By Ross Barkan
Stanley McChrystal is 56 and tired. Victory is a firefly in the dark, a notion he can see but not touch. It flits through his consciousness, up and down, tickling the anxious neurons. He bristles in his fatigues. They talk about failure. Doubt screams across the radio; he can hear death. He wants more troops. He needs more troops. That’s what the granite-jawed lecturers taught him in the shadows of Vietnam. More. More!
Insurgents attacked a pair of remote military bases in broad daylight. Eight American soldiers died, the deadliest attack in more than a year. The commander in Kamesh, the Afghani province where the attack took place, described the battle as a “complex attack in a difficult area.” He was drenched in sweat. His eyes shrunk, dead coals buried under sallow shades.
Col. Randy George wraps everything in complexities. The war is always a sum of clichés, jargon, weathered slabs laid on top of sand. They piled higher and higher until the foundation shuddered…Col. George thinks about going home. Rockets and grenades sear his days, his nights. Yesterday an I.E.D. almost took his leg. He can see future blood. He can feel the insurgents swarming beyond the ridge. An eternal swarm.
George Kennan’s specter has something to say. He speaks from across the past, always static, always warning. The intelligentsia huddle around words, picking open the ink for truth. One day in 1966 when the sun crashed over a sea of green helmets, Kennan said, “Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country…This is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully.” Who was Kennan? Diplomat, scholar, father of containment, hero or villain? He has some things to say. His ghost still talks through others.
“War of necessity” crackles on the threads of postmodern America, exploding through the tongues of iron-eyed intellectuals. Here comes Barack Obama, Commander-in-Chief, shooting star, kingpin of hope and change. The blue suit and elegant shoes mask a turbulence, a chaos as loud and as silent as the instant before the atomic flash erases consciousness. He wants to sell to the world that a war in Afghanistan will crush what we fear. Terror will die, he says. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all those who want to put Old Glory in the gutter, hide in the jagged mountains, the smoldering caves, and the boiling Afghani villages. This is not Vietnam, he tells his staff. This is not Vietnam, he tells his children. This is not Vietnam, he tells his people.
“You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam,” Obama tells a mass of reporters, hands massaging an air-conditioned breeze. He turns around and drenches himself in more history, more fact, swallowing the tales of LBJ and McNamara and the world of his infancy. He cannot remember on his own because he toddled in the cradle. The image and the word will have to suffice.
When he closes his eyes at night the celebrity is gone and reality is here. It’s all in the dreams, Barack. He wants to heal America, he wants to save the world, he wants to fly above history as the young messiah, possessed of an aural agelessness. This war will save him or destroy him. Legacies are carved in corpses. Tuesday, October 6, he fixes his tie and tells the sullen lawmakers he will not reduce troops in Afghanistan. He steps back from the podium, wondering what a victory actually is.
McChrystal wants 40,000 more. He is hunched over a table of maps, a laptop buzzing blue haze over his eyes. Subordinates amble around carefully. They are reverent and ready. The military has called to them since they could construct thought and action. Nighttime stories of Antietam and Iwo Jima, McArthur and Grant, and the movies of sepia-toned heroes stirred them on, compelled them to plunge into nationalism’s gaping throat. In the miasma they flourish, proud to bear arms for a two-hundred year-old nation creaking on the foundations of a nebulous liberty. McChrystal is their eye. Without him, they stagger on blind. Some quietly wish for death.
The American paratroopers of Chosen Company dig their outpost on the edge of a village in eastern Afghanistan. Intel reports are telling them of mass militants in the area. Nothing is up so far. Men idle in the bazaar, swapping banalities. The troops begin to question their superiors. Militants where? Their night scopes reveal empty houses, action dead, the only light a contraband cigarette. A quiescent moon bleeds a cool orange in the sky.
Three days later nine Americans are dead. Quiescence crackled into chaos; 200 militants launched a firefight. They couldn’t see it coming. The village was empty. They were talking about baseball, about home, about the friends and lovers they would see again. And then the mountains opened up and the bullets fell. Once soldiers played bugles and shouted anthems and marched for the glorious nation state. You knew red was for the communists, black for the fascists. No one knows anymore. Knowledge is cracked, bleeding, dead, lost in the muck. They fire at shadows. Even the children could be enemies.
