Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Serves V


Again, unexpectedly, a few more comments dealing with the structure of our military.  This was not anticipated, but several of your comments in response to my earlier observations seemed so on point, so thought-provoking, that I felt they deserved another look along with my take on their take.

One came from my pal Vern Farnsworth, who quotes a retired Special Ops Colonel with whom he serves on a local board as having concluded that "If a nation does not want to change, it will not happen."  In any case, "Don't send a boy to do a man's job."  My own exchanges with senior brass over the years suggest that this apprehension about the vulnerability of the raw volunteers who fight our wars is widespread among professional soldiers.

Another friend, MA Fairbank -- Mark, I assume -- from the New Hampshire pole of our family enterprise wonders:  "Is Imperialism so different from Nation Building?"  He cites "Roman legionnaires in Gaul and Albion, Crusaders in Constantanople, British regulars in Bombay, U.S. Marines in the Phillipines" as engaged in "nation building to serve our national interest" and equates this with "putting a state's force into a foreign land to secure vital resources."

Mark is an astute fellow, but it seems to me that you don't have to be much of a historian to bridle at the assumptions behind this.  Tooth-and-claw imperialism has almost always had disastrous long-term consequences for the imperial power, from the appearance of the Goths at the ramparts of Rome in 552 to the rather lame attempts by spokesmen for the Obama administration to explain away our frantic behind-the-scenes rescheduling to slink out of Afghanistan ASAP.  Native populations invariably prefer their identity, however brutal and unsanitary it may appear to us.

All this is particularly self-evident in the Muslim world.  In 1187 the Crusaders took a fatal hammering from the armies of Saladin, and Arab propagandists still hobgoblinize every gesture by the West as the resurgence of the Crusader spirit.  We do keep trying, though.  In The Old Boys I track the maneuvering of the early CIA as its ace in the Middle East, Kermit Roosevelt, installed Nasser, and then  a more compliant government in Syria, and finally subverted a working democracy in Iran to reinstate the Shah in a series of maneuvers intended primarily to benefit the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of British Petroleum.  We turned Iran into our primary base in the Middle East and subsequently lost everything when the Ayatollahs swept into power in 1979.  I interviewed Roosevelt repeatedly; he himself had been a professional historian -- he taught at Harvard as a young man.  I found Roosevelt stricken with a degree of historical remorse that made his last years acutely depressing.  He had turned down the chance to subvert Guatemala in the interests of the United Fruit Company; that, at least, ultimately provided him a measure of solace.

One last comment definitely needs to be recognized.  One of my several Anonymous correspondents points out that warfare today has changed radically, and is characterized now by "vanished battle lines and a 'nobility deficit.'"  Today death can come very quickly and unexpectedly from an IED or a child with a bomb beneath her rags.  Best to machine-gun everybody, assume the natives you are there to rescue hate you and take preventative action.  With reflexes like that it is very hard to build a nation or live with yourself afterwards. Read this response in its entirety among the comments on this blog.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has taken an interest in the predicament of soldiers returning from our hapless wars in the Middle East.  He points out that, along with a heightened suicide rate among soldiers in the battle zones, the number of veterans coming home who ultimately kill themselves is stunning, @6500 a year.  Kristof suspects that this is the result of traumatic brain injuries -- too close to too many roadside bombs, which produces long-term trauma to the tissues of the brain.  This is a terrible add-on  for the luckless handful of Americans who fight our wars to absorb.  Meanwhile, pressure builds on the political right to cut back the facilities available at veterans' hospitals and save more money -- cut taxes -- for its wealthy constituents.

If imperialism has its price, these brain-damaged veterans are dealing with the first round of bills coming due.  The rest of us are certain to confront the worst of them before long.

Cheers, right?

Burton Hersh


  1. Country-Frumpkin
    Please don't misconstrue my sentiment. The "nation building" we engage in today appears to my untrained eyes be prompted by two conditions: 1 punitive police action (Afghanistan); 2 national/economic interests (Iraq). Both of which I see little different than Roman or British imperial actions. Why are we not nation building in Africa? Yours, in country.


  2. It seems to me that our foreign policy needs to be better married to the means with which we effect it - I'm arguing for compulsory national service, a draft without the loopholes of which Burton has eloquently spoken. Unless we have skin in the game at all levels, we risk our political representatives involving us in proxy standoff wars that, while perhaps more efficient, rob us of our soul.

  3. Have we come to the point where only personal direct risk to life or purse constitutes skin in the game? If so, are we as a nation and society so numbed by our media and consumer culture that we blindly allow our direction to be set by millionaire glory-hounds and corporate shills who aspire to elected office? Are we happy enough distracted by fast-food and young celebrities to allow the robber barons of the new century to drive our national ship faster and faster into the iceberg? Burton, as always, makes many erudite and valid points.

    1. Ma Fairbank, tend to your knitting. You set up these shibboleths and straw men as if we weren't numb and blind already. There are no options - the battle is lost, fait accompli. Not even your precious Burton can wrest the wheel of state from the new century robber barons driving our national ship faster and faster into the iceberg (block that metaphor!).

  4. CountryDefeatist!
    I'll have none of that. You rant and wallow in a state of victim hood the likes of which grow heroes of character who rise to the challenge or fall trying. I will not retreat to my gopher hole in the hopes that others, of whom Burton writes, and others whose actions belie their motives, will tend to the mill.


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