Long-Term Implications of the War In Afghanistan
by John Chuckman
How did carpet-bombing Afghan villages and conducting air
strikes against Taliban prisoners represent the actions of
a free people, of a great democracy? The forces of darkness
required an immediate, crushing response rather than any mere
effort at securing justice through diplomacy and existing
However disturbing to some, the answer does accurately reflect
important American attitudes about the War in Afghanistan.
The success of the war, as measured by the fairly rapid change
in that country's government and quite apart from what will
almost certainly prove a failure to end terrorism, may well
usher in a dangerous and bizarre era of international relations.
Since the collapse of the Cold War, America has addressed
the world with a new emphasis on democracy and human rights.
We enjoy official pronouncements on these precious concepts
at fairly regular intervals, although they are often used
in ways that resemble chamber-of-commerce boosterism, trade-concession
negotiations, or just plain advertising and leave one's hunger
for worthy principles in international affairs satisfied only
by the taste of flat beer or stale bread.
Apart from the statements' too-often self-serving nature,
and apart from their considerable selectivity and inaccuracy,
they generally contain an implicit assumption that democracy
is always and everywhere good. But this is far from being
true. Democracy is subject to the same arbitrary and unjust
measures as every other form of government, requiring only
the shared prejudices, hatreds, or selfishness of a bare majority
to inflict pain on others.
The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution exists precisely
to protect people from the tyranny of a majority. But even
a Bill of Rights often does not protect against injustice,
for such tyrannies have existed through much of American history.
Those held in slavery for most of America's first century
were held in a revised form of servitude for a second century
precisely by the tyranny of a majority of voters. And the
proverbial tyrant-sheriff or judge in backwater rural America
or crooked machine-politician in larger cities has inflicted
injustice on countless Americans, including stealing their
votes and corrupting their courts, despite the high-sounding
principles of the Bill of Rights.
Rights must be interpreted by courts, and members of any
court generally reflect the attitudes and will of those in
the majority or at least of that portion of the population
that exercises effective power (which at America's founding
was tiny). The times that courts go beyond this fairly pedestrian
role are rare and are invariably followed by accusations of
having exceeded their authority. And, of course, even bringing
issues to court implies the means to do so.
Apartheid South Africa was a democracy for whites that held
a majority population of blacks in a form of perpetual bondage.
Israel follows almost the same pattern except that the group
held in bondage is a minority. But America only spoke out
about South Africa's practices in the last few years of its
existence when tremendous international and private-citizen
pressure had already been brought to bear. And America has
yet to say anything about Israel's practices.
America's penchant to criticize, selectively, other forms
of government and social arrangements together with new efforts
to apply American laws abroad (examples here include: penalties
under Helms-Burton against third-party business with Cuba;
the abuse of American anti-dumping laws to change previously-negotiated
terms of international trade agreements; frequent efforts
to extradite citizens of other countries to face American
courts; programs to control what farmers in other countries
grow; the opening of FBI offices abroad; and, most recently,
intense pressures on other countries to change their visa
and refugee laws to be more consistent with America's fairly
harsh regime) signal a fervent, new burst of enthusiasm for
shaping the world to America's liking.
The world would almost certainly welcome the sincere application
to American foreign policy of liberal principles. I mean,
of course, the ringing 18th century meaning of liberal, not
the degraded, pejorative that America's right-wing establishment
has worked so hard for decades to make of that word. (The
widespread effort to debase the meaning of this fine word
by our many commentators and politicians who promote attitude
rather than analysis is itself evidence of insincerity concerning
But America's interventions in the world are shaped by a
witch's brew of self-righteousness, simplistic answers, and
the same kind of narrow self-interests that have characterized
the interventions of all former great powers. The world's
first (at least superficially) democratic great power, despite
the official pronouncements about rights and freedoms, still
does not match its interventions to broad principles that
most of the world's peoples would embrace.
An important and overlooked explanation for inconsistent
words and actions is the nation's legacy of Puritanism. This
legacy generates the zeal about changing the world to our
own liking while ascribing the actions to the very mind of
God, at least as revealed through the Holy Writ of our Founding
Fathers - Americans often having some difficulty distinguishing
between the two.
We are taught in elementary school that the "Pilgrim Fathers"
and other extreme, fundamentalist Christian groups came to
our shores seeking religious liberty. The textbooks neglect
to explain what truly nasty people the various Puritan groups
of the 16th and 17th centuries were.
They were despised across much of Europe not so much for
their private beliefs but for their intolerance of others'
beliefs and their vicious public behavior. Truly violent pamphlets
and sermons about the beliefs of others were standard Puritan
fare - most of their contents would meet the most stringent
modern standard of hate-speech. Some Puritan groups went well
beyond ranting to their own people. They crashed into the
church services of other denominations to deliver vitriolic
attacks on what was being preached.
