I don’t know about you, but I needed half a bottle of wine to get through watching President Obama at West Point. The freshman midshipmen, only a few years older than my dear nephew, watched soberly and crowded around him after for cellphone camera photos. As he smiled, Obama giving his trademark grin for the first time, I wondered if he’d been able to squelch my inevitable impulse: some of these kids will not be alive.
I’m not the only one who fears that we’re in 1965, the year LBJ really went to war in Vietnam, or heard echoes in Obama’s pledges last night. One Vietnam vet I know mourned on Facebook: “Let’s see, we trained the ARVN for well over a decade, and when we pulled out of Vietnam the south was lost within two years. After nearly seven years training up the Iraqi army & police, they still are not able to secure, stabilize, and bring order to much of that country. After eight years training the Afghan army & …police, we need a surge to allow us more time to train them?”
As I listened, my thoughts were similar to those of Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch. Go read it all, but here’s the part that encapsulates what haunts me:
Nothing the U.S. does or does not do in Afghanistan will defeat al-Qaeda — the failure of that movement will happen for its own reasons, if it happens (as it already largely has in the Arab world).
The moment where Obama recognized this reality was both reassuring and terrifying: when he mentioned Somalia and Yemen. He understands that Afghanistan is not the only, or even the primary, location where those motivated by al-Qaeda’s ideas can operate. But if the next move is to bring governance and stability, and counter-terrorism and COIN, to every ungoverned space on Earth — or even every Muslim-majority ungoverned space on Earth — then we are truly facing bankruptcy. Intellectually, financially, militarily, and politically. We can’t afford to do this in Afghanistan. We certainly can’t afford to do it in Somalia and Yemen… even if we should, which I strongly doubt.
OK, that’s not what haunts me. What haunts me most is the prospect of more kids coming home, many after multiple tours, and trying to make sense of the rest of their lives. Even the Supreme Court just noted, in an overlooked move, that too often the consequences land them in prison. Adam Liptak at the Times tells us why:
At a 1995 state-court hearing on whether Mr. Porter was entitled to a new sentencing, his company commander testified about the “ horrifying experiences” Mr. Porter had endured, including a “fierce hand-to-hand fight with the Chinese” and a two-day battle in which his company suffered casualties of more than 50 percent.
“After his discharge,” the decision said, Mr. Porter “suffered dreadful nightmares and would attempt to climb his bedroom walls with knives at night.”
Porter served in Korea, long before the term PTSD existed, long before you could buy T-shirts in the local PX saying “PTSD – Don’t Leave Iraq Without it.” Today’s soldiers know what’s up, and many — like the poetic Michael Jernigan, whose unflinching, poetic posts on the “Home Fires” site are not to be missed — are not letting trauma stamp them down without a fight. And a lot of those I’ve met, who have been to Afghanistan, have felt they were doing some good there.
So right now, like everyone else, I get to wait. There will be vigils, and protests, and loud statements this week. But @JointChiefs already told us last night: they are “fully in support…and prepared to EXECUTE” the president’s orders.