Farewell to all that

by Maria on October 26, 2014

The Union Jack came down in Camp Bastion today, marking the end of the UK’s combat role in Afghanistan and its misconceived campaign in Helmand Province; the campaign with no strategy, less chance of success and a gossamer-thin plan. It has come to a dignified end with a choir of establishment generals (is there any other kind?) and politicians serenely harmonising the nation’s oldest hymns; ‘mistakes were made’, and ‘perhaps we might have done it differently’.

Nineteen billion pounds. Twenty thousand Afghan civilians. Four hundred and fifty three UK soldiers. More Afghan National Army killed last summer than UK troops throughout the whole war. More poppy seed than ever growing in Helmand, but lots more children in school, too.

Was it worth it? Well if you’ve figured out a workable and not-obscene calculus of human pain and worthwhile profit, let the rest of us know.

I knew one of the four hundred and fifty three, but only superficially. He was deputed one autumn evening to squire me around the officers’ mess when E was already gone. He made sure I had drinks and was warm enough, saw me into the dining room, flirted chastely back and manfully ignored the younger women. It was like something out of Thackeray. Beautiful manners on the eve of battle.

The other senior wife and I went to his funeral, along with the welfare officer, representing the battalion. The men wouldn’t be home for months. As an Irish woman, I had never expected to be dressed in black, walking slowly through a seated congregation to a reserved pew at the front, next to a coffin with a Union Jack on. The gloves and belt were the hardest to look at. No one cried. Not obviously, anyway.

Later, driving through the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening, I rounded the corner of B-road to see the flag again, flying in someone’s garden. I had to pull over.

That’s not my flag and never will be. It’s just something someone I slightly knew died for.

{ 98 comments }

1

James 10.26.14 at 10:57 pm

This is beautiful, thanks.

2

Ronan(rf) 10.26.14 at 10:59 pm

I’m with James on that.

3

John Quiggin 10.26.14 at 11:17 pm

Thanks, Maria.

In response to your request for a benefit-cost calculus, I’m not sure I can meet the not-obscene requirement, but I worked out a while back that the US spent well over $20 million per Taliban member killed in the war. For domestic policy purposes, the value of a US life saved (for example, by improved road safety or medical interventions) is set at a little over $5 million. To spell this out, a policy proposal that is expected to save four lives a year will be accepted if the cost is less than $20 million a year, rejected if it is above that.

So, killing one Taliban in Afghanistan, with whatever secondary effects might flow from that, is considered by the US government to be of the same value, or more, as saving four Americans in the US.

I expect the numbers would come out similarly for the UK, Australian and other allied efforts.

I haven’t taken account of deaths and injuries among civilians or Coalition and Afghan troops: the initial calculation is depressing enough.

4

Anderson 10.26.14 at 11:23 pm

My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor.
No likely end could bring them loss,
Or leave them happier than before.

5

Michael Sprague 10.26.14 at 11:43 pm

John, I think it’s. trick question. Putting a monetary value on any human life seems obscene.

Maria, you tell a heartbreaking story briefly and beautifully.

Thank you.

6

MPAVictoria 10.26.14 at 11:49 pm

Beautiful. Thank you.

7

Watson Ladd 10.27.14 at 12:48 am

@JQ: One wonders what the cost-benefit analysis of D-Day was for the Americans. Or Gettysburg for the Union. Obscene doesn’t begin to cover this craven calculus.

Thank you for the beautiful post. It will be on my mind this November 11th, as we remember millions who died in a war truly pointless.

8

Tabasco 10.27.14 at 1:40 am

Mistakes were made, but it is possible to coherently argue that the war in Afghanistan was justified, at least initially.

Unlike Iraq, of course.

9

Glen Tomkins 10.27.14 at 1:41 am

“establishment generals (is there any other kind?) “

Actually there is, Bonaparte and Cromwell and suchlike. Bad as it is to have generals who go along with whatever fool schemes such as the Afghanistan venture the politicians set them to, it’s even worse when the generals stop taking orders from the establishment.

10

john c. halasz 10.27.14 at 2:26 am

JQ @3:

I think you’ve missed something. The cost of 1 Toyota pick-up with machine gun mount, maybe $40,000; the cost of 1 bomber flight to take out said pickup, $500,000. Maybe you might see how the relative “opportunity costs”, since we civilized people value human life so much more than those barbarians, doesn’t favor our imperial-military adventures.

GT @ 9: Oh dear! You’re bordering on a Godwin’s law violation there.

11

Collin Street 10.27.14 at 2:31 am

> Putting a monetary value on any human life seems obscene.

Putting a monetary value on anything gives that result. It’s an inherent problem with “money”, in a world with income disparity [and if you can guarantee no income disparity what you have isn’t what we call “money”.] . It shows up particularly harshly with human life, yes, but it’s not that much less harsh when you’re talking about putting a monetary value on shelter, on food, on health care, or even on “luxuries” like holidays or hobbies or entertainment expenses.

The finite value of human life is pretty inescapable — opportunity cost if nothing else — but any yardstick we use to compare the “worth” of choices is pretty much isomorphic with “money”. It’s not “money”, really, it’s value-measured-in-money. Money’s a pretty terrible yardstick for value, but that’s just ’cause money is terrible all around rather than a problem in this particular use.

12

dn 10.27.14 at 3:07 am

What Colin said. The idea that incommensurable things can somehow be equated is one of our most basic delusions. (It really ought to be obvious, when you think about it. What would be the point of economic exchange if different goods of the same price were actually equivalent in any real sense?)

Thanks for the OP; it really made me pause.

13

dsquared 10.27.14 at 3:55 am

I will push back on behalf of economists on this “obscene” thing. We measure the effort and resources we use on our various purposes in terms of money. Saving lives or preventing deaths costs in terms of time, labour and resources. Decisions have to be made about what we are going to do. Any such decision function is either going to have a specific level of time and effort that is worth expending (which it will be possible to convert into money), or it is going to be arbitrary and inconsistent. If you want to avoid the “obscene” practice of being serious about costs and benefits, you end up with (to take a random example) a system that will spend millions on extending lives by six months on a ventilator, while not spending ten bucks on a mosquito net.

Living in a modern society while affecting vapours at the concept of costs-benefit analysis and quality-adjusted life years is exactly like tucking into a nice big plate of liver sausage while regarding the pork butcher as unclean – there are plenty of systems of morality, and indeed major world religions, which support this approach of hiding and despising the necessary work while keeping one’s own fragile purity, but they’re all wrong.

14

Rich Puchalsky 10.27.14 at 4:08 am

“Living in a modern society while affecting vapours at the concept of costs-benefit analysis”

I’ve never seen a cost-benefit analysis that wasn’t easily manipulable to get whatever result the person doing the analysis wanted to get. The *concept* of CBA may or may not be obscene, but the actual practice of it generally is a way for elite interests with the resources to hire people to do CBAs to override regulatory decisions they don’t like. And in particular, the ventilator / mosquito net kind of comparison used as an example is nearly always trotted out to say that the ventilator has to go, not that we should buy mosquito nets.

15

js. 10.27.14 at 4:22 am

This is a wonderful piece. Thank you.

16

dsquared 10.27.14 at 4:43 am

The *concept* of CBA may or may not be obscene, but the actual practice of it generally is a way for elite interests with the resources to hire people to do CBAs to override regulatory decisions they don’t like.

Also not really true. Possibly the biggest user of cost benefit analyses and valuations on human life is the National Institute for Clinical Excellence of the NHS. The rhetoric of referring to them as “death panels” where “elites” make life or death decisions is usually only indulged in by people who, for whatever reason, want to support a market-based system (in which, of course, nobody has to do anything as squalid or obscene as put a value on a human life as the rationing takes place at a different stage)

17

Meredith 10.27.14 at 5:17 am

I come to this after happening upon someone who was raised (or one of his parents was) Quaker but who fought in the U.S. Civil War. He started for me as an 11-year-old boy in NYC in 1850, with a sister and a widowed mother who took in boarders (including, intriguingly, an inter-racial couple). He didn’t have any history after that except enlistment in 1861, service at Fredericksburg mentioned, a rise during his continuous service from 1861-1864 to first lieutenant. And then the gut-wrenching answer to that military form question: Survived War? No.
His name was James Yardley. He lived. Far too briefly.

18

Thornton Hall 10.27.14 at 5:35 am

We all are eating and crapping rationalizing machines, aren’t we d-squared?

19

Belle Waring 10.27.14 at 6:22 am

FIRSTLY: You guys, it may seem crass to assign monetary values to human lives, but it’s idiotic to pretend a) we don’t live in a society that does it (this is how lawsuits against companies for manufacturing defects work, also, insurance anyone?) b) it isn’t beneficial sometimes (wow, maybe we should spend $10 on that mosquito net if we value the lives of foreign citizens at even 1/100th that of US citizens. Huh. Strangely compelling.) c) we don’t personally benefit from it (this is how the government decides to put rails on the side of a road, or not, in part (I grant that sheer drops make their own compelling cases)). Seriously, how do you think people sue GM for accidents caused by car defects? Pain and suffering, but also there is a simple value attached to people’s lives. Naturally there is no amount of money at all that could make up for the loss of a loved one in reality, but in the world of law there is a remedy.

