Recently, I wrote of “the ‘counterinsurgency doctrine’ so beloved by the Pentagon and eagerly embraced by Barack Obama.” A reader took me to task for this inflammatory remark, saying:
That ‘eagerly embraced’ statement is certainly hard to square with the Pentagon’s annoyance and Cheney’s charge of dithering. Its inaccuracy suggests either deliberate inaccuracy or judgment clouded by emotion, but either way it isn’t good.
To which, this brief reply:
I realize that historical memory has always been a rare commodity in the United States, but one shudders to see that the onset of this chronic amnesia is now down to the merest months. Was it not just six months ago, in May 2009, that Obama made a great show of firing the commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, and replacing him with a much-lauded “expert” in counterinsurgency, Gen. Stanley McChrystal — a close associate of the much-lauded “architect” of counterinsurgency in Iraq, General David Petraeus — the Bush-appointed officer whom Obama has retained as the top dog in the central fronts of the Terror War? Was not McChrystal championed by Robert Gates — the Bush-appointed factotum whom Obama has retained as the top dog in the Pentagon war machine?
The fact that Obama has not yet signed off on McChrystal’s latest plan does not mean that he is not now, before our very eyes, promulgating the Pentagon’s time-honored bleed-build-rinse-repeat philosophy of occupation warfare. He has already launched one major Petraeus-style “surge” in Afghanistan this year; the current controversy about the McChrystal plan is confined to how many more troops to send, and how far the vastly stupid and dangerous American war in Pakistan should be escalated. Obama has already explicitly ruled out withdrawing from Afghanistan; that’s “not an option,” as his mouthpiece put it just a few weeks ago. So what’s left? Only some form of continued “counterinsurgency.”
And so what if the Pentagon is “annoyed” with Obama, or if Dick Cheney is critical of the faction that ousted his faction from power? Do you think that factions in regimes of every stripe don’t have very fierce and nasty internal battles, even when they embrace the same general philosophy? Ever read any history of the inner workings of Nazi regime, or the Bolsheviks, or the Roman Empire — or Lincoln’s cabinet?
Of course, one can always base one’s conclusions on headlines in the NY Times: “Pentagon Annoyed at Not Immediately Getting Its Own Way!” or even — gasp! — “Cheney Slams Obama!” If these “Dog Bites Man, Sun Rises in the East” kind of stories inform your worldview, then more power to you. Personally, I don’t get much out of them. [For a brilliant dissection of the kind of threadbare vacuity that lies behind most “expert” analyses in the Times, see Arthur Silber’s latest: The Empty Establishment: No One’s Home in an Intellectual Wasteland.]
As for the particular criticisms on offer, I have to say that sniffy insinuations of “deliberate inaccuracy” are very far off the mark. Not that I’ve never been inaccurate, of course, if led astray by some erroneous source material, or by my own lack of insight or understanding in considering a particular situation. But I have never knowingly distorted or falsified a fact in order to support an argument or assertion. And in any case, as noted above, it is no way inaccurate to say that Barack Obama has eagerly embraced the “COIN” doctrine of Petraeus, which has been so blindly feted by the bipartisan elite of our political and media establishments – even though it is merely a regurgitation of similarly debased, and unsuccessful, COIN operations in times past.
And as for judgments “clouded with emotion,” let me say, in all candor, that I honestly don’t give one good goddamn whether someone thinks my writing on this issue is “clouded by emotion” or not. I mean, Jesus Herbert Walker Christ, we are talking about arms and legs and heads being ripped from the bodies of women and children — actual human beings, being slaughtered in our names, day after day. And for what purpose? Every ill and evil that the war purports to address is actually made worse by our violent occupation. Eight years down, and the Taliban is stronger, Pakistan is far more unstable, thousands more civilians have been killed, religious extremism in the region is stronger than ever, the opium trade is more virulent and more devastating, brutal warlords rule with impunity … the list goes on and on. And all we are being offered by our new “progressive” administration is more of the same.
So yes, when I write about this atrocious and obscene situation, there is a bit of “emotion” in it. And I guess you’re right: such a thing “isn’t good” — if what you want is to be taken “seriously” by the oh-so-serious, in that world where portentous headlines form the thrice-chewed cud of “conventional wisdom,” But I don’t give a damn about that, not in the slightest. I write about these things for one reason only: to bear witness, to put down for the record that I saw the evil being committed in my name, and that I spoke out against it, as fully and honestly as I knew how. That’s it. That’s all I want to do. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to give this testimony — and it really doesn’t matter to me what anyone else makes of it. If they find it useful in some way, I’m very glad; if they don’t, so what?
I’m not saying there aren’t many other worthy and effective approaches to confronting the horrific reality of our day — including, yes, writing dispassionate analyses, or striving to couch your dissent in a form that might get a hearing amongst the cud-chewers who control our national discourse. I’ve done both in my day. I may do so again. But that’s not what I’m doing here.
In any event, to believe that emotion does not infuse, direct and shape all of our judgments is, I think, deeply ignorant – historically, philosophically and biochemically. We know that consciousness arises from the unimaginably vast, unimaginably intricate interactions of physical and mental states. There is no airless, emotionless compartment somewhere inside your mind where you can go to hammer out pure, Platonic, disembodied essences of thought.
The most important question in this regard is not whether or not something is written with emotion, because this is unavoidable. The real question is whether or not that emotion is an informed one – if it is backed by facts, if it has been subjected to a self-aware analysis, and is not simply a regurgitation of conventional wisdom, shaped by emotions and motives which have been left to lie unconscious and unexplored.
I hope to God that I never write about atrocity, murder, corruption and brutality without a judgment deep-dyed with emotion for the vast suffering they cause. I hope my soul never becomes deadened to these horrors.