Afghanistan: The Wheels Are Coming Off

When does a determination to look on the bright side turn into a state of denial? That is, when do leaders of a secrecy-obsessed US government admit the decision-making surrounding the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan was misguided from the beginning and the endgame is a mess because of it?

While the leadership of America is mud-wrestling with itself in the election “silly season,” the nation is watching the wheels come off its military occupation of Afghanistan. It feels like that special effects TV ad for a new SUV in which, as the SUV speeds forward, thousands of its parts magically come flinging loose until we see nothing but the truck chassis speeding ahead.

In Afghanistan, we’re down to that truck chassis. And its wheels are now coming loose. Once again, US leaders have reached a crisis endpoint in yet another counter-insurgency commitment. Once again our leaders insist on “victory” when that kind of end is impossible.

Images of colonialism, empire and imperialism

Images of colonialism, empire and imperialism

The story began just over a century ago. Smart, moderate historians like Andrew Bacevich (Washington Rules and The Short American Century: A Postmortem); Chalmers Johnson (The Blowback Trilogy and Dismantling The Empire: America’s Last Best Hope) and others have made the imperial master narrative clear. In a nutshell, the expansionist militarist energy that began with the Spanish American War — the so-called American Century — is over. Or at least we’re climbing down the mountain we ascended so gloriously during the last century. The empire that was launched with great bully, outward-rushing enthusiasm by Teddy Roosevelt and others is now circling its wagons.

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “Recessional” about the “white man’s burden.” At the time, we were “liberating” the Philippines from the Spanish and becoming embroiled in a nasty counter-insurgency war with Philippine nationalists in which water boarding was regularly employed against uncooperative Filipinos. Here’s Kipling:

Take up the White Man’s burden -
Send forth the best ye breed -
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild -
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

His theme was the passing of the baton of empire and imperialism from Britain to the United States. America was high on Manifest Destiny and bursting at the seams to bring light to the benighted peoples of the world and to remake the world in its own exceptional image.

Being on the downside of empire is less invigorating. As economic realities become squeezed, it becomes harder and harder to sustain the notion that we’re covering the world with our beneficence. Instead, what we’re doing is covering our ass trying to hold on to what we got.

Former colonial hearts of darkness like China, India and Brazil are evolving into burgeoning capitalist giants who insist on being seen as peers or competitors and no longer as backward subjects (“half devil and half child”) for manipulation and exploitation. Latin America is feeling pride and independence vis-à-vis the US. Places like Iran with a history of US bullying become thorns in our side. While places like Israel that are dependent on US imperial might become frightening problems.

As we watch the wheels come off our mission in Afghanistan, it’s clear forward motion there is gravely impaired; so the mission shifts to figuring out how to retrieve that wheel-less truck chassis and the far-flung parts without recognizing the obvious.

This leaves us with a classic imperial question: Exactly how does a great empire remove an occupying army without seeming to be in retreat? An American legislator from the Vietnam era whose name I can’t recall answered that question with what is still the best pragmatic answer: “Ships and planes.” Bite the bullet and just do it.

The list of complaints about the US occupation in Afghanistan is long: Despite demands they be stopped, there’s the persistent drone and Special Operations night raids. There’s the video of laughing soldiers pissing on Afghan corpses. There’s those clueless Americans blithely burning Korans in a base dump. There’s the happy-go-lucky sniper unit that photographed themselves with a Nazi SS flag. And let’s not forget the killing of 26 Pakistani border guards.

The administration of Our Man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, is hopelessly corrupt and caught between being a US puppet dependent on US support and efforts to survive as a centralized leader in a traditionally fragmented Islamic society that disdains the US occupation. Playing to anti-American sentiment, he’s now asking us to leave.

And now there’s a major, front burner disaster to deal with.  A 38-year-old father of two on his fourth combat tour got drunk and decided he had to single-handedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians for no apparent reason. After days of not doing so, the military has identified the man as Staff Sergeant Robert Bales. John Henry Browne, Bales’ lawyer, is telling the public his client is a good family man who joined the service in the days following 9/11, is a “decorated” soldier and was wounded twice during his Iraq tours.

