When radio host Earl Caldwell put on-air questions to me on New York's WBAI-FM Friday about the upcoming trial of five U.S. soldiers charged with the wanton killing of three Afghan civilians, I measured them against the horrors of the My Lai massacre and the widespread — and unreported — killing of hundreds, if not thousands, of other civilians across Vietnam.
As an information officer on the MACV headquarters staff in Saigon, I had a ringside seat observing Gen. William C. Westmoreland's conduct of that American misadventure leading up to the '68 Tet Offensive.
Toward the end, the Vietnam War had spiraled into a Dante's Inferno where, as the poet described his hell, the "sun [was] silent" and the soldiers were executing Westmoreland's 24-7 "search and destroy" tactics that had them essentially hellbent on killing every Vietnamese male not on the U.S. payroll. Running up the numbers, GIs would sometimes cut off the victims' ears or other body parts to verify the body count.
This paroxysm of bloodletting may well take hold in the improvised "war" that the U.S. continues to wage against the Afghan population and the fighters who are bent now on protecting their homeland against foreign, U.S. invaders.
President Obama wants out, according to Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars. If the commander-in-chief had his way — which is to say, were the U.S. a dictatorship instead of a democracy — he would bring a swift, if not resolute, end to this pointless Afghanistan "war." As it stands, nothing short of capturing Osama bin Laden can define what would constitute a U.S. victory. Yet the U.S. generals, whose war wagons lack both a brake and a warning light, seek escalation as usual and apparently forever more.
Rejecting the generals' request for 40,000 additional troops, Obama, according to Woodward, was nevertheless outmaneuvered (with the apparent assistance of stories leaked to the media). He settled for a short-term escalation of 30,000 troops. " 'Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to … reduce our footprint,' " wrote Woodward, quoting Obama. " 'It's our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room. I'm not doing 10 years. I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.' "
However, the generals, the intelligence establishment and, seemingly, the entrenched U.S. Defense Department — as well as the industrial complex that profits handsomely from such misadventures — have long-term and expensive plans for the region.
The current horror of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan — and even more so in Iraq — features official, wholesale military killing that is just as senseless as those three off-the-book killings allegedly carried out by the five indicted soldiers. The leader of the death squad reportedly bragged how they could "toss a grenade" and kill Afghan civilians for sport. Before bringing this specialty to the Stryker unit, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs had allegedly honed this skill during a tour in Iraq, where he reportedly got away with similar "stuff."
So, too, has the U.S. military overall. There is indeed a thin red line between the wanton murders the five GIs are charged with and the killings that official military policy commands our soldiers to commit. While Gibbs played a pickup game, the U.S. forces now under Gen. David Petraeus are killing under organized league rules in the Afghan theater they invaded. The latter is no more sensible than the former, given that, nine years after the 9/11 attack, al-Qaida has mainly fled to Iraq, Yemen and across the border to Pakistan.
As detailed in Woodward's new book, Obama is on the right side of the contending Afghanistan arguments within his administration. He asked his military advisers for an Afghanistan exit strategy, for example, but never received one, according to Woodward. Dictators are not bothered by such structural encumbrances.
This dilemma of policy enactment that Obama faces in Afghanistan is not caused by an inability to reach the proper conclusion; rather, it is rooted in the inertia of U.S. foreign policy and the matrix of the democratic process.
Meanwhile, the killing continues.
Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.