SECONDLY: if this moving post serves merely as a catalyst for a 78-comment long dick-swinging thread in which male commenters argue about whether economists are evil because they think people are just, like, worth money, man, I WILL BE VERY DISPLEASED. This was beautiful, thank you Maria.

20

derrida derider 10.27.14 at 6:38 am

Yes this was beautiful. But surely part of our reaction to this should be anger at those who made the decision. Power and accountability are supposed to go together, but it is amazing how in practice power means never having to say you’re sorry (Exhibit A: that foul hypocrite Tony Blair). In fact I suspect for many powerful people that is exactly why they seek power so ardently.

And I’m for a CBA here because even a crude one is a good guide to just how angry we should be.

21

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 6:47 am

Saving lives or preventing deaths costs in terms of time, labour and resources. Decisions have to be made about what we are going to do. Any such decision function is either going to have a specific level of time and effort that is worth expending (which it will be possible to convert into money), or it is going to be arbitrary and inconsistent.

When two people agree to a sale, one of them values the item bought more than he values the money while the other values the money more than what he sells. If they don’t have this difference of opinion, why should they bother to make the exchange?

When someone decides how much money the government should be willing to spend to save a life, he is making a choice which might very well be arbitrary and inconsistent. And it is arbitrary and probably inconsistent to decide that all lives are worth the same. It makes a certain kind of sense to estimate the probable future lifespan of each life, and devote more resources to the ones that are likely to live longer if saved. If one intervention will on average save 60 years of life while another will save 1 year, why consider them the same value?

It makes a different kind of sense to estimate the future cost of each life saved. If one life saved can be expected to cost $10,000/year in future interventions, while another will probably cost only $100/year, why not put the resources where they do the most good?

And in yet a different context doesn’t it make sense to estimate the future earnings of each life saved, and put more effort into the lives that are likely to pay off the most? Or maybe instead of future earnings we should consider their likely future tax payments, independent of their income. Why should rich people who don’t in fact pay taxes get special treatment?

These choices are maybe not quite arbitrary, each could represent some sort of philosophy about what’s worth doing, about what should be valued. When government bureaucrats actually make the choices they might in fact be arbitrary, though.

Still, once we have made our choices, the system gives us a way to compare alternatives. Given a choice between a fancy new medical machine that assists a collection of esoteric diagnoses, versus a hundred thousand mosquito nets, we can estimate the number of lives saved by both and make our choice. Or perhaps in place of the mosquito nets we can look for ways to eliminate the particular mosquitoes that carry disease. Or find a way to make people less susceptible. (I once read that if you take megadoses of vitamin B1 mosquitoes won’t bite you. Another unattributed source claimed the same for vitamin B12. I tried taking both, and in one case where a companion got hundreds of bites I got two. It might work.) There might be an infinite number of proposals that could be made to improve people’s health, but of the finite number that will actually be considered we can estimate which are likely to be best.

Ideally we would actually test a collection of alternatives and notice how much they decrease mortality in practice. Of course, it’s *very expensive* to do that testing, and we must somehow estimate how much improvement we get by going to the expense of testing the alternatives, versus going ahead and making improvements that we are reasonably sure will work.

It turns into a giant optimization problem, precisely the sort of problem that economists say that nobody can ever solve even with giant computers. The only way to solve this is with a market. Let everybody buy whatever they want, and they will automatically improve their survival as much as they want to. It’s the only possible foolproof way to optimize anything and everything.

Except, before we believe that, shouldn’t we do great big controlled tests to demonstrate that it’s true? What if it doesn’t in fact work in practice? What if taking megadoses of B1 and B12 keeps me from getting mosquito bites but increases my susceptibility to cancer? What if it turns out that in practice there’s no possible way to tell whether we are doing good on average in the big picture, that by the time we find out whether we are doing good we will have died of old age?

Sometimes I lie in bed and think about things like that at 2 AM, but usually I don’t post at 2 AM.

22

ZM 10.27.14 at 7:35 am

“That’s not my flag and never will be. It’s just something someone I slightly knew died for.”

Very sad.

It reminds me of a chapter in a book on the colonial encounter in Pacific history I once read. I can not remember which book it was, but I will recount the story to the best of my memory.

The Maori people in New Zealand were more of a warrior people than the indigenous people in Australia, and while there was fighting against colonisation. in both countries the Maori were more practiced at warfare I am told.

A Maori warrior chief closely observed the doings of the Pakeha (the white settlers), and watching them for a long time he saw the great rituals that the Pakeha had connecting relations to land and people with the flag they flew. In the Pakeha village there was a most important flag on a very tall mast.

The Maori warrior chief had fought many battles before, and he had a keen mind to plan attacks. And he gathered his men together and told them his observations of the great flag ritual and his plan to capture the flag and therefore have the land returned to the Maori people.

The men were very valorous, and led by the warrior chief they attacked the Pakeha village , and although men died the Maori men captured the Pakeha flag. Once they captured the great honored flag the Maoris were certain the land was once again their own, and the Pakeha would surrender honorably.

But the Pakeha were very cunning people, and although the flag was captured they kept fighting the Maori men. And the Pakeha had many strange strong weapons, and with these weapons they killed many Maori men. For the Pakeha did not associate land ownership only with the flying of their flag, but with what force they could use to overcome any others.

23

cassander 10.27.14 at 7:59 am

@Tabasco

>Mistakes were made, but it is possible to coherently argue that the war in Afghanistan was justified, at least initially.
Unlike Iraq, of course.

If Afghanistan was justified, it was justified because of the awfulness of the taliban government and its many human rights abuses, right? If so, then the far worse record of the Butcher of Baghdad means that the Iraq War was more justified, not less.

24

John Quiggin 10.27.14 at 8:33 am

Eisenhower got this right more than fifty years ago

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

25

chris y 10.27.14 at 9:20 am

Thank you, Maria.

Also, what Belle said at 19. That is all.

26

Ronan(rf) 10.27.14 at 10:47 am

“If Afghanistan was justified, it was justified because of the awfulness of the taliban government and its many human rights abuses, right?”

No, it was justified as a war against a group based in Afghanistan who had attacked the US.

27

Lindsay Berge 10.27.14 at 11:05 am

Perhaps being an Australian with our long history of misguided engagements in wars in the service of imperial powers (Boer War, Boxer Rebellion, First World War, Korean War, Malayan Emergency, Indonesian Confrontation, Vietnam War, Iraq First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq Second Gulf War, bombing ISIS now) leads me to be skeptical about the ‘died for the flag’ trope. Australian soldiers actually fought under the Union Flag or the Red Ensign until the Korean war. The flag seems more a convenient way to identify the country of origin, like at the Olympics. I never hear ‘they competed for their flag’ but rather ‘they competed for their country’.
The real motivation seems to be service to their country in the abstract and to ‘not let your mates down’ in the particular.
This would imply to me a heavy responsibility on the political leadership to weigh the costs carefully and not spend the lives of soldiers needlessly. I do not see this happening historically or currently. Lions led by asses indeed.
Finally, the words of the Ode read at Anzac Day ceremonies all around Australia
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

28

Collin Street 10.27.14 at 11:07 am

> No, it was justified as a war against a group based in Afghanistan who had attacked the US.

It’s a dessert wax and a floor topping.

29

Ronan(rf) 10.27.14 at 11:13 am

@28 – I dont know. The Talibans human rights record had basically nothing to do with it, afaict. Maybe cassander is saying that to him/her it was justified b/c of their human rights abuses, but it’s not how the war was deemed legitimate or close to a primary reason it was fought ( although it might be how it was marketed at times – again, afaik)
Anyway, it’s perhaps off topic so Ill leave it there.

30

Ronan(rf) 10.27.14 at 11:15 am

..although to be honest @28, I didnt really understand your comment (which was pretty cryptic) so am assuming you meant something like ‘it can be two things at once.’

31

david 10.27.14 at 11:25 am

does the Korean War or the Malayan Emergency count as misguided?

32

Lindsay Berge 10.27.14 at 11:28 am

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH by WILFRED OWEN

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
—Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

33

Bloix 10.27.14 at 12:14 pm

Extraordinary post, Maria. Thanks very much for writing it.

I happen to be in London and staying in a hotel near the Tower of London this week. Last night the streets around the Tower were filled with people visiting the special exhibits and ceremonies for the 100th anniversary of WWI. The television presenters and even the reporter covering the closing of Camp Bastion are all wearing little paper-and-plastic commemorative poppies.

