Monday, August 16, 2021

History Repeats


Much has been said and written in the last 48 hours about the sudden collapse of the government of Afghanistan in the face of the Taliban offensive. A great deal more will be said in the coming days and weeks, much of it predictable. Republicans will blame the Biden Administration, never minding the previous President's negotiated deal to do exactly what has been done. Democrats will try to deflect blame, and wring their hands, and talk about how there were no good options. And everyone will out-do each other praising our brave men and women in uniform for their tremendous work, even though it didn't turn out very well in the end. 

That last part - the bipartisan agreement that our armed forces are to be praised no matter what - is the direct result of the last time we saw this movie play out. In the mid-1970s, Vietnam veterans returning home were widely vilified in the face of reporting on the war (the My Lai massacre in particular) and the general sense that America has "lost" the war. In retrospect, we regretted taking out our anger on our troops. Ever since, we've gone rather in the other direction.

Regardless of that difference, this is very much the same story rebooted. The United States attempted through force of arms to create a political situation in an underdeveloped country far away over the course of decades and through several Presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Eventually the effort collapsed in failure. 

There will be much discussion in the coming weeks and months about how this happened, in an effort to learn our lessons anew. We had much the same discussion after Vietnam. History suggests we won't do much better this time around.

One idea from our last go-round deserves to be heard again. In the early 1970s, as it became clear where the Vietnam war was headed, Daniel Ellsberg wrote a piece he titled "The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine". In it, he laid out a fairly straightforward argument. What we were told about that war (and, by and large, what many Americans came to believe) was that Vietnam was a "quagmire" - a bog that looked like solid ground until you actually got into it. And once you stepped in, every additional step sucked you in a little deeper, until eventually we became stuck. The idea was appealing, because that suggested that the war wasn't really anybody's fault - everyone was doing their best based on what they knew at the time.

Ellsberg argued that this was patently false. As an insider in the Pentagon during the war, he knew that the civilian and military leadership knew from very early on what the likely consequences of each step were. They knew there was no "victory" around the corner, even as they continued to say that there would be. This was no quagmire.

Why, then, did American leaders lead us knowingly into a disaster? Here Ellsberg constructed a surprising answer. It wasn't the mendacity of our leaders (as much as he criticized them). It was our fault - the fault of the American public. The "stalemate machine" he referred to was the engine of American politics and public opinion, in which elected politicians were hemmed in by two forces: Americans would punish any politician who allowed us to lose a war, and they would punish any politician who cost us too much in lives and money. These are, of course, contradictory forces, and eventually reality on the ground produced the ending that was destined from the beginning. What administrations from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon had done was simply kick the can down the road, doing just enough to not lose while not costing too much.

The same logic has been operating for the past 20 years in Afghanistan. We managed to keep the number of casualties far lower, but spent about the same amount of money (as of 2021). 

As we've learned in many ways, Americans don't like being told that there are things we can't do. Part of our cultural DNA is that nothing is impossible. Unfortunately, using military force (alongside some development work, to be sure) to remake an underdeveloped country halfway around the world in our image IS impossible. 

In the coming weeks and months, Republicans will blame Democrats and Democrats will blame Republicans. We will argue, fruitlessly, about whose fault all of this is. We are unlikely to arrive at the right answer, the answer Walt Kelly (in a very different context) gave us shortly after the Vietnam War ended: We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

We Are One

Like a lot of us, I am struggling to process the events of Wednesday, Jan. 6. The rally on the Ellipse south of the White House, the storming of the Capitol building, and the unprecedented votes cast (unsuccessfully) to throw out duly-certified electors in a Presidential election – all of this is without precedent. Though many of us saw this coming, these are still uncharted waters.

Much of what needs to be said is being said. There must be consequences for those who committed crimes – as many clearly did. Incitement to riot is a crime. If Alex Jones – unprotected by any government position – hasn’t yet been arrested, I can’t imagine why. 


Then there’s the issue of the President himself. Far fewer would argue today that he’s fit to hold the office he still holds for two more weeks. Take a vote on impeachment, he’s likely to be impeached. Vote in the Senate, he’s likely to be convicted. Perhaps that will happen. 


A lot of what happens now matters for the future, more than it matters for today. Despite this amateurish and ridiculous coup attempt, Joe Biden will still be President starting Jan. 20. The House and Senate will be controlled by the Democratic Party. Further attempts at violence in and around the Capitol and elsewhere in DC will likely be met swiftly and decisively. In that sense, the immediate danger is minimal.


But because we are in uncharted waters, what we do now will have an outsized impact on what happens in the future. Will a refusal to concede become a lasting pattern in American politics? Will troops be called to defend the Capitol every time there’s an event of even symbolic significance? Can we expect a replay of this in two years, or four? 


This is a defining moment. What we do now will impact the trajectory of the country for a generation or more.


How do we navigate in such a time? Lost in an unfamiliar sea, winds blowing in many directions, how do we find a way forward? Like mariners have always done, we must set course in relation to a fixed point – steering by what is True.


It seems fitting that now is a good time to return to the notion of Truth. So much of what has driven us to this point has been the opposite of truth – lies, falsehoods, conspiracy theories run rampant. Untruth is what has hurled is into this storm. Truth will be what gets us out.


Here I mean more than simply a return to fact-based reality, although that’s an important first step. The phrase “alternative facts” must be buried along with the mound of lies and falsehoods, untethered to evidence, that have been piled high all around us. If we can’t start with basic facts, we won’t go anywhere.


I also mean more than a return to a respect for what truth is and isn’t. There are some things that we know definitively, and there are some things we’re pretty sure of, and there are some things that we don’t know yet. We know for certain that the COVID-19 virus kills many people. We used to think that contact with infected surfaces was a major transmission vector – now we think it’s probably a thing, but not a serious as airborne infection. We don’t yet know everything we want to about immunity, either from a vaccine or from recovery from the disease. We need to understand that truth is not always Yes or No – though sometimes it very much is.


What I mean to say here is that as important as these things are – as important as facts and science and expertise are in getting us out of the storm we are in – there is a Truth even deeper. It is the truth that undergirds all politics, all societies, all communities everywhere. It is the Truth necessary for any kind of life, much less civilization, to survive.


It is simply this: We are one.


Across all differences of race and color, we are one.


Across all genders and gender identities, we are one.


Across all forms of belief and non-belief, theists and atheists, religions and spiritualities, we are one.


Across all political parties and ideologies, we are one.


Across all languages, all cultural barriers, all artificial borders drawn and redrawn and redrawn again, we are one.


In the United States this Truth is emblazoned on the coins that pass through our hands and the Seal of the Office of the Presidency: E Pluribus Unum. Out of Many, One.


It rings through the words of the Constitution, is embedded in the Pledge of Allegiance that schoolchildren recite every day.


We KNOW this to be true. It is in our bones and our deepest selves, even when we try to reject it from our minds.


The storm we are seeing now – the rallies, the tweets, the assault on the Capitol building yesterday – is all one giant attempt to escape this truth. To try to impose the falsehood that we are not all one, that we are many and divided. That My Group and My People can win and Yours can lose and I don’t have to deal with You ever again. 


We’ve seen this before. In Rwanda. In Belfast. In Jerusalem. In Sarajevo. In Bergen-Belsen. In the holds of slave ships and the platforms of slave markets. In Charleston. In Charlottesville. In Minneapolis. In Louisville. In Cleveland. In Beavercreek.


The choice has never been clearer. Either we find a way to work together, to embrace a politics that celebrates differences and builds a common life together, or we consume one another – and everything around us – in fire and suffering. What is set before us is life and death, blessings and curses. We can choose life, or we can choose death. 


Those who stormed the Capitol yesterday, and those who egged them on and encouraged them with lies and deceit, chose death. They may not have understood it as such. But the Truth doesn’t care whether you understand it or not. The Truth is.


So what do we do? How do steer ourselves out of this storm?


We choose life. We accept the Truth that we are one. And we move forward together.


One of the great benefits of the humanities – of fiction and story and drama and art – is that they often give us ways to express the Truth more eloquently than we otherwise can. I close with a speech written as part of a science fiction TV series, Babylon 5, aired over 20 years ago. Imagine a speech like this on the lips of one of our leaders today. And imagine a community that actually believed this to be true.