I cannot think of one American death in Afghanistan that was not meaningful in some way. The attacks on September 11th left no doubt of the need for an overwhelming response. The Taliban government of Afghanistan had made no secret that it was harboring Al Qaeda. We had known for years that one of the greatest recent threats to the United States had found a safe haven among that government of radical Islamists. When the death of Americans was no longer something that happened far away, but was something we watched live, the collective cry of anguish that the nation issued upon the collapse of the first tower was fed by an equally strong and instantaneous lust for revenge. It wasn’t a sleeping giant that had been awakened, but rather a giant that had taken its safety for granted. Only rarely before in the history of man could a nation feel as safe as ours. The nineties were not a time of untouchable tranquility for America, but it might as well have been. Having come out of the long nightmare that was the Cold War as the victor, it was only natural to assume the worst of times were far behind us. We had walked the razor’s edge of deterrence, and despite ourselves and our enemy, deterrence had worked. The world was now safe — for Americans, anyway.
Thinking back, I am amazed that this delusional state of existence managed to persist as long as it did. It just goes to show how adept our leaders had become at exporting our problems overseas, and lulling the American public into an egotistic, isolationist worldview. Few had regard for the backs on which we had built the second half of the twentieth century. But then again, who has time to consider storm clouds well over the horizon while the sun shines so bright?
It should be kept in mind, that although the United States, its government and its large businesses, deserve a fair share of the blame for the current focus of radical hatred, by no means does this leave the radicals themselves blameless. Those are the people who felt that their political beliefs would be better served through the seemingly random spread of violence against civilians than with political discourse or focused rebellion. They are the people who continue to espouse a backward interpretation of Islam that is centuries behind current thought. I have no sympathy for radical sects whose theistic preachings include the oppression of those they are purporting to save. What type of man (because men are the only authority allowed under radical Islam) would convince his followers to die with the promise of an eternity filled with the caresses of a harem of virgins? That type of manipulation of mostly young, naive, undereducated third world men is inexcusable to begin with, even before considering the sales pitch includes the deaths of as many of the enemy as possible.
Who would impose draconian rules of public behavior on their people with equally harsh punishments for even the most minor infractions? What type of society would consider the freedoms of its people to be secondary to the brutality of its rule?
Islamic radicalism displays with aplomb all the hallmarks of evil regimes that have been the scourge of human history, from the Mongols to the Khmer Rouge. The Taliban shows just what happens when the radicals do manage to seize control of an entire nation. A society based on fear and repression is no society that has any place on this planet, yet radical Islam would have you believe that this is the one, true path to glory. So no, I am not capable of sympathy for those people.
I believe Islamic radicalism should be treated with the same disdain and horror as genocide, and its practices and beliefs to be left to fade away.
That being said, the United States government, particularly the current administration, has embarked down a path that will not lead to the extermination of Islamic radicalism, but more than likely, to its strengthening.
As I wrote earlier, the campaign in Afghanistan was a necessary escalation of the United States’ interest and involvement in this new war. The New York Times’ lead editorial on April 9, 2004, expressed the United States’ immediate targeting of Afghanistan as follows, a day after National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice testified before the 9/11 Commission, “...Mr. (George W.) Bush unequivocally picked Afghanistan as the first military target. Given the overwhelming evidence of the partnership between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, any other decision would have been inconceivably irresponsible.”
There was no doubt who the enemy was, who was harboring them, and where their central leadership was located. The international community, which had grown weary of the Taliban government, and which was sympathetic to the United States’ wish to escalate the war after the devastating blow it had just received on September the 11th, was quick to condemn the terrorist attacks, and for the most part supported the effort to overthrow the Taliban and the attempt to defeat Al Qaeda. The proxy war fought by the Afghani Northern Alliance (with logistical, material, and air support from the United States) against the Taliban was a quick success, while the military expedition from the United States, whose primary focus was to locate and eliminate Al Qaeda was, while proceeding apace, far from finished. The loss of their Taliban protectors forced Al Qaeda to flee into hiding in remote regions of a country they had enjoyed free reign over for years. The group had seen its effectiveness all but shattered by the response of the United States military to their attacks. Years of pinpricks and slow escalation against American targets outside of the United States had failed to arouse its fury, and there was no reason to believe it ever would. But Al Qaeda succeeded beyond their wildest dreams on September the 11th, and brought wrath down upon them. The Tora Bora region of Afghanistan proved a most effective cover for Al Qaeda, and this battered force found it necessary to regroup and form new strategies for continuing the fight. It became clear that centralized leadership was no longer an effective way to run the organization. Al Qaeda must become an organization in name only. Al Qaeda now consists of cells around the world that appear to operate mostly independent of centralized leadership, their major associations with the rest of the organization being material support.
