In Afghanistan, we declared “victory” over the Taliban but the Taliban is back, with the attacks increasing, and our casualties in Afghanistan currently exceeding those in Iraq. What makes Obama think that sending more troops to Afghanistan will produce “victory”? And if it did, in an immediate military sense, how long would that last, and at what cost to human life on both sides?
The resurgence of fighting in Afghanistan is a good moment to reflect on the beginning of our involvement there. Let me offer some sobering thoughts to those who say, as many do: Attacking Iraq was wrong, but attacking Afghanistan was right.
Go back to 9/11. Hijackers direct jet planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing close to 3,000 people. A terrorist act, inexcusable by any moral code. The nation is aroused. President Bush orders the invasion and bombing of Afghanistan, and the American public is swept into approval by a wave of fear and anger. Bush announces a “war on terror.”
We are all (except for terrorists) against terror. So a war on terror sounds right. But there was a problem, which most Americans did not consider in the heat of the moment: We had no idea how to make war against terror; nor did Bush, despite his bravado.
Yes, Al Qaeda—a relatively small but ruthless group of fanatics—was apparently responsible. And there was evidence that its leaders, Osama Bin Laden and others, were based in Afghanistan. But we did not know exactly where. So we invaded and bombed the whole country. That made many people feel righteous: “We had to do something,” you heard people say.
Yes, we had to do something. But not thoughtlessly, not recklessly. Would we approve a police chief, who, knowing there was a vicious criminal somewhere in a neighborhood, ordered that the neighborhood be bombed? There was soon a civilian death toll in Afghanistan of over 3,000—exceeding the number of deaths on 9/11. Numerous Afghans were driven from their homes, turned into wandering refugees.
A Boston Globe reporter, two months after the invasion of Afghanistan, described a ten-year-old boy in a hospital bed: “He lost his eyes and hands to the bomb that hit his house after Sunday dinner.” The doctor attending him said, “The United States must be thinking he is Osama. If he is not Osama, then why would they do this?”
We should be asking the Presidential candidates: Is our war in Afghanistan, which both of them approve, ending terrorism, or provoking it? And is not war itself terrorism?
One might assume from the above that I see no difference between McCain and Obama, that I see them as equivalent. Not so. There is a difference, not a significant enough difference for me to have confidence in Obama as President, but just enough for me to vote for Obama and to hope he defeats McCain.
Whoever is President, the crucial factor for change will be how much agitation there is in the country on behalf of change. I am guessing that Obama may be more sensitive than McCain to such turmoil, since it will come from his supporters, from the enthusiasts who will register their disillusionment by taking to the streets. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a radical, but he was more sensitive to the economic crisis in the country and more susceptible to pressure from the Left than was Herbert Hoover.
Even for the “purest” of radicals, there must be recognition of differences that may mean life or death for thousands. In France at the time of the Algerian War, the election of DeGaulle—hardly an anti-imperialist but more aware of the inevitable decline of empires—was significant in ending that long and brutal occupation.
I have no doubt that by far the wisest, most reliable, with the most integrity, of all recent Presidential candidates is Ralph Nader. But I think it is a waste of his political strength, a puny act, to expend it in the electoral arena, where the result can show only weakness. His power, his intelligence, lies in the mobilization of people outside the ballot box.
So, yes, I will vote for Obama, because the corrupt political system offers me no choice, but only for the moment I pull down the lever in the voting booth.
Before and after that moment I want to use whatever energy I have to push him toward a recognition that he must defy the traditional thinkers and corporate interests surrounding him, and pay homage to the millions of Americans who want real change.
One more clarification. My lessons from history about the futility of “winning” should not be understood as meaning that what is wrong with our policy in Iraq is that we can’t “win.” It’s not that we can’t win. It’s that we shouldn’t win, because it’s not our country.
Published in The Progressive • October 7, 2008
Image: President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain • By Pete Souza • WikiCommons