“I was thinking, as I often do these days, of war”:The United States in the Twenty-First Century



[T]he postwar period quickly assumed the appearance and generated the atmosphere of a new pre-war period.

—Delmore Schwartz, Partisan Review, 19511

A soldier pleading to be allowed to stay in Afghanistan: “You can't send me home. This is my home.”“Kandahar is your home?”“No—war. War's my home. War is simple, I know what to do. War makes complete sense to me.”

Doonesbury, May 14, 20112

I take the title of my talk from a poem by C. K. Williams, “The Hearth,” written after listening to the news on a cold winter evening in February 2003. He writes that he has been thinking “as I often do these days, of war” and “wondering how those who have power over us/can effect such things and by what/cynical reasoning pardon themselves.” The poem spells it out: war is “radar, rockets, shrapnel/cities razed, soil poisoned/for thousands of generations; . . . suffering so vast/it nullifies everything else.”3

I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war. I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace, or postwar. Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold. The shadow of war, as Michael Sherry called it fifteen years ago, seems not to be a shadow but entirely substantial: the substance of American history.4

The subject of American wars is not new, and in recent years it has become a constant subject. But I think it is a good thing in an historian of American foreign policy to be preoccupied with war. I think our continuous task must be to make war visible, vivid, an inescapable part of the country's self-consciousness, as inescapable a subject of study as it is a reality.

The constancy of war and its as constant erasure is linked intimately to the pursuit and maintenance of an American empire similarly erased. Like Tolstoy's unhappy families, nations are each imperial in their own way, and each way has its own euphemism. The euphemisms change over time, as does the nature of the empire: in the nineteenth century, expansion was the preferred description, up to and including expanding across the Pacific.5 In the mid to late twentieth century, it was the establishment of a liberal capitalist world order that, Dean Acheson explained, would “help people who believe the way we do, to continue to live the way they want to live.”6 In both the twentieth century and this one, the projection of American power was equated, by all administrations, many pundits and some historians, with the fundamental and universal values of freedom and democracy. This is to say that in all three centuries the pursuit of empire was usually accompanied by a denial that the United States was or could be an empire, its policies imperialist. Or, if recognized, then, as John Lewis Gaddis put it, the empire Americans built was “a new kind of empire—a democratic empire—for the simple reason that they were, by habit and history, democratic in their politics.”7

Walter Lippmann complained of an American propensity to deny the existence of its empire in a 1927 essay entitled “Empire: The Days of Our Nonage are Over.” He observed that “all the world thinks of the United States as an empire, except the people of the United States.” He believed the “reluctance [was] genuine,” that there was no hypocrisy “in the pained protest which rises whenever a Latin American or a European speaks of us as imperialistic.” But other countries paid attention to what the United States said and did. “We on the other hand think of what we feel. And the result is that we go on creating what mankind calls an empire while we continue to believe quite sincerely that it is not an empire because it does not feel to us the way we imagine an empire ought to feel.”8

Not feeling like an empire, the United States fought imperial wars nonetheless. The War of 1898, as it became a war of occupation and colonization was at first vigorously opposed and then remembered as an aberration—as not the beginning of an American overseas empire, but a one-off. This misremembering attained one impressive peak when George W. Bush spoke to the Filipino Congress in October 2003 and declared America “proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people. Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule,” erasing the years of counterinsurgency warfare.9 Never feeling like an empire, the United States could fight a series of wars in Central America and the Caribbean that led Major General Smedley Butler to declare himself a “racketeer, a gangster for capitalism” and to call war itself a “racket” conducted “for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses,” and understood by only a “small inside group.”10

The wars of the American empire did not end in Manila on July 4, 1902, but have continued to the present. This afternoon I want to speak about some of these wars: the hot wars of the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam, the homeopathic small wars that followed Vietnam, and the current state of permanent war. I will speak mainly of the process through which public opinion has been persuaded to take war rather than peace as the normal state of affairs.

The disproportional American use of force was also taken as natural. In Korea, 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm were dropped, and some two to three million Koreans died. The United States was not bombed; there were 33,000 plus combat dead. Some commentators in the liberal press did take note of the discrepancy, but the general public was indifferent.

