I’ve been arguing with my fellow editor, former colleague at Rutgers, and old friend John McClure for years about—well, about every goddamn thing. Recently we’ve been wondering about what happened in Afghanistan, reading accounts and analyses, polling friends and neighbors, testing our ideas against the ideological realities that surround and sustain us, which is the air we breathe, and I don’t mean that as a metaphor. We stay alive only insofar as we can believe in something. Call it faith, call it common sense, call it the will to believe, you can’t do without it.

Here is our email exchange. The premise was provided by our experience and understanding of the military in the discipline, if you will, of American imperialism. We both come indirectly from military families, as it were. John’s dad was a machine gunner on an amphibious tractor in World War II; he was in the Philippines when John was born. His cousin, George LePre, led an infantry platoon in Vietnam when John was in the Peace Corps in Kenya. Mary Lawlor, John’s wife is to what we used to call an “army brat,” a child socialized by the movement from base to base, here to there, never a destination, always another station. (See her memoir, “Fighter Pilot’s Daughter,” for an account of that experience.) I’m the son and the father of veterans, men who have been at war, and not just with themselves.

One of our agreements since 2002 is that the military has done some of the best criticism of American imperialism. The war colleges—isn’t that a strange and wonderful usage?—have been the a center of resistance to the idiocy of policy-makers and policy making. And while the military has in several ways promoted and extended America’s 3 most disastrous adventures—Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—a whole lot of trenchant criticism of military adventurism has emerged both from the upper echelons and from the ranks. Soldiers know how to count the living and the dead, even if they don’t weigh friends and enemy combatants and non-combatants equally. And they have often shown themselves less ready to put people at risk than civilian policy-makers. —-Jim Livingston

OK, here we go. John and I ask: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

JL: Been talking with friends about the US lack of strategy in Afghanistan—what made us think we could “nation build” there, how could this collapse have happened, and so quickly? One answer is the absence of historical consciousness. Policy-makers didn’t remember that what failed in Vietnam was bound to fail elsewhere, but how could they have forgotten that debacle as they set out to “build nations” in Afghanistan and Iraq? “Mistakes were made”? Not enough expertise?

Another answer is the abjection of Congress, its supine posture toward the executive branch, no matter who runs it, the genial moron from Houston, the learned stoic from Chicago, the pathetic twit from Queens? Military intelligence was uniformly optimistic. We’ve trained these guys, they can hold their own. It’ll take the Taliban 3 months to rule, meanwhile we negotiate. Everybody heard it, inside and outside of Congress, even over here in NYC.

Who believed it? Not me. So, I wonder, with my friends, what is the strategy? Or rather, is there one?

John McClure: Thanks for mapping out this grim itinerary, Jim. Is it a coincidence that imperial barbarism ripens in the era of neoliberal hegemony? And is it within elite institutions like West Point, Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson, Johns Hopkins’ SAIS, that “right by might” thinking gets reproduced or elsewhere?

JL: Yeah, you and I have been talking about those military men for years—many of them seem to be more profoundly disillusioned with “empiring,” as you put it, than their civilian overlords. Probably because they have to watch the people under their command die for the wrong reasons.

The seat of empire was passing from the Thames to the Potomac almost overnight, John Hay said in 1901, in his eulogy for William McKinley. We’re witnessing a similar passage from the Potomac to the Yangtze–something the founding fathers of the 20th-century open-door American empire actually expected, even welcomed.

But they thought the US would preside over this passage in and through trans-national, “multi-lateral” institutions like the UN, the IMF, the World Bank. The result, they thought–deeply, sincerely–would be a “post-imperial” world, in which the seat of empire was dispersed rather than unitary, in which the sovereignty of all people, all nations, was the norm.

US policy-makers betrayed this vision and thereby squandered any post-imperial possibility when they decided, in the aftermath of 1989, that military force was the principal index of power in a world where the USSR no longer mattered. The original architects of “American Empire” knew better–they knew that “great power politics” as practiced by Germany and the UK, ca. 1873-1900, which included colonialism of the most rapacious kind, would prioduce trade war, then shooting war, then revolution and with it the disruption of any world order.

They were right: see the wars of 1894-1919 and their unimaginable results in fascism, communism, and their cognate intellectual effects.

All predicted by Cold War “foreign” policy, to be sure, but not fully enacted until 2003, with the war on Iraq. The naked arrogance of right by might was only then revealed as the American way in the world.

Disgusting, depressing, appalling. But there it is. The best and the brightest keep overruling the people in uniform, keep fighting wars we can’t win–and, thereby, keep starving the American people of their birthright as enunciated in the Declaration.

