Friday, July 31, 2015

David Foster Wallace by Michael Schmidt

For the 150th issue of Charles Eliot Norton’s Atlantic Magazine in November 2007, the editors invited contemporary intellectuals from various quarters to write briefly about“The American Idea.” Ten months before he hanged himself, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) wrote a characteristic piece that, by raising a series of Socratic questions, detaches readers from the reflexes instilled by the media, realigning their sense of the issues involved. For him the American Idea has to do with forms of liberty. The short piece has footnotes in dialogue with the main thrust of the essay or novel. “Are some things worth dying for?” he asks, things like “The American Idea", which in a footnote he shorthands: “Given the strict .  .  . space limits here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes – an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency .  .  . the whole democratic roil.” Back to the main questions, the “thought experiment “ he wants to put us through: “What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ‘sacrifice on the alter of freedom’?” (this phrase, a footnote informs us, is Lincoln’s) “What if we all decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life – sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but our personal safety and comfort?”  He continues with his needling questions for another three paragraphs.

His thinking outside the box is an example of what the American Idea is about. “What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice – either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?” All questions, no answer is provided: “In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea  as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and I, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.?” The final two questions nudge us with the real: “Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?”

To speak of Wallace as a novelist is to put his secondary achievement first. He was an essayist whose three novels, The Broom of the System (1987, after Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49), Infinite Jest (1996), and (posthumous) The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (2011), are uneven, only the second having a secure claim on the general reader. This is not to underestimate his importance as a writer, only that his value to other novelists is in the essays he wrote and the original easy he wrote them. He makes watching paint dry an exquisite protraction. For his last novel he chose what anyone but Edmund Wilson or Franz Kafka would describe as the most boring subject available: the Internal Revenue Service, its nuanced and almost impenetrable regulations, its functioning.  Wallace’s own IRS agents in Peoria, Illinois, are bored. Some readers report themselves bored by the book, though they feel impious to say so.  It is as if Kafka had decided to ground The Trial and The Castle in actual procedures, so that metaphor and fact were in positive tension, rather than the value being metaphorical. The Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow is near at hand. When the IRS sends out gents with psychic powers, we remember the White Visitation research facility. The Pale King has not proved a success, though it was universally reviewed on publication.

Wallace’s essays entail the lecture, the sermon, the review, the manifesto, and other genres. He reinvents the form from within, using his own devices, the footnote and the syllogism in particular, and combining genres, bringing confession and review into play with “impartial” journalism whose evident objectivity yields potent satire. He opened his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 with a little parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over to the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” His essays recall us to the elements of our social, intellectual, and (he was a churchgoer, wherever he happened to live) spiritual environments. Adam Kirsch characterized Wallace’s “self-conscious earnestness,” his hostilities to reductive ironies)”Irony is the song of a bird who has grown to love its cage”) that impoverished an earlier generation. Kirsch’s ‘earnest” is not humorless.

Wallace “came of age” in the wake of the Vietnam War, a period in which discontinuity seemed a rule of life and the writers tat most mattered were DiLillo, Pynchon, and Robert Coover. He was a postmodernist with premodern values, with revolutionary values of the 1776 variety, and he was as straight talking as Hunter S. Thompson, but making more sense, trying to engage the concerns of the fiction of earlier times. Infinite Jest is over 1,072 pages vast, as the title adjective suggests, commensurate with Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Jests abound, not the least the novel itself, its footnotes, contradictions, idealism, disenchantment. Woven out of three ill-assorted plot lines – Canadian terrorists keen to secure a lethally pleasurable film, a recovering Demerol addict, and (himself?) a tennis prodigy with hang-ups – it is engaging. In eschewing conventional closure, it does not bring a conclusion to the satisfaction it offers.

