The War Nerd: Obama's Wars
Today’s the Big Anniversary, so what better day to size up Obama’s war record than the day that also launched my career as a professional War Nerd.
When you look back at Obama’s wars, you get a pretty clear idea what went wrong over the last four years. It wasn’t the way Obama’s team handled the wars. Truth is, they did damn well at that, better than I ever thought they would.
The real problem is that they don’t know what world they’re living in. These are people who’ve spent their lives getting straight A’s, collecting gold stars, avoiding mistakes. And they think war is just like all those other little hurdles you face in life.
That’s why they’ll never get credit for any of it. They have this delusion that sanity matters, and they’ve run their wars as sanely and boringly as an exterminator going after termites.
It’s sensible, it’s semi-effective, and it irritates the life out of the 99%. I don’t mean the Occupy 99%, all those “goodhearted ordinary Americans”; that’s a totally made-up imaginary species invented by people just as naive as Obama’s crew. I mean the real 99% of us living our rotten lives out there, mean and dumb and miserable, just waiting for some gore we can really get behind.
Obama just doesn’t understand his job as war chief of this big crazy tribe. A war chief doesn’t have to win; only a wonk’s view of the world would see things that way. A war chief has to look like a war chief and talk like one. And yell a lot. Obama just can’t manage that, and when he tries, he makes us feel stupid. He embarrasses us, trying to sing along to a tune you know he thinks is just dumb.
It’s a shame in a way, because his war wonks did a pretty good job actually running the wars. I like to think of them grumbling about it now, a bunch of youngish dressy-casual technocrats drowning their sorrows in frappucinos at some suburban DC Starbucks, counting off their so-what accomplishments: “We got out of Iraq … not one American killed there this year; we took down Qaddafi without one single American casualty; we killed bin Laden right in front of the Pakistani Army and got away with it; what does a C-in-C have to do to get a little respect around here?”
The answer is: He has to look convincing when he holds our enemy’s head up on a stick and shows it to the crowd, all drippy and drawing flies. That’s what we want, and Obama, with all that creepy self-control, is the last guy you’d pick for that job.
It was obvious, after he ordered the hit on bin Laden. For ten years Americans had been seeing that big long bearded face in their dreams, blasting it on gun-range targets, printing it on toilet paper, waiting for the big day when we could see the bastard in a pool of his own blood.
And boom, at last, Osama was dead. On Obama’s watch. Whoo-hoo! Let the victory parades begin!
Except there weren’t any. I remember real well the weird queasy hush after bin Laden died. Nobody ever tells the truth in this country, so nobody could talk about why Obama never got the cheers he expected, but we all know why. It’s simple: There are two tribes in America and neither one was in a mood to cheer. Obama’s liberal fans couldn’t cheer because they have some taboo about parading around with your enemy’s head on a stick. They think it’s crude or something, “a regrettable necessity”—you know that NYT editorial jabber they use.
And the other tribe, the flyover state white glob I come from, would sooner comp bin Laden a suite in Vegas than give Obama any creds for taking him down. They sulked through it like a confused, hungover Pillsbury doughboy; the way they saw it, Obama got bin Laden on a technicality. There’s always been a lot of Osama/Obama blur in the way they see things, and they might’ve been happier if it’d been Osama zapping that snotty Hawaiian instead of the other way around.
War always comes down to demographics — even this slow cold war we’re having in the US now. And Obama is stuck in the crotch of big demographic forked stick, between the sullen majority and the queasy coastals. The coastals don’t want a war chief, and the sullen doughboys can’t see him in the job.
Everybody says it’s race, but that’s not exactly right. Suppose Samuel L. Jackson was president when the SEALs got Osama; I guarantee you, even the nastiest racists you can find — like, say, a tow-truck driver in SE Missouri — would be man-crushing Samuel L. when he went on tv to do a death gloat over Osama, hugging the widescreen at the vision of a big angry black dude, OUR angry black dude, spitting on Osama’s bloody corpse.
Obama’s from a way smaller and less popular minority: the sane, self-controlled type. These people are useful, maybe, but they can’t gloat over an enemy’s corpse worth a damn. So he’s useless to us doughy losers out there in nowheresville; he can’t make us feel better even a little, no matter how right he gets the policy.
And his real base, the tiny little islands of rich happy people who floss twice a day and eat Kale chips — the sane crust floating on the redneck lava — they don’t even want him to help us get our blood-gloat on. So Obama trying to drag Osama’s corpse around — but trying to do it politely, so he didn’t offend the pious Prius people—it put everybody in a bad mood, all bummed and embarrassed. Like having a Unitarian preside when you sacrifice a goat.
