Smart v. Stupid
Mission Accomplished—now come home
The killing of Osama Bin Laden is a defining moment in American life. In the coming days we will make a critical decision: Are we a nation at permanent war, or will our wars end when we achieve our goals. In other words, will we ever return to peace?
Almost nine in ten Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, after the ruling government refused to turn over Bin Laden. We had a practical and moral imperative to bring him to justice. The Taliban’s obstinacy left us no choice but to go get him ourselves. (Lest you think I’m being an opportunist here, I continuously supported the war until May 1st.)
Prior to their refusal to cooperate with us, the Taliban were a group of young, crazy-eyed fundamentalists that were most known for ill treatment of women and for blasting thousand year old relics into oblivion. “They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share in their fate,” then President Bush said. They were not, however, our enemies. They never attacked us. They never intended to. They were simply idiots.
A lot has changed in the last ten years. We have the largest career military in history and our intelligence services have grown maybe tenfold in size and budget. Over 850,000 people work in intelligence activities at 10,000 locations, according to the Washington Post. Over the last decade, no military leader has ever said, “Well maybe we ought to scale back. Enough is enough.” It’s simply not in the nature of the war fighter to stop until every last enemy is dead. That’s how we teach them to be. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that these career warfighters are not at all like the reluctant warriors of World War II. In that war, “amateur” volunteers and draftees were fighting to get back to their regular jobs. For today’s soldier, war is his or her job. And our career soldiers are almost universally high-achievers.
The other thing that always happens in during wartime is that grudges get made. Most of us are too old to remember “The Heinies.” Maybe you’re even too old to remember “The Gooks.” But I bet you remember “The Ragheads,” don’t you. And most everybody who ever fought those guys still holds some sort of grudge; it’s normal. But it is also a near guarantee of mission creep. And mission creep leads to permanent war. We attacked the Taliban on their home turf. They had it coming, sure. But it made us their enemy. They fought back—and it made them our enemy. The guy who is rotating back for the fourth time is going to kill some Taliban. When he went for the first time it was to kill Bin Laden.
So here we are at this defining moment in history. On one side, we have our large military—made up of career high achievers, and our intelligence services—now as fat as a new season of Biggest Losers. We have something like two thousand corporations that slurp up intelligence dollars like a flat-backed camel. We have congressmen who’ve come to rely on large intelligence industry contributions. And we have the chickenshits in the executive branch who’d rather be safe than sorry—even if it means permanently changing the fundamental character of America. They were all out in force this week singing a chorus of that old Carpenter’s song, “We’ve only just begun.”
All of this—both the noble and the ugly—provides great momentum for becoming a war nation. There are all sorts of rationalizations about honoring the troops and honoring the dead, about finishing the job and being ever vigilant. But the bottom line is that war-making now has a lot of mouths to feed.
What’s on the other side? Well, our memories. In our not so recent past, we managed to have the most powerful military in the world without also having it pull triggers every day. We managed to have the biggest defense in the world without bankrupting the country. And we managed to carry the biggest stick in the world without constantly having to crack someone’s head. We also have our experience. Since we started this war, all of our durable victories have come from regular police work, careful evidence gathering, drone attacks, and small, quiet kill operations. Ten years later, we haven’t had a single game-changing win on the battlefield.
It’s time to step back from our collective hysteria and apply some logic and some reasoning. Let’s hope, with Bin Laden dead, we can now muster our thoughtfulness. We are always at our most powerful when we don’t project our might. It’s time to start our return to being a nation focused on defending the peace. The first step is to come home from Afghanistan. Finally we can—and we should. Mission accomplished.
Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”