Closure for Wallace’s ashes, or some of them, came by the agency of his friend Jonathan Franzen, entrusted by Wallace’s widow to distribute them on an island in the South Pacific where he went to bird watch, “to recoup his sense of identity after a grueling, bring book tour – and to allow himself to feel, by imposed isolation, the fullness of grief that he had been keeping at bay.” The “grueling, boring book tour” would have been to Wallace, a joke and a subject for research, or both. Franzen’s essay measures the distance between his late friend’s essayistic skills and is own.  Wallace’s pathological depressions balance his own manageable grumps and discontents. In the case of Wallace, economic and political upheaval did register. He engaged with the modern with a memory of the American dream and all its promises, which were inexorably reworded, reshaped, until it was impossible to bring them back into true.

Chapter 35, Essaying, pages 807-9

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Awful When You Think of It by Graham Greene

When the baby looked up at me from its wicker basket and winked – on the opposite seat somewhere between Reading and Slough – I became uneasy. It was if he had discovered my secret interest.

It is awful to think how little we change. So often an old acquaintance, whom one has not seen for forty years when he occupied the neighboring chopped and inky desk, detains one in the street with his unwelcome memory.  Even as a baby we carry the future with us. Clothes cannot change us, the clothes are the uniform of our character, and our character changes as little as the shape of our nose and the expression of the eyes.

It has always been my hobby in railway trains to visualize in a baby’s face the man he is to become – the bar-lounger, the gadabout, the frequenter of fashionable weddings; you need only supply the cloth cap, the grey topper, the uniform of the sad, smug, or hilarious future. But I have always felt a certain contempt for the babies I have studied with such superior wisdom (they little  know), and it was a shock last week when one of the brood not only detected me in the act of observation but returned that knowing signal, as if he shared my knowledge of what the years would make of him.

He had been momentarily left alone by his young mother on the seat opposite. She had smiled towards me with a tacit understanding that I would look after her baby for a few moments. What danger, after all, could happen to it? (Perhaps she was less certain of his sex than I was. She knew the shape under the nappies, of course, but shapes can deceive: parts alter, operations performed.) She could not see what I had seen - the tilted bowler and the umbrella over the arm. (No arm was yet apparent under the coverlet printed with pink rabbits.)

When she was safely out of the carriage I bent towards the basket and asked him a question. I had never carried my researches quite so far.

“What’s yours?” I said.

He blew a thick white bubble, brown at the edges. There could be no doubt at all that he was saying, “A pint of the best bitter.”

“Haven’t seen you lately – you know – in the old place,” I said. He gave a quick smile, passing it off, then he winked again. You couldn’t doubt that he was saying “The other half?”

I blew a bubble in my turn – we spoke the same language.

Very slightly he turned his head to one side. He didn’t want anybody to hear what he was going to say now.

“You’ve got a tip? I asked.

Don’t mistake my meaning. It was not racing information I wanted. Of course I could not see his waist under all those pink rabbit wrappings, but I knew perfectly well that he wore a double-breasted waistcoat and had nothing to do with tracks. I said very rapidly, because his mother might return at any moment, “My brokers are Druce, Davis, and Burrows.”

He looked up at me with bloodshot eyes, and a line of spittle began to form at the corner of his mouth.  I said, “Oh, I know they’re not all that good. But at the moment they’re recommending Stores.”

He gave a high wail of pain – you could have mistaking the cause for wind, but I knew better. In his club they didn’t have to serve dill water. I said, “I don’t agree, mind you,” and he stopped crying and blew a bubble – a little white tough one which lingered on his lip.

I caught his meaning at once. “My round,” I said. “Time for a short?”

He nodded.

“Scotch?” I know few people will believe me, but he raised his head an inch or two and gazed unmistakably at my watch.

“A bit early?” I said. “Pink gin?”

I didn’t have to wait for his reply. “Make them large one,” I said to my imaginary barman.

He spat at me, so I added, “Throw away the pink.”

“Well,” I said, “here’s to you. Happy future,” and we smiled at each other, well content.

“I don’t  know what you would advise,” I said, “but surely Tobaccos are about as low as they will go. When you think Imps were a cool eighty in the early thirties and now you can pick them up for under sixty .  .  . this cancer scare can’t go on. People will have got to have their fun.”

At the word “fun” he winked again, looking secretly around, and I realized that perhaps I had been on the wrong tack. It was not, after all, the state of the markets he had been so ready to talk about.

