September 5, 2021
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by Jonathan Wallace

In 1975, I was in my junior year of college at Columbia, majoring in international politics, I vividly remember the images of desperate South Vietnamese clinging to the struts of American helicopters as the North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. It was an ignominious end to a war started twenty years earlier by the French, and in which we had been engaged since my earliest childhood. When I was twelve, I had asked my father whether I would die in Vietnam and he had answered that the war would be over long before then. When I turned eighteen in 1972, I drew a very low draft number but they stopped drafting people. One of the less worthy thoughts I had watching the chaos and panic on television was: you would think that, in a war we fought for so long, with so much attention to tactics and munitions, we could have architected a ,uch more dignified ending.

One Vietnam-era weapon that particularly horrified me was anything that fired flechettes, hundreds of little steel arrows designed to tear apart human flesh. Wikipedia says: "During the Vietnam War 105 mm howitzer batteries and tanks (90 mm guns) used flechette rounds to defend themselves against massed infantry attacks. The ubiquitous 106 mm M40 recoilless rifle was primarily used as an anti-tank weapon. However, it could also be used in an antipersonnel role with the use of flechette rounds. The widely used Carl Gustaf 8.4cm recoilless rifle also uses an Area Defence Munition designed as a close-range anti-personnel round. It fires 1,100 flechettes over a wide area". I would imagine the amount of energy, attention, time, and human brainpower as well as money devoted to developing flechette weapons. It seemed as if none of those resources was devoted to methods of ending a war which did not conclude suddenly or unexpectedly, as to which we had months and years to work on the ways and means.

Marx famously says at the beginning of 18th Brumaire that all historical events happen twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. From this very limited perspective, Afghanistan may be the Marxian Farce Version of Vietnam. However, as punchy as the aphorism is, I don't think Marx was quite correct: I think humans are doomed to make the same absurd mistakes, not a second time but an endless number. In seventh grade, my social studies professor Mr. Natoli wrote on the board the Truism endlessly attributed to Santayana but for which I have never seen an actual source: "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it".

The hugest takeaway from the embarassing last tango in Saigon was that every American soldier who died in Vietnam, more than 58,000 of them, died for absolutely nothing. Precisely nothing. They were savagely expended by their country at various times for a false goal, for an ill-considered one, out of embarassment with no political goals whatever, then out of vanity and ambition. The revelation a few years ago that Nixon, running for President in 1968, secretly sent an envoy to the South Vietnamese government to secure their noncooperation in Johnson's Paris peace talks, means that everyone who died after Nixon's election--the last 21,000-- died to service Nixon's mad ambitions.

Total American casualties in Afghanistan were about 5% of Vietnam, though the war lasted longer. But, given the scenes at the airport, the Afghan people who served us as interpreters and aides thronging helplessly around planes as our Vietnamese allies crowded around helicopters in 1975, also signals that Americans who died there similarly died for nothing, were wasted by the nation which owed them so much better than that. I think I can say that my own formative insight, the vision which made me over and over again in the 1960's, which created my present politics and world-view, was that the United States, which teachers like Mr. Natoli were still teaching me everyday was the most liberal, democratic, just and inclusive that had ever existed on the planet, was throwing away the lives of its children in service to a goal which could not even be cxoherently stated after 1964 or so. By 1968 no one believed that world Communism was monolithic, or in the domino theory-- or that the domination of Vietnam by the North would mean anything to us geopolitically. Today it is a nation which Americans who fought there sometimes visit as tourists.

A few days ago, I finally finished reading Clausewitz, a work I had known I should read as an inescapable part of the Western Canon but had deflected away from for fifty years. Clausewitz's key and most often quoted insight is that war is a continuation of politics by other means. Since (as I sometimes remind you) I have been at work for almost twelve years on an endless, shapeless Mad Manuscript on the history of the idea of free speech, now thousands of pages long, I understood Clausewitz's key insight quite sympathetically. Children arguing frequently segue to slapping each other's hands, to finish the argument. Adults arguing choose violence as a riposte. Even those flechettes carry messages like "So there!" and "Who's sorry now?"