34

ajay 10.27.14 at 12:22 pm

The television presenters and even the reporter covering the closing of Camp Bastion are all wearing little paper-and-plastic commemorative poppies.

The poppies are not specifically for the 100th anniversary of WW1, which in any case is almost two months ago now, but for the upcoming Remembrance Day commemoration of war dead in general. The poppies will be almost universal by Remembrance Sunday itself (the closest Sunday to Armistice Day, 11 November) as they are every year. Apologies if you knew this already.

(The idiotic thing about JQ’s ludicrous cost-per-Talib-killed comment 3 is that it assumed that the only objective of the intervention was to kill Taliban.)

35

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 12:40 pm

36

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 12:42 pm

#34 ajay

(The idiotic thing about JQ’s ludicrous cost-per-Talib-killed comment 3 is that it assumed that the only objective of the intervention was to kill Taliban.)

That’s an important point. Like for example, how can we put a cost on stimulating the economy?

37

Collin Street 10.27.14 at 1:04 pm

(The idiotic thing about JQ’s ludicrous cost-per-Talib-killed comment 3 is that it assumed that the only objective of the intervention was to kill Taliban.)

For a C/B forecast, you use the benefits you expect to get. For a retrospective analysis, generally it’s more useful to limit yourself to the benefits you actually got.

38

Joshua W. Burton 10.27.14 at 1:20 pm

Now it is not good for the Christian’s health to hustle the Aryan brown,
For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the Christian down;
And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Is there any reasonable measure by which this has not been a more favorable engagement for the UK than the first three Anglo-Afghan wars? Auckland’s folly killed at least ten times as many Britons; Kipling’s General “Bobs” about the same, and the less said about 1919 the better. Furthermore, they had much less excuse: officers in those days had actually read Alexander the Great’s campaigns.

39

Ronan(rf) 10.27.14 at 1:27 pm

@35 – it’s not available in my region, but I see I misread dessert for desert

40

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 1:27 pm

I coulda sworn somebody above mentioned the Americanization of Emily. The post is indeed quite remarkable.

Leaving aside the intense and enduring admiration and affection apparently engendered at the white-gloved studied professionalism of an assigned escort, the innocence regained and renewed and expressed so clearly in the post was a large part of the point and purpose of the high manners of the Victorian officer and gentleman of the Imperialist patriarchal period. I understand the Prussians were especially dashing and courtly, and sported romantic dueling scars. It wasn’t for each other.

“Oh, I so very much hate war, but you look so very grand in your full dress uniform.”
“Thank you missy, you give me the courage I need to go slaughter the wogs. I’ll remember the look in your eyes.”

41

Joshua W. Burton 10.27.14 at 1:37 pm

Of course, if (bizarre counterfactual!) we ever got serious about Afghanistan, the solution wouldn’t involve a land war in Asia. Just turn Archer Daniels Midland loose on the agronomic problem of $10/kg domestic heroin, and in a few years the Dakotas will look like Holland and Chinese civil engineers will be restoring the Bamiyan Buddhas for the tourist trade.

42

soru 10.27.14 at 1:49 pm

@37: true.

Life expectancy in Afghanistan went from 55 in 2001 to 61 in 2013, over a population of 30 million. So perhaps 3 million net lives saved, at a cost of something like 800 billion dollars. Which is something like $266,000 or life, or 1/20 of the value usually used for a US life.

Which is of course massively higher than the amount the US is willing to pay for people on the other side of the planet without any special historical ties. Hence the war’s unpopularity, and why it’s stopping.

Of course, it probably would have improved comparably had the Taliban been left in power, at least given aid and favorable trade terms. Which no doubt is what would have happened with no 9/11.

Thing is, given 9/11 did happen, a more politically realistic alternative would have been destroying the Afghan government and ignoring the resulting civil war. While that would have saved much of the cost of the war, you’d likely end up with a direct death toll of single-digit millions, massive refugee flows, and a general lost decade or two of development.

Can’t really work out the figures in that case, but it’s not particular obvious it is below any other way of spending that much money (you can’t usefully buy $800 billion of mosquito nets).

43

Glen Tomkins 10.27.14 at 2:33 pm

Don’t blame the generals, and don’t blame any part of the military-industrial complex for the fact that modern democracies keep getting into these obviously foolish wars. Just as PT Barnum instructed us that no one ever went broke underestimating the American people, it is a simple fact that getting into one of these wars is always good at winning votes.

Sure, after the initial fear of the enemy wears off, the voters can turn on you as the butcher’s bill mounts. But even that dynamic has an automatic negative feedback mechanism, because the more of “our boys” the enemy kills, the more evil and threatening they obviously must be. If our losses are truly staggering, on the level of WWII, say, public support will never wane, a continuing war will always get you re-elected. The problem that our leaders since WWII have faced is that a war of choice — which is the only sort, by definition, you can choose as an electoral strategy — is inherently a war against an enemy that isn’t very threatening, and can’t generate a butcher’s bill sufficient to keep your electorate terrified indefinitely.

So, yes, the electoral bump you get from these wars of choice has a sell-by date. But that’s years off, and what politician thinks more than one election cycle ahead?

Actually, let’s hope we don’t get politicians who think long-term about this dynamic. This is basically how geopolitics in 1984 works. The folks running the three world empires have figured out that the way to stay on top domestically is to manage perpetual war among the empires. The enemy is strong enough that the homeland is always in actual danger of conquest, and there is always a large butcher’s bill of crimes they have committed by killing “our boys”. All three regimes lean on wars with each other to keep their people permanently terrified into absolute loyalty.

Blair and Dubya, in contrast, were pikers and amateurs. They quit too soon, didn’t press forward into an unending sequence of the invasion of ever more countries, ever more actually threatening countries, to replace the terror that the last invasion victim failed to keep up by falling to conquest with such miserable ease, at such low cost. Had Dubya gone into Iran, it would have paid much better dividends. Iran, unlike Iraq, actually had something of an international reach, and anything that Iran managed to do on US soil would have been so much better at terrifying the US electorate, that the Rs would still be in power. And Iran would actually have been difficult to occupy, and probably have generated a much more effective insurgency, and thus better butcher’s bill.

We need to do something about this dynamic before we get somebody like Dubya again in the White House. Next time it could be someone with more foresight and a better work ethic. I can’t think of anything better than the Nuremberg solution, myself. But I offer this caveat, that the possibility of not leaving the Chancellery alive was very much on Hitler’s mind from the start, and even that didn’t deter him. The hope is that they would have trouble finding helpers equally bloody-minded, so I guess we are back to holding generals accountable.

44

J Thomas 10.27.14 at 2:34 pm

#42 soru

Life expectancy in Afghanistan went from 55 in 2001 to 61 in 2013, over a population of 30 million. So perhaps 3 million net lives saved, at a cost of something like 800 billion dollars. Which is something like $266,000 or life, or 1/20 of the value usually used for a US life.

It’s hard for me to trust numbers coming out of a war zone. (Of course I do accidentally tend to trust them when they confirm my preconceptions, or when they support my arguments. I’m distressingly normal that way.)

I tend not to trust numbers provided by the Afghan government which is probably not very good at collecting them, or numbers provided by the US military which must consider propaganda against citizens as part of the war effort, or numbers by WHO who being mostly unarmed is not good at getting answers from regions at war where people don’t trust strangers.

But the Afghan economy is optimisticly listed at $20 billion for 2013, and how much of that involves sales to foreign forces, or sales of items pilfered from foreign forces, or items recovered from foreign forces’ garbage? We can’t bomb Afghanistan from local airbases without creating a thriving local economy. How much of that will go away when we quit?

It’s hard to be sure what our $800 billion has accomplished. Probably some of the effects will be strictly transient. But how many, and which ones? The immunizations will last a lifetime, that part is entirely a plus.

45

Bloix 10.27.14 at 2:59 pm

#40 – the original post expressed every bit of the self-awareness and irony that you obtusely believe needed to be supplied. And you owe Maria an apology for the implicit insult of the “missy.”

46

Roger Gathmann 10.27.14 at 6:54 pm

This was a very elegantly done post, Maria. Every life cut short should mourned in those notes.
But myself, I don’t think your question allows for the ambiguity with which you surround it:

Was it worth it? Well if you’ve figured out a workable and not-obscene calculus of human pain and worthwhile profit, let the rest of us know.”