“I heard a damn good one yesterday,” I said. “A man got into a tube train, and there was a pretty girl with one stocking coming down .  .  .”

He yawned and closed his eyes.

“Sorry,” I said, “I thought it was new. You tell me one.”

And do you know that damned baby was quite ready to oblige? But he belonged to the school who find their own jokes funny, and when he tried to speak he could only laugh. He couldn’t get his story out for laughter. He laughed and winked and laughed again – what a good story it must have been. I could have dined out for a week on the strength of it. His limbs twitched in the basket; he even tried to get his hands free from the pink rabbits, and then the laughter died. I could almost hear him saying, “Tell you later, old man.”

His mother opened the door of the compartment. She said, “You’ve been amusing baby. How kind of you. Are you fond of babies?” And she gave me such a look – the love-wrinkles forming round the mouth and eyes – that I was tempted to reply with the warmth and hypocrisy required, but then I met the baby’s hard relentless gaze.

“Well as a matter of fact,” I said, “I’m not. Not really.” I drooled on, losing all my chances before the blue and bubbly stare. “You know how it is .  .  . never had one of my own .  .  . I’m fond of fishes, though .  .  .

I suppose in a way I got my reward. The baby blew a whole succession of bubbles. He was satisfied, after all, a chap shouldn’t make passes at another chap’s mother, especially if he belongs to the same club he would belong in twenty-five years’ time. “On me,” he was obviously saying now. “Doubles all round.” I could only hope that I would not live so long.

Monday, July 20, 2015

'Man' by Bengt Jangfeldt

 In the midst of the most hectic cafe period, In February 1918, Mayakovsky brought out his new poem, “Man”, under the imprint of ASIS (Association for Socialist Art) and with money from a few friends. The other, uncensored edition of “A Cloud in Trousers” came out at the same time and under the same imprint.

When at the end of January Mayakovsky recited “Man” at a private poetry evening on the theme “Two Generations of Poets Meet,” it caused a sensation. Those present included large sections of the Russian poetic Parnassus: Symbolists such as Andrey Bely, Konstantin Balmont, Vyacheslav Ivanov and Jurgis Baltrusaitis; the Futurists David Burlyuk and Vasily Kamensky, and some other poets who defied any such categorization, like Marina Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak, and Vladislav Khodasevich.  “Poets read in order of seniority and without much success,” Pasternak recalled: “When it came to Mayakovsky’s turn, he got up, curved one arm around the empty shelf at the back of the divan, and began reciting “Man”. Like a bas-relief  [.  .  .] he towered above the people that were seated or standing there. And now with one arm propping his handsome head, now bracing his knee against the bolster, he recited a work of uncommon profundity and exalted inspiration.”

Andrey Bely listened as if transfixed. When the reading was over, he rose, shaken and pale, and declared he could not imagine how poetry of such power could be written at such a time.  The reading at the Polytechnic Museum a few days later was equally successful. “I had never heard Mayakovsky read like that,” recalled Roman Jakobson: “He was nervous, wanted to get everything out and read quite exceptionally.” It was a recognition that Mayakovsky has long been waiting for.

“Man” was written during the course of 1917. Work on the poem began during the spring and finished sometime toward the end of the year, after the October Revolution. The almost one-thousand-word poem occupies a central place in Mayakovsky’s oeuvre from a chronological point of view: on the threshold between the old times and the new. But it has an almost equally central status thematically. Nowhere does Mayakovsky’s existential alienation find more desperate expression than here.

The structure of the poem is modeled on the life of Jesus, and it is divided into sections like “Mayakovsk’s Nativity,” “Mayakovsky’s Life,” Mayakovsky’s Passion,” Mayakovsky’s Ascension,” “Mayakovsky’s Heaven,” “Mayakovsky’s Return,” “Mayakovsky’ to Eternity.” The religious connection is emphasized by the typography of the cover, where the author’s surname and the title are intertwined like a cross.