One thing you have to say for Karl Rove: at least he knows what country he lives in. You wouldn’t find Rove waste time pandering to a tiny, weak minority like the sane people. There’s no future in it. The dumbest kid in school knows that much.
Thing is, those Obama wonks ain’t bad at running counterinsurgency wars. The first lesson of counterinsurgency, for a big power like us with a lot to lose, is: Don’t do it if you can help it. Case in point: Iraq. Yeah, Iraq; anybody remember Iraq? In case you forgot, we had, oh, you know, kind of a problem back there, from about 2003, when we decided to punish them for the fact that they had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, to 2011.
The 2003 Iraq invasion still ranks as the stupidest expedition since Athens decided to teach the Spartans a lesson by attacking Sicily. Most people know that 4,500 American soldiers died there, for no damn reason, and — not to be a bleeding heart or anything — it wasn’t such a great deal for the Iraqis either. Nobody’s sure how many of them died, but the lowball estimates start at 110,000 and go up all the way to seven figures. That’s part of guerrilla war; it’s not just hard to count the dead, it’s downright dangerous, about the most dangerous thing you can do. People start to wonder why you’re asking, and next thing you know you’re a corpse stuffed under a dozen others, left in the back of a van parked at the border between the Shia and Sunni zones.
And you weren’t going to die quick and easy, either. Another thing you notice about guerrilla war, after it’s gone on for a while, is how this thing I call violence inflation starts to set in. There’s this old joke: “A man can get used to anything, even being hanged” and it’s absolutely true in guerrilla war. People get used to seeing bodies all shot up; it doesn’t mean much to them any more. So you have to start upping the horror factor.
That’s when the sick kids in your street really come into their own, the little silent gigglers who like to experiment on stray dogs and cats. They really shine once an urban guerrilla war is running into its third or fourth season. You know how sitcoms have to struggle to come up with new ways to keep you watching after the first season? Well, after a year or so of simple, boring gunshot murders, the local sadists start to help out by suggesting new ways of using Black & Decker appliances to make sure the bad guys from the next neighborhood over don’t get to die without screaming their lungs out for a day or two in the nearest basement.
It was bad. Worse than anybody stateside knows, or wants to know, being one of those poor Iraqis we decided to save. Living in the smell of your own shit — no water — and your own sweat — no power — and sitting there sweating, waiting to hear which cousin would turn up next with power-drill holes in his eyes.
And it looked like going on forever, because the US Army had purposely un-learned what little it figured out about counterinsurgency in Nam. They wanted to talk fighter jets and aircraft carriers and other totally useless crap that wins you your stars and gets you the big kickbacks from your contractor buddies. Counterinsurgency was no fun, no money, and no way to get promoted. Until Petraeus started using basic, obvious counterinsurgency tactics in 2007, we had literally no strategy in Iraq, and no tactics except to blast anything that moved.
It made no sense at all, not even an evil-type sense. If we’d just nuked the whole country, that would have made an evil kind of sense. But even now, I can’t figure out what the plan was. Unless it really was something about driving up oil prices like the Alex Jones wackos say. If that wasn’t the plan, then there flat-out was no plan.
But it was popular. Remember that; it helps you understand why Obama’s such a bad war chief. Bush was reelected in 2004, after more than a thousand GIs had died in Iraq, most of them in the insurgency that was kicking our ass every single day. He was re-elected. I had this informer from one of the three-letter agency, a guy somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan, but when Bush was reelected he wrote me this email, “I no longer have a country.”
Bush was bad at everything except one thing: Cheerleading. Hell, he was a cheerleader, literally, like, a male cheerleader, at Yale. Where I come from that would have guaranteed him a good solid stomping every day of his life, but it was what we needed in a war chief, apparently, because they liked him in that flight suit and voted him another four years. The sane people couldn’t believe it, but face it, sane people are outnumbered by ferret fanciers in this country.
Fast-forward to 2012, and — quick quiz: How many American troops died in Iraq last year? The official figure is 1, but that 1 KIA didn’t even die in Iraq, let alone from hostile action. He was a PFC named Cesar Cortez, and all we know is that he died in Bahrain on February 11, 2012, from “non-hostile” action, some kind of traffic accident.
How that counts as an Iraq War death I don’t exactly get, but Cesar’s corpse did come in handy when a swarm of Freepers yelled that Obama had left poor Cesar out in a speech. It seems Obama named another guy, Specialist David Hickman, as the last American KIA in Iraq.
Funny thing is, Obama was right, because Hickman was a genuine Iraq War casualty, killed in Baghdad by an IED on November 14, 2011. Seems to me that ought to make him the last Iraq KIA. Cesar Cortez was more what you’d call a KBADLL: “Killed because Arabs drive like lunatics.”