This unfortunately depoliticizes a very political issue. I think the answer should be an unambiguous no. The soldiers, the Afghans, they died in vain. The US should, in retrspect, have negotiated with the Taliban in 2001 over the offer to have Osama bin Laden stand trial in some Islamic country. There was never a good reason to invade Afghanistan, and after occupying the country, to occupy it with maximum vileness, tortures all around, etc. If we are to use children schooled as a measure to obscure children’s parents displaced or killed, our measures are out of whack.
To my mind, that the Coalition troops have been in Helmand province for thirteen years overturns the terms in which you ask your question utterly. It is mad. I can’t imagine that your experience of the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening would have been the same if the situation were reversed – if Afghan troops were withdrawing from there after thirteen years of occupation, leaving behind 20 ooo plus Wiltshire dead. Somehow, I think there would be a keener anger at it all, there would be more than a little scent of blood in that gold dusk – rather than the kind of exhaustion that gives this event an air of inevitability.
It wasn’t inevitable. And the obscenity to me is that it happened, and happened for a long, long stretch, longer than the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

47

gianni 10.27.14 at 7:07 pm

Count me among those who found this very touching. I always find it remarkable how something so situated and timely like the OP, or like the Wilfred Owen poem above, can end up evoking such universal and timeless feelings.

48

MPAVictoria 10.27.14 at 7:20 pm

“#40 – the original post expressed every bit of the self-awareness and irony that you obtusely believe needed to be supplied. And you owe Maria an apology for the implicit insult of the “missy.””

You are completely right Bloix. Bob has been making an ass of himself to female posters/commenters for years and he is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

49

Thornton Hall 10.27.14 at 7:37 pm

My reading of the post was a hopeful one: what does it take for an Irish woman to mourn rather than celebrate the death of an English soldier? Not very much.

The bigger hope is for peace on Earth. In causal terms, that is accomplished when we bestow the moral status of “brother”or tribe member on every human being.

The urgency of that goal is why I get equally upset with animal rights and Tea Party activists: so much energy wasted either trying to bring other species into our tribe or trying to mark out the tribal lines ever more clearly.

It’s why I get so upset about the use of the word “ideology” to describe false dogma. We can be in the same tribe when they realize they were mistaken, but to have an equally valid, competing ideology is to be forever another tribe. That, of course, is related to my frustration with “don’t judge anyone” San Francisco liberalism: judging is required to discriminate against the wrong headed “values” or “subjective ways of experiencing the world” that are incompatible with being in the same tribe.

This is not a wish for homogenation. Rather, the judgment that separates the differences that are the spice of life from those differences that divide. Not every difference is “a valuable cultural inheritance.”

It is also what drives my anger at economists, but I’ll leave that for another day.

50

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 8:03 pm

48: Malicious insubstantial twit, ask Robin and Holbo if I am so selective.

I got fed up with “Big Daddy Warbucks killed my pretty lad and I’ll never ever forgive them” somewhere around the time Obsidian Wings established their permanent sacred Andrew Olmsted Shrine. The memorial was oh so beautifully sad, especially since anger was moderated away. Anger is so ugly, don’t you think? I wasn’t invited since I metaphorically spit on Olmsted as he boarded the plane.

7 goddamn years ago. 13 years since the start of the last war, and who knows how long before the start of the next one. How’s these beautiful sentiments working out?

The goal is to get them to desert as in the threads below, cause it sure don’t look like anybody wants to do what it takes to stop the wars. Best bet is to make it uglier to serve than to desert, and that’s a lot of ugly. “Nothing to come home to” is a good slogan, better than the woman’s “on your shield” I don’t have anything much to bribe or threaten with, but Aristophanes came up with an idea 2500 years ago. Not that anyone cares enough to give it a try. Widow’s weeds and pension ain’t so bad. People give you compliments.

51

Andrew F. 10.27.14 at 8:07 pm

John’s CBA fails the “workable” part of the criteria. Reduction of such a complicated affair to Taliban-Killed / Dollars, which can then be multiplied by Dollars / American-Life to give us Taliban-Killed / American-Life, does seem absurd.

But it’s not absurd because CBA is in itself obscene, or because we should not seek to recognize tradeoffs that military expenditures can force upon us.

The absurdity can be recognized by first seeing that the “benefits” here aren’t encompassed by “Taliban killed.” The measure of success in Afghanistan is not, and has never been, calibrated to the number of Taliban personnel killed. Killing Taliban was sometimes a means to an end, but was not an end in itself. Indeed, were it an end, were that the “benefit” sought, operations in Afghanistan would have been considerably simpler and would have ended considerably earlier.

Unfortunately the false simplicity of such a CBA is replaced in reality with a strategic and political fog. The initial and most essential objective in Afghanistan was the destruction of AQ in Afghanistan and the continued denial of Afghanistan as a safe haven for any AQ seeking to return or regenerate. And to that was added the more ambitious objectives of a counterinsurgency and nation-building effort, conceived at first as intermediary goals, which exerted a gravity of their own upon coalition efforts.

So what benefits should we look at to measure against costs? We can note progress against infant mortality (93 in 2001 to 70 in 2013), maternal mortality (1100 in 2000 to 400 in 2013), and various other health and welfare related improvements. We can note the fivefold increase in the number of students in school, with an even greater proportional increase in the number of female students. We can note the fact of an elected government (with plenty of flaws), with trained military and security forces, which may prove effective with continued foreign support. We can note the fact that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for AQ or any other international terrorist organization (though it’s simply not safe, period, in many areas).

Ultimately in Afghanistan the stated objectives stretched beyond the interest of the public, or its representatives, in supporting the effort required to reach them. But, the most essential objectives of the US and the UK were accomplished. And though the more ambitious objectives were never fully attained, and it remains to be seen whether the progress won will be sustained, the sacrifices of war were made valiantly in the pursuit of goals upon which not just any Briton or American, but any human being, ought place the greatest value.

Can we reconcile the good that was accomplished, with the costs, into a neat accounting, obscene or otherwise? No – of course not. How much is another week with one’s child, or a lifetime without paralysis, worth? We can own the mistakes with hindsight, resolve to do better, and in our appreciation of the causes and reasons for their sacrifices, and in the choices we make in the future, honor the wounded and the lost.

That, at least, is the only way that I can begin to make sense of it.

52

Lynne 10.27.14 at 8:24 pm

Bob McManus, did you just call MPAV a malicious, insubstantial twit? Nice.

53

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 8:30 pm

52: Did I mispell something?

54

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 8:37 pm

Here’s more Wilfred Owen

Send Off

” Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.”

and from “Disabled”

“It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why . . .
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join.”

But this is a bitter misogynist, so unreliable narrator

“Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.”

Probably a “nice guy” huh, but not much of a worry without his legs.

55

MPAVictoria 10.27.14 at 9:09 pm

I refuse to get drawn into an argument bob. This piece isn’t the place.

56

Tom Slee 10.27.14 at 9:19 pm

bob mcmanus’s contributions here are depressing. You have given the post the most uncharitable reading possible, added your own offensive crap on top (suggesting it’s implicit in the original) and then adopted a self-righteously sarcastic pose and resorted to name calling. It is beyond me what you get out of such a performance.

And I think most readers here will know their Wilfred Owen, whose humanitarian outlook is far more present in the original post than in mcmanus’s comments.

57

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 10:01 pm

Yeah, whatever. Y’all are pretty and kind, I’m ugly and cruel, the dead are in their honored graves, and the war goes on and on. I shouldn’t break this daisy chain of mutual absolution. It’s what wakes are all about. Couldn’t be helped, not my fault, ain’t it a shame.

See you next war.

58

bob mcmanus 10.27.14 at 10:45 pm

bob mcmanus’s contributions here are depressing.

Depressing, goodness, how inappropriate for this subject matter.

Well, I teared up a little on first reading, but after skipping the idiotic cost-benefit comments, noted all the comments saying “Beautiful beautiful beautiful” and wondered if the aestheticization of war grief death and guilt was implicit in the OP to garner such reactions. I can only presume that those saying it was beautiful were honest and insightful.

And Wilfred Owen was many things (including possibly misogynist, but hell, even the Pankhursts…) but if anything was his theme, a rage against the aestheticization of war might be central to his matter and form. He made an effort to be not pretty. And never self-serving.

59

ChrisB 10.27.14 at 10:49 pm

A nod to Kipling….
a slight update of http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_arith.htm

Economics on the Frontier

A great and glorious thing it is
To learn, for fifteen years or so,
The Lord knows what of that and this,
To make us fit to face the foe–
The flying bullet down the Pass,
That whistles clear “All flesh is grass.”

Ten thousand bucks per annum spent
To build an educated man
Who goes with soldierly intent
To fight a war in Uruzgan,
Where Talibs think rewards in heaven
Await the stars of 9/11.

An active service situation —
A ground patrol just moving off–
Ninety grand of education
Dropped by an old Kalashnikov-
Shot like a spotlit kangaroo
Despite that quick course in Pashtu.

No proposition Euclid wrote,
No formulae the textbooks know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow.
Strike hard who cares–shoot straight who can–
The odds are on the cheaper man.

One plastic bag of poppy grout
Will pay for all madrasah fees
Of any lad from Tarin Kowt
Who never learned his ABCs
But being blessed with perfect sight
Picks off our Diggers left and right.

