On Veteran's Day, Americans should ask what their country's vital interest is in Afghanistan, and whether the soldiers there are being wasted.
Today we honor the American soldier. That is not the same as saying, “Support our troops.” The aim of that slogan is not to encourage Americans to support their nation’s soldiers; it is to enlist them in support of their government’s war. Wars are not fought for the benefit of soldiers — at least, not for the soldiers we think of today.
What does a country owe its soldiers? Weapons and armor, support and medical attention, pay and pensions. But the first obligation to the soldier is not to waste him. A nation may rightly send its soldiers off to get shot at, and perhaps defeated. What it ought not to do is to send them into a war unrelated to its vital interests.
What is America’s vital interest in Afghanistan? PBS-TV’s “Front-line” recently did a story on Afghanistan, saucily and accurately titled “Obama’s War.” It quoted the president asking what our purpose there is. His answer, in his speech of March 27, was “to protect the American people.”
And how do troops halfway around the world protect the American people? “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban,” the president said, “that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
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That was the Bush-Cheney theory. But does it make any sense? Is it likely that if the Taliban came to power again, wanting to create an Islamic state again, that they would tolerate an al-Qaida beehive for the stinging of America, again? Is it likely that after 9/11, America would fail to attack such a base?
The Bush-Cheney theory, which is now the Obama theory, is to send in American soldiers to change Afghanistan’s political culture and turn them into democrats. (Maybe even Democrats.) Are there any scholars of Afghan history and culture who believe this will work?
What this strategy looks like on the ground may be seen in the “Frontline” story. A group of Marines has occupied a village in Helmand Province that was held by the Taliban. They have taken over a building and are sleeping on the floor. A Marine sergeant is saying to some Afghan men (the women are not seen) that the U.S. forces intend to stay. Traders can reopen the village market.
An Afghan says the Taliban threatens death to anyone who reopens the village market.
The sergeant wants to know who said that. No one answers.
“Listen to me right now, all right?” the Marine says. “You all are not cooperating.” And he’s right. They’re not.
The sergeant says the Marines are there to keep the Taliban out, but need the villagers’ help.
“Why are you not helping us?” he asks.
They say they have no power to help him.
The Marine knows he is being filmed, and he is representing the United States as best he can. You can understand why he says what he does. The brilliance of the film is that you can understand why the Afghan says what he does, and why he is not cooperating. The Taliban are his people. They are of Afghanistan. The Marines are not. They will go home.
The film shows the Marines in a firefight with an invisible enemy, hidden in a row of trees. One Marine is shot. His buddies carry him off, urging him to hang in there. They are good Marines, good Americans. The soldier’s wound, however, is mortal.
And I think: I have seen this movie before. I know the plot and I know how it ends. It hurts to watch.
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org