To understand what’s up with President Obama as he escalates the war in Afghanistan, there may be no better place to look than a book published 25 years ago. The March of Folly, by historian Barbara Tuchman, is a chilling assessment of how very smart people in power can do very stupid things – how a war effort, ordered from on high, goes from tic to repetition to compulsion to obsession – and how we, with undue deference and lethal restraint, pay our respects to the dominant moral torpor to such an extent that mass slaughter becomes normalized in our names.
What happens among policymakers is a "process of self-hypnosis," Tuchman writes. After recounting examples from the Trojan War to the British moves against rebellious American colonists, she devotes the closing chapters of The March of Folly to the long arc of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The parallels with the current escalation of the war in Afghanistan are more than uncanny; they speak of deeply rooted patterns.
With clarity facing backward, President Obama can make many wise comments about international affairs while proceeding with actual policies largely unfettered by the wisdom. From the outset of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Tuchman observes, vital lessons were "stated" but "not learned."
As with John Kennedy – another young president whose administration "came into office equipped with brain power" and "more pragmatism than ideology" – Obama’s policy adrenaline is now surging to engorge something called counterinsurgency.
"Although the doctrine emphasized political measures, counterinsurgency in practice was military," Tuchman writes, an observation that applies all too well to the emerging Obama enthusiasm for counterinsurgency. And "counterinsurgency in operation did not live up to the high-minded zeal of the theory. All the talk was of ‘winning the allegiance’ of the people to their government, but a government for which allegiance had to be won by outsiders was not a good gamble."
Now, as during the escalation of the Vietnam War – despite all the front-paged articles and news bulletins emphasizing line items for civic aid from Washington – the spending for U.S. warfare in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly military.
Perhaps overeager to assume that the context of bombing campaigns ordered by President Obama is humanitarian purpose, many Americans of antiwar inclinations have yet to come to terms with central realities of the war effort – for instance, the destructive trajectory of the budgeting for the war, which spends 10 dollars toward destruction for every dollar spent on humanitarian programs.
From the top of the current administration – as the U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan continue to rise along with the American air-strike rates – there is consistent messaging about the need to "stay the course," even while bypassing such tainted phrases.
The dynamic that Tuchman describes as operative in the first years of the 1960s, while the Vietnam War gained momentum, is no less relevant today: "For the ruler it is easier, once he has entered a policy box, to stay inside. For the lesser official it is better, for the sake of his position, not to make waves, not to press evidence that the chief will find painful to accept. Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information ‘cognitive dissonance,’ an academic disguise for ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’" Along the way, cognitive dissonance "causes alternatives to be ‘deselected since even thinking about them entails conflicts.’"
Such a psycho-political process inside the White House has no use for the report from the Congressional Progressive Caucus that came out of the caucus’ six-part forum on Capitol Hill this spring, "Afghanistan: A Road Map for Progress."
Souped up and devouring fuel, the war train cannot slow down for the Progressive Caucus report’s recommendation that "an 80-20 ratio (political-military) should be the formula for funding our efforts in the region with oversight by a special inspector general to ensure compliance." Or that "U.S. troop presence in the region must be oriented toward training and support roles for Afghan security forces and not for U.S.-led counterinsurgency efforts."
Or that "the immediate cessation of drone attacks should be required." Or that "all aid dollars should be required to have a majority percentage of dollars tied or guaranteed to local Afghan institutions and organizations, to ensure countrywide job mapping, assessment, and workforce development process to directly benefit the Afghan people."
The policymakers who are gunning the war train can’t be bothered with such ideas. After all, if the solution is – rhetoric aside – assumed to be largely military, why dilute the potency of the solution? Especially when, as we’re repeatedly made to understand, there’s so much at stake.
During the mid-1960s, while American troops poured into Vietnam, "enormity of the stakes was the new self-hypnosis," Tuchman comments. She quotes the wisdom – conventional and self-evident – of New York Times military correspondent Hanson Baldwin, who wrote in 1966 that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would bring "political, psychological, and military catastrophe," signaling that the United States "had decided to abdicate as a great power."
Many Americans are eager to think of our nation as supremely civilized even in warfare; the conceits of noble self-restraint have been trumpeted by many a president even while the Pentagon’s carnage apparatus kept spinning into overdrive. "Limited war is not nicer or kinder or more just than all-out war, as its proponents would have it," Tuchman notes. "It kills with the same finality."
For a president, with so much military power under his command, frustrations call for more of the same. The seductive allure of counterinsurgency is apt to heighten the appeal of "warnography" for the commander in chief; whatever the earlier resolve to maintain restraint, the ineffectiveness of more violence invites still more – in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
"The American mentality counted on superior might," Tuchman commented, "but a tank cannot disperse wasps." In Vietnam, the independent journalist Michael Herr wrote, the U.S. military’s violent capacities were awesome: "Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop."
And that is true, routinely, of a war-making administration.
The grim and ultimately unhinged process that Barbara Tuchman charts is in evidence with President Obama and his approach to the Afghan war: "In its first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor’s ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement."
A week ago, one out of seven members of the House of Representatives voted against a supplemental appropriations bill providing $81.3 billion to the Pentagon, mainly for warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. An opponent of the funding, Congressman John Conyers, pointed out that "the president has not challenged our most pervasive and dangerous national hubris: the foolhardy belief that we can erect the foundations of civil society through the judicious use of our many high-tech instruments of violence."
"That belief, promoted by the previous administration in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, assumes that the United States possesses the capacity and also has a duty to determine the fate of nations in the greater Middle East.
"I oppose this supplemental war funding bill because I believe that we are not bound by such a duty. In fact, I believe the policies of empire are counterproductive in our struggle against the forces of radical religious extremism. For example, U.S. strikes from unmanned Predator Drones and other aircraft produced 64 percent of all civilian deaths caused by the U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces in 2008. Just this week, U.S. air strikes took another 100 lives, according to Afghan officials on the ground. If it is our goal to strengthen the average Afghan or Pakistani citizen and to weaken the radicals that threaten stability in the region, bombing villages is clearly counterproductive. For every family broken apart by an incident of ‘collateral damage,’ seeds of hate and enmity are sown against our nation. …
"Should we support this measure, we risk dooming our nation to a fate similar to Sisyphus and his boulder: to being trapped in a stalemate of unending frustration and misery, as our mistakes inevitably lead us to the same failed outcomes. Let us step back; let us remember the mistakes and heartbreak of our recent misadventures in the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad. If we honor the ties that bind us to one another, we cannot in good faith send our fellow citizens on this errand of folly. It is still not too late to turn away from this path."