That whole ridiculous Cortez-vs-Hickman debate shows exactly what happened to Obama: He got it right and nobody cared. In fact, it made them mad. We can forgive stupid — but we can’t forgive somebody acting all superior and squeamish like a Canadian, even if he gets it right. Especially if he gets it right.
Weirdest of all, the ridiculous joke of a puppet government we set up in Iraq is actually holding on. In fact, it’s setting in pretty solidly, a three-tier Neapolitan thing with a chocolate-Kurdish top layer (the part everybody likes), a vanilla Sunni middle — well, more like vanilla with lots of red stuff leaking out; and a Strawberry Shia strip. Nobody likes those Neapolitan things, but when the family fights get as intense as they do in that part of the world, a compromise choice isn’t such a bad thing.
Iraq today is a good advertisement for ethnic cleansing. It gets messy when you’re killing and terrorizing the Shia in your Sunni neighborhood, or vice versa. But once they were all dead or bugged out, the neighborhoods started to settle down. I mean, this whole idea that we like diversity and enjoy each others’ little customs — it’s crap, we all know that even if nobody’ll say it. Maybe when it’s yuppies deciding between Ethiopian or Burmese takeout it’s fun, but not when you remember what your cousin’s body looked like when the people from the other neighborhood dumped his body by your front door. Then it’s not so cute, and walling yourself off from them is probably the best you can do.
Baghdad is chopped up nice and tight now, tighter than Belfast, into 100% Sunni and 100% Shia neighborhoods. It’ll be a Shia city soon, and the Sunni know it themselves, which is why they occasionally persuade one of their young unemployables to walk into a Shia pilgrimage and blow himself up. Of course, that doesn’t discourage the Shia at all; they like blood in their little journeys of faith, and if nobody shows up wearing plastique they do it themselves, whipping themselves and dreaming of being hacked to death like their heroes.
The US forces don’t figure in these neighborhood rumbles at all any more. Once the big US forces left, the Iraqis stopped attacking us. I mean completely. That’s one of the huge unnoticed stories of the war: Once we made it clear we were leaving, they left us alone. 2007: 961 American dead. 2012: zero, unless you count Cesar’s traffic accident in Bahrain. And the house of cards we built not just standing but turning solid.
Of course when you squint back and look at it strategically, the whole war is still a huge, huge disaster, because all we bought for the 3 trillion we spent was Iraq all wrapped up and given as a present to the Iranians — you know, the country that hates our guts worse than anybody except maybe the North Koreans.
But that was settled before Obama came in. Considering the full-spectrum tactical/political/strategic disaster he inherited in Iraq, it’s gone way, way, WAY better than it had any right to. And it annoys the life out of us. That’s the pattern: Obama and his geek squad get it right and it annoys the Hell out of everybody. Same pattern, theater by theater:
This is the biggest, most impressive win of all, and naturally it got the biggest, sulkiest silence. Remember when Qaddafi was Satan in the flesh? Our worst enemy, terror sponsor, all that? Well, he was always a loudmouth wimp, but we still didn’t manage to get rid of him in 30 years of dumb-ass CIA assassination plots. Then Obama’s State guys work the strings so NATO and the French take most of the heat, dragging a bunch of amateur thugs into power. Results: Qaddafi gang-raped and dead, zero US casualties, and less than zero applause for the C-in-C who did it. Hey, you sane people: explain that, if you think we’re all rational consumers!
This is the war theatre that defines Obama’s tech geek approach to war. The drone, that’s the signature weapon of this administration: boring, hi-tech, hands-off, no fun … and effective as Hell. For years now, the few hundred unemployable surplus Muslim kids who called themselves Al Qaeda have been scrambling up the ravines of Yemen looking for that famous hospitality the tribes promise there. And for years now, “whenever two or three of you are gathered in my name,” (if your name was Osama bin Laden), there’s been a little quiet buzzing noise over the mud roofs, and before anybody can say, “Allah will protect us” the party breaks up into Jihadi McNuggets and chunks of mud architecture. There’s a Last Supper for the Salafists in Yemen every week, and for all their talk, the number of Muslim kids willing to die a dumb death like that isn’t infinite.
There’s this Australian wannabe war nerd who says the drones make us look weak, like we’re supposed to go in there and hack it out with scimitars like real men. This is about the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard, and considering I’ve been reading war news all through the Cheney years, that’s saying something. What makes you look stupid is sitting around in a goat-stinking mud hut in Yemen chewing khat and bullshitting each other about how you’re going to wipe out Manhattan once you can figure out how to borrow a Toyota pickup to get off this damn mountain, then hearing one second of a high whining noise and instantly turning into kibble for the local jackals. That’s stupid. That’s the kind of death that doesn’t get you into Valhalla, Paradise, or even the afterlife Motel 6.
