American public apathetic to Afghan War brutality

September 9, 2010

This October, the United States will enter its 10th consecutive year of war in Afghanistan. When you come to terms with what this reckless and increasingly desperate military adventure really means—especially considering the 50,000 troops still stationed in Iraq and the hundreds of American military bases abroad—it is reasonable to ask whether the United States is managing an empire. But more importantly, we should be asking ourselves why that question doesn’t seem to bother us.

How did war become so normal in Americans’ minds that President Barack Obama was able to declare with impunity that the invasion of Afghanistan was not a choice, but rather a moral necessity? The objective facts of being in a constant state of war are certainly frightening—the U.S. has spent over $1 trillion dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan together, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are dead in both countries—yet they have not led to much serious discussion about whether our empire is worth its strategic or human costs.

Instead, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed us, those who make up what he labeled “the professional left” are considered outlandish and downright ridiculous for suggesting that perhaps, just maybe, we should consider slashing the Department of Defense budget to, say, a meager $500 billion. Why has war become so normal that during the worst economic crisis in decades, we immediately looked to the public sphere for budget cuts, overlooking the fact that we spend more on our defense than does the rest of the world combined? Apparently, concern about wasteful government spending doesn’t apply to our bloated defense budget. Cutting military spending and withdrawing troops we have stationed abroad—whether they are in Afghanistan, Germany, Japan, or Korea—just is not on the table. How on earth did we reach this point?

Most of the mainstream American press is complacent about or plainly ignorant of the devastation our wars cause. Time’s recent cover story, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” was accompanied by the shocking image of a female teenager whose nose was removed by the Taliban, and bolstered the narrative that sees our invasion as one of moral obligation—never mind the thousands of innocent women and children who have been harmed by NATO-allied forces.

The facts on the ground are clear: our mission in Afghanistan cannot be completed as planned, and our presence is driving popular resistance. As the Pakistani scholar and journalist Tariq Ali has noted, most remnants of the old Taliban regime were killed or fled to neighboring Pakistan in the early stages of the invasion. The current Taliban resistance is made up of young, disillusioned Pashtuns who have been motivated to fight by our continued presence in their ancestral homeland.

Expecting the Afghan National Army—which is mostly made up of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks who rely on NATO-trained translators to communicate in Pashtu—to somehow build lasting tribal alliances in the predominantly pro-Taliban regions at the opposite end of the country is wildly unrealistic.  Expecting the Afghan population to somehow come to respect the authority of Hamid Karzai’s infamously corrupt government is delusional.

It is shameful that the mainstream media has only just begun to reconsider its portrayal of the United States’ long-term military presence abroad, after an ex-computer hacker, Bond-villain look-alike exposed the Afghanistan War Logs on Wikileaks this summer.  That man, Julian Assange, acknowledged the role that traditional print media continues to serve in guiding public opinion when he released the War Logs to The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel.

But most traditional journalists, even those from some of our most respected news outlets, could use some lessons in war reporting. Too many simply relay government reports on suicide bombings, attend official press conferences, and embed themselves in American or British military units.

More in-depth, on-the-ground reporting is not going to be enough to undo our passive acceptance of the Afghanistan War, but chipping away at the myths that more troops necessarily means greater security for Afghans and Americans and that the U.S. has, according to some warped logic, a certain moral duty to continue the occupation might be a starting point.

Although they seem to be off-limits in most mainstream press circles, the raw details and sheer brutality of war deserve more coverage. Then, maybe, we can have a discussion about whether we need to spend almost $1 trillion a year on our national defense and military adventurism.

Here’s to hoping this country will soon realize that it’s people like Robert Gibbs—not those with reasonable and refreshingly human doubts about condoning a constant state of war—who, in his own words, truly “ought to be drug tested.”

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