Mayakovsky’s birthday – “the day of my descension”- was the most mundane of days. No one thought to notify a distant star that there was something to celebrate.  And yet it is an event of the same caliber as Christ’s birth. Every movement Mayakovsky makes is a miracle; his hands can enfold any throat, his tongue form any sound it wants; he possesses an intellect that sparkles like precious stones; he can change winter into summer and water into wine. Within his magic sphere everything becomes poetry –stout washerwomen are transformed into “daughters of the sky and the dawn”; the baker’s buns are bent into the necks of violins; the bootlegs that the shoemaker is working on becomes harps. Everything is the result of Mayakovsky’s birth; “It is I/ who hosted my heart like a flag. / A matchless wonder of the twentieth century!”  Faced with this miracle, pilgrims come streaming from Our Lord’s grave, and Mecca empties of the faithful.

However, far from everybody is equally impressed by the poet’s transforming power. The real world, represented by “bankers, tycoons and doges,” feels under threat and goes on the attack: If everything is “heart,” what have they accumulated heaps of money for? And who gave him permission to sing? Who asked the days to bloom in July? No, lock up the sky behind bars, twist the earth into streets, poison the tongue with gossip! Chased into the ”earthly pen” the man/poet drags along his “daily yoke,” his brain oppressed by “The Law” and with “Religion” like a chain over his heart. He is locked inside a “senseless story”; all fantasy is proscribed; everything is ruled by money. Everything, large and small, drowns in the golden maelstrom of money: geniuses, hens, horses, violins, elephants. On an island in the middle of this whirlpool lives the “Ruler of All,” the poet’s “rival” and “invincible enemy,” in “thin stockings with fine polka dots, elegant trousers, and natty tie that glided down from his enormous neck / over the globe of his belly.”

Although Mayakovsky’s enemy bears the clichéd characteristics of the bourgeois, it would be too simplistic to reduce the “Ruler of All” to a social or economic phenomena. In Mayakovsky’s poetic world the concept “bourgeois” is first and foremost a symbol – for stagnation, conservatism, repletion. “To be bourgeois / is not to own capital, / scatter gold coins around, / it is the mouth stuffed fill with fat,” as he defined the phenomena a couple of years later, in the poem “150,000,000.” The “Ruler of All” is “the universal bourgeois,” whose cheap and vulgar taste dominates and corrupts the world. The conclusion that Mayakovsky formulates in “Man” can stand as a motto for the whole of his work:

Revolutions shake the bodies of kingdoms,
The human herd changes drovers,
But you,
Uncrowned lord of the hearts
Not a single rebellion can disturb!

The Ruler’s power of attraction is so strong that even the poet’s beloved is seduced by it. He tries to stop her, but it is too late, she is already with Him. His skull shines; He is completely hairless; only on his final finger joint do three small hairs peek out from under a jewel. She bends over his hand, and her lips whisper the names of the hairs – one is called “Little Flute,” the other “Little Cloud.” In this way, not only Mayakovky’s love but his poetry too is vulgarized by the “uncrowned lord of the hearts.”

The woman is in His power, and the longing and sorrow call forth thoughts of suicide in the pet, whose ”heart longs for the bullet / and throat yearns for the razor.” During a stroll alongside the Neva his soul falls to the ice like a “frozen emerald.” He finds a pharmacy, but when the pharmacist produces a bottle market “Poison”, he remembers he is eternal, the roof opens of its own accord, and he climbs up to heaven. Once there, he shrugs off his “baggage / of things / and an exhausted body” on a cloud. The contrast between the high-flown theme and the prosaic tone is huge! To begin with he is disappointed. Hinting that the “invisible enemy” is also within himself, he complains that there is not a single corner where he can sit and drink tea and read the paper in peace. But he gets used to it; life in heaven turns out to be a mirror image of life on earth, and here too one’s existence is regulated from morning to night. Someone is repairing a cloud, another is shoveling coal into “the sun’s oven.” But what is he, the poet, to do? After all, he is “all about heart, / and where is the heart in those who lack a body?” When he wants to “stretch out the body on a cloud and watch you all,” he is given to understand that it will not do at all. Heaven too has no place for a poet.

His existence drags itself out; one year is just like another; in the end his heart begins to pound in his body again, and Mayakovsky wants to return to earth. Perhaps everything will be new, after ‘1,2, 4,8, 16, thousand, millions of years?” But when he tumbles down to earth like “a painter off the roof,” he soon realizes that everything has stayed the same; human beings are burdened by the same workaday tasks as before; it is ‘the same invisible baldhead / in charge / the chief choreographer of the earthly cancan” now “in the form of an idea, /now like the Devil, / now like God behind a cloud.” The enemy comes in many guises!

[ .  .  . ]

Mayakovsky fled the earthy scene because of a love that was impossible and when he returns to earth his love is no longer there. Where can he go? To which heaven this time? To which star? Mayakovsky has no answer to give. Everything is doomed to perish, he says, because “he / who controls life / will burn out / the last ray / of the last suns” He himself will die the love-death, “embraced by fire, / on the pyre of impossible love / that never burns down” – a variation on the closing lines of the first section of “A Cloud in Trousers”: “Moan / into the centuries / if you can, a last scream: I’m on fire!”

“Man’ is the culmination of the existential theme that characterizes Mayakovsky’s writing from the very beginning: the solitary I who battles against the enemy of poetry and love whose name is legion: “necessity,” philistinism, the triviality of everyday life, what in Russian is called byt – “my invincible enemy,” “The Ruler of All.” The Russian philosopher Lev Shestov talks of the “tragic souls” who are doomed to fight the battle on to fronts: “both against ‘necessity’ and against their neighbors, who have no trouble at all fitting in and who, without knowing what they are doing, thereby take the side of mankind’s worst enemy.” - daily life with its routine and insipidity.

Whatever the security organs were searching for, it was clear that they suspected there were more factors behind the poet’s suicide ( April 14th, 1930) than purely private ones – a perception share by Leon Trotsky, who refused to accept the official explanation that the suicide was “wholly unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities” “That’s like saying Mayakovsky’s death had nothing to do with his revolutionary poetic works,” the former war commissar commented from his exile in Constantinople.  “ That is both untrue and unnecessary . . . and stupid! ‘[Love’s] boat was smashed against the reef of the everyday,’ is what Mayakovsky wrote about his private life. That means precisely that his ‘public and literary activities were no longer capable of elevating him sufficiently over everyday life [byt] to save him from his painful inner urges.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Aftermath by Nir Rosen

A FOREIGN MILITARY OPERATION is a systematic imposition of violence on an entire population. Of the many crimes committed against the Iraqi people, most have occurred unnoticed by the American people or the media. Americans, led to believe their soldiers and marines would be welcomed as liberators, still have little idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis. Although I am an American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it feels like to be an Iraqi than most of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success as a journalist in Iraq is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle East features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods, sit in taxis and restaurants and look like every other Iraqi. My ability to blend in also allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were another “hajji,” the “gook” of the war in Iraq.

I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this hajji (me) had done to get arrested. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “that’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki] I ever saw.” Another soldier, who was by the gun, replied, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”

I was lucky enough to have my American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless other Iraqis were not so lucky enough to speak English or carry an American passport, and entire families were killed in their cars when the approached checkpoints.

 In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that by September of that year, one hundred thousand Iraqis had died as the result of the American occupation, most of them had died violently, largely from American airstrikes. Although this figure was challenged by many, especially the partisan backers of the war, it seemed perfectly plausible to me based on what I had seen during the postwar period in Iraq. What I never understood was why more journalists did not focus on this, choosing instead to look for the “good news” and to go along with the official story. I never understood why more journalists did not write about the daily Abu Ghraibs that were so essential to the occupation.


The year 2008 ended with Muntadhar al-Zeidi reminding President Bush and the world for only a moment about the Iraqi victims. During a press conference on Bush’s last visit to the country, Zeidi spoke for the masses in the Arab world and beyond when he shouted, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” as he threw his first shoe at the American president. Zeidi was a secular, left-leaning Shiite from Sadr City whose work as a reporter for Baghdadiya television had won him local acclaim because of his focus on the suffering of innocent Iraqis. He had been arrested twice by the American army and kidnapped once by a militia.

He remembered, as did all Iraqis, that the American occupation had not begun with the surge.  The story of the American occupation was not one of smart officers contributing to the reduction of violence and increase in stability.  That was only one chapter in a longer story of painful, humiliating, sanctions, wars, and bloody occupation.  Those with short memories, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, might remember the American occupation  “a million acts of kindness.” But to Iraqis and anyone else sensitive enough to view them as humans, the occupation was one million acts of violence and humiliation or one million explosives. There was nothing for Bush to be triumphal about during his farewell press conference. Even the surge had exacted a costly toll on Iraqis. Thousands more had been killed, arrested, thrown into overcrowded prisons, and rarely put on trial, their families deprived of them. The surge was not about victory. With a cost so high, there could be no victory. COIN (Counterinsurgency) is still violence, and the occupation persisted, imposing violence on an entire country. As Zeidi threw his second shoe in a last desperate act of defiance, he remembered these victims and shouted, “This for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq!”

 Millions of Iraqis had fled their homes. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men spent years in American prisons. The new Iraqi state was among the most corrupt in the world. It was often brutal. It failed to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom were barely able to survive. Iraqis were traumatized. This upheaval did not spare Iraq’s neighbors either. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees languished in exile. Sectarianism increased in the region. Weapons, tactics, and veterans of the jihad made their way into neighboring countries. And now the American “victory” in Iraq was being imposed on the people of Afghanistan.


In 2005 the respected COIN theorist and practitioner Kalev Sepp – a former Special Forces officer and deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations capabilities – wrote a seminal article, “Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,” in Military Review. In the article Sepp claimed that a country’s political leaders (and not the military) must direct the struggle to win the allegiance of the people, that the “security of the people must be assured along with food, water, shelter, health care, and a means of living. These are human rights, along with freedom of worship, access to education, and equal rights for women. The failure of counterinsurgencies and the root cause of the insurgencies themselves can often be traced to government disregard of these basic rights.”

In addition, Sepp noted, Intelligence operations that help detect terrorist insurgents for arrest and prosecution are the single most important practice to protect a population from threats to its security. Honest, trained, robust police forces responsible for security can gather intelligence at the community level. Historically, robustness in wartime requires a ratio of 20 police and auxiliaries for each 1,000 civilians. In turn, an incorrupt, functioning judiciary must support the police.”

On each of Sepp’s criteria Afghanistan has been a study in abject failure. The civilian Afghan government is insignificant; it is the American military that is leading the war effort. The Afghan government does not provide and services or protect rights. Moreover the U.S. military regularly kills civilians with impunity, arresting many more and holding them without trial. The Taliban have not been penetrated. There is no honest or well-trained police force, and the American-led coalition will never come near to the ratio that Sepp calls for.

COIN was a massive endeavor, I was told by retired Col. Pat Lang, who had conducted COIN operations in Vietnam, Latin America, and elsewhere. There were insufficient resources committed to doing it in Afghanistan, but if the Americans didn’t plan owning Afghanistan, he argued, why waste time on it? It was worth the expenditure of resources only if you were the local government seeking to establish authority, or an imperialist power that wanted to hang around for a while. There were thirty million people in Afghanistan, and they were widely dispersed in small towns. “You have to provide security for the whole country,” he said, “because if you move around they just move in behind you and undo what you did. So you need to have effective security and massive multifaceted development organization the covers the whole place. COIN advisors have to stay in place all the time; they can’t commute to work. If you’re going to do COIN, it really amounts to nation building, and troops are there to provide protection for nation builders. Afghanistan doesn’t matter. The Taliban is not part of the worldwide jihadi community a war with the U.S. We need to disaggregate Taliban from Al Qaeda. The idea that Al Qaeda is an existential threat to the U.S., it’s so absurd that you don’t know how to deal with it.”

.   .   .   .   .

The American’s obsession with Afghanistan’s elections also resembled their Iraqi approach, which erroneously focused on landmark events. Just as in Iraq, when elections helped enshrine sectarianism and paved the way to civil war, so too in