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How Long Must We Trust Generals on Afghanistan?

Pioneering Vet clinic in Taliban country

How long? (photo: Helmandblog/flickr)

In the wake of the miseries we have inflicted on the people of Afghanistan over the last 10 years, including the recent massacre, President Obama said Tuesday that he met with, and has extraordinary confidence in, General John Allen, the commanding general. We kill Afghanis so routinely that they no longer take to the streets when after a massacre, and we make stupid mistakes, like bombing weddings and insulting their religion and their sense of honor. But, the President trusts the generals in charge.

We don’t know exactly what brought on the most recent tragedy. There has been talk that part of the problem is the refusal of the Army to diagnose Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in its soldiers because treatment and care are very expensive. I think a more likely explanation comes from retired Major General Robert H. Scales in the Washington Post.

Perhaps the issue might be that no institutional effort can make up for trying over the past 10 years to fight too many wars with too few soldiers?

But I think if someone wants to place blame, it should be on a succession of national leaders who fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out. Lord Moran concluded in his classic about combat stress in World War I, “Anatomy of Courage,” that the reservoir of courage begins to empty after the first shot is fired. The horrors of intimate killing, along with other factors such as fatigue, thirst, hunger, isolation, fear of the unknown and the sight of dead and maimed comrades, all start a process of moral atrophy that cannot be reversed. Lord Moran rightfully concludes that nothing short of permanent withdrawal from the line will bring soldiers back to normalcy.

This sounds right to me, and I hope some of our readers with service backgrounds will chime in. I knew many soldiers during the Viet Nam war, and every one of them said that it was horrible, but that it was bearable because they were only in combat for a few months to a year. One friend, an artillery officer, served as a forward observer, a dangerous job. He did that for four months or so, and then went into a field office where there was little danger. Equally important, none of the people I knew served more than one tour in Viet Nam, with the exception of several guys I knew who were career army and volunteered to go back after receiving promotions, thinking it would enhance their careers.

The New York Times reported yesterday that the administration is considering speeding up our withdrawal. The big problem is that the Generals don’t want to leave.

Any accelerated withdrawal would face stiff opposition from military commanders, who want to keep the bulk of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, when the NATO mission in Afghanistan is supposed to end.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta concurs:’ “War is hell,” he said. “This is not the first of those events, and probably won’t be the last.” ‘

This is not a decision for generals, or the Secretary of Defense any more. The President is responsible for making this decision. He says that we have a mission in Afghanistan: “protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.” Keeping troops in Afghanistan is not necessary to protect our country, now that Osama bin Laden is dead, and anyway, we say we have the right to attack pretty much anyone with drones and whatever else we might think useful. As to bringing the war to a responsible end, who are we kidding? They don’t want us, and we have done nothing to show them that they should. A bi-partisan consensus is growing that we should leave, with Republican candidates and legislators beginning to raise questions about the costs and benefits of continued killing.

It’s time for the President to pay attention to the biggest picture. What are we doing to the Armed Services with this constant warfare? General Scales deserves an answer. The armed services deserve an answer. The nation deserves an answer.

The people of Afghanistan deserve an answer to another question: why don’t you go away and let us handle our own destiny as our own culture dictates?
Update: The New York Times has a fascinating explanation for the different reactions of Afghanis to massacres of the innocent and dishonor to their religion here.

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