After his arrest, Bales was quickly flown to Kuwait. When Kuwait raised a hot potato alarm, Bales was immediately flown to the United States, where he is now in the prison at Leavenworth. The secrecy and rapid movement out of Afghanistan is, of course, meant to assure the military absolute control of Bales’ story. It’s also to trump any Afghan sovereignty demand that Bales be tried in Afghanistan for killing Afghans. Since the killings weren’t mission-related at all, the Afghan government has a good argument for trying the man in an Afghan court.

I won’t speculate on Bales’ personal motives, but that doesn’t stop the use of his story as metaphor. The fact is, symbolically, one could not have scripted a more compelling narrative to emphasize the problems surrounding our occupation of Afghanistan.

One thing Americans should understand, from an ordinary Afghan point of view there’s not that much difference between Sergeant Bales’ actions and a secret Special Operations night raid. Such confusion may seem ridiculous to US military personnel and other American apologists for the war who will point out there’s a big difference between planning an officially sanctioned and patriotically-applauded assassination mission into a village and a lone gunman running amok in a village.

Sure. But from an Afghan point of view, the difference amounts to a nuance. Dead is dead.

From a US antiwar point of view, Sergeant Bales’ sense of a personal war and the addled mission he undertook cries out to be considered as a lens through which to examine our mostly secret occupation of Afghanistan. It’s why I’m writing about Bales here, and it’s why the military wants so badly to control his story. In a world more and more ruled by the power of violence and killing as a change agent, Sergeant Bales is narrative dynamite.

In Vietnam, it was clear the wheels were coming off when US soldiers began “fragging” their officers in the war zone. Now we hear that those managing the recent visit of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to Afghanistan made soldiers disarm before entering the room where Panetta was to speak to them. Frustration levels in Afghanistan must be running at a fever pitch. Panetta has a talent as a humble US lighting rod for trips like this; a more apt description might be as the officially-designated US Apologizer.

Somebody’s got to eat crow for the debacle in Afghanistan. It’s either eat crow in negotiations as we plan a graceful exit; stop talking altogether and just leave; or, the tough-guy approach, reenter Afghanistan with guns blasting.

Defense Secretary Panetta and Afghan President Karzai, and Panetta's sad eyebrow brother, Eeyore

Defense Secretary Panetta, Afghan President Karzai and Panetta’s sad eyebrow brother, Eeyore

Counter-insurgency expert William R. Polk still sums up the difficulties of counter-insurgency best when he declares counter-insurgency war always devolves into some form of indiscriminate killing of civilians. In the same spirit, he says the only truly successful counter-insurgency campaign in history was the Romans, who employed a doctrine of scorched earth. That is, kill anything and everything in your path, and those left alive tend to pay fealty to you.

We’ll have to wait to see what the US military’s narrative line about Sergeant Bales is going to be. But one interesting narrative possibility is to see his actions as a mad, “acting out” episode akin to Rambo going back to Vietnam to fictionally accomplish victory when it was impossible in the real world.

I can see him now: Sylvester Stallone, shirt off, pectorals greased up and tears in his eyes, sneering to his captain on the radio: “They wanna tie our hands behind our backs. It ain’t fair!”

If the bastards won’t bend and comply to our beneficent will, then it’s time to gun them down without mercy. We hear this throwaway attitude all the time from war apologists. Killing is the only way to deal with people who won’t recognize we’re trying to help them. It’s how successful counter-insurgency campaigns were handled in the past. Do what needs to be done. Separate the men from the boys.

Newt Gingrich was asked what we should do with those who oppose us. “Kill them!” was his quick answer. The newly elected senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, is also hanging tough on staying-the-course in Afghanistan. I mention Blumenthal only because he’s the guy who suggested numerous times in public that he had served in Vietnam when he had only served in the Marine reserves in Washington DC. (Personally, I believe the world would be better off today if more of us in the US military had, like Blumenthal, worked in America on things like Toys For Tots and other forms of outreach to the poor.)

Military PR about winning aside, it’s pretty clear the Afghanistan occupation is on the rocks. We killed bin Laden and our favorite boogieman al Qaeda has been a non-factor in Afghanistan for years. Any justification for occupation is gone. Our problem is Afghan men and women connected with the Taliban and other insurgent groups who want US soldiers and lethal drones out of their land. At some point, it must be seen as that simple.