And it was Puritan groups in England who, after the Reformation,
raged through the beautiful old cathedrals, hacking up statues,
destroying historic tombs, and burning priceless works of
art that they regarded as idols - actions no different in
any detail from recent ones by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
These furious, unpleasant people, dizzy with paranoid feelings
of religious persecution, streamed onto the shores of America,
hoping to create their own version of society. It was not
their intention to permit religious liberty or any other liberty
at odds with their harsh dogmas of predestination and damnation
of all those not elected by God. It took worldly, late 18th-century
skeptics like Jefferson making political alliances with the
many schisms that irascible Puritan personalities created
to bring the beginnings of what we understand as religious
liberty to America.
Patterns of thought and behavior among America's contemporary
conservatives still strongly resemble those of Puritans from
three centuries ago. Perhaps the most persistent, and for
our theme the most relevant, is the inability to see gradations
or subtleties in controversial situations.
You are either right or wrong, saved or damned. There is
no middle ground. Note in this regard President Bush's graceful,
memorable words to the world about being either with America
or with the terrorists. Thirty years before, during the War
in Vietnam, one heard repeatedly, "Love it or leave it," an
ugly expression that has reappeared a few times even in the
far less stressful domestic atmosphere of the War in Afghanistan.
So many American minds instinctively follow this pattern
of thinking, one suspects it's in the gene pool. During the
insane episode of keeping a little boy away from his father
and his country on the basis of ideology, a perceptive Australian
wrote in a Sydney paper that he was grateful Australia got
the convicts instead of the Puritans.
Americans are convinced they are the modern version of "God's
chosen people." This identification with the struggles and
fortunes of the Old Testament Hebrews was a strong Puritan
characteristic. With Americans' good fortune in growing up
on a continent whose vast resources and space and favorable
climate have nurtured health and prosperity as well as attracted
ambitious and talented people from all over the world, who
can fully blame them? A land of milk and honey, if ever there
But much as the successful 17th-century Puritan businessmen
typically did, many Americans regard their success as a visible
sign of God's favor. Favor, not blessing, is an important
distinction. One is humbled and grateful by blessings, but
hubris (or, its rough, earthy equivalent, chutzpah) and arrogance
tend to be the less attractive results of believing oneself
While historical events tend more to develop than erupt -
eruptions, if you will, reflecting local pressures built up
from years of the glacially-paced movements of history's tectonic
plates - the first massive eruption of American Puritanism
on world affairs - there were earlier, lesser ones and a history
of domestic ones - came with the closing days of World War
Following the titanic, destructive failure of Nazi Germany's
crusade against Bolshevism (a fundamental part of Nazi ideology),
America effectively took on the same burden with the Cold
War. There was more of a direct connection here than is often
realized, since not only German scientists were grabbed up
in large numbers for military research but many political
and industrial figures, with unmistakable Nazi pasts, were
eagerly recruited and assisted after the war by the CIA and
its predecessor agency.
This struggle was regarded by America's establishment as
a life-and-death one, much as Hitler's Germany regarded it.
Few Americans today realize how deadly serious it was. The
"blacklisting" in Hollywood, featured on film and television
as the tragedy of the era, was almost a trivial aspect of
Warning the Soviets of America's willingness to be ruthless
was one of the important considerations in the decision to
use atomic bombs on civilians in Japan. During the early Fifties,
our government seriously planned a pre-emptive atomic strike
on the Soviet Union. The full story here remains unknown,
but perhaps only the revulsion of allies who learned of this
prevented its taking place. (Revulsion at American attitudes
and plans may have played a role in motivating some of the
many extremely-damaging Soviet spies in Britain at this time).
It is an interesting observation that while classical economists
and astute students of history always understood that Soviet-style
communism must eventually collapse of its own structural weakness,
much like a massive, badly-engineered building on a weak foundation,
this knowledge seems not to have influenced American policy
during the Cold War. Delenda est Carthago became a terrible,
palpable presence in American society. Communism must be defeated
because it was godless and failed to recognize the elect nature
of America's way of doing things.
The high-water mark in America's impulse to wage holy war
against the benighted adherents of communism and free their
people to buy Coca-Cola and receive the Good Word was undoubtedly
the war in Vietnam. While defeat in Vietnam proved a disaster
not quite on a scale of Germany's Götterdämmerung in Russia,
it was a humiliating and destructive experience.
I often ask myself what America learned from the Vietnam
War. Yes, we now have professional soldiers rather than conscripts.
Yes, every congressman has added "boys in harm's way" to his
or her kit-bag of Rotary-Club phrases.