It was fascinating reading Clausewitz to realize how much of the vocabulary of war overlaps the vocabulary of political debate and of speech in general. The outcome of a battle is called a "decision". A warlike act which has a goal more communicative than definitive is referred to as a "demonstration". Once you start looking for speech acts in war, you find them everywhere. The Nazis put screaming airhorns on the wings of dive bombers and even on the bombs they dropped, to terrify the population below. During the Blitz, Winston Churchill responded by ordering anti-aircraft gunners to fire even when they had no target in their sights, because the people of London found the sound of the ack-ack guns reassuring. Those air horns and guns were having a conversation.

All of which is not to say that I have become inured to war as conversation. Years ago I conceived of a Thought Experiment I call Labrador: a region of space in which there are hundreds of Earth-like planet empty of indigenous races. You make a reasonable application to a Board responsible for them, and they assign you a planet to colonize with ten thousand of your closest friends. On your new planet, you sit on a hill together with a beautiful prospect, and write your constitution. But, should your planetary polity ever dissolve into chaos, famine, or war, the Board sends a police force (which I enterprisingly named "Gravity") which descends, immobilizes and deports everyone back to Earth, and your planet, again empty, is reassigned.

Could humans ever organize their own affairs so that war is not a continuation of the conversation? So as exclusively to "use their words"? I do not know. But I see in Vietnam and Afghanistan both a moment which refutes Clausewitz, at which war is no longer a continuation of a conversation, but continues to take place in the absence of one. It becomes a mere murderous clattering or chattering which continues because we are not having a conversation about why we are doing it and how not to. In this light, Clausewitz's diagnosis is transformed into a prescription, that war, if it happens at all, should take place only as the continuation of a conversation, as there is no other reason, ever, to have one. On War was published posthumously, superintended by Clausewitz's wife Marie, an intellectual and aristocrat (in a surviving manuscript, the words about war as a continuation of politics are indeed in her handwriting). After her death at age 57, her brother took over the work-- and issued a substantially rewritten edition in which he reversed the polarities and suggested that there is (or should be) a bright line between politics and war, that when war is declared the politicians fade back and the generals take over, that war is then waged for its own sake and not as a conversation. This became the edition the world read until after World War II, when the original became current again.

There is some Chatter now, which I haven't yet taken the time to absorb and understand, about Clausewitz being wrong, or no longer being relevant, or (with Mutually Assured Destruction and all that) our being in a post-Clausewitzian world. I don't much care about that (any more than I do, at this late date, about what is or is not Canon) (there is a Canon-Cannon joke in there somewhere). It remains true, that when you fight a war for twenty years without goals (or with unrealistic, or unattainable, or vaguely expressed and not really believed ones), people die for nothing.

I haven't so far mentioned the innocent Vietnamese and Afghan people who died as a mere by-product of our war-making. At My Lai, American troops murdered "504 unarmed civilians, including 17 pregnant women and 56 infants". Our very last drone strike in Kabul as we were withdrawing apparently killed "[t]en members of one family -- including seven children".

Luis Bunuel's movie The Exterminating Angel, "follows a group of wealthy guests finding themselves unable to leave after a lavish dinner party, and the chaos that ensues afterward. Sharply satirical and allegorical, the film contains a view of the aristocracy suggesting they 'harbor savage instincts and unspeakable secrets'". Endless wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan seem to continue, and to continue shedding and wasting lives, because no one can make up their minds, or engage a conversation, about ending them. That makes them the most useless, wasteful and shameful of human activities-- and the one which raises the question whether we are worthy of Labrador, or could ever succeed there (without Gravity decending to take our planet away).

The sad Punch-line to the Afghanistan debacle is the possibility that the American electorate has completely forgotten that Donald Trump negotiated a peace treaty with the Taliban that made this ending inevitable-- or will hold Joe Biden responsible because the end happened on his watch. Twenty years in Afghanistan was itself a gross default in our supposed democratic discourse-- but if the electorate can't even remember who did what a year or two ago, it is hard to understand on what cornerstone our democracy rests. We may in our present state not even deserve Labrador.