Yemen is still fucked up. It’s one of the few places in the world where people are actually dying of thirst because they need what little water they’ve got to grow their stupid khat — but then Yemen always has been fucked up. People there dream of having the British come back and whack some sense into them, but it’s not gonna happen. So under the circumstances, Obama’s Black Flag roach control approach is about the best anybody can do — and he’s done a lot of it. Obama loves drones. They’re pure tech-geek, and the best thing is that when one does get downed (which is not easy, by the way), there’s no pilot to whimper and make peacenik videos. You can torture a downed drone all day and it won’t say a damn thing.
This is the big one, and has been for a long time. I don’t mean since 9/11, I mean since … well, a thousand years, anyway. The Aryans came down out of Afghanistan into India so long ago the conquest turned into a religion. When things got too calm, the Moghuls poured through the mountain passes again and slaughtered a good chunk of what was one of the world’s most advanced civilizations at the time. A very, very nasty time, rivers of blood and all that.
And a hundred years ago, the Brits were having a fine old time on what they called “the Northwest Frontier,” which, to cut through the bullshit, meant the Pashtun zone of Af-Pak. The Pashtun love a little war, and so did the Brits. They spent more than a century raiding each other in exactly the same scraggy valleys we’re slogging through now, and they all loved it.
They were fighting the same people, in the same places, we’re fighting now. The only difference is that the Brits, back then, had the guts to admit they liked these little border wars. Take the Mohmand, a Pashtun tribe right there on the Af-Pak border. The British fought six different little wars with this gung-ho tribe in the nineteenth century, and a good time was had by all. Winston Churchill — another guy who was a lousy strategist but a great cheerleader — wrote his first book about the joys of Pashtun-hunting season.
I have to admit, there’s one serious downside to wars like this: you can get too fond of them and start thinking it’s always going to be as easy as massacring Pashtuns. That’s what happened in 1914: after 100 years of fighting Zulus who had spears, or Tibetans with matchlocks, or Pashtuns who had to sell a goat every time they wanted to buy a bullet, the Brits went skipping off to the Western Front with what you might call an unreasonable optimism. The first time they met Prussian machine gunners, they were seriously bummed out.
But that was a very unusual war. War on the Northwest frontier, aka the Pashtun zone, will never be anything like the Somme. War is a sport for Pashtuns; it’s about all they’re good at. In fact, they were so good at it the Brits imported them to South Africa to massacre the Boers for them.
So it’s silly to talk about ending the violence up there. The Pashtun 99% is even more blood crazy than ours, and you can’t bribe them out of it like you can saner tribes like the Tajik or Uzbek. The Pashtun don’t want to be part of the global economy, don’t want to join the online revolution, don’t want to do much but oil their guns and watch their female livestock. So the idea that there’s anything like a solution, a happy Scandinaviazation of Af-Pak, is just dumb.
And here I have to give Obama’s geeks credit: They seem to get that. Their answer to the Pashtun problem has been basically let ’em eat Hellfire missiles. 262 drone strikes in Northern Pakistan and Southern Afghanistan during the last term.
I suppose it’s very sad and a human tragedy and all that, but you have to admit there’s something very funny about a mud house full of gullible madrassa graduates getting a big speech from the Imam who’s running their little field trip to the war when that same calm, unmanned, hi-tech hum starts making the dried mud fall in little clumps. They say there isn’t really an afterlife, and that all the stuff people see in these near-death experiences happens in the slowed-down seconds just before you kick off, and I can believe that when I imagine all these dummies in that hut actually thinking, for the first time in their lives, actually figuring out what’s going to happen in a millisecond or so, and everybody having the same big therapy self-knowledge breakthrough in the same final instant: “Oh God, I am so fucking stupid.”
Long time ago, somebody asked “War, what is it good for?” All kinds of stuff, actually, depending on which kind of war and which side you’re on. But for a big, powerful country going through bad times, war is mainly a way of making the 99%, who are mean and crazy and miserable, feel a little better about their rotten lives.
War isn’t about “winning” wars, so much — the 2004 election proved that once and for all. It’s about having something to woof on behalf of, like the NFL squared. Bush was the worst warrior since George Villiers, but he was a pro at cheerleading and we reelected him. Obama’s been a big surprise as a C-in-C, a damn good, cool-headed master of assassins, which is what you need for counterinsurgency … but he’s worse than nothing as a cheerleader.