JM: This makes sense to me–“They’ve got a strategy, in other words, but it’s pointless, useless, destructive. It resides in their belief that they should rule the world.” I’m appalled by the casual references to the “American Empire” scattered around in the press and used in a neutral or quietly self-congratulatory manner. So much for our collective attempts to make that term so dyslogistic–Burke’s word for pejorative—so that no one would ever want to use it to describe America again. But clearly some people–even some people in power, some military men, don’t want to sign up for our current sort of empiring. In this afternoon’s speech (August 16) which was better than I’d expected, Biden seemed interested at least in condemning the great tradition–Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan–the dream of nation building and the counterinsurgency warfare theory on which it’s based. But not–I should add–in relinquishing the imperial dream of panoptical reach and the power to punish transgressors from “over the horizon”–forget boots the ground, time for drones and whatever technologies come next.

JL: On the strategy of US foreign policy, in response to all the journalism, and to your remarks from yesterday. What, they didn’t know? Of course they did. They just wanted out.

It’s a paradigm, as they say, that sticks. They thought they got it right in Vietnam, they thought they could prove it in Iraq, meanwhile they got the shit beat out of them in Afghanistan. Did it change anything?

The strategy in Vietnam was “forced draft urbanization,” designed by Samuel P. Huntington –drain the villages, where the insurgents swim, and crowd them into places where they would be isolated from the insurgents and forced to adapt to modern-industrial ways. Voila, “take-off” into modernity, as per Walt Rostow’s formulae.

The strategy in Iraq started out that way, and then its total failure caused the brass to rethink. What then? A new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published by the U Chicago Press in 2007, as the so-called surge got underway, with Forwards by David Petraeus and his research assistants, a Lt. General and a Lt .Colonel.

What does this Manual tell us? That counterinsurgency is impossible, a fool’s errand. The so-called surge in Iraq didn’t work, payoffs to insurgents in Anbar did, as the Taliban learned in breaking down provincial resistance between 2019 and 2021

Key passage from the Manual: “Most density recommendations fall within a range of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents per 1000 residents in an AO.” (p. 22)

Key passage from me, 2009:

“On the face of it, then, the “surge” of 2007 was a military solution to a military problem—the lack of security determined by terrorism, which made the day-to-day give-and-take of pluralist politics unthinkable. And on the face of it, the “surge” worked. Violence in Baghdad plummeted, and the peculiarly vicious Sunni insurgency in Anbar—where officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army had allied with a new offshoot of al Qaeda—quickly receded. By 2008, progress toward “national reconciliation” was enacted in a parliamentary compromise on sharing oil revenues among the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

“In these terms, war was the answer to the rise of terrorist movements of resistance in Iraq: The logic of the larger, global war on terror was validated by the success of the “surge.” Certainly the proponents of the war and the “surge” said as much.

“But in fact, the so-called surge did not work as a military solution. It worked instead as a counterterrorist strategy that acknowledged the primacy of specific political grievances (most of which pertained to perceived inequities of proportionate power within postwar Iraq). Indeed the “surge” could not have worked as a military solution.

“According to the U.S. military’s new Field Manual, prepared under the direction of the U.S. commander in Iraq during the “surge,” an effective counterinsurgent force requires at least twenty combatants per one thousand members of the local population. By this calculation, 120,000 troops would have been required in Baghdad alone, a city of six million inhabitants. The difference was not, and could not have been, covered by Iraqi forces, which were still ethnically divided and still incapable of supplying their own logistical backing.”

They got a strategy, in other words, but it’s pointless, useless, destructive. It resides in their belief that they should rule the world.

JM: Afterthoughts: I want to suggest, Jim, in rereading our exchange for posting, that we probably should have established from the start of our conversation what I think are a few key features of the terrain of institutional decision-making in all three wars:
1. Each of several official branches involved—the President and his foreign policy bureaucracies and advisors, Congress, and the Military and Intelligence Services—are densely intertwined in all sorts of ways. They speak to one another through official and unofficial channels; they are staffed by personnel who move between them creating all sorts of networks, etc.
2) each of them is ideologically riven in ways that emerge around any critical issue.
3) Two of the three are committed at all times to presenting a monolithic front.
4) And as a result it’s hard to get a very clear image, from afar, of just how much disagreement is being expressed behind the scenes.

So for instance, while public intelligence reports, those shared with an often compliant press, were as you say universally rosy, assessments generated by officials on the ground were often sharply pessimistic, both within the military and within civilian agencies. Sometimes these were let through, leaked, etc. But most often they were buried.
To treat the services as self-contained and monologic, then, obscures the complexity of the situation and the depth of the structural problem, and the depth of the work required to build smarter, more responsive, systems.

Demonizing the military has never seemed wise or generous-hearted to me. I will never forget my cousin’s bafflement and horror at being spat upon and called a “baby killer” in Grand Central Station on return from Vietnam. But I will never forget, either, my father’s murderous anger at the officers who led his amphibious tractor unit into harm’s way, again and again, out of ignorance, bravado, and the desire for promotion. Nor the rage we have all felt, again and again, as our imperial armies slashed and burned their way into far off lands. Holding the American military up as a beacon for hope makes no more sense to me then, than dismissing it as a “fascist” monolith. It is, to my eyes, the vastly imperfect product of its time and place, but also a vessel in which, under often horrific conditions, some Americans are trying to take a step forward toward a better, less madly violent, world.