Thoughts on an Interview with General Stanley McChrystal

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Oh lord. Oh lord. I can’t stand it. Somebody get me a drink.

Recently I saw an interview with General McChrystal, head butcher of the Pentagon’s Democracy Implantation Force in Afghanistan. The General was explaining our ongoing victory. Yes, victory. We were making progress. It was only a matter of time. He could see the light at the end of the tunnel. He didn’t explain what were doing in a tunnel in the first place. I guess he forgot.

The man was a superb explainer. He was intelligent, lean and fit, tanned — American Gothic in olive fatigues. Earnestness rolled off him in waves, accompanied by Firmness, Soldierly Determination and, I suspect, utter incomprehension of what he was doing. Thirty years in the military will make the most brilliant officer into a simpleton. Most achieve it by the time they make first lieutenant.

The guy was Westy, I thought. They’ve dug him up and added animatronics. He had the same statistics, drew the same comforting graphs showing the same progress in pacification, the same decline in Bad Things and rise in Good Things. Yes, he thought, we really should stop killing so many civilians, but we would stop. We were going to help the Afghans, as soon as we finished killing most of them. (He didn’t say the part about killing most of them but seems to be working on it.) We would win their hearts and minds by beneficent and salubrious bombing. (OK, he didn’t say that either. It seems to be what he thinks.)

Gret Gawd, I reflected not too charitably, if this guy ever gets sick, he’ll need an equine proctologist.

So now we are invading Marjah, a city, to build schools and hospitals. Schools and hospitals are characteristically built with heavy artillery. As soon as we have destroyed the place, they will love us and see the virtues of the American Way. (The first thing we did was to blow up a house, killing twelve civilians including the mandatory contingent of children. If that’s not a hearts-and-minds move, I can’t imagine what could be. This report I saw on Antiwar.com, which I recommend to all and sundry.)

The strategy makes perfect sense, really. I mean, if Afghans killed your tyke, wouldn’t that make you want to adopt their form of government, and let them improve your life? It would me.

All of this is so eerily familiar. Westmoreland, the Ghost of McChrystal Past, was also a pacifier of hamlets. Kill their kids, give them five hundred bucks and a lollipop in compensation. Explain voting. What a plan.

Sez me, officers should not be allowed to try to think. A constitutional amendment would be appropriate. They spend decades steeped like green tea bags in a martial culture that doesn’t have a poodle’s grasp of how people work. If you want to fight the Red Army in the Fulda Gap (I don’t particularly) send McChrystal. He doubtless knows armor, helicochoppers, large guns that say boom. But about people, he ain’t got the sense God give a crabapple. And this is a people’s war.


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Understand: soldiers are not normal. They live in a bubble world, sealed away on semi-isolated bases with profoundly isolated minds. The usual traits of human behavior don’t apply, such as individual thought or mental independence. They believe in God and Country (at least, those who stay in long enough to make policy do). They are clean and neat, feel themselves part of a collective working together, respect authority and believe that others, such as Afghans, would be happier if they only did what they were told and got with the program. The military’s notions of Good and Evil are stark and very, very simple. We’re good, and wogs who don’t want us in their country are bad.

Some of this is not quite as silly as it sounds, as long as you stay on the bases. These typically are pleasant and orderly, authoritarian but not tyrannical, with public pools and gyms and clinics and in most respects the kind of welfare-plus-responsibility for which liberals yearn. The soldiers want Afghans to live the same way. It won’t fly.

Protestant Reader’s Digestism doesn’t transfer to Kandahar. “We’re here to help you” suggests to most of the world, “run like hell.” The sense of righteousness among field-grade officers is strong. They are doing God’s work. It doesn’t occur to them — can’t occur to them — that devout Moslems don’t want any Christians at all in their country, much less Christians who kick in doors and humiliate their women. The colonels think they are trying to extirpate evil, and that six robotic-looking alien troops hand-cuffing a man in front of his family is a small price to pay for democracy. Of course the grunts doing the kicking hate the locals, who dress funny and eat weird s__t and shoot at them.

What McMoreland doesn’t get is that people just don’t like being invaded. Yes, yes, it’s for their own good. We, of course, will determine what constitutes their own good.

Such is the ingratitude of these people, and their lack of respect for borders, that we find ourselves forced to expand the war into Cambod — Pakistan, I meant. Pakistan. And so the Predators fly, Predating, killing the wrong people because that’s what there are more of. That doing this might produce animosity is irrelevant to soldiers. The Mission is sacred. Our intentions are good.

The consequences of not understanding what you are doing can be consequential. (Is that genius or what? You read it first here.)

It gets so tiresome. We are always saving the world from some dread or other, usually unasked. Recently a friend read me a passage from Robert Bork, the very smart, very conservative intellectual who didn’t make the Supreme Court. In it he spoke of the justness and necessity of the war on Vietnam, saying that it was crucial in the effort to stop the spread of communism. Those who opposed the war just didn’t understand the danger.

We lost the war. What happened? The Soviet Union peacefully went out of existence. Its component “republics” have joined NATO or want to. “Communist” China is a major trading partner. Vietnam, still communist, hosts a big Intel plant. Cambodia is what it always was, a hot and drab little place of no importance. Laos too is green and hot and full of people who remember their fathers being killed by the Americans.

For this we slaughtered millions, brought Pol Pot to power to kill others, and killed a comparative few of our own citizens. Now, if America wants to kill its own soldiers, that is America’s business. It is a matter of national sovereignty with which no other country should have the right to interfere. McChrystal could maybe hold a private war somewhere in the southwestern deserts. You know, McCrystal vs. David Petraeus, with two divisions each, twelve rounds or knockout, no holds barred, but they have to buy their own weapons.

But leave others out of it.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. His latest book is Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle. Visit his blog.

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