There is a dichotomy in the American tradition as deep and far older
than red vs blue states, or liberals vs conservatives. It is the tension
between a proud military tradition and a passionate anti-military
It was one of the contentions of the controversial but
wise Samuel Huntington in his classic The
Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military
Relations (1957) that the United States was fortunate enough to
grow up without needing to concern itself too much about security
because it was surrounded by European powers (Britain, France and Spain)
and defended by the Royal Navy. That interpretation is questionable in
itself. But it ignores the other, strongly military, tradition.
United States was created by war. It expanded in part through
negotiation and treaty but even more, thanks to the Mexican war
(1846-48), by conquest. Its first president was its first
commander-in-chief, and twelve of the forty-four presidents have been
former generals: Andrew
Jackson and William
Henry Harrison after the war of 1812, Zachary
Taylor and Franklin
Pierce after the Mexican war, Ulysses Grant and five others after
the civil war. as well as Dwight
D Eisenhower after the second world war.
The interplay of
war and politics, however, suggests another point that is relevant to
the sacking of General Stanley A McChrystal and his replacement by
General David H Petraeus to command the International Security
Assistance Force (Isaf)
Top gun, bottom dog
For most of its history, the United States has been able to deploy
far more powerful military force than its adversaries. In the 19th
century, both before and after the civil war, American officers gained
military experience in Indian wars where their troops’ superiority in
firepower and mobility was
usually assured. In its 20th-century wars, American generals – John J Pershing
in 1918, Eisenhower in 1944-45, William C
Westmoreland in Vietnam, and Norman
Schwarzkopf in Kuwait/Iraq in 1990-91 – commanded forces that
possessed crushing military advantage (even if deploying this
effectively was another matter entirely). The United States joined
the first world war in 1917 after Germany had been exhausted; in the
second, it overwhelmed Germany and Japan (along with its allies) through
its far greater industrial-military capacity.
Yet the United
States began life as a small country that expended blood and treasure in
colonial rule – and the legacy of that experience is the
enduring presence, deep in the American psyche, of an “underdog”
mentality. This contradiction – equivalent to Philistine-warrior Goliath
identifying with shepherd-boy David in the biblical story
– explains much of the dilemma that confronts President Obama and his
shifting cast of commanders in Afghanistan.
A war of
Both McChrystal and his patron and mentor
Petraeus are philosophers of counterinsurgency. Their role is to
suppress what are in effect guerrilla forces with a predominantly
American army that is vastly richer in resources and weaponry. The analogy might be outrageous, but they are
in the position, not of George
Washington encouraging a half-starved army at Valley Forge, nor
Francis Marion the Swamp
Fox, but of their colonial adversaries: General John Burgoyne and Lord
The British commanders in the revolutionary war
won most of their battles until Yorktown.
But as General Howe was well aware, there was not much point in winning
battles if the casualties could not be replaced by reinforcements. A
certain General William Murray, watching the war from afar (he was
stationed in Minorca)
observed shrewdly that the “Americans’ plan ought to be to lose a
battle every week, ‘til the British army was reduced to nothing”.
same problem confronted General
Westmoreland in Vietnam. He was not in danger of losing a major
battle (though there were tactical encounters that took his troops by
surprise). But as long as the North Vietnamese could reinforce almost at
will down the “Ho Chi Minh trail”, Westmoreland and his
B Johnson were constrained by their inability to persuade Congress
to send reinforcements. LBJ chose not to seek re-election in March 1968;
three months later, Westmorland left Vietnam to become the US army’s
In Afghanistan, General Petraeus has already
persuaded a reluctant or at least cautious President Obama to provide
him with another “surge” of troops. Yet Obama is committed to begin
withdrawals by mid-2011. It is not clear how the distinct military and
political logics at work here (the latter closely aligned with the
timetable for the presidential election of 2012) will work themselves
The Taliban movement
itself will have a big part to play in resolving this question; its
source of support in Afghanistan may largely be confined
to the Pushtun population, but the anger provoked by civilian
casualties of American air-strikes (including drone-attacks)
fuels intense opposition
to the foreign presence.
