Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Silent Winter of Escalation

The Silent Winter of Escalation

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Sunday morning, before dawn, I read in The New York Times that "the Pentagon is planning to add more than 20,000 troops to Afghanistan" within the next 18 months - "raising American force levels to about 58,000" in that country. Then, I scraped ice off a windshield and drove to the C-SPAN studios, where a picture window showed a serene daybreak over the Capitol dome.

While I was on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" for a live interview, the program aired some rarely seen footage with the voices of two courageous politicians who challenged the warfare state.

So, on Sunday morning, viewers across the country saw Barbara Lee speaking on the House floor three days after 9/11 - just before she became the only member of Congress to vote against the president's green-light resolution to begin the US military attack on Afghanistan.

"However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint," she said. The date was September 14, 2001. Congresswoman Lee continued, "Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, Let's step back for a moment, let's just pause just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control."

And she said, "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore."

The footage of Barbara Lee was an excerpt from the "War Made Easy" documentary film (based on my book of the same name). As she appeared on a TV monitor, I glanced out the picture window. The glowing blue sky and streaky clouds above the Hill looked postcard-serene.

But the silence now enveloping the political nonresponse to plans for the Afghanistan war is a message of acquiescence that echoes what happened when the escalation of the Vietnam War gathered momentum.

During the mid-1960s, the conventional wisdom was what everyone with a modicum of smarts kept saying: Higher US troop levels in Vietnam were absolutely necessary. Today, the conventional wisdom is that higher US troop levels in Afghanistan are absolutely necessary.

Many people who think otherwise - including, I'd guess, quite a few members of Congress - are keeping their thoughts to themselves, heads down and mouths shut, for roughly the same reasons that so many remained quiet as the deployment numbers rolled upward like an odometer of political mileage on the road to death in Vietnam.

Right now, the basic ingredients of further Afghan disasters are in place - including, pivotally, a dire lack of wide-ranging debate over Washington's options. In an atmosphere reminiscent of 1965, when almost all of the esteemed public voices concurred with the decision by newly elected President Lyndon Johnson to deploy more troops to Vietnam, the tenet that the United States must send additional troops to Afghanistan is axiomatic in US news media, on Capitol Hill and - as far as can be discerned - at the top of the incoming administration.

But the problem with such a foreign-policy "no brainer" is that the parameters of thinking have already been put in the rough equivalent of a lockbox. Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson approached Vietnam policy options no more rigidly than Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Barack Obama appear poised to pursue Afghanistan policy options.

I was thinking about this when I left the C-SPAN building in the full light of day. The morning glow made the Capitol look majestic. Yet, it was almost possible to see, streaked across the dome, an invisible new stain of blood and shattered bones.

Along with the grim patterns, there's a tradition of brave dissent on Capitol Hill. It's epitomized by Barbara Lee's prophetic statement just after 9/11 - and by an earlier kindred spirit, the fierce Vietnam War opponent Sen. Wayne Morse. If you'd like to see historic footage of them, retrieved from the nation's Orwellian memory hole, watch the "Washington Journal" segment by clicking here.

On Monday, USA Today reported that the top US commander in Afghanistan "has asked the Pentagon for more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen" to raise the US troop level in Afghanistan to 55,000 or 60,000. Gen. David McKiernan says that is "needed until we get to this tipping point where the Afghan army and the Afghan police have both the capacity and capability to provide security for their people." Such a tipping point "is at least three or four more years away," the general explained. So, "if we put these additional forces in here, it's going to be for the next few years. It's not a temporary increase of combat strength."

Is Afghanistan the same as Vietnam? Of course, competent geographers would say no. But the United States is the United States - with domestic continuity between two eras of military intervention, spanning five decades, much more significant than we might think.

Bedrock faith in the Pentagon's massive capacity for inflicting violence is implicit in the nostrums from anointed foreign-policy experts. The echo chamber is echoing: The Afghanistan war is worth the cost that others will pay.

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