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Page 6
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Reflections on the Afghanistan Debacle

By John Ketwig

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On Sunday, August 15th of this year, the Taliban took over Kabul and won the war in Afghanistan. The war with the United States and a few allied countries, that is. Years earlier, calling themselves the Mujahadeen, and funded by the US, they had won the war with Russia. As the Afghan government caved in, our TV news media showed helicopters coming and going from the American embassy like bees swarming around their nest, clouds of smoke rising from burning documents, and American personnel rushing to get onto a plane and fly home before the airport was overrun. Two suicide bombers killed 13 American GIs and about 168 Afghanis and wounded hundreds more. Videos from that airport showed swarms of Afghan citizens hoping to escape to a place where their assistance to the American forces might not be a death sentence. A bevy of grim State Department spokesmen have insisted this was not another Saigon evacuation, but the resemblance was unmistakable. Finally, on August 30th, the headline on the front page of our newspaper announced "Longest US War Ends." Supposedly, we have evacuated 122,000 Americans and Afghans in the final surrender.

About a year ago, the Washington Post revealed a trove of documents indicating that our military and intelligence leaders had systematically misled four Presidents, congress, and the American people about the war in Afghanistan. Approximately 2,461 American soldiers died, along with an estimated 3,846 "contracted civilians." Can you say mercenaries? It is estimated that the Pentagon employs more than 600,000 contractor companies. Eighteen generals were sent to command the war, and none of them was successful… at winning the war. Most of them, however, were successful at gaining promotions, plush Pentagon offices, or seats on the board of directors of one or more defense contractors.

By coincidence, the UPS man just delivered my pre-ordered copy of a new book. The Afghanistan Papers by Craig Whitlock is basically the same inexcusable reporting as that Washington Post report of a year ago. The inner flap of the dust jacket reads: "The groundbreaking investigative story of how three presidents and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history." I can't wait to read it, and if it contains what I expect, I'll do a book review for the next issue of The Veteran. It is a terribly sad commentary on the state of our country, and especially our military and seventeen intelligence agencies, that we Vietnam veterans have expected that our forces would lose this war from the very first. Over the past twenty years, we have seen the same empty bravado, shameful deceit, and blatant corruption that we witnessed in Vietnam. We can only conclude, sadly, that our country and its leaders have learned nothing from the tragedy of our war in Southeast Asia.

From books like Tim Bakken's The Cost of Loyalty and Danny Sjursen's Patriotic Dissent, it is obvious that the bull-headed blundering and lack of humanity are still running rampant throughout America's military officers. Far too many of them are appearing on the network and cable news programs, resplendent in their uniforms with all the many multi-colored ribbons from waist to clavicle. Does anyone really believe there have been that many wars in one man's lifetime? Even America, the most warlike nation on today's globe, has not gotten involved in that many conflicts! It seems the Pentagon issues ribbons to generals for polishing their boots or brushing their teeth! And, to make matters worse, not a single one of the generals is apologetic! With 2,461 Americans killed, tens of thousands wounded or traumatized, and Afghan casualties in the hundreds of thousands, these greedy monsters dare to suggest that Biden has pulled us out too soon. Without batting an eye, they say it might have taken twenty more years before Democracy would flower in the arid deserts of Afghanistan. Really, General? And how much more personal wealth might you accrue in another twenty years?

Back on September 10, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney told a press conference that "according to some estimates we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions" by the Department of Defense. America's adversary, Rumsfeld warned, was not China or Russia. "It's closer to home: It's the Pentagon bureaucracy." Those statements might have attracted more attention in the press had not the next day's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened.

The Pentagon has never been audited, but cursory investigations have found that more than $21 trillion (approximately equal to our pre-Covid national debt!) are inexplicably missing, mostly due to "unsupported adjustments." The first-ever Pentagon audit failed in 2017, according to the auditors, because the records were "riddled with so many bookkeeping deficiencies, irregularities, and errors that a reliable audit was simply impossible." A Forbes magazine investigation found "stonewalling and concealment" and unsupported and unexplained adjustments totaling 54 times the level of spending authorized by Congress. In 2015 the army was allocated $122 billion, but the Treasury Department made a cash deposit of $794.8 billion to the army's account, an amount greater than the Pentagon's entire military appropriation for the year. At the same time, army records showed accounts payable, or bills due, amounting to $929.3 billion. A July 2016 report by the Department of Defense's own inspector general found that the Pentagon's Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) based in Indianapolis could not account for $6.5 trillion in 2015. Perhaps it was a mistake to undertake a "War on Terror" when what was really needed was a "war on error" in the halls of the Pentagon and the Capital.

A few years ago, West Point announced it was discontinuing its ethics classes. I can't help but wonder what they are teaching now. Tim Bakken, in his recent book The Cost of Loyalty, characterizes the environment at West Point as rife with fabricated admissions data (favoring sports stars), rampant cheating, epidemics of sexual assault, archaic curriculums, and shoddy teaching. The "good ol' boy" network of West Point grads is a very exclusive elite pervaded by chronic deceit, Bakken writes, and its insular culture elevates blind loyalty above all other values. Throughout the military, and especially among graduates of our three military academies, profiteers and crooks are never held accountable. In their self-congratulatory work environment, they feel they are due, and they rob the American people to the tune of trillions of dollars. Recent surveys have indicated that our military is the most admired entity in America today. That's curious in a society that heaps so much value on winning the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, or an Olympic medal. Our military has not won a meaningful conflict since World War II. As a Vietnam veteran, I appreciate the lower-ranked personnel, but not the generals and admirals, or the heads of those contracted companies, all of whom are riding a gravy train that is carrying our country toward financial and moral bankruptcy.

Today, America has about 750 military bases scattered all over the planet. We spend more than a trillion dollars a year on militarism and war, more than the next eleven biggest-spending nations combined. The problem is, those dollars are buying immense quantities of death and destruction, blood and suffering. The world sees the US as the greatest threat to world peace.

In 2016, federal courts ruled that the all-male military draft was unconstitutional, so recently the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service requested input from the public, and 90 percent of the comments received opposed expansion of the draft. Regardless, the commission recommended that Congress adjust the Selective Service system to include females. We have seen increasing numbers of draft-age young people taking to the streets to demonstrate for Black Lives Matter, attention to the climate change crisis, defense of Indigenous land and water, an end to Israel's genocide in Palestine, and in favor of universal health care. As Vietnam veterans, we are aging, but we are encouraged by youthful awareness and activism in numbers we haven't seen since the early 70s.

American capitalism and militarism have become too corrupt and cruel to continue in a land that claims to be about freedoms and justice. The debacle in Afghanistan is just one more symptom of the decline and fall of the American empire. Progressive activism is the only humane answer to today's American atrocities. Hopefully, today's young people will be able to overhaul our government and take back authority, and trillions of dollars, from the Pentagon and all the merchants of death. It's obvious that our country can't afford to continue on the path it has followed since the end of World War II.

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of ?and a hard rain fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.

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