Membership of a military cabal is a very strange thing. Even though these men came from ordinary families for the most part, after exposure to military indoctrination, they morph into something other than the common run of society.
They become soldier ants in our colony as if the hive had somehow sprayed them with transforming hormones.
It’s a very strange phenomenon.
Here in Ireland, a country that has never attacked anyone, we have a military with a strong culture of discipline and adherence to authority, as one would expect, and yet we have almost no ruling class. The officers in our military come from among the people, as do the lower ranks, and in fact they all have far more in common culturally than in most other countries, though of course we have striven to create artificial class differences in the interest of deference.
Unlike the rest of society, it worked in the army, where the culture of obedience and deference is palpable, even when a highly-competent NCO is reporting to a 21-year-old imbecile of an officer. I never understood that, and the best of our senior officers never bought into it either, but it’s there.
Creating a military brotherhood requires the dislocation of our society’s norms, and it requires a concomitant decision by the people who join the brotherhood to set themselves outside, though not above, the norms of society. After all, these are the people who will be asked, in an extreme situation, to forget about their children, partners, parents and siblings and perhaps to go out on the streets water-cannoning their neighbours, or worse. That’s what you buy into when you join the military.
Military people are different even though they might spend their spare hours watching football matches with friends or swamping pints of beer or doing all the silly things the rest of us do. When things go wrong, their programming kicks in and suddenly they’re in the zone, no longer your friend, your brother or your father.
They’ll shoot you, brother or not.
Now, take the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan, where no invading army has ever prevailed.
Afghanistan is a tribal place entirely alien to the understanding of European and American culture. In many ways, it’s vile. Afghan tribal society treats its women abominably. It places little value on broad education. It takes its guidance from a medieval desert religion. It murders teachers. Ignorant tribal chiefs are the final arbiters of great issues.
The Taliban are brutes who, in their ignorant stupidity, blew up the wonderful Buddhist statues of Bamyan, and dynamited the lapis lazuli mines for short-term gain.
Extremely wealthy Afghan chieftains pump heroin westwards, aided and supported by the CIA, to facilitate oil pipelines across their land.
Nothing in Afghanistan is clean and therefore it was no surprise that those who planned the 9-11 attacks should have used it as a base, but it was an act of utter stupidity by the Bush administration to launch a pointless war and invasion against this chaotic land, and an even bigger error to install a bunch of crooks as a proxy government. People like Hamid Karzai are the same as the insiders who hijacked western economies, and yet they somehow managed to gain the backing of the US government.
The United States sent an army into that place after the attacks of September 2001, and it was understandable that they might do so, but it was also pointless. Nobody has ever won a war in that insane mountainous region. Not the British. Not the Russians. And now, definitely not the Americans. Afghanistan will wear them down, even if they’re right.
Stanley McChrystal was supposed to be different, and in many ways he is. McChrystal is a Special Operations guy. He could kill you with his little finger. He commanded units in Iraq that abused prisoners and assassinated perceived enemies at will. His people took out al-Zarqawi. Many were disciplined for brutality. He was Colonel Kurtz.
McChrystal is a trained killer and he was put into Afghanistan to kill. His first act as commander of NATO operations, was to demand more men, and he got them by expressing a highly pessimistic view about the number of personnel on the ground. It forced the President to act but it wasn’t a wise move, politically, and although Obama gave him what he wanted, McChrystal’s days were numbered. Killers don’t always make good politicians.
On the other hand, killers — members of the military cabal trained to obedience — don’t understand nuance. They see only what they see and sometime they make the unforgivable mistake of telling it as they see it.
In a moment of madness, McChrystal and his staff gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which they laugh at the Vice President Joe Biden, a man with no role, Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador to Afghanistan and Richard Holbrooke. These are people most of us might laugh at, but most of us are not in uniform.
McChrystal was sacked, but the world can feel at ease, since McChrystal has been replaced by David Petraeus, soldier-philosopher and future presidential candidate.
However, nobody has yet stated exactly why American and British soldiers are in Afghanistan.