Vietnam was different, and protests against the ferocity of the air war grew over the years. But after Vietnam, massive bombing returned, without undue public comment, and today, though the bombers are often drones rather than B52s, the air war is barely visible.11

World War II, the war politicians and patriots have enshrined as ideal, a war fought for unimpugnable reasons by the “greatest generation,” ended not just decisively but triumphantly in public euphoria. “To resume one's own life!” William Barrett, philosopher and Partisan Review editor, recalled. “It seemed a small and humdrum thing to be asking for, and yet most of us believed it would not be the same old life again. Hitler and the Nazis were gone, the whole face of the world seemed changed, and a long period of peace and promise must surely lie ahead.”12 George C. Marshall remembered it the same way and some years later complained about the way people had “rush[ed] back to their civilian jobs and [left] the tanks to rot in the Pacific and military strength that was built up fade away.”13

He need not have worried. Within months of V-J Day, America's Soviet ally was being portrayed as America's rival. At Washington, DC, dinner parties, observers as different as Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace and the British novelist E. M. Forster were taken aback by the bloody-minded comments of their companions. After a Washington dinner party early in 1946 during which the high-powered guests had alternately called for “kick[ing] the Russians in the balls” and encircling the Soviet Union with military bases, Wallace worried in his diary that “only one logical action” could follow such a world view “and that is to provoke a war with Russia as soon as possible.”14 Forster remembered a similar event a year later: “I shall never forget a dinner party . . . at which one of the guests, a journalist, urged that atomic bombs should be dropped upon the Soviet Union without notice . . . They were cultivated men, but as soon as the idea of Russia occurred to them, their faces became blood red; they ceased to be human. No one seemed appalled by the display but myself, no one was surprised and our hostess congratulated herself afterwards on the success of her party.”15

Readers of this journal are familiar with the drumbeat of the next few years, the alarums and excursions of the early Cold War from Greece to Berlin to the Communist victory in China, all culminating unexpectedly in a hot war in Korea. Accompanying these distant conflicts was the danger awaiting us at home, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and the warnings that America was at risk: the struggle between freedom and democracy had not ended in 1945 but transformed itself. Only the opponents were different: Russians instead of Germans, Chinese rather than Japanese.

The headlines warned that nuclear war was entirely possible; magazine articles described how quick and deadly it could be. Educational films circulated to high schools, and community groups worked to accustom their audience to the immanence of an annihilating war they were nevertheless virtually certain to survive.

Other films were dedicated to changing what their producers saw as an American “cultural pattern” that led “boys and girls” to “abhor violence and value peace and “ ‘getting along with others’ ” above all else. Coronet films, with the support of the National Education Association, the U.S. Office of Education, and the Department of Defense, produced fourteen short films entitled “Are You Ready for Service?” which were intended to persuade the young to join in the “great struggle of our times. The struggle between freedom and tyranny.” Every high school boy “should be starting to form himself into the mold of the soldier, adjusting himself both physically and emotionally to conform to the demands of military service.”16

Hollywood did its share by preparing movie goers of the early postwar period for wars to come. The 1943 movie, The North Star, an epic in praise of Soviet resistance to the German invasion (script by Lillian Hellman, score by Aaron Copland, starring Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, and Erich von Stroheim) played in my local Brooklyn movie theater in the late 1940s as Armored Attack. In its postwar incarnation it had been recut and was now introduced by clips of a May Day military parade in Moscow with a voice-over warning the audience that the Russian partisans of the past had been replaced by goose-stepping Soviet troops. A stream of movies were produced that could double as advertisements for the various branches of the military in their competition for congressional appropriations: frogmen, submarines, aircraft carriers, close air support units, the service academies (West Point Story in 1950, Air Cadet in 1951), the Coast Guard, the Marines (several times). In 1949, eight World War II movies were released, and all did well at the box office. The appeal of World War II, the film historian Thomas Doherty has written, “wasn't merely the attraction of adventure romance or high melodrama, but the consolation of closure and serenity of moral certainty. For Hollywood and American culture the Second World War would always be a safe berth.”17

At the same time, and it is important to stress this, a number of postwar movies (Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, Crossfire in 1947, All My Sons in 1948 among them) were somber, even angry meditations on the willful ignorance, indifference, inequality, prejudice, and greed of the home front during the war, and the difficulties facing returning veterans. Americans learning to acquiesce in the domestication of war could not be asked to deny their still fresh knowledge of war. When he was called to serve his country in 1950, the journalist Mike Royko recalled thinking: “What is this? I didn't know anyone who was in Korea who understood what the hell we were doing there. . . . We were over there fighting the Chinese, you know? Christ, I'd been raised to think the Chinese were among the world's most heroic people and our great friends. . . . I was still mad at the Japs.”18