With home-bred hordes the hillsides boil,
The big planes bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and toil,
To slay jihadis where they run,
Although insurgents are, I fear
As cheap–alas! as we are dear.

60

Andrew F. 10.27.14 at 10:56 pm

bob @57, would you agree that sometimes in relentlessly seeking to discover a deeper political dimension to every human interaction, we can miss important elements of reality? I say this without seeking to draw you into an argument as to whether you’ve done so here and have thereby dismissed unintentionally something important. I’m simply raising the possibility for your consideration, and won’t engage with you further on the matter.

61

Roger Gathmann 10.27.14 at 11:31 pm

I hope this post will be followed up with others about Afghanistan. I think a round robin about No good man among the living, Anand Gopal’s book, would be a good topic for a talk and I imagine Gopal would love to do a CT book event.
Here’s a good review:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/nov/06/afghanistan-shocking-indictment/?insrc=hpma

62

Rich Puchalsky 10.27.14 at 11:53 pm

One of my poems.

63

Ronan(rf) 10.28.14 at 12:10 am

I’m no Renaissance Man, but always liked this from Wislawa Szymborska

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/could-have-5/

64

novakant 10.28.14 at 12:17 am

I’ll just say that I can see were bob mcm is coming from.

65

Bloix 10.28.14 at 2:27 am

The common poppy – a close relation to the poppy that grows in Helmand – is a weed whose seeds lie dormant until the surrounding soil is cleared of vegetation – by fire, say, or by flood. Then it shoots up quickly and its flashy flowers attract pollinating insects before other plants can compete for space and light. This was a pretty good evolutionary strategy until human beings developed agriculture, and then it became a truly superb strategy, so good that the plant is known as the corn rose for its ubiquitous presence in plowed fields.

In 1914, the poppies found other favorable terrain: the newly turned dirt of graveyards studded with wooden markers. The Canadian army doctor John McCrae wrote about them: In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/between the crosses, row on row/that mark our place.

Like Owen, McCrae didn’t survive the war – he died of pneumonia contracted in a battlefield hospital.

But in its intent his poem is about as un-Owen-like as can be imagined. It was a pro-war poem, urging young men to enlist – “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch” – and by putting words into the mouths of those lying in the temporary graves it encouraged the reader to deny the reality of their deaths.

Still, there is something about those opening lines that expresses the futility of death in war in spite of the author’s intent. I believe that the modern meaning of the poppy invokes that reaction while leaving the more pressing questions unanswered. I think there is nothing wrong with remembering the dead with the full awareness that others who do so may disagree vehemently over the necessity of their deaths.

Owen himself wanted to be remembered. In his poem “With an Identity Disc”- the WWI version of dog-tags – he wrote:

But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But may thy heart-beat kiss it night and day,
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

And if you visit the website of the Wilfred Owen Association, you will be greeted on the home page by the image of a poppy.

66

Omega Centauri 10.28.14 at 3:16 am

It was easy to feel good about the Afghan adventure for about the first year. I remember all those predictions back in 2001, about the probable death-toll from the combination of drought plus Taliban miss-rule (a couple million if I remember properly). So at first, I have to think we saved quite a few people. But then our almost absolute incompetence, I think I’d like to call it anti-competence as occupiers began to shine through. We just couldn’t overcome the cultural differences, and would misinterpret celebratory gunfire at weddings, as an attack, with deadly consequences. And we were completely gulible to whomever would deem to give us information about our eneimies, oftentimes we were dupped into attacking/imprisoning/torturing those who had been on our side, but for whom someone wanted us to do their dirty work for. Did anyone think to research and instruct everyone we sent over there on the proper way to treat the Quran? Instead we would just let contractors follow their instints, with tragic consequences.. And on and on and on. So the whole thing just went south, but we never wanted to admit any mistakes, so we would pretend everything we did was for the better and done heroically. With such self-deception comes the inability to recognize that we are doing no one any good over there, so we stay and stay and stay….

Now obviously we didn’t go over there for humanitarian intervention. It was really the emotional/ hence political need to bomb someone for 9-11. But at first it looked like we would do the Afghans a lot of good.

67

ZM 10.28.14 at 3:52 am

“Now obviously we didn’t go over there for humanitarian intervention. It was really the emotional/ hence political need to bomb someone for 9-11. But at first it looked like we would do the Afghans a lot of good.”

In Australia our defense minister told the newspaper one day when he was unusually honest that oil was a big factor in the middle eastern wars. And our former opposition leader who had the defense portfolio too often wrote a paper on how the two gulf wars and other middle eastern wars were consistent with us middle eastern strategy from the 1980s when he was defense minister and got a phone call from a U.S. official getting to agree Australia would be an ally in US activities in the middle east.

Emotion after September 11 may have weakened US public opposition – but I do not think it was the driving factor behind us actions taken at the high defense level – strategy was already in place.

68

Peter T 10.28.14 at 5:30 am

Lovely post Maria. I can’t add more than a few random thoughts. Cost Benefit? As D2 notes, it’s an inescapable part of life. We would be fools not to site the ambulance stations where they did the most good, as far as we could determine. But even there, it’s only the start. We would be fools to simply go with the stats, and greater fools (and knaves) to tell the paramedics to give up at a measured dollar threshold. On war? Owen and Sassoon had it right, but so too did Rupert Brooke. It’s simultaneously the most primitive and most sophisticated thing we humans do – from fighting with sharpened spades in sewers to the complexities of D-Day. Squalid death is part of it, but so too is the manic elation of Nelson’s band of brothers and the desperate resolve of Rodimtsev’s guards.

Here in Canberra there’s a large War Memorial with a map of all the places Australians have fought. Not too many empty spots. Almost all represent tragic waste to me, but they often didn’t to those who went, even when they did not come back. So I won’t speak for your dead acquaintance.

69

Stephen 10.28.14 at 1:49 pm

I feel uncomfortable about discussing war in terms of cost/benefit analysis because those actually fighting the war are very unlikely to think that way themselves. Not that CBA doesn’t have its uses, just that it doesn’t fit the situation. I think it was Voltaire who said “A rational army would all run away”.

While people are quoting Kipling, may I chip in with one of his Epitaphs of the Great War:
The Politician.

I would not work, I dared not rob
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my tales are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What lie shall serve me now among
Our angry and defrauded young?

Contemporary relevance all too obvious.
BTW: great post, Maria.

70

a.y.mous 10.28.14 at 4:09 pm

Farewell, indeed. The thing about a land war in Afghanistan and poetry is not only their inseparability, but the inevitable Auf Wiedersehen. It never is complete. See you again, soon.

Bloody chests are full of land-love-affair
Youths sacrifice heads, and call it only fair.
Relief comes to me when I come to you
Anxiety snakes in my heart when I am far from-you.
No matter the increase in lands I capture
It’s the beauty of your gardens I’ll never forget.
Discard I the magnificent throne of Delhi
When I remember the summits of Afghan mountains.
The legacy of Hamid and Farid times returns
When I run victorious all around.
Ahmad Shah will not forget your legacy
Even if he conquers the world in whole.
If the universe comes into either hand
I’ll prefer your bare and naked deserts.

That leads to a comment on the other discussion on CT. No more polyglots in America. Or apparently the Unite Kingdom, even.

71

geo 10.28.14 at 4:37 pm

Beautifully written OP, and it’s elicited much very fine commentary. I think even Bob M has a point, though perhaps made a little too roughly. It’s not that the post romanticized gentility. It merely testified to it. It would be inhuman not to feel the white-gloved officer’s charm or mourn his passing, but it’s also a kind of distraction from the unyielding indignation everyone should feel about an unnecessary war. Feelings like that are, after all, what one is not supposed to yield to. It’s hard to be human.

72

Roger Gathmann 10.28.14 at 5:38 pm

“It was easy to feel good about the Afghan adventure for about the first year.” That was the year of the Kunduz airlift which flew the Taliban’s leadership to Pakistan. The year of Bagram Prison filling up, the year the CIA first started its program of torture, and the year in which Guantanamo filled up with random Afghans that the Americans believed were bad guys, on the word of random war lords.
I remember Osama bin Laden magically getting away on his little pink pony. I remember that at Tora Bora, even though they had clear evidence of the kind of heat in the mountain passes behind Tora Bora that indicated camp fires, they refused to bomb cause they didn’t want to kill “shepherds” – which must have been news to the shepherds who were having the shit bombed out of them in front of Tora Bora. By happy accident, our Osama disappeared, which made him a valuable figure of terror whenever votes had to be drummed up. But I’m sure everything was done to track that tricky guy down! For instance, massively opening the email of US citizens by the NSA – who knows what clues you could find there.
But what I remember perhaps best about the first year is Bush’s pledge of a Marshall plan for Afghanistan. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/19/opinion/afghanistan-s-marshall-plan.html
That was of course followed by… zilchypoo. As Peter Bergen pointed out, aid per capita to the Bosnians was about thirty times more than the aid given to Afghans during the entire Bush administration. The latter worked out to about 1.75 billion per year, and, of course, given the way the Bush’s spent money, who knows how much of that went to the Afghans at all. Typical of the Bushites was the fact that they cut the 150 million dollar request of the US Agency of International Assistance to 40 million dollars right after Bush’s Marshall plan speech.
In fact, the first comprehensive aid bill to Afghanistan was authored by Chuck Hagel as a reproach to the Bush administration, which subsequently chose to disperse the money otherwise.
It was lousy, this war, ab ovo. One of the worst the US has ever fought – or the UK, for that matter.