The real hurdle is fear and the fact we cannot leave a mission like Afghanistan unless we can do it telling ourselves we remain the greatest beneficent power in the history of mankind. Since we live in an absurd Catch 22 world, no one actually has to believe the US line. The issue is power. Do we have the world-class bullshitter chops to convince people we’re doing ABC while in their hearts they know we’re doing XYZ.

As the wheels keep flying off, this sleight of mind game becomes more challenging, driving the secrecy levels higher and the public relations into even greater realms of absurdity.

We desperately need some kind of truth dialogue in this nation, something that is anathema to our capitalist marketing reality. The last thing we need is another election ruled by higher and higher piles of money and a National Security State consensus that got us into the mess we’re in in the first place.

We need to get those ships and planes ready. If one must see leaving Afghanistan sooner rather than later as “cutting and running,” so be it. The point is to get out of Afghanistan and leave the Afghans alone — for our own sake. So we can get on with what we need to do here at home.

Let’s tell stories how our young men and women gave ‘em hell over there. Let’s have parades with flags and stirring martial music. And while we’re at it, let’s provide our soldiers the best in Traumatic Brain Injury care and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder counseling. And, yes, education and jobs to keep their families together.

The point is to cut the bullshit and bring our soldiers home. Let the corrupt Hamid Karzai and his cronies fend for themselves. If they cannot survive, then it’s time to let Afghans decide in their own way who they want to govern them. As the quality of leadership in America makes clear, even our system is a long, long way from perfect. And the corruption in Kabul is far less sophisticated than is the corruption in Washington DC.

About John Grant

John Grant is a veteran, a writer and a photographer. At age 19, he was a radio direction finder in Vietnam, working in the mountains west of Pleiku to locate enemy radio operators. He returned to the US and, then, read and learned what the war was really about; he has been a member of Veterans For Peace since 1985. He did documentary photography in Central America during the wars there and has traveled twice to the war zone in Iraq, as well as to numerous other places around the world. He has taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for ten years.


  1. fosforos says:

    The title of Kipling’s poem is *Recessional*, not “White Man’s Burden.”

  2. John Grant says:


    Thanks. I corrected it.


  3. John says:

    Outstanding article. Intelligent analysis, witty, coherent, and honest. My only quibble would be with your accepting the current spin of Bales as a rogue gunman. Local Afghans say otherwise. Noone appears to have seen the CCTV images of Bales’ return to camp alone. Plus, if the Army wanted to quell multi-shooter rumors running rampant, they would also release CCTV images of Bales leaving the base ALONE. But, anyway, thanks for a great read.

    BTW, someone has excerpted your article and posted it to the vibrant commenters section of Salon magazine. Check it out: Comment page 25, about halfway down. You might want to post to Salon regularly. Yours is just the kind of voice that would be welcome there.

  4. John Grant says:


    Thanks. I’ll look into Salon and see if if we can post there.


  5. Paul Appell says:

    Excellent article. It bothers me that a lot of local press here in Illinois is stressing the domestic problems of SSgt. Bales and ignoring the war itself and the mission on which we have sent our young. Robert Jay Lifton has written extensively about the “atrocity-producing–situation” that exists in wars that have produced My Lai, Abu Graib, and now Panjwai. Lifton writes that to attribute an atrocity in war to a few bad apples is poor psychology and self-serving pseudo morality. All of us in the US have blood on our hands-the blood of innocent sleeping children.

  6. John Grant says:


    I agree and also admire Robert Jay Lifton’s fine work. The fact is indisputable that SSgt Bales would not have run amok if we had not invaded Afghanistan and insisted on a ten year occupation. It is disturbing to see New York Times and other coverage emphasizing his personal life, his wounds and medal, his athletic prowess and how difficult it was to be sent back for a fourth tour, to be passed over for SFC and to not be able to keep u the payments on a $250,000 house. Well — duh! — if those responsible hadn’t made such a original bad decision and sustained that bad decision for ten years by sending guys like Bales back over and over — then Bales would not have felt compelled to murder 16 innocent civilians. Now that his trial is in the US — rather than where it should be, in Afghanistan — he will be spun by many as a victim, while the real victims will be ignored as just more collateral damage. Again, the real criminals will walk.

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