It was one thing to continue to fight World War II on the big screen virtually; it was another thing to mobilize the population for an actual war in Korea, a war no one seemed able even to name. Richard Rovere's “Letter from Washington” column in the New Yorker called it a “perplexing and diplomatically important question.”“All week long here,” he wrote in the July 27, 1950 issue, “in Congressional hearings on legislation growing out of our involvement in Korea, administration witnesses and congressmen have been arguing over whether the present state of affairs should be officially described as a war, a national emergency, or a limited emergency, or by some new title.” Rovere reported that congressmen felt the question mattered because “unless we get an accurate designation for whatever it is that is happening, we shall never be able to tell when it has come to an end, if it ever does.” Most newspapers referred to it as a “police action,” probably unaware of the imperial ring. But the Marines were not so unaware. On the retreat from the Chosin reservoir in November 1950, they sang a parody of the British Indian Army song, “Bless 'em All”: “Fuck ‘em all, fuck ‘em all/ The Commies, the UN and all/ . . . we're saying goodbye to them all/ We're Harry's police force on call/So put back your pack on/The next stop is Saigon/Cheer up my lads, fuck ‘em all!”19

To mobilize the population, Truman had to convince people that the use of force was vital to the national interest, as vital as World War II had been. He could hardly explain the Korean War in Acheson's terms as Bruce Cumings has recently summed them up: the establishment of a “ ‘great crescent’ from Tokyo to Alexandria, linking Japan with Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and ultimately the oil of the Persian Gulf.”20 At the same time, people had to be deflected from demanding the sort of satisfying total victory achieved in 1945, as that way lay the danger of a war that would indeed end all wars. But the Korean War was a hard sell, and the public never bought it wholeheartedly.

However, insofar as the Korean War could be assimilated to the template of World War II it was briefly acceptable. The Korean civil war under way since 1946 and the role of the United States in that civil war were either ignored or randomly reported as instances of Communist subversion. More familiar, as North Korean tanks rolled over the thirty-eighth parallel on June 25, 1950—sixty-one years ago almost to the day—was blitzkrieg, the dangers of appeasement, the advance of totalitarianism. The North Korean army even goose-stepped. As long as the war remained in rapid movement—with arrows sweeping first one way, then the other across the peninsula—the public paid anxious attention. But as the fighting settled into a war of attrition with the opening of peace talks in July 1951, the Korean War became background noise in America, never wholly silent but only occasionally audible. By October, 1951, U.S. News and World Report had already given the Korean War the name it has borne ever since: “The ‘Forgotten War.’ ” The journal reported that week alone claimed 2,200 American casualties; yet it was “almost forgotten at home, with no end in sight.”21 In 1952, Samuel Lubell concluded that the first preference of popular opinion was “a peaceful settlement” but that if peace was impossible “then all-out war was their next best choice.”22

The Korean War did not so much end as stop. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal observed that “it ha[d] been a strange war. It came with sudden stealth in an unsuspected place. Now it seems to end in a whimper. In the strange quiet that follows the silenced guns, none of us feel great transport; we have too often been brought to hope only to meet disillusion. Rather, we feel a numbness. Tomorrow we may have to pick up our arms again—if not in Korea, then elsewhere.” The one thing that had been gained was that “neither we nor our enemies can any longer doubt our resolution. That is the victory of the truce of Panmunjon.”23 (A sentiment echoed with some irony in Lewis Milestone's 1959 film Pork Chop Hill: The desperate fight to wrest a hill devoid of strategic meaning from the enemy who, it is noted, “aren't just Orientals—they're Communists!” has only one purpose: to answer the question—“are we as willing to spend our lives for nothing” as they are?)24

So the Korean War, after three furious years of fighting, ended in stalemate and a sense of futility. The cease-fire terms agreed to in 1953 could probably have been secured four months after the fighting started, when U.S./UN forces drove North Korean forces across the thirty-eighth parallel. In the aftermath, there was no investigation of how the war had been fought, nor why. Attention focused briefly on the number of prisoners accused of collaborating with the enemy and in particular on the twenty-one who chose to remain among the Communists rather than return home. Public dissatisfaction with the war was clear and clearly expressed in the definitive defeat of the Democratic party in 1952. Succeeding administrations would remember this political price, and theadmonition against fighting the Chinese in a land war in Asia, but otherwise Korea seemed to hold few other lessons for the future.25 There was no Korea Syndrome.

Yet in retrospect, the Korean War was a sort of primer for the condition of permanent war I am trying to anatomize today. In its brief span, Korea had demonstrated the multiple forms of war the United States would fight for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first: the arming and training of a foreign military; the internationalization of civil war; bombing on a massive scale; conventional “big unit” warfare; resolution short of victory and even, in its early days, counterinsurgency, to which I will return.26

During the Eisenhower administration, warfare was confined to the occasional war scare (the Taiwan Straits), sabotage (China, Cuba), the precautionary dispatch of Marines (14,000 to Lebanon for a peaceful five-month stay) and full-scale covert operations (Guatemala, Iran) but none involved the dispatch of American troops. The basso continuo of potential nuclear annihilation was sustained by a policy of massive retaliation, maintaining the nation as a whole in a state of near war. On leaving office, Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex that his two administrations had helped build; his successor's inaugural address invited the country to a new era of endless struggle.