It was around this time, as Al Qaeda central leadership was in hiding, that the United States began to shift its own policies regarding the war. The presidency of George W. Bush has always been transparent. No matter the rhetoric the administration hides behind, or the blur it creates with its ever-increasing rate of spin, those who simply pay attention to what happens in the country and the world can’t help but see past the lies. The new administration made no secret of its disdain for Iraq even before it was given the Oval Office in the fall of 2000. Iraq had been our avowed enemy for a decade, yet it was also a vanquished foe. Iraq never was the number one threat to our safety, and it never would be. Once flourishing weapons programs had become victims, as had the rest of the country, to the infrequent bombs and continuing economic excommunication of the western world. Iraq was not a threat because we would not let it be. Indeed, at its peak, just before the American intervention in Kuwait, Iraq was a threat not to American life and liberty, but to its wallets (it is unfortunate that the two have become so closely linked as to be indistinguishable, even though that is not the case). American intelligence and policy had shifted its focus to another threat, one that had claimed its first domestic victims in 1993, with the World Trade Center bombing.
Islamic radicalism is something the government of the United States had been aware of for some time. There were officials and specialists inside the government, and intelligentsia outside of it who had almost prescient misgivings about what this flourishing movement could mean to western society. Americans have been at the receiving end of this aggression for an entire generation at this point, from hostage taking and bombing of secure American positions in the Middle East, all the way up to the ambushes being laid for American aid workers and private security contractors in Iraq today. (The recent deaths of four Blackwater Security Consulting employees in Fallujah illustrates the increasing blurriness of the line between those fighting the war and those fighting the peace. While these men were civilian contractors, they were also all ex-military with Special Forces backgrounds, highly specialized training, and the type of weaponry that normally would get a shack in Kentucky surrounded by a force of federal agents. These men were obviously conducting a job in which they knew and understood the risks involved. In addition, calling them “security consultants” is just a whitewashing of the more traditional term of “mercenaries.” Calling the security personnel ranging throughout Iraq today civilians is self-delusory at best.)
An increase in the death toll of Americans, coupled with lifting our attention from repelling the Soviet threat after the Cold War, led to a greater understanding that radicalism would become the new enemy of American interests. The Clinton administration, at least at this point, appears to have understood this growing threat, yet felt that it would not be justified in taking unilateral action against these enemies, as they were hiding in foreign countries. In addition, although the American death toll had by then reached into the hundreds, the international community, with which the Clinton administration played a far more effective game of statesmanship and detente than the Bush administration, still would have frowned upon, and maybe even condemned, striking at these terrorists while at the same time violating many countries’ sovereignty.
This awareness of the changing nature of world politics is something the Bush administration was shamefully unaware of, instead choosing to focus its energies on international problems left over from the last Republican administration. Al Qaeda didn’t make its presence known in the Bush administration with any significance until it had shown up at the foot of the Pentagon in a blazing ball of death. The idea that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented is far-fetched, but there is no doubt the administration could have garnered a better understanding of our enemies before they once again brought their war to America’s shores. What incenses me is that after having recognized who the enemy was, after driving them from their strongholds, after having their hands tightly wrapped around that enemy’s throat, the Bush administration shifted its focus to an old grudge: Iraq. The idea that Iraq was behind 9/11 allied with Al Qaeda was so blatantly preposterous, I’m still amazed to this day at the audacity of the Bush administration to even float such a connection, much less make it part of the rich tapestry of lies that was the basis for the invasion of Iraq. Iraq was a secular nation whose government had no tolerance for religious extremism of any kind. The Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda would have liked nothing more than Iraq and every other secular Middle Eastern state to become a religious state. For them, that would mean the next great step towards finally expunging all the infidels from the Middle East.
