According to a survey of 15- to 30-year-old men in the two southern provinces where President Barack Obama sent the bulk of American surge troops, 92% of respondents said they didn’t know about “this event which the foreigners call 9/11” after being read a three-paragraph description of the attacks. “Nobody explained to them the 9/11 story—and it’s hard to win the hearts and minds of the fighting-age males in Helmand if they don’t even know why the foreigners are here,” says Norine MacDonald, president of the International Council on Security and Development, the think tank that carried out the survey of 1,000 Afghan men in eight districts of Kandahar and Helmand.
If you need a final resemblance between the First World War and ours of the present moment, consider the soaring rhetoric. The cataclysm of 1914-1918 is sometimes called the first modern war which, among other things, meant that gone forever was the era when “manifest destiny” or “the white man’s burden” would be satisfactory justifications for going into battle. In an age of conscription and increasing democracy, war could only be waged — officially — for higher, less self-interested motives. As a result, once the conflict broke out, lofty ideals filled the air: a “holy war of civilization against barbarity,” as one leading French newspaper put it; a war to stop Russia from crushing “the culture of all of Western Europe,” claimed a German paper; a war to resist “the Germanic yoke,” insisted a manifesto by Russian writers, including leftists. Kaiser Wilhelm II avowed that he was fighting for “Right, Freedom, Honor, Morality” (and in those days, they were capitalized) and against a British victory which would enthrone “the worship of gold.” For English Prime Minster Herbert Asquith, Britain was fighting not for “the advancement of its own interests, but for principles whose maintenance is vital to the civilized world.” And so it went. So it still goes. Today’s high-flown war rhetoric naturally cites only the most noble of goals: stopping terrorists for humanity’s sake, finding weapons of mass destruction (remember them?), spreading a “democracy agenda,” protecting women from the Taliban. But beneath the flowery words, national self-interest is as powerful as it was almost a hundred years ago.
Fourteen million Americans are out of work, nearly a third of them for more than a year. The Depression-like jobs crises in black neighborhoods around the country have become so acceptable as to be literally unremarkable in national news media. When overall joblessness inched downward in March, the fact that black unemployment increased, again, was greeted with callous shrugs from the White House to CNN. But America is exceptional because we can kill. Our economy is defined by greed. The top 1 percent of earners take home a quarter of income in this country. Wall Street banks are logging record profits while the Treasury Department professes helplessness at the fact that tens of millions of people are still losing their homes to those banks. Because of that foreclosure crisis, the stunning racial wealth gap—the typical black family has a dime for a dollar of wealth held by its white counterpart—will surely grow worse. The White House is paralyzed with inaction in the face of all of these challenges. But it can kill, so we are great. We have the world’s most expensive health care system, and yet in 2009 infant mortality in the U.S. was higher than in 29 other countries and the worst among rich nations. Why? In large part because the infant mortality rate is so high among black and Latina women. We cannot find justice for them, but we can kill and call it justice. We have a $14 trillion deficit. A massive giveaway to defense contractors lurks inside that number—a transfer of public funds that has been justified, in ways both explicit and implicit, by the evil visage of Osama Bin Laden. And now, Washington is as likely as not to make up the loss by taking apart the safety net that once created something like economic justice in America. But the president would like us to agree that we are great because we can kill. “May God bless the United States of America,” Obama declared last night, a sentiment echoed by so many today. Indeed. But the familiar refrain feels to me more like an urgent plea for forgiveness than the triumphant war cry that it is.
During World War II, some United States soldiers in the Pacific theater used the word “lollapalooza” as a shibboleth to verbally test people who were hiding and unidentified, on the premise that Japanese people often pronounce the letter L as R, and that the word is an American colloquialism that even a foreign person fairly well-versed in American English would probably mispronounce and/or be unfamiliar with. In George Stimpson’s A Book about a Thousand Things, the author notes that, in the war, Japanese spies would often approach checkpoints posing as American or Filipino military personnel. A shibboleth such as “lollapalooza” would be used by the sentry, who, if the first two syllables come back as rorra, would “open fire without waiting to hear the remainder”.
Germany will finally pay off the last of its debts from World War One this Sunday, on the 20th anniversary of German reunification. Germany’s federal office for central services and unresolved property issues (BADV) said on Tuesday a bond issued to pay remaining debts stemming from the conflict would mature on Oct. 3, two decades after West and East Germany united. The final 70 million euro ($94 million) installment will close a 92-year chapter that saw Germany plunge into totalitarian dictatorship and trigger a second world war that ended with its division during four decades of Cold War.
The 2011 military budget, by the way, is the largest in history, not just in actual dollars, but in inflation adjusted dollars, exceeding even the spending in World War II, when the nation was on an all-out military footing. Military spending in all its myriad forms works out to represent 53.3% of total US federal spending. … US military spending isn’t just half of the US budget. It is also half of the entire global spending on war and weaponry. In 2009, according to the venerable War Resisters League, US military spending accounted for 47% of all money spent globally on war, weapons and military preparedness. What makes that staggering figure particularly ridiculous is that America’s allies—countries like France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan—account for another 21% of the world’s military spending. Fully 12 of the top-spenders among big military-spending nations are either allies of the US, or are friendly countries like Brazil and India. That is to say, America and its friends and allies account for more than two-thirds of all military spending worldwide.
In a stark assessment of shootings of locals by US troops at checkpoints in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in little-noticed comments last month that during his time as commander there, “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.”
Though I’m back in Iraq now, I put off seeing the movie, partly because I felt no need to be disturbed by memories that its graphic images would surely raise. But I mentioned the movie to a few soldiers. Predictably, none liked it. A group from the 2nd Infantry Division laughed uproariously, recalling the scene where a blood-soaked bullet jams a massive .50-caliber rifle. “A fifty cal? Blood would just lubricate it!” Another soldier: “Remember the scene where the dude is running alone through Baghdad? Ridiculous!” Finally, a few nights ago, I sat down to see “The Hurt Locker” for myself. This time, the soldiers were right. The film is a collection of scenes that are completely implausible — wrong in almost every respect. This time, it’s not just minor details that are wrong.