The preferred form of the struggle introduced by the Kennedy administration was counterinsurgency. The phoenix-like rise, fall, and again rising of counterinsurgency is the profile of permanent war, bringing the “suffering so vast/it nullifies everything else” that troubles C. K. Williams' night-time thoughts.27

Counterinsurgency is the logic of any struggle between a central authority—legitimately or illegitimately constituted—and an armed resistance movement, between formally organized armies and guerrillas. In short, counterinsurgency is standard colonial policing, with larger wars breaking out when the policing fails.

Less than two months after his inauguration, in his special message to Congress on the defense budget, Kennedy announced a new clear and present danger, and matched it with a new approach to national security. The free world was threatened “not only by nuclear attack, but also by being slowly nibbled away at the periphery, regardless of our strategic power, by forces of subversion, infiltration, indirect or non-overt aggression, internal revolution, diplomatic blackmail, guerrilla warfare or a series of limited wars.” The new approach was a logical response. The United States must now be ready “to deal with any size force, including small externally supported bands of men; and we must help train local forces to be equally effective.”28 In the words of Deputy Special Assistant to the President Walt W. Rostow, guerrilla warfare “was a systematic attempt by the communists to impose a serious disease on those societies attempting the transition to modernization.”29 The threat this posed to national security was posited, not argued.

To figure out how best to develop a counterinsurgency/unconventional war capacity (he did not always discriminate between the two), Kennedy created a task force—the “Special Group (Counterinsurgency),” whose job was to coordinate an integrated program. It was, in Maxwell Taylor's words, “a sort of Joint Chiefs of Staff for the control of all agencies involved in counterinsurgency” and included Robert Kennedy, who reported directly to the White House after each weekly meeting. The mission of the Special Group (CI) was to “recommend actions to obtain recognition . . . that subversive insurgency (‘wars of liberation’) is a new and dangerous form of politico-military conflict for which the US must prepare with the same seriousness of purpose as for the conventional warfare of the past.”30

Since “new and dangerous” forms of “politico-military conflict” were unlikely to stop appearing, this was a prescription for perpetual military engagement abroad. In effect, the policy set the United States against any movement for social change that involved the use of force: not on the wrong side of history but, astonishingly, against history itself. Six years later, Thomas Hughes, director of Intelligence and Research at the State Department observed wryly of this first year of the Kennedy administration: “We were . . . all younger then—armed with the zeal of adventure, the discovery of a new doctrine, and ready opportunities for testing it. Not unlike the 24-year old Winston Churchill, writing to his mother in 1898, we thought, ‘It is a pushing age, and we must shove with the best.’ ” Since 1961, Hughes said, there had been “dozens of books, hundreds of contracts, thousands of lectures” and if you wished “to participate in an effective dialogue inside either the university or the government,” you had to speak the language of counterinsurgency. He described “Watch Committee radars” scanning the globe, “hoping to discern early warning data on pre-insurgency. Let an actual insurgency start to stir and Counter-insurgency committees will compete to claim it, task forces will move smartly to take possession of it.” He warned that counterinsurgency “comes close to proclaiming the desirability of drying up all politically significant violent protest” except for right-wing coups.31

Kennedy's romance with unconventional and counterinsurgency warfare has been well described, including his personal supervision of the outfitting of the expanded Special Forces units at Fort Bragg's Special Warfare Center. Simultaneously, the Navy created the SEALS, the air force an Air Commando Group, and a Marine general, Victor Krulak, was named the Joint Chiefs' Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities.

By August 1962 counterinsurgency had moved from tactic to doctrine. The “purpose and scope” of Overseas Internal Defense Policy, NSAM 182, were capacious. The opening paragraph declared that the “most pressing U.S. national security problem now, and for the foreseeable future, is the continuing threat presented by communist inspired, supported, or directed insurgency” as well as “other types of subversion and insurgency in all countries of the free world, primarily those that are underdeveloped, whether they are pro-Western, or basically neutral.”32 This was a global brief in which even a pro-Western or neutral movement for change could invite the attention of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts. A staff member, Charles Maechling, remarked years later that this was “the most interventionist statement of American policy ever promulgated.” U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine was not restricted to the United States but was exported to a number of allies, especially in Latin America. Colombia, the only Latin American country to have joined the U.S. effort in Korea, was a major recipient of U.S. funds and training, and its subsequent history of counterinsurgency and paramilitary violence owes much to the United States, as has also been the case in Nicaragua, Argentina, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as Indonesia.33