As a special-operations hero,
McChrystal enjoyed the mystique of a guerrilla even while running a
counterinsurgency campaign. He, and especially his admiring coterie of
special-ops veterans, gave a lot away in their astonishingly indiscreet
talk in front of a magazine reporter who could hardly believe his luck. There was
naiveté, conceit and disrespect for their commander-in-chief, which was
why their adored chieftain had to go.
There was also the message that they were trying to operate
counterinsurgency with an insurgent’s mindset.
But something else
was revealed in the sweaty machismo of the Rolling Stone
interview: that Stanley McChrystal and his military comrades represent
in acute and concentrated form a much more widespread American
Huntington, as long ago as the late 1950s, put it in effect like
this: the United States does not invade other countries because it wants
their territory, but because it believes it is doing them a favour by
exporting its own ideology.
The argument had an
equally immediate charge in Huntington’s later book (which gained
notoriety for its title alone), The
Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998).
Those on the receiving end of American intervention may be
persuaded to develop a taste for fast food or even baseball, but are
unlikely to adopt American political institutions – even less as a
result of invasion, for all that this may be accompanied by teams of
devoted agronomists and medical missionaries.
The dilemma for American policy is now being
presented in terms of whether or not Nato commanders or their Afghan
protégés should start to talk to the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman has
(predictably) taken advantage of an inquiry from the BBC’s
foreign-affairs editor John Simpson to dismiss
even the possibility of negotiations.
Still, the facts are
compelling. General Petraeus, and even the firebrand McChrystal, the George S Patton
of his day, admit that the Taliban are succeeding more than they thought
possible. American military casualties,
along with British and other (including Norwegian)
are rising; June 2010 saw the highest
monthly total in almost nine years of war.
the American-installed president of the Islamic republic of
Afghanistan, shows signs of chafing at the requirement that he obey
American generals. As in the last days of Saigon, corruption is being
followed by capital flight. No doubt some of the fleeing capital ends up
in the bank-accounts of the Taliban. That would mean the American
taxpayer was supplying the enemy not only with stolen weapons, as has
happened in every recent American war, but also with cold cash – as
already happens at local level.
and other outside observers believe there must be talks. Most telling
of all, David Petraeus achieved the outward appearance of victory in
Iraq – and and enhanced his own reputation in the process
– by forging linksSunni tribal leaders.
By appointing him as the successor to Stanley McChrystal, the
commander-in-chief “becomes beholden to the most celebrated soldier of
his generation…The question of who really is in charge remains murky”.
Petraeus’s letter to the troops of 4 July 2010 offers a few clues as to
his likely approach,
including the phrase: “We must never forget that the decisive terrain
in Afghanistan is the human terrain.”
Nato governments, such as
the Dutch and the Canadian, need to withdraw troops from a unpopular war
they cannot afford. The current American government itself is losing
interest in the war, as has been the habit of many of its predecessors.
Military glory has its attractions. But the civilian spirit has a
stubborn tendency to reassert
itself in American political life.
The civilian President Obama
has to insist that he will not give up until Afghanistan has become a
member of the American commonwealth of nations. Yet if I were a betting
man, I would place a modest stake on this proposition: once the
dangerous mid-term elections of November 2010 are over, it will be
revealed that mutually acceptable discussions (not
negotiations: Washington is a city of lawyers and of the word) have been
going on with the Taliban…since June or July 2010. And that the feted
general David H Petraeus, like William C Westmoreland in Vietnam, is doomed
to run out of troops, time – and political support.
Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters’ Foundation Programme at
Oxford University, and before that the Observer’s correspondent in the
United States and foreign editor of the Independent. His most recent
book is The
Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009).
This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net
under a Creative Commons licence.