73

Abbe Faria 10.28.14 at 10:10 pm

“Nineteen billion pounds. Twenty thousand Afghan civilians. Four hundred and fifty three UK soldiers. More Afghan National Army killed last summer than UK troops throughout the whole war. *More poppy seed than ever growing in Helmand*, but lots more children in school, too.”

I know it’s one item dashed off at the end of a list in an otherwise humane post. Still, this is complete nonsense and very telling. It’s not remotely a bad thing that (despite our best efforts) dirt poor farmers aren’t being punished, having their livelihoods burnt, and being immiserated at the hands of the WoD eradicationists. It continues to amaze me how reflexively anti-drugs ideology is regurgitated and goes unchallenged even among people who would otherwise consider themselves liberal.

74

gianni 10.28.14 at 10:34 pm

^ heroin use and abuse has been on a rise in the US since we started the War in Afghanistan, and has especially grown since 2006 when the levels of poppy cultivation spiked upwards. Reflexive anti-drug ideology is certainly problematic, but cheap heroin flowing into the US via both illicit channels and via American soldiers is not something to merely brush off as a non-issue. Heroin usage has also risen in Afghanistan itself.

Calling concerns over increased heroin use, here and abroad, ‘nonsense’ is ignorant of the real challenges facing a number of US cities due to the increased supply of cheap heroin on the streets.

75

ZM 10.28.14 at 10:38 pm

On War Poetry – Poetry Magazine had an issue devoted to Afghan women’s landays (women’s oral folk verses or songs) the other year. These are some from that issue about the war:

Be black with gunpowder or blood-red
but don’t come home whole and disgrace my bed.

Who will you be but a brave warrior,
you who’ve drunk the milk of a Pashtun mother?

My love gave his life for our homeland.
I’ll sew his shroud with one strand of my hair.

In battle, there should be two brothers:
one to be martyred, one to wind the shroud of the other.

*****
The drones have come to the Afghan sky.
The mouths of our rockets will sound in reply.

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

*****
May God destroy the White House and kill the man
who sent U.S. cruise missiles to burn my homeland.

Bush, don’t be so proud of your armored car.
My remoti bomb will blow it to bits from afar.

*****
May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women widows and whores.

God kill the Taliban’s mothers and girls.
If they’re not fighting jihad, why do they oil their curls?

*****
Come to Guantánamo.
Follow the clang of my chains.

Mother, come to the jailhouse windows.
Talk to me before I go to the gallows.

Please tell the prison warden,
Don’t be too cruel to my son, Allah Mohamad.

*****
Hamid Karzai came to Kabul
to teach our girls to dress in Dollars.

Hamid Karzai sent our sons to Iran
and made them slaves to heroin.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html

76

dbk 10.28.14 at 11:09 pm

Very moving OP, many thanks, Maria.

As the 70-odd comments to date have amply demonstrated, war and its soldier-victims arouse a multitude of emotionally-charged responses. It seems to me possible that one can be opposed to war, or at least some wars, and still feel profoundly moved by soldiers’ sacrificing their lives.

Similarly, it seems possible to me that one can accept the logic of CBA and yet recognize that while CBA works in the aggregate as a decision tool, those who die in war are the sons, brothers, husbands, cousins, and friends (or daughters, sisters, wives…) of those left behind to mourn their passing. To them, the lost life has no price; it is price-less.

As I read the OP and was overcome by the understated sentiment underlying it, I recalled a film I saw some years ago called Taking Chance (HBO 2009). I would highly recommend it (despite mixed reviews, which I suspect had more to do with the political persuasions of the reviewers than the film’s quality) to those interested in … well, war and its consequences for comrades-in-arms, strangers, friends, family… everyone, really.

Just out of curiosity, a question for Bob McManus: was your point that because war is evil, its foot soldiers should not be mourned by those who loved or knew them? There isn’t much to admire about recent/ongoing (maybe, any) war, but I don’t see why one cannot grieve for those lost–or wounded, or maimed, psychologically or physically–in war.

77

Sam Dodsworth 10.29.14 at 2:35 pm

was your point that because war is evil, its foot soldiers should not be mourned by those who loved or knew them?

I wouldn’t presume to speak for bob mcmanus but I do wonder how we’d mourn dead soldiers if we genuinely considered war an evil act, rather than “an evil” that somehow transcends complicity. And I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the easy way dead soldiers have of becoming sacred icons.

78

J Thomas 10.29.14 at 2:57 pm

Junkies who overdose are victims of the Drug War, killed by the enemy. It’s perfectly OK to mourn them.

Why not soldiers just as much? They are victims even if they volunteered. The junkies volunteered too.

Each premature death, each wasted life, is worth some mourning even if the victim did some evil.

79

dbk 10.29.14 at 9:34 pm

@78, @79:

Realizing that this thread is pretty much expended, I’d just like to note (for @ 78) that yes, it’s a very difficult issue – really, one of cognitive dissonance – to be opposed to a war (a particular war, or perhaps, all wars) and still acknowledge that those who die are deserving of our mourning. Just as it’s possible–hard, but possible–to “hate the sin, love the sinner”, it’s possible to be opposed to the war/cause, yet love and mourn its participants. As @79 aptly noted, premature death for whatever reason is still a cause for mourning.

For @78: I’m not aware of this “easy way” we have of making dead soldiers icons – my understanding is that they are pretty much ignored/forgotten by the MSM and therefore, the US public. (At least, this seems to be the case in my own home state.) Even more disturbing is the way survivors, many if not most of whom are irreparably wounded/damaged, are dealt with/treated.

I know that these soldiers are volunteers in the formal sense, but one also needs to consider that for many (most?), TINA obtained – young men and women from poor families, with few or no prospects of gainful employment outside the military. This is one of the fallout (unintended? intended?) consequences of a volunteer military – only those with no other options become its foot soldiers.

To me, it seems tragic.

80

bob mcmanus 10.30.14 at 3:25 pm

79: only those with no other options become its foot soldiers.

The OP as far as I can tell, was about officers. Andrew Olmsted was I think a captain or major when he volunteered for a combat role in Iraq. The grunt is romanticized, if less than the officer, but rarely in the romantic or sexual way of the officer.

There has always been respect even admiration for the Conscientious Objecter, pacifist, Quaker to little or no effect. Seemed to me that this was given much greater force in the early seventies when military service, soldiering, officers were explicitly devalued and de-romanticized and possibly had even some actual effect in ending the draft and Vietnam war. Part of a more general anti-establishment movement, of course.

Of course people can mourn their loved ones. But why are the rest of us invited to the wakes but not the weddings?

81

Rich Puchalsky 10.30.14 at 3:38 pm

“There has always been respect even admiration for the Conscientious Objecter, pacifist, Quaker to little or no effect.”

To negative effect. It’s admiration that always ends up as “But we can’t be like those idealistic people: now we have to talk about reality.” In any war promoter’s writing, you’ll see ritual respect for pacifism, followed immediately with something that equates to “But since opponents of war are all pacifists we don’t actually have to listen to them on any practical level, like that we shouldn’t have this war.”

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smartalek 10.30.14 at 9:44 pm

@79: “only those with no other options become its foot soldiers.”

I don’t mean to be rude, but this is simply not true.
I teach at Harvard, and have been fortunate to have had several students who have served in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.
They are truly, without sarcasm or snark, among our best and brightest, and had plenty of other options. They *chose* to serve, knowing the risks and opportunity costs.
We owe them our gratitude, and our support — but hardly our pity.
You may have had it right the first time, when you said “many” had limited or no good prospects other than the military. But that does not mean that “only” such “volunteers” make up our fighting forces.

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gianni 10.30.14 at 10:41 pm

@81 gets at an all too common trope, present across the spectrum of discourse on these matters, high and low, right and left.

bob mcmanus – you are reading the OP most uncharitably. It touched upon the same notions of the gentlemanly officer as you highlight, but did so in a way that dwelled upon, rather than dismissed, the complex emotional realities involved when you encounter the soldier as a fellow human being. The OP evokes a feeling of hollowness and futility behind the spectacle and pomp, but does not ignore the presence of these romanticized elements because, as you readily admit, they are so palpably a part of it all.