This false justification for war, whose main smoking gun was nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, is the greatest farce ever perpetuated on the American public. The Bush administration knew it could never carry out its aims in Iraq without first presenting a case to the American public. This case needed to pack an emotional punch powerful enough that the members of Congress would cower before the might of the President like 535 slaves to their master. The amount of power this president wielded after 9/11 allowed him to do as he pleased, and he and his cronies, already having an offensive plan in place, now had their excuse to go after Iraq.
The campaign in Iraq is not only a war based on lies, it is also a war where the ashes of three thousand dead have been trodden on as the basis for war. The Bush administration manipulated the emotions of a nation traumatized by 9/11, and a people who would not be satisfied by the seemingly small, yet significant, gains in Afghanistan. He fed the emotions of a country still thirsty for blood. The administration either lied about or manipulated intelligence in order to achieve its goals. It ruined longstanding international friendships and cooperation. It invaded another country in a preemptive strike. It threw thousands of tons of ordinance on a country and then expected its citizens to welcome the invading horde with open arms. It lacked a cultural understanding of the country it invaded, expecting the newly liberated citizens, having been freed from a brutal and oppressive dictatorship, to immediately take up the yolk of a free, democratic Middle East; a Starbucks and a Blockbuster on every corner. Extremism was supposed to have no chance in the face of rational discourse in a country that had just gone through decades of fear, punctuated by weeks of terrifying attacks, followed now by uncertainty about the future. Well, Mr. President, the Iraqis have other ideas.
And what about Al Qaeda? Their reorganization has now appeared to have gone well. The shifting of focus away from them has given them the breather they needed to recover from the beating they took in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq also fueled a renewed hatred of the United States that has left them beating recruits away with sticks. The loss of trust in the United States that the international community has shown has led to a situation where the one man thus far convicted for the 9/11 attacks is now walking the streets a free man pending new charges. And, as soon as the Americans finally get the hell out of Iraq, Al Qaeda can focus on fomenting Islamic radicalism in one of the most important countries in the world. A free Iraq is a tenuous idea at this point. As for the Taliban? With the waning American military engagement in Afghanistan, they have regained control of a large part of the country, and appear to be on the road to regaining power. Next door to them is Pakistan, a nuclear power teetering on the brink of social and political collapse, being held together only by the growing ruthlessness of its dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.
Afghanistan was a necessary fight, and we left it to go fight a war that was not only unnecessary, but which was poorly planned and executed, based on total fabrications, and has become, no matter the final outcome in Iraq, the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history.
Addendum: April 23, 2004 — Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan today. The reaction of the country, and the sports media, will surely be swift. He will be lauded as a patriot and a hero. The circumstances of his enlistment in the Army, and his subsequent entry into a Ranger battalion, will be repeated again and again. Without a doubt, his death will overshadow all those preceding it in this war. What will make his death more profound than any other in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, for that matter? The answer has to do with visibility.
When a GI dies fighting a war, the first that most people in this country hear of him or her, beyond friends and relatives, is a report in the news. It is there that a majority of the country first sees their face, hears or sees their name. These GIs exist in the abstract, as impersonal projections of American power, given an identity only after they lay down their lives. Not so with Pat Tillman. The media spotlight was on he and his brother, Kevin, only briefly after they gave up their professional sports careers to enlist in the Army together after 9/11, but they were still soldiers we knew of, and that is the difference.
They had an identity as individuals the moment it was first reported they would enter the military, whether they liked it or not. This was only reinforced when they received a special award from ESPN for their contribution to the war. Pat and Kevin became celebrated warriors.
Our country, our culture, witnesses celebrity on a grand scale almost every waking minute of the day. The lives of the famous are on our minds as a result of overexposure. The images of people we see on television, talking to us, looking at us, telling us all we need to know about America, are representatives of the country at large to us. It’s not a gigantic leap of logic to suggest that these talking heads are elevated to a rung of association in our minds that is just short of actual contact. That is why people will notice the death of Pat Tillman. Not because he was a soldier who died fighting, but because for most of us, he was the only soldier we knew. His death is no more tragic than any others in the war. There are people all over the country who have shed tears for those they were actually close to, people who have had their lives altered significantly by the loss of loved ones.
Pat Tillman died fighting for what he believed in, no matter what anyone — pundit, pragmatist, or protester — has to say. But I believe his contribution to the war will be that he has put a face on the costs of war. He died in Afghanistan, but maybe a lesson will be applied to Iraq as well.