But in a more fundamental sense, I don't think America learned
a great deal. Most of the horror of Vietnam was inflicted
on Vietnamese ten thousand miles away, a people who suffered
death on a scale only Russians or Jews could appreciate with
the equivalent of about fifteen million deaths when scaled
to the size of America's population. While the Vietnamese
suffered a virtual holocaust in rejecting the wishes of the
favored people, many Americans still believe they are the
ones who suffered a massive tragedy, surely an extraordinary
example of Puritan-tinged thinking.
If you compare America's less than 60 thousand deaths - about
a year and a half's fatalities on America's highways spread
over ten years of war - to Vietnam's loss of 3 to 4 million,
you realize that the conflict marked a turning point in methods
of war and the use of military technology. Our government's
efforts to limit unpopular American casualties - this was,
after all, the youth generation of the Sixties intended according
to all the advertising and pop magazine articles only to enjoy
itself and never think of dying - meant a new reliance on
air power and technology. The carpet in the carpet-bombing
was in the homes of Vietnamese peasants.
Economists call this a substitution of one factor of production
(physical capital) for another (labor) in the production function
(in this case, destruction abroad).
This substitution has continued down to the present at an
increasing pace. Indeed, the recent, much-criticized proposals
of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld (I don't know why, but I
am always tempted to call him von Rumsfeld) really amount
to an acceleration of the process. More technology, less soldiers
mean more precision, less domestic political risk from deaths
in conflicts, and, just as in any other industry, more efficiency
("bang for the buck" as the Pentagon so quaintly puts it).
Of course, taken too far, quite apart from possible specialized
military implications, this substitution threatens to undermine
America's popular support for the military. "Joining up" with
its advanced training opportunities, large benefits towards
post-secondary education, and even tolerance for enlisted
families and non-uniform life outside daily duties provides
an important economic and social option for many young Americans,
most of whom, naturally enough, never expect to see combat.
For a couple of million people, the armed forces today offer
one of the few equivalents of what a secure union job with
plenty of benefits in a sound corporation was fifty years
The greatest danger of the Vietnam War to America was that
the nation showed genuine signs of beginning to crack apart,
just as it actually had done a century before in the Civil
War. Changes made in the nature of American interventions
since that time reflect more an avoidance of this kind of
internal divisiveness than a fundamentally different way of
regarding the rest of the human race. They reflect also the
unexpected collapse of Lucifer's evil empire. We now have
only the vicious scrambling of lesser demon-princes on which
to focus our fury.
However, an increasingly technology-intensive armed forces
comes to the rescue for hunting out these lesser varmints.
Not only are our chosen enemies generally smaller and weaker,
but our ability to reach out with fairly little risk to American
lives is vastly improved.
While the Pentagon has not achieved the precision-capability
that its spokesmen and supporters almost salivate describing,
it has nevertheless come a very long way to delivering overwhelming
destruction on selected targets with very little risk to its
own pilots or troops, at least in the kinds of places it has
been called upon to attack - that is, countries with small
economies such as Iraq or Serbia and places still immured
in the culture of earlier centuries, such as Afghanistan.
Over the long term, big investments in technology do pay
off, as the last ten years of general American prosperity
prove, and the military is no different in this regard.
But the ability to kill without being killed reflects a potentially
destabilizing influence in world affairs. One of the few universally-true
dictums ever uttered is Lord Acton on power.
Immense power in the hands of a people who neither know nor
care about the world except as it reflects their own attitudes
is inherently dangerous, but this is something Americans have
already experienced in the post-war period. Even then, as
in Vietnam, the results were often grim.
Given the ability to kill without being killed and with no
other power great enough to offer counterbalancing influence,
a new, bizarre version of Pax Americana is the prospect for
decades ahead - at least until a united Europe, a developed
China, and a reinvigorated Russia and Japan can offer effective
alternate voices. (As for the influence of Puritanism within
American society, only time plus lots of immigration seem
likely to have effect).
And I believe this comes with its own built-in tendency towards
instability, as people across the globe resent and resist
the changes and adjustments expected by America, not only
in the sphere of economics through developments in globalized
free trade, but in the political and social spheres at an
intensity rarely known before, except by unfortunate neighbors
in the Caribbean Basin.
America's inclination to ignore international institutions
and to declare people or states as criminals whenever they
seriously oppose its demands combined with its ability to
punish with impunity unavoidably will increase resentments
and bring relations to the boil over much of the world time
and time again. New forms of terrorism, or what the dear old
CIA has always euphemized as "dirty tricks" where it was doing
the terrorizing to promote American interests, seem virtually
certain. But wasn't that what the war in Afghanistan was supposed
Listen carefully to Mr. Bush's words about a long, complicated
war. I don't think the words advisors have put into his mouth
are just about Afghanistan or even about anything so specific
as extending the action to Iraq. In effect, I think he's talking
about the kind of perpetual low-grade state of war that was
part of Orwell's vision for 1984. Only it's not going to be
Big Brother that prosecutes it, but the Puritan forces of
America's New Model Army.