When counterinsurgency failed in Vietnam, the war became one of attrition, applying the Maoist aphorism that counterinsurgency had also embraced: the guerrillas are fish swimming in the ocean of the people; therefore, dry up the ocean. When this war of attrition failed to win the war, counterinsurgency returned in the form of the “accelerated pacification” that characterized the final days of the Vietnam War: a determined effort to destroy the National Liberation Front “infrastructure” in the villages and small unit operations using massive fire power. When the combination of counterinsurgency and the “hard hand of war” were no more successful, the Nixon administration brought U.S. involvement there to a close.

I have gone into some detail on Kennedy-era counterinsurgency because it has remained a powerful model. However, at the time, its failure in Vietnam inspired resistance to counterinsurgency as a model of war, not least at the highest level of the military. Congress passed the “War Powers Act” in an attempt to constrain the war-making power of the executive, and the general repudiation of the use of armed force abroad was so fierce it was given a name: the “Vietnam Syndrome,” suggesting that the country had developed an allergic reaction to war.

Senior American military officials were determined to avoid any repetition of their experience in Vietnam. (General David Petraeus, in a 1987 article for the journal Parameters, dubbed these officials the Never Again Club, on the model of those officers who insisted after the Korean War that the United States should never again fight a limited land war in Asia.34 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced a similar sentiment recently, adding to the list of places to be avoided the Middle East and Africa.35) This group, which included Colin Powell, moved to fashion an army whose capacity for counterinsurgency operations would be severely limited and whose war-fighting capacity would be directed where they felt it belonged: against major military powers such as the Soviet Union. Their approach to war, ultimately known as the Powell/Weinberger Doctrine (after Reagan's Secretary of Defense) was composed of several simple premises: the United States would never again go to war unless the military had the enthusiastic backing of the American people, a clear and explicit goal, an equally clear exit strategy, and the ability to apply massive force to the problem. The self-limiting conditions imposed by the doctrine presumably made counterinsurgency warfare, as in Vietnam, impossible. It also imposed strict limits on the use of the military.

Counterinsurgency was dropped from the service academies' curriculum and replaced by courses that imagined war more on the model of World War II. Eventually, Desert Storm fulfilled the new requirements. It was fought against a tyrant who had invaded a peaceful neighboring country, at the head of an international coalition, and in support of a UN resolution. Desert Storm was in every particular not Vietnam: this was a war that ended before the public could either lose interest or oppose it, as clean as press control could make it (no pictures of Iraqi dead buried in sand trenches, but only of oil-soaked birds, said to be the victims of Saddam Hussein's irresponsible tactics), few American casualties, and a victory parade.

Perhaps most important, Desert Storm was fought by a volunteer, professional army. Policymakers could not be indifferent to public opinion, but they need no longer run the risk of the widespread protest a conscript army threatened. This army, combined with increasing numbers of mercenaries, offered the possibility of politically cost-free warfare.

However, counterinsurgency did not disappear entirely. Renamed “low intensity conflict,” it was pursued, though without U.S. combat troops, in El Salvador and Nicaragua, among other countries in the hemisphere. Still, despite its reputed successes in these countries, it never came to dominate military doctrine as its advocates had hoped. David Fitzgerald in his history of U.S. counterinsurgency concluded that “the Army at the close of the Cold War still overwhelmingly focused on its conventional role, and the counterinsurgency mission remained sidelined, its brief resurgence in the guise of Low Intensity Conflict notwithstanding.”36

After September 11, 2001, the first long war, the Cold War, mutated without pause into a second long war, the War against Terror. There is a distinction between the two wars that is important to my argument: the first long war, the Cold War, could come to an end since it was said to be against an ideology embodied in a geopolitical pole of power, the Soviet Union. The second long war, the War against Terror, since its objective is the elimination of a tactic, can never come to an end. The Cold War as it was conducted, required a major arsenal whose deployment was visible on the ground and in the air, and a system of conscription engaging the whole population. The second, the War against Terror, relies on a professional army enhanced by mercenaries, high-tech weaponry, counterinsurgency tactics, and an invisible air war. This combination makes war an abstraction: “armed social work,” as one counterinsurgency expert put it, on the one hand, “hunter-killer” teams, on the other.37

Counterinsurgency is a war for all seasons. Its principles have no time limit, no clear goal, no exit strategy. They are all tactical: clear, hold and build; use less rather than more force; be sensitive to the local culture; support only legitimate governments; be population-centric; employ nonkinetic means whenever possible. These means are said to have worked in Iraq. It is believed that they will work in Afghanistan. Judging by the past, if counterinsurgency does not work in Afghanistan, it will be interpreted as having worked, or it will be said not to have been pursued long or hard enough.