The children cry of men and guns taking their childhoods away.
This is an odd column for me to write, George Will realizes. He misses his Underwood. His bowtie feels tighter than it used to, like the knot has grown ornery with age. Dignified curtains rustle open, allowing twilight to drizzle over his desk. This is an odd column to write but I will write it, damn it. He is still a Republican at heart, a man of the right, a vassal of the Reaganite order. He knows America is still a great country. He knows her fruit can still be borne around the world and free people from their ignorance. But—
This city should keep faith with them by rapidly reversing the trajectory of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, where, says the Dutch commander of coalition forces in a southern province, walking through the region is “like walking through the Old Testament.”
The words are all his, launched from seething fingertips. He can’t see the justice or logic in this war anymore. He keeps typing, preparing his column for publication. With every word another image blooms of a new quagmire, of a new generation wasting away in an unknowable and unwinnable war. Boys bleeding on mountains, spiraling anguish, rockets shattering limbs, mines scorching hope from the eyes of the young. He doesn’t understand how the fraudulent Karzai re-election changed anything. No country, past or present, has subdued Afghanistan. We cannot nation-build there! he cries to the silent waxwings outside his window. Shrink the forces, redirect them to the porous Pakistani border maybe, just don’t drop more troops into Afghanistan…Will needs a closer. Something for the readers to remember.
And the world wants to know, what will you do, Mullah Mohammad Omar? Omar is the leader of the Taliban, the man of the hour. He has one eye and a Pynchonian aversion to photographs. He knows what he looks like—why should any Western pig know too? He is writing his own piece for the Taliban website on a purloined computer, a gift from a loyal subordinate who has traveled around. Defiance marks every syllable, his words brimming and raw. He has something to say to his allies and, more importantly, to the Americans who trample on his ground. History informs his words. He shouts that Alexander the Great could not conquer Afghanistan and neither could the mechanized Soviets in the late 20th century. Two thousand years changes nothing.
Alexander’s elephants stumble and die on the crags of the Khyber Pass. The eyes of the young king fill with rage. Yet as his beasts and men cry into the wind, he can feel something tremble. The mountains are ready for battle.
Omar imbibes all history, spitting it back in the faces of his foes. Don’t come here. You can’t conquer, you can’t win. We’re a nation of tribes, if a nation at all. No government has held us, not the British, not the Soviets, not you. You can’t occupy us.
Will has found his closer. He found it as a waxwing beat from the damp glass to a mauve sky. History taps his skull, whispers softly, and lends him Charles De Gaulle. Genius, said de Gaulle, recalling Bismarck’s decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870, sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. It all makes so much sense, though Will wonders how thoroughly un-American this notion is. America never stops, isn’t supposed to stop. Industry and ingenuity don’t sleep, these colors are restless, the American is always running, rambling, fighting, fucking, electrified individuals mighty and rough, roaring across the borders of cowering nations while drooling ideologies, swallowing destinies, and brimming with a confidence both engineered and divine. The genius of old America was the old college try, never giving up, never going down, always gun ‘a blazin’—this was Will’s America yet he acknowledges it’s gone or never was. There will only be more death in Afghanistan, more confusion. We must stop.
As he shrinks from the podium and returns to the womb of privacy, Barack Obama contemplates the future. What is the new America? Manifest Destiny, that old zeitgeist, is a hoarse ghost beating on the window glass. He hopes for an America that can surge through century twenty-one, an America that can exhume the old ghosts and make them real again. Stop the terrorists in Afghanistan, win the people, and preside over a newfound peace. But there’s the chance of failure. There’s the chance that an epoch is truly over, prosperity to be found nevermore. What is the new America? Before he can try to answer the question a dash of Kipling flies before his eyes. He read it once during the Columbia years—what was it called?—ahh, he remembers. “The Good Solider.” Maybe it can tell him something.
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier