Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Lament of the Frontier Guard

By the North Gate, the wind blows full of sand,
Lonely from the beginning of time until now!
Trees fall, the grass goes yellow with autumn.
I climb the towers and towers
to watch out the barbarous land:

My friend jim recently posted an extended rumination about the combat loss of a CH-47 and the embarked team of Navy SEALs. In this post he uses President Obama's term "sacrifice" to compare the way these men died to the offerings presented to the gods; in this case, the twin gods of War and Hubris that have ruled lately in the East. He asks "How can a nation sacrifice the best that we have to offer in such a blithe manner?" and suggests that these dead men were sacrifices for our national sins of arrogance and foolishness.Now I have no end of respect for jim's opinions on things military. He's been there and done that and got the O.D. T-shirt. He's probably forgotten more about soldiering than I'll ever know.

But in this case, I think he's looking at this as an American and a citizen-soldier, and that's the wrong way to look at this.

Desolate castle, the sky, the wide desert.
There is no wall left to this village.
Bones white with a thousand frosts,
High heaps, covered with trees and grass;
Who brought this to pass?
Who has brought the flaming imperial anger?
Who has brought the army with drums and with kettle-drums?
Barbarous kings.

For most of these guys the Saturday in Wardak Province was just another day at work. They are long-service professionals - imperial troops in all but name - and they are doing what imperial troops have done since Augustus' day; carrying our imperial policy in the far reaches of the imperial frontiers.

This was no army of liberation storming ashore on the beaches of Normandy or Italy, no army of vengeance pouring gasoline into the caves of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. This wasn't even "Lafayette, we are here" or "Remember the Maine". While I'm sure that one or two of the guys who augered in somewhere in the Tangi Valley comforted themselves with the fiction that they were avenging 9/11 I'll bet most of them thought about their mission as imperials have always thought about the mission of civilizing the savages with a rifle.Long, tiring work, typically boring, occasionally terrifying, often fruitless. Pitied and ignored by the civilians safe at home, feared or swindled by the natives nearby, tasked by the uninformed higher-ups to perform everything from the pointless to the dangerous, taking successes wherever and however possible, accepting failures as part of the game.

A gracious spring, turned to blood-ravenous autumn,
A turmoil of wars - men, spread over the middle kingdom,
Three hundred and sixty thousand,
And sorrow, sorrow like rain.
Sorrow to go, and sorrow, sorrow returning,
Desolate, desolate fields,
And no children of warfare upon them,
No longer the men for offence and defence.

And I believe we do them a disservice when we use the language of popular mass wars for what they do and how they die. The President, of course, well, it's his job to drape the charred bits of meat and bone - all that remain after JP-4 and airframe aluminum combine to combust human bodies - in patriotic bunting. He is, after all, both our national mourner and national cheerleader, saying the correct and solemn words over the caskets filled with sand, fanning the fire in the faint hearts to continue the fight that will bring more dead men home to more bereft hearts.

But we should be big enough to overlook these public platitudes and see these men for what they are; imperial legionaries of a most unimperial empire, manning the milecastles we build for them with our taxes, our reflexive rage, our incurious sloth, and our ignorance of the world and the people in it.

Those dead men, could they reassemble themselves, could they pull the poncho-liner of whole flesh back on so as not to frighten us with the gibbering horror of their deaths in a rage of fire and metal, might tell us of the people in those far places who killed them and whom they killed, the broken places and the broken tribes within them, whose ferocities and griefs they and we will never understand. They might tell us about the meaningless strobing of parachute flares in the night sky, of little villages with yesterday's bulletholes in walls that Alexander's troops passed by, of walking over the same ground they walked yesterday and finding new death buried by the roadside.

But, then again, they might not.

Because there is no way we in the soft lands and the quiet places could understand what it means to try and defeat the 14th Century with the weapons of the 20th.

Ah, how shall you know the dreary sorrow at the North Gate,
With Rihoku's name forgotten,
And we guardsmen fed to the tigers.

Because they are atop the milecastles, peering out to the barbarous lands, and we are peacefully asleep in the fat lands within the walls. Because they know war and we do not. Because they are not our sacrifices; they are our proxies. Because, although we have never seen a tiger or know what it does...

...we feed them to the tigers.And then go home to our dinners.


  1. Often what you write about I find awkward to complement. But how you write is the best I ever find.

  2. The thing is that this is just another war as a racket, that we all own this racket, but we just never want to look real hard at what we use to pay the rent.

    One of the benefits of imperium is that the citizens/subjects never have to look at what the guys that march out under their flag are doing in the hustings. We did this sort of thing in the PI a hundred years ago and in Latin America and Haiti in the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties. It mean nothing then and it means nothing now.

    We're just having a hard time re-assuming the mindset of good imperial citizens, so we comfort ourselves with the sentimental blather about "freedom" and "sacrifice" and "heroism" to paper over the reality that these guys are doing what imperials have always done, and for many of the same reasons...and very few of those reasons have anything to do with freedom, sacrifice, or heroism.

  3. I think sacrifice, heroism, etc. are a bit more complex than what you're describing here. While I think you certainly can't ignore the big context of the conflict and its character, you've got to take other things into account like individual motivation and circumstances. And it's really all subjective since people don't view sacrifice, honor, and heroism the same way. I think most serving in the armed forces today would disagree with your characterization that they are "imperials."

  4. Andy-

    "I think most serving in the armed forces today would disagree with your characterization that they are "imperials." "

    Agree, but what is the actual effect of what these American "warriors" are doing? Some would argue this is all about empire, or would you argue that there actually exists a "global threat" which requires our military actions on such a scale as a response?

    Are we on the defensive or the offensive? Is the enemy a threat to our "freedom" or simply responding to our depredations? A very basic question from a strategic theory perspective; I suppose it comes down to that . . .

  5. Seydlitz,

    That's a good point, but these wars aren't "imperial" simply because they are strategically incoherent. If we were installing Viceroy's in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and granting US corporations exclusive rights to territorial resources, then I'd think these would be "imperial" wars. We would have a clear purpose that would, theoretically at least, provide us a clear and material benefit.

    What have we gained? What is the purpose? IMO, as I've said before, I think these are now wars of national honor and the reason we are still there is that our politicians think they can't leave without a clear "win" and the American people don't want to suffer the perceived psychological consequences of a Vietnam-like "failure." The sunk-cost fallacy is also at work.

    After a bit more thinking, I'll add this to my earlier thoughts: Maybe it's an artifact of the AVF, but for me and most people I know, service is in large part about "serving the nation" and the deal is that if you want to serve the nation, you don't get to pick and choose your wars. Almost everyone today, including me, continue to serve by choice despite misgivings about our current conflicts (obviously, my misgivings are not everyone's). Each individual, therefore, has to balance whether service is worth the downsides, whatever those downsides may be. For most people, continued service is not worth the cost and they either choose not to join at all or serve one or two hitches.

    So I guess it strikes me as - not sure how to put this - "unfair" to suggest that the sacrifice these men made is somehow diminished because the campaign they fought and died in didn't rise to someone else's arbitrary level of righteousness. I have a hard time entertaining the notion that the sacrifice of a soldier in WWII who was accidentally killed by by his own troops is somehow greater or more honorable than those guys in the 47, or the soldier in Iraq who dies to save his men. Everyone has their own opinion and I'm not claiming any moral high ground here, but for me personally I feel completely unqualified to make such judgments.

  6. No one who dies like these guys did is "diminished" by dying for national interests rather than the "big causes". There is no "honor" in dying in war, anyway. The honor is in surviving it, and, with luck, ending up with your people and your loved ones better off than they would have been had you died and failed.

    And of course they - and most of the guys in theatre - would deny being imperials. We're Americans, right? The "good guys"? We don't just send people into other's countries to kill them for cold-blooded reasons like great power politics, national interests, and resource access?

    But of course we do. We went into Mexico for a land grab, into most of our West for the same reason, into Cuba and the PI for the same...killed Moros and Sandinistas to get a better deal on Caribbean goods and to keep our caudillos in power, Panamanians to kick their caudillo OUT of power, and Iraqis...well, who the fuck knows why we actually did that. Hubiris and stupidity, it looks like now. When I was a grunt I didn't think about the why of where I was sent, I just went, and told myself that I was "Serving my country".

    No, what I am talking about is the sentimental way we refuse to stop playing the old "good war" songs and pretending that these guys are the same ones that were drafted and really did end up fighting for the "Four Freedoms" - that these wars are the same as the Good War, simple and just...mostly because we've dumped all the complexity and injustice of the Good War down the memory hole.

    Our troopers are now fighting imperial wars for imperial reasons. If we don't like that, we should stop what they're doing. And if we don't stop what they're doing, we should, at least, deal with it for what it is and decide how long we want to keep manning our Hadrian's Wall. Pretending that these guys are some sort of voluntary "sacrifice" - that they were torn from hearth and home to fight the foe that threatened our shores a la Pearl Harbor just helps fog our minds and helps these Little Wars blunder along.

    You can't figure out whether to keep playing or to cash out at the roulette table if you think you're playing tiddlywinks.

  7. "If we were installing Viceroy's in Iraq and/or Afghanistan and granting US corporations exclusive rights to territorial resources...

    Just for the long would Chalabi have lasted, or will Karzai likely last, without our bayonets to prop up their thrones?

    And do you seriously think that we're NOT using our military power to get considerations for our commercial outfits? Is Xe not a private corporation? Do you think that Saddam's refusal to un-nationalize his - and his attempted grab of Kuwait's - petroleum had NOTHING to do with Gulf Wars II and III?

    I must be WAY more cynical than I thought, then...

  8. "I think sacrifice, heroism, etc. are a bit more complex than what you're describing here."

    Courage has no cause. A hell of a lot of good man fought for Germany in 1944, or for the Confederacy in 1864. Many of them were courageous, many of them were heroic, many of them sacrificed themselves for their causes.

    What does that have to do with what they were actually fighting for?

    We use the term "sacrifice" to imply that these men died to "protect" us; that they "gave their lives so that the nation might live". And I'm arguing that, no, they gave their lives that we might achieve our national interests in central Asia, so that we might establish a reliable client state in Afghanistan, so that we could diminish the operational capability of Islamic enemies of the U.S. in that region.

    Those two aren't the same thing, they don't imply the same level of existential threat, and to use one when the balance of reality is in the other is to use the deaths of these men did you put it..? To advance the "the sunk-cost theory" of why we should continue to hang around the Afghan plateau.

    We now look back on our Mexican and Phillippine wars as something to be pretty ashamed of, brutal land-grabs that reflect badly on us as a supposed beacon of the notion of liberty and justice. But we justified them as heroic at the time and the deaths of the soldiers we sent to fight them as sacrifices for the greater good of the nation. We chose to use those terms in the sense we're using them today rather than to accept that good men - our men - can die for cynical reasons and for meaningless causes.

    I don't like to think that - because I was one of those guys for a lot of years - but that doesn't make it any less ugly or true.

  9. Chief,
    I take this as a comment on or a description of those of us who are back home. Less so than a words on or about our soldiers. I was and still am against both wars, but I'll admit some amount of fascination with 'war porn', some curiosity as to what it's 'really like' in battle. I'm not the only one like that. The description of our soldiers as proxies is appropriate.

  10. Chief,

    No one who dies like these guys did is "diminished" by dying for national interests rather than the "big causes".

    Well, that's not what I'm hearing from your comments:

    We use the term "sacrifice" to imply that these men died to "protect" us;....
    Those two aren't the same thing, they don't imply the same level of existential threat, and to use one when the balance of reality is in the other is to use the deaths of these men did you put it..?

    Why distinguish between two causes and then relate that to sacrifice? How is that not judging and, by extension, elevating some sacrifices over others?

    Secondly, I'm not saying that something like Afghanistan and WWII are the same thing or they represent the same level of existential threat. What I am saying is that it is callous and "unfair" (sorry, can't think of a better work right now) to imply that sacrifice in one kind of war is automatically somehow better or more honorable or somehow materially different than sacrifice in another kind of war, especially right after the guys died. The fact they were willing to sacrifice at all counts for something. The character and circumstance of their sacrifice counts for a whole lot more. How the "cause" affects the character of one's sacrifice is for history to decide and, IMO, when characterizing sacrifice, such judgments should be left to history.

    And it's fine that you think Iraq and Afghanistan are "imperial" wars and that those in the military are "imperial" soldiers, but that is an opinion (and not a very well supported opinion in my judgment) and not a fact. It's ludicrous to compare Xe getting defense contracts with invading the Philippines or something like the Mexican-American war.

  11. Chief-

    Why the troops serve, and what the people and "leaders" send them off to do are two distinctly different things. For those troops who are doing the job ("soldering for their country, without qualifiers") because they wish to do that job without question, I have respect. That's what American troops should do, if they are good troops. Obey ALL the lawful orders.

    I am less impressed with troops who are on a "holy mission" or serving due to partisan political beliefs, lest they only wish to serve in operations they choose.

    Sacrifice is part and parcel to military service. Be it a loss of privacy, separation from loved ones, going days without a shower, or dying in action, it's part of the job.

    In the final analysis, no US troop ever served in a manner that brought benefit solely to himself. We always served in a mission at least claimed to be for "the greater good" of the United States. Consequently, "the folks back home", be it the general population (WWII) or the politicians who are afraid to be seen as losing a dumbass operation (Afghanistan) are going to praise the troops to the heavens.

    IMHO, those who serve honorably, regardless of who's "side" and for what "cause" serve honorably. As comrades in arms, they have my respect. Since the dawn of time, it has been those who send them or use the natural sacrifice of service as a justification for their sending them that are the whores.

    Sadly, and thanks to GWB and his minions, we have spent the past decade seeing the troops used as pawns, visual backdrops and unwitting shills for the purpose of promoting and gaining domestic political advantage. It has become ingrained in our daily discourse, and it makes me sick. It would be interesting to know how many hours of GWB making political speeches with troops seated behind him were recorded.

    I had no qualms being an instrument of public policy while I served. If the current crap of being used to further the election desires of one party or the other had begun on my watch, I would have be gone in a heartbeat. Had I ever been seated behind POTUS as a video prop for one of his speeches, my first act would have been to look as if I was sound asleep.

  12. Al,
    I've always believed that the SF is/was the SS/ Foreign Legion of the USA. I wear a SF patch on my right sleeve and have a more than passing knowledge of these soldiers.
    MOST are true believers. They will fight anywhere , anytime , for any reason.As long as per diem is involved.
    I have a hard time calling misused NG?USAR troops as legionaires.
    I made a cmt last night and this morn it's gone.
    I tried.

  13. Chief,
    I believe ww1 &2 were Imperial wars , and existential doesn't apply, even to these wars.
    Both were European affairs and imho ww2 would not have happened IF THE US HAD STAYED OUTTA THE 1st War.But that's speculation.
    What isn't spec is that Japan/Nazi Germany could not destroy us as a nation. Think- Hitler couldn't cross the Channel, and he didn't dig a tunnel.
    Left to themselves the Euros would have destroyed themselves. So what.?!
    My point. We've never fought a righteous war.
    Except maybe Grenada.
    I'm reading MAKING OF A PRES 72 and White is discussing elective wars in 73 literature. All our wars have been elective , even those declared by Congress.
    A declaration of war does not infer legitimacy.
    I cringe at Andys comment that AFGH/Irq are wars of national honor.
    How can national honor be predicated on dishonorable actions? There is no external threat to our existence.NADA.If we go down it'll be self inflicted.

  14. jim-

    I have a hard time calling misused NG?USAR troops as legionaires.

    I was sent by the Corps, the service of my first 6 years, to Special Warfare and Psyops Schools at Bragg in the early 60's.

    All troops today are volunteers, not just Spec Opns folks. All troops should behave the same way. As the Old Gunnery Sergeant said to one of our Riflemen who was bad mouthing admin types, "Those guys are vital to the mission just as we are. Without those Marines, we wouldn't get paid, supplied, promoted or fed. Think about it."

    A Soldier is a Soldier, is a Soldier. Without regard to MOS.

  15. Andy-

    My next post will be my response to your comment, that is your response to what I asked you above.

    Is there anything you wish to add? It'll be fun.

  16. A war that is fought far from the national borders, for reasons not integral to existential defense (or the defense of a sworn ally) is an "imperial" war. Whether its fought for prestige (probably a better term than "national honor", since prestige can describe self-image that is objectively less than honorable), for commercial interests, for power politics, to influence the political posture of some distant country...that's the sort of thing that Great Powers do. They are "imperial" in the sense that those Powers have the ability to project their influence far beyond mere nation states.

    You'll note I didn't say "colonial"; we seem to have given up our colonial aspirations with the rest of the West. But we retain the power - and in our minds, the right - to busy about in others' homes. These guys were doing just that, so you can argue about terminology but they were doing the same thing that the Chinese did in Assam, the Inca did, the Spanish and British did, the Songai did.

    It's imperial war. Sorry that you and the guys don't like to call it that, or want to think of it that way. I didn't for a long time, until I started taking the long view and putting our recent overseas adventures in context with Mexico, the PI and Cuba, the Banana Wars...we've been an imperium without an empire for a long time, and many times what we do we do as imperial grunts as any in Augustus' army. Deal with it.

    And these SEALS? When you think about it, the Wardak fight pretty much locks the "imperial" deal. They didn't get shot down holding the Enemy at the gates. They got waxed for the same reason that Varus' guys got waxed in Germany back in the day - they were doing the Great Power's dirty work in the wild places and had a bad day.

    Yeah, that's "sacrifice", of a sort. But should we lump all our soldiers' "sacrifice" into the same category whether they are killed in an obvious fight for national survival (or the nation's allies' survival)...or in a cynical land-grab like the PI, or Mexico?

    Or, as in this case, in a pointless, nearly-impossible capriole through the highlands of central Asia, slaying Afghans to try and make them stop being Afghans?

    Our soldiers are doing the jobs. They're professionals, and dying in bad wars and for bad causes doesn't lessen their service, it lessens our wisdom and our courage.

    OUR job is to look hard at what we've asked them to do - not at the patriotic mush or the rhetoric or the sunk-costs or the "sacrifice" - but at whether the gain is worth the cost and make the hard choices.

    To slink from our responsibilities by saying that "such judgements should be left to history" ensures that history stands an extremely good chance of judging us very savagely indeed.

  17. Chief,357,
    i concur.
    I acknowledge.

  18. Very well done, Chief. You've got an uncanny ability to put my thoughts into your words. You been reading my mail?

  19. One last note for the "war is a racket" file:

    "Since Saddam was toppled in April, Iraq has paid out $1.8bn in reparations to the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC), the Geneva-based quasi tribunal that assesses claims and disburses awards. Of those payments, $37m have gone to Britain and $32.8m have gone to the United States. That's right: in the past 18 months, Iraq's occupiers have collected $69.8m in reparation payments from the desperate people they have been occupying. But it gets worse: the vast majority of those payments, 78%, have gone to multinational corporations, according to statistics on the UNCC website."

    Here is a small sample of who has been getting "reparation" awards from Iraq: Halliburton ($18m), Bechtel ($7m), Mobil ($2.3m), Shell ($1.6m), Nestlé ($2.6m), Pepsi ($3.8m), Philip Morris ($1.3m), Sheraton ($11m), Kentucky Fried Chicken ($321,000) and Toys R Us ($189,449). In the vast majority of cases, these corporations did not claim that Saddam's forces damaged their property in Kuwait - only that they "lost profits" or, in the case of American Express, experienced a "decline in business" because of the invasion and occupation of Kuwait. One of the biggest winners has been Texaco, which was awarded $505m in 1999."

  20. $1.8 billion? That's it? That's an average of $225 million a year. I would have expected the number to be much, much higher.

  21. Andy-

    The article's from October 2004.

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