This is how it worked in Iraq: According to Wikileaks, some 15,000 more civilians were killed by U.S. and allied forces than were reported at the time; suspected insurgents were often killed after they surrendered (a lawyer reassured a helicopter pilot that “you cannot surrender to an aircraft”); the United States knew and refused to investigate the large number of the suspects turned over to Iraqi authorities who were raped, tortured, and sometimes murdered. The public was relatively well informed on the sectarian warfare that turned Iraqi cities into killing fields. But few people knew the extent to which U.S.-trained death squads, modeled on operations in El Salvador, participated in this sectarian violence.38 It was perhaps because so much of the violence of the war in Iraq was hidden that the revelations about Abu Ghraib had such force.

The press, the military, and the president all credited the return of counterinsurgency, guided by a new field manual and implemented by General Petraeus with the help of additional troops (constituting not an escalation but a surge), with bringing the level of violence in Iraq down to manageable levels. A status of forces agreement with an elected Iraqi government was negotiated, and the United States was said to have finally achieved success, if not victory, in Iraq. The next test for counterinsurgency was in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Gates now report steady progress. As they did in Vietnam, reporters and junior officers tell a different story. In February 2011, C. J. Chivers wrote an angry column about the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Pech Valley. It opens on a contradiction: “After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the US military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.” The major in charge of this area of Afghanistan insists that the move was not an abandonment of the area (in which over one hundred American soldiers and uncounted others have died), but rather a “realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people.” A less senior officer put this differently: “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren't anti-US or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone. Our presence is what's destabilizing this area.” Neither the reporter nor the officer went on to generalize from this observation. In theory, the Afghan National Army will remain in the Pech to protect those who cooperated with the Americans and are thus now at risk of Taliban retaliation. No one believes the Afghan Army capable of protecting them.39

In southern Afghanistan this spring, villages were destroyed to save them, a tactic whose likelihood of success was questioned by a headline in the New York Times: “Winning Hearts While Flattening Vineyards is Rather Tricky.”40 At the same time, the number of drone attacks and Special Forces “hunter-killer” teams has steadily increased. According to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, Petraeus was experimenting with a new mix of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, or in Petraeus's own enhanced term, “comprehensive counterinsurgency.”41

Over the past two years, the war has become less and less visible. The number of “hunter-killer” teams operating in Afghanistan has increased exponentially along with drone attacks. The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2011 that these “hunter-killer” teams, operating with maximum secrecy, had conducted thousands of raids over the past year, killing 3,200 insurgents and capturing well over twice that number.42 Worldwide, Special Operations forces operate in seventy-five countries, a deployment the Obama administration justifies on the basis of the 2001 congressional mandate to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided” the attacks. A senior legal adviser to the Bush administration observed that “many of those targeted . . . had nothing to do with the 2001 attacks.”43

The fate of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea may be a counterinsurgency parable.44 The book, a lyrical account of Mortenson's winning hearts and minds in remote and violent areas of Afghanistan by drinking tea with tribal elders and building schools, was widely distributed to U.S. troops. General Petraeus, Admiral Mike Mullen, and General Stanley McChrystal all embraced Mortenson, and he made the rounds of bases in Afghanistan lecturing on “the nuances of tribal warfare.” Two enthusiasts, Lieutenant Colonel Gaydon and Captain Pan, wrote that their excellent relations with one district governor, was, “like Greg Mortenson's best seller . . . forged over chai.” But then Mortenson's description of his success turned out to be fraudulent, and the local governor with whom Gaydon and Pan bonded was killed in a “mob hit” by rivals who resented his failure to share funds skimmed from U.S. reconstruction projects. Michael Miklaucic, an official with U.S. AID, drew the moral: “No amount of tea with Afghans will persuade them that we are like them, that our war is their war or that our interests are theirinterests. The war in Afghanistan isn't about persuasion or tea. It is about power.”45

A secret war of high-tech intelligence gathering, enhanced Special Forces operations, heavily armed drones, and the training of local forces, may well become the new form of America's wars, probably combined with some form of counterinsurgency operations. The involvement of the CIA in military operations, indeed the appointment of General Petraeus to head the agency, blurs the distinction between civilian and military functions. A militarized CIA now oversees the drone bombings in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; the mandated secrecy of CIA activities makes war as invisible, as slight a burden on the conscience of the country as it could conceivably get. I began with a C. K. Williams poem and I should like to end with one. Its subject is Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel's invention of the shell that has immortalized his name.46 After describing the effect of shrapnel on the human body, Williams goes on,

Shrapnel's device was superseded by higher-powered, more efficient pro-

 jectiles, obsolete now in their turn.