Would you have preferred if the story concluded with the OP spitting on this soldier’s grave? Because that is what the tenor of your comments suggests to me. Maybe that is the proper response – in an abstract sense willing soldiers for wars of choice deserve our disdain not commendation – but I don’t think that denying the basic humanity of soldiers, some of war’s greatest victims, is a good way to break with our fetishization of warfare. You are right that we want people to choose desertion, not service. But contempt and callousness, in the face of human suffering and loss, are precisely what the struggle is against.

@82 – Correct me if I am wrong, but one would suspect that your students were not just foot soldiers. It is also quite unclear what we owe them gratitude for, and opting to serve in the crime that was Iraq calls into question your characterization of this group as our ‘best and brightest.’

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gianni 10.30.14 at 10:44 pm

@82
Unless of course you mean ‘best and brightest’ in the sardonic, Halberstam sort of way.

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dbk 10.31.14 at 9:05 pm

@82
Yes, you are quite right, there is a class of young men and women volunteering for military service who are neither poor nor underprivileged, our “best and brightest” as you call them – I would, however, estimate that they now, forty years after the death of the draft, form a small percentage of “boots on the ground” – and I’d also hazard to guess that they are starting service as Second Lieutenants, not PFCs.

The people I know of don’t belong to this group, I thought first of those I do know, and care about personally.

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E Abrams 11.01.14 at 10:19 pm

An example is the sainted Elizabeth Warren, D-MA (US Senate)

One of her first acts as senator was to vote on the nomination of J Brennan to be DCIA

I wrote to Senator Warren, saying that Brennan was complicit in the torture policys of the Bush admin, and therefore she should not vote for him
She replied,insultingly late, that the POTUS deserved deference in his nominations…

Can you imagine what “liberals” like E Warren would say if a Republican president nominated Brennan

(if you are furious that I attack Warren, I assert
a) Warren’s chief claim to fame is that she is an advocate for the view that the rapacious policys of hte 0.1$ are destroying the middle class.

b) his is *not* liberal; it merely appears so in an era when a person like J Ernst can have a shot at being a US senator (re read thinking fast and slow; we judge people based on context, not an absolute scale)

If warren were in fact a liberal, would she have voted to confirm one of Bush’s chief torture architects ? I think not.

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Meredith 11.02.14 at 6:29 am

Why DO we aestheticize war? Is it in every way a bad impulse? Certainly in many ways it is, but in every way?

And the “we” here are not just women. In fact, mostly it’s men who do it. They have the actual power, don’t they (even still and mostly)? Helen again. It’s all her fault? (The girl at home with her flower — the soldier dreams of her as much as she dreams of him, no? And really — those women and girls marching around in pictures I have viewed recently, from a small Virginia town — in my grandmother’s scrapbook — and in a local MA history site, all of them, north and south, supporting “the boys” going off to fight in WWI — does that make WWI the women’s doing?)

I am thinking back to Maria’s posts about childbearing, the longing (men’s and women’s) to bear children, and each woman’s absolute right not to. In some way I have yet to fathom, Maria is profoundly consistent but, more important, productive. Aestheticize that.

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ZM 11.02.14 at 7:32 am

Epic is the second important form of writing in the Western canon I think (at least in the basic chronology of genres).

It has been remarked that Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women has a pattern where a God rapes a mortal woman, and the child she subsequently bares will be a hero.

Ovid changed the pattern to the woman undergoing metamorphosis. The episode where Nestor tells to Achilles and others the story of Caenis/Caeneus is moving: she is the most beautiful woman in Thessaly and is desired and raped by Neptune , she asks to be turned in to a man so it never may happen again, she is turned to a man and becomes a warrior. Much later there is a wedding ; centaurs try to rape the bride and then a battle ensues. Caeneus is impervious to weapons but a centaur derides him for having been once a woman – they centaurs are enraged they cannot kill him with their weapons and throw tree upon tree upon him – some say he died then and descended to the underworld, but Mopsus saw a bird fly from the great pile of trees and asserted it was Caenis again transformed.

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Val 11.02.14 at 11:12 am

@86
The aestheticisation of war, the romanticisation, the fascination with it – it’s all misguided. It seems a cold word, but I can’t think of a better – perhaps it has to be cold, a turning away. It isn’t the way we should deal with conflict, there are peaceful ways of dealing with conflict and that’s what we should be discussing. I haven’t commented on this thread before because it’s hard to say this, but war is wrong. The deaths are tragic, there’s nothing wrong with saying that, but war is misguided, and romanticism only aids that.

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Michael Connolly 11.02.14 at 12:57 pm

@88
Saint-Exupery once wrote, “War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus.”

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J Thomas 11.02.14 at 4:35 pm

If in fact the wars are necessary, the rituals etc help people stay reconciled to that when their personal losses seem too great to accept the abstract necessity. They keep us doing what we must, when otherwise we might refuse to and so suffer even greater losses.

If in fact the wars are not necessary, they have all the same effects — but for inadequate reason. They persist because they can persist.

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ZM 11.03.14 at 7:01 am

Meredith: “Why DO we aestheticize war? Is it in every way a bad impulse? Certainly in many ways it is, but in every way?….
And really — those women and girls marching around in pictures I have viewed recently, … all of them, north and south, supporting “the boys” going off to fight in WWI — does that make WWI the women’s doing?”

Val “The aestheticisation of war, the romanticisation, the fascination with it – it’s all misguided … it’s hard to say this, but war is wrong. The deaths are tragic, there’s nothing wrong with saying that, but war is misguided, and romanticism only aids that.”

J Thomas “If in fact the wars are necessary…. If in fact the wars are not necessary…”

After letting some time go by Meredith has summed up the debate in the thread very well, and very sensitively brought up the issue of what women’s relation is to warring. I hope you will forgive a rather lengthy comment.

My grandfather was a soldier in World War 2, he met my grandmother when he was shell shocked between tours of duty and she was a nurse. Her father and his brother had been soldiers in WW1.

I don’t agree that aestheticising war is the same as romanticising it. Many commenters wrote that Maria’s post was beautiful — although appreciating Maria’s post as always being well written and full of feeling, I thought it better to comment on the sadness of the topic, rather than the writing.

Bob McManus’ first complaint seems to be that commenters noting the beautifulness of Maria’s writing must then think war is beautiful too — but I do not think he shows that the one necessarily follows from the other .

His second complaint (rather unfairly I think) implicates women in men’s going to war: ““Nothing to come home to” is a good slogan, better than the woman’s “on your shield” I don’t have anything much to bribe or threaten with, but Aristophanes came up with an idea 2500 years ago. Not that anyone cares enough to give it a try.”

The story of Caenis/Caeneus I briefly recounted above is a highly aesthetic work, but this does not mean that it tells of events in a way which makes one feel enthusiastic for them.

I know the story because of a subject where you had to look at the same story or character told in different genres (myth, epic, romance, modernism). I looked at Nestor in Homer and Ovid. Of the Greeks, Homer is usually thought of as concerned with the masculine epic, with Hesiod being concerned with the more feminine myth. Of the Romans, Virgil in The Aeneid is thought to be consciously following Homer, while Ovid is thought to counter this in his Metamorphoses by following Hesiod.

In both Homer and Ovid the figure of Nestor is a very long lived man who ‘in winning words’ tells tales of battles and heroes past. In The Metamorphoses Achilles requires Nestor tell the story of Caenis in epic form “…let us hear (We all have the same wish) who Caeneus was, And why his change of sex, in what campaign, What battle line you knew him, and by whom He was defeated if he met defeat”, Ovid interjecting “What else indeed should be Achilles’ theme?” But Nestor recounts it more as a myth, except as narrated in a more sophisticated manner and including some knowing asides “So the tale ran” “But Mopsus disagreed… A Prophet’s words! And we believed”.

In the tale of Caenis the pastoral wedding is interrupted by epic as the centaurs try to take possession of the bride and “what girl each would or could” — the pastoral and epic coexist in the battle to absurd effect with wine bowls, antique goblets, jars, bowls, and dishes all being turned to use as weapons.

The human agency shown in the ancient epic form is an agency constrained both by their bodily mortality which confers great risk to battle, and also by the gods “the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.” But later the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution gave men much more knowledge, control and power over the world than in the ancient world. And we see the advantage this gave to Europeans who colonised formerly strange and far off parts of the world through use of their knowledge of the world and inventions.

The US civil war is thought to be the first modern war, due to a particular technological improvement in gunmaking. The total war of World Wars 1 and 2 were beyond the scope of human agency envisioned in epic. Oppenheimer said when the atom bomb was dropped he felt like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods — but the scope of destruction provided by the atom bomb is far greater than that by fire.

We also had to look at modern interpretations of a figure or tale in the light of older ones, and I chose Orpheus – in Ovid, in the Sir Orfeo where ‘Herodys’ is rescued from the underworld and Orfeo returns to his kingdom as a beggar in disguise, and in John Ashbery’s Syringa.

