Let's Change Things

"Is this what it takes to change things?" The question asked by a bubbly blonde at dinner with Madison Avenue’s fiercest creative director, Don Draper. Frank Rich references the same scene from Mad Men in an article about Shirley Sherrod, citing the Civil Rights fury and violence about to break loose in the TV drama’s 1960’s landscape. And though we’d like to dismiss those words as the polite chatter of an uninformed flirt, it's a good question. We could ask it of any number of issues, but the one I'd like to focus on here is the enduring and divisive issue of America's foreign wars.

In an article from Der Spiegel entitled “Man kann in Afghanistan nicht siegen” [we can’t win in Afghanistan], a Soviet soldier named Alexej Tukalkin tells the story of his deployment and service in Afghanistan in 1979. While the Red Army stormed into the country in times different than our own and with slightly different ambitions, his message holds today as it did then: it is too difficult and too costly a situation to meddle with. A particularly poignant excerpt from Tukalkin's memoir reads as follows:

Fünf der damals rund 16 Millionen Einwohner Afghanistans flohen damals vor Krieg, Tod und Zerstörung in die Nachbarländer, nach Iran und Pakistan. Mehr als eine Millionen Zivilisten, Soldaten der moskatreuen afghanischen Armee und Aufständische kamen ums Leben. Unsere Luftwaffe hat Wohnvertiel in Kandahar bombardiert und nicht viel übrig gelassen. Warum sie das getan haben? Darüber wurde geschwiegen. Es hieß, es sei ein Irrtum gewesen, jemand haben den Piloten nicht die richtigen Koordinaten übermittelt. Wie aber kann man bitte eine ganze Stadt als falsches Ziel angeben? Die Häuserzeilen, die wir danach passierten, erinnerten uns an Stalingrad. 
Around 16 million inhabitants of Afghanistan fled from war, death, and destruction to the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran. More than one million civilians, soldiers, and pro-Moscow insurgents lost their lives. Our air force bombed residential areas of Kandahar and didn't leave much in their wake. Why did they do such horrible things? Silence. Apparently it was a mistake. Someone had not sent the pilot the right coordinates. But please tell me how one can give an entire city as a false target? The rows of houses we passed reminded us of Stalingrad.

Nine years after terrorists flew planes into the twin towers, the United States alone has spent over one trillion dollars (and counting) on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the more than four thousand American soldiers who have lost their lives. Do we ever stop to think and then ask: Is this what it takes to change things?

Newly leaked Afghan war documents confirm what we already assumed to be true, "First released to The New York Times, the British daily The Guardian and German magazine Der Spiegel -- [they] suggest a grimmer portrait of the Afghan war than the official public assessment and include allegations that Pakistan's intelligence services have been helping the Taliban kill U.S. troops. Both ideas have been speculated about in the past" [CNN]. War is messy and now we have the evidence. Are these bloody endeavors what it takes to change things?

A couple weeks ago, The Washington Post unveiled a project nearly two years in the making. Top Secret America exposes the gigantic American security apparatus that has developed in the nine years since 9-11. It is "a defense and intelligence structure that has become so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, or whether it is making the United States safer" (WaPo). Again, something we already knew but could not verify, a project that changes little but exposes much. Here are a few facts:

Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on Top Secret programs related to counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence at over 10,000 locations across the country. Over 850,000 Americans have Top Secret clearances / Redundancy and overlap are major problems and a symptom of the ongoing lack of coordination between agencies / In the Washington area alone, 33 building complexes for Top Secret work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.

More bureaucracy, more opacity, more government oversight. We know this is not what it takes to change things, and yet we acquiesce. For many of us, issues of security seem too big to tackle and too important to debate. In addition, foreign wars take place in a distant theater, and Americans soon forget the sacrifices made and the lives lost. Though a draft is certainly not the antidote to our wartime amnesia, a public discussion might be. We can start with that hauntingly simple question "is this what it takes to change things" instead of grabbing for our guns, loading up our tanks, and taking aim, metaphorically speaking. 

Can we win in Afghanistan? I believe we have already lost too much. Like Gorbachev said in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation, "Afghanistan is a bleeding wound," and we are not healers. We need to trade in the debate about war for an agenda of peace.