By BOB HERBERT — The New York Times.
“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
I suppose we’ll never learn. President Obama will go on TV Tuesday night to announce that he plans to send tens of thousands of additional American troops to Afghanistan to fight in a war that has lasted most of the decade and has long since failed.
After going through an extended period of highly ritualized consultations and deliberations, the president has arrived at a decision that never was much in doubt, and that will prove to be a tragic mistake. It was also, for the president, the easier option.
It would have been much more difficult for Mr. Obama to look this troubled nation in the eye and explain why it is in our best interest to begin winding down the permanent state of warfare left to us by the Bush and Cheney regime. It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.
More soldiers committed suicide this year than in any year for which we have complete records. But the military is now able to meet its recruitment goals because the young men and women who are signing up can’t find jobs in civilian life. The United States is broken — school systems are deteriorating, the economy is in shambles, homelessness and poverty rates are expanding — yet we’re nation-building in Afghanistan, sending economically distressed young people over there by the tens of thousands at an annual cost of a million dollars each.
I keep hearing that Americans are concerned about gargantuan budget deficits. Well, the idea that you can control mounting deficits while engaged in two wars that you refuse to raise taxes to pay for is a patent absurdity. Small children might believe something along those lines. Rational adults should not.
Politicians are seldom honest when they talk publicly about warfare. Lyndon Johnson knew in the spring of 1965, as he made plans for the first big expansion of U.S. forces in Vietnam, that there was no upside to the war.
A recent Bill Moyers program on PBS played audio tapes of Johnson on which he could be heard telling Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, “Not a damn human thinks that 50,000 or 100,000 or 150,000 [American troops] are going to end that war.”
McNamara replies, “That’s right.”
Nothing like those sentiments were conveyed to the public as Johnson and McNamara jacked up the draft and started feeding young American boys and men into the Vietnam meat grinder.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There was every reason for American forces to invade Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. But that war was botched and lost by the Bush crowd, and Barack Obama does not have a magic wand now to make it all better.
The word is that Mr. Obama will tell the public Tuesday that he is sending another 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. And while it is reported that he has some strategy in mind for eventually turning the fight over to the ragtag and less-than-energetic Afghan military, it’s clear that U.S. forces will be engaged for years to come, perhaps many years.
The tougher choice for the president would have been to tell the public that the U.S. is a nation faced with terrible troubles here at home and that it is time to begin winding down a war that veered wildly off track years ago. But that would have taken great political courage. It would have left Mr. Obama vulnerable to the charge of being weak, of cutting and running, of betraying the troops who have already served. The Republicans would have a field day with that scenario.
Lyndon Johnson is heard on the tapes telling Senator Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, about a comment made by a Texas rancher in the days leading up to the buildup in Vietnam. The rancher had told Johnson that the public would forgive the president “for everything except being weak.”
Russell said: “Well, there’s a lot in that. There’s a whole lot in that.”
We still haven’t learned to recognize real strength, which is why it so often seems that the easier choice for a president is to keep the troops marching off to war.