One war passes into the next. One wound is the next and the next.

 Something howls. Something cries.

It probably will not do for historians to howl or cry, but it is certainly our work to speak and write so that a time of war not be mistaken for peacetime, nor waging war for making peace.


  • 1

    Delmore Schwartz, “Comment,” Partisan Review 18, no. 1 (January-February 1951): 13.

  • 2

    Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury May 14, 2011, http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/2011/05/14/.

  • 3

    C. K. Williams, “The Hearth,”Collected Poems (New York, 2006), 614.

  • 4

    Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s (New Haven, CT, 1995).

  • 5

    See Marilyn Young, Rhetoric of Empire (Cambridge, MA, 1968).

  • 6

    Quoted in William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, 1972), 14.

  • 7

    John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford, 1998), 289.

  • 8

    Walter Lippmann, “Empire: The Days of Our Nonage Are Over,” in Men of Destiny, quoted in David Ryan and Victory Pungong, eds., “By Way of Introduction: The United States, Decolonization and the World System,” in The United States and Decolonization: Power and Freedom (Basingstoke, UK, 2000), 18–19.

  • 9

    The full text of the speech can be found at http://usinfo.state.gov/xarchives/display.html?p=washfile-english&y=2003&m=October&x=20031018112610attocnich0.7477075&t=xarchives/xarchitem.html. There is an acidic account of Bush's eight-hour visit to Manila by David Sanger: “Bush cites Philippines as Model in Rebuilding Iraq,”New York Times, October 19,2003, 1.

  • 10

    Smedley Butler, War Is a Racket: The Profit Motive Behind Warfare (written in 1935; republished Los Angeles, 2003), 27.

  • 11

    The drone program is divided between the military and the CIA, and it is difficult to get cumulative statistics on the amount of tonnage dropped. Unlike Harrison Salisbury during the Vietnam War, reporters are rarely in a position to witness their impact.

  • 12

    William Barrett, The Truants (New York, 1982), 20

  • 13

    Oral history interview of Frank Pace, Jr., by Jerry N. Hess, February 26, 1972, http://www.trumanlibrary.org/oralhist/pacefj4.htm.

  • 14

    Quoted in John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (New York, 2000), 410.

  • 15

    E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (New York, 1951), 335.

  • 16

    The films were directly connected to current congressional debates over Universal Military Training and Selective Service, and aroused considerable protest from a variety of peace groups. The vice president of Coronet Films assured Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett that the protesters were small and powerless, but the Defense Department answered every letter, insisting they had offered only “technical support” to the filmmakers. By 1952, with Selective Service in place, the controversy had died down. Larry Suid, Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History (New York, 1990), vol. 4. See documents 43–68, which include announcements about the series; correspondence between J. M. Abraham, vice president of Coronet and Lt. Col. Clair E. Towne, head of the Department of Defense Motion Picture Section Pictorial Branch; letters of protest from various quarters, etc. The fourth film in the series, Are You Ready for Service, Number 4, can be viewed online at Prelinger Archives, http://www.archive.org/details/prelinger. For more on war films in general, see his Sailing on the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD, 1996) and Guts and Glory: Great American War Movies (Reading, MA, 1978).

  • 17

    Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture and World War II (New York, 1993), 271.

  • 18

    “The Good War,” in Studs Terkel, An Oral History of World War Two (New York, 1984), 137.

  • 19

    Richard Rovere, “Letter from Washington,”New Yorker, August 5, 1950, 48, quoted in James R. Kerin, “The Korean War and American Memory” (University of Pennsylvania dissertation, January 1, 1994, http://respository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI9503784). Allan Millett, in his history of the Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis, has a slightly different version. Millet's rhymes, so I am fairly sure he has the refrain right; but he uses “bless them all” rather than “fuck 'em all” and I am equally sure the latter is correct.

  • 20

    Quoted in Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (New York, 2010), 209.

  • 21

    Cited in Marilyn B. Young, “Hard Sell: The Korean War,” in Selling War in a Media Age: the Presidency and Public Opinion in the American Century, ed. Kenneth Osgood and Andrew K. Frank (Gainesville, FL, 2010), 130–31.

  • 22

    Cited in Young, “Hard Sell,” pp. 131–32. Lubell's account of public opinion appeared first in the Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1952, 19–21, 48–54. It was recapitulated in his 1956 book, Revolt of the Moderates (New York, 1956).

  • 23

    “The Truce,”Wall Street Journal, July 27, 1953, 6.

  • 24

    Pork Chop Hill, directed by Lewis Milestone (1959; Century City, CA: MGM), DVD. Milestone, also director of the aforementioned The North Star, is perhaps best known for directing All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

  • 25

    There were many specific lessons: a new Uniform Military Code of Conduct, designed to stiffen the spine of future prisoners of war was issued, and everyone agreed that China should never be provoked into participating in a new war in Asia. And there was one very misguided notion: that Eisenhower's threat to use nuclear weapons is what had brought China to yield at the negotiating table.

  • 26

    See Cumings, The Korean War, chapters one and six in particular.

  • 27

    Williams, “The Hearth,”Collected Poems, 614.

  • 28

    Quoted in Michael McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counter-Insurgency, and Counter-Terrorism, 1940–1990 (New York, 1992), 164. For the full text, see http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=8554.

  • 29

    W. W. Rostow, “Guerrilla Warfare in the Underdeveloped Areas,” Department of State Bulletin 45, no. 1154 (August 7, 1961): 23338.

  • 30

    McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft, 166.

  • 31

    Thomas L. Hughes, “The Odyssey of Counter-Insurgency,” Remarks at the Foreign Service Institute, July 3, 1967 (Unpublished; photocopy in the possession of the author.)

  • 32

    McClintock, Instruments of Statecraft, pp.170–73. The full text is available online at http://drworley.org/NSPcommon/OIDP/OIDP.pdf.

  • 33

    Charles Maechling, Jr., “Camelot, Robert Kennedy, and Counter-Insurgency—a Memoir,” Virginia Quarterly Review 75, no. 3 (1999): 43858. (Maechling put it this way: “We reoriented the [Latin American] military away from continental defense to a counter-insurgency mission backed by a river of American equipment with no human rights strings attached” creating “more efficient instruments of repression than existed before.”

  • 34

    David H. Petraeus, “Korea, the Never-Again Club, and Indochina.”Parameters 17, no. 4 (1987): 59–70.

  • 35

    Thom Shanker, “Warning Against Wars Like Iraq and Afghanistan,”New York Times, February 25, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/26/world/26gates.html.

  • 36

    David Fitzgerald, Learning to Forget? The US Army and Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq (Dissertation submitted to the National University of Ireland, Cork, Ireland, June 2010), 149.

  • 37

    David Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency,” Military Review 86, no. 3 (2006): 106.

  • 38

    See Marilyn B. Young, “Counterinsurgency Now and Forever,” in Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or How Not to Learn from History, ed. Marilyn B. Young and Lloyd Gardner (New York, 2007). For Wikileaks, see Nick Davies, Jonathan Steele, and David Leigh, “Iraq War Logs: Secret Files Show Who US Ignored Torture,”Guardian, October 22, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/22/iraq-war-logs-military-leaks.

  • 39

    C. J. Chivers et al., “U.S. Pulling Back in Afghan Valley It Called Vital to War,”New York Times, February 24, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/world/asia/25afghanistan.html?_r=1.

  • 40

    Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapal Wak, “Winning Hearts While Flattening Vineyards is Rather Tricky,”New York Times, March 11, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/world/asia/12panjwai.html.

  • 41

    David Ignatius, “Petraeus Rewrites the Playbook in Afghanistan,”Washington Post, October 19, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/18/AR2010101803596.html.

  • 42

    Julian Barnes, “US Secretly Adds Strike Teams—As ‘Hunter-Killer’ Squads Gain Favor in Afghan Effort, White House Has Bolstered Their Raids,”Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2011, A6. At the moment there are no fewer than 13,000 special operations forces deployed in seventy-five countries. See Tom Engelhardt, “A World Made by War,” October 17, 2010, http://tomdispatch.com/post/175308/tomgram%3A_englehardt%2C_american_warscapes/.

  • 43

    Quoted in Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. ‘Secret War’ Expands Globally as Special Operations Forces Take Larger Role,”Washington Post, June 4, 2010, A01.

  • 44

    Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations—One School at a Time (New York, 2006).

  • 45

    Greg Jaffe, “How the US Military Fell in Love with ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ ”Washington Post, April 21, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-the-us-military-fell-in-love-with-three-cups-of-tea/2011/04/20/AFWqYaJE_story.html. Jaffe adds that “not everything about the military's embrace of Mortenson's tea philosophy has been counterproductive. Joshua Foust, an Afghanistan analyst working for the military said that it “would be a shame to abandon the idea of trying to respect the people you're trying to reform with guns and money just because one of the people promoting the concept is shown to be a fraud.”

  • 46

    Williams, “Shrapnel,”Collected Poems, 661.