Ashbery is more a formal than confessional poet — and in Syringa he tells of Orpheus as if elliptically , the title referring instead to Syrinx who in Ovid is a nymph who escapes Pan by turning into reeds — reeds which are then used by Pan to make panpipes.

While Ovid’s Nestor makes asides like “So the tale ran” Ashbery makes this sort of thing much more prominent in his subject of the tale of Orpheus. Orpheus’ desire to return Eurydice from the Underworld is likened to a wish to escape history (“… That’s where Orpheus made his mistake. /Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade;/ She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.No use standing there like a gray stone toga as the whole wheel / Of recorded history flashes past, struck dumb, unable to utter an intelligent/ Comment …”) which is likened to Syrinx as a reed: “… to ask more than this / Is to become the tossing reeds of that slow, / Powerful stream , the trailing grasses / Playfully tugged at, but to participate in the action / No more than this.”

Maybe in a sense eulogies, like the spare one given in the OP, are similar efforts to Orpheus’ in how the try to bring something back, to re-membering a person, or passed events. But in trying to re-member a now historical person or event they do not have to give their approval to it, so they are also acts of participation rather than silence. Maria’s OP shows little or no enthusiasm for the war, but reading the comments Bob McManus

“wondered if the aestheticization of war grief death and guilt was implicit in the OP to garner such reactions. I can only presume that those saying it was beautiful were honest and insightful. … Wilfred Owen was many things…. but if anything was his theme, a rage against the aestheticization of war might be central to his matter and form.”

But I would think Wilfred Owen’s writing counts as modernism. I think literary modernism was highly aesthetic formally, although many authors utilised unusual sorts of aesthetics to make their points. Bob McManus’ quoting of Wilfred Owen’s writing shows an aesthetic consciousness rather than one which is clumsy and unformed:

“Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.”

J Thomas’ comment gives us two options — if wars are necessary, or if wars are not necessary. But we do not confine our writing and talking to matters that are necessary, and unfortunately many unnecessary bad things happen in our world. And as Wilfred Owen’s poems show, aesthetics or form can work to bring out the senseless tragedy or absurdity in historical events.

Aesthetics can also add an order that may have been missing from the event, and perhaps this is more objectionable — but Maria’s post alludes to this in her account of the ritual form of the funeral which controls the mourning behaviour of those present:

“walking slowly through a seated congregation to a reserved pew at the front, next to a coffin with a Union Jack on. The gloves and belt were the hardest to look at. No one cried. Not obviously, anyway.”

which is followed by her account of breaking down afterwards in informal coincidental circumstances:

“Later, driving through the gold-tinged dusk of a Wiltshire summer evening, I rounded the corner of B-road to see the flag again, flying in someone’s garden. I had to pull over.”

Aestheticising something can also allows for a conscious distance between the thing itself, and the writing or the telling of the thing. Ashbery’s poem has Orpheus replying to Ashbery that “no matter how all this disappeared, / Or got where it was going, it is no longer / Material for a poem. Its subject / Matters too much, and not enough, standing there helplessly / While the poem streaked by”

For a private tragedy there is usually a sense that discussion of it must respect the privacy of people affected and be limited to what is in the public interest. In a way our modern wars make of men public property , in that they are asked or made to realise their own mortality or that of other men by killing and taking the risk of being killed for the sake of the state or the country. But not withstanding the public numbering and notices of the people killed, or physically or psychologically injured, on both sides of the recent wars, there still remains the private tragedies and mourning in the domestic and community spaces.

And rather than aesthetics, it seems to me this is Bob McManus’ real complaint : that men who have died or been injured in these wars which many of us see as wrong are not deserving of being remembered in their personal capacity, even by slight acquaintances like Maria was to the officer.

Of course there is bitterness that despite much public opposition to the wars our governments went ahead with them, and now are going back to war with this further tragedy of ISIS. And while this is certainly a reason to think public opposition to war needs to be stronger and more persistent, I think this complaint I perceive hidden in the overt complain about ‘aesthetics’ is related to Bob McManus’ second complaint that women have failed by not implementing Aristophanes solution.

Both complaints draw no distinction between public life and private life, and both dismiss the domestic or feminine sphere and ask that it be even more subordinated to public life.
And this reminds me of Caenis/Caeneus and the centaurs denying her/his equalness to them on account of her feminine origins, and not being able to wound her/him smothering her/him with tree upon tree : “Must I endure you? You, always a wench, Always Caenis to me”.

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Andrew F. 11.03.14 at 7:49 am

gianni @83: Correct me if I am wrong, but one would suspect that your students were not just foot soldiers. It is also quite unclear what we owe them gratitude for, and opting to serve in the crime that was Iraq calls into question your characterization of this group as our ‘best and brightest.’

Because in a democracy where an elected government directs the military, there are two implications:

(1) the military will be used even in cases where individual soldiers disagree with the wisdom of the action – for the decision is not theirs, but that of the elected authority;
(2) without such a military, democracy will not long survive in this world.

In other words, the honor associated with service comes not from doing one’s duty in “good” wars rather than “bad” wars, but from choosing to serve in the first place.

In part this is why, although I am quite comfortable debating the wisdom of a war, I detest the notion of judging whether a man or woman fallen or wounded ought be honored on the basis of our judgment of the war in which the sacrifice was made.

I don’t think that’s what Maria’s post was about – though perhaps mcmanus would have such a view.

For me, the post was about the ritualized expression of grief and respect paid in a military funeral – a ritual that may have felt artificial and constraining, a shock mixed with the blunt reality of the dead.

And then, suddenly, to encounter a core symbol of that ritual in one’s normal world; a confrontation outside the roles and norms of a funeral; an unmediated melding of the symbol of the nation and the death offered on its behalf – and the upwelling of grief, and bewilderment, that such a moment might bring.

But from my perspective, the flags are descriptive statements and symbols. To serve, and to risk death, and to die, is not to offer sacrifice for a flag but for the immense depths of traditions and aspirations that the flag cryptically represents, and for the sake of one’s comrades with whom one serves in the same endeavor.

Who can speak on a person’s motives for serving? They range no doubt from the noble to the venal, perhaps even to the evil. But viewed in the most charitable sense, the soldier laid to final rest died not simply for a flag alien to you, but to sustain a way of life known as intimately to all of us as the light which illuminates a room. Did that way of life depend upon a particular outcome in Afghanistan? No, perhaps, though only in part. But does it depend upon men and women willing to serve well before that way of life should ever be put to such risk? Yes, it does.

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Maria 11.03.14 at 10:37 am

I just want to say to everyone (yes, everyone), thanks for this discussion about the aestheticisation of war. I don’t have the objectivity to wade in at this stage and, frankly, I don’t believe I’ve got anything new to offer or any particularly helpful status as the author of the OP. But I really appreciate and am challenged by what many people have written. This thread is a print-out-and-read-later one for me.

And thank you, Meredith @87 and ZM.

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Maria 11.03.14 at 10:42 am

Roger Gathman, thanks for the book recommendation: No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
by Anand Gopal. I will take a look.

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Hogan 11.04.14 at 2:12 am

Is the problem aestheticization as such, or is it deciding which aesthetic is appropriate to apply to which war? The aestheticization may be inevitable (it’s what we do), but is it epic or satire (pastoral is right out)? Homeric or Kafkaesque? Pre-Raphaelite or punk?

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Maria 11.04.14 at 2:12 pm

Wasn’t expecting this but here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p029pbjn

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Minor Heretic 11.04.14 at 3:57 pm

Here’s a sad note for a poignant post:

On November 2, 2000, in a hotel room in Germany, representatives of the Clinton Administration met with representatives of the Taliban government of Afghanistan. They came to an agreement that the Taliban would assist the U.S. government in the covert assassination of Osama bin Laden. The method agreed to was that bin Laden and his followers would be restricted to an abandoned CIA-built base in Darunta, and that the Taliban would give the U.S. the exact coordinates of the building housing bin Laden for a cruise missile strike.

In case you are wondering about the Taliban’s motivation, it has to do with internal schisms, religious and ideological differences with the Arab Wahabbis, and the desire for international recognition. They couldn’t be seen publicly as responsible for bin Laden’s death because of factional opposition and bin Laden’s street cred among their supporters.

Of course, two days later came the election, Bush vs. Gore, hanging chads, and Bush taking office. The Clinton administration handed off the negotiations. The Bush administration maintained contact with the Taliban through the summer of 2001 but never pursued the project.

In 2007, after reading an article about this in Counterpunch, I interviewed the Afghan-American translator/go-between who was present at these negotiations, Kabir Mohabbat. He noted the strange reluctance of the Bush administration to push forward on this opportunity.

As with so many wars, and so many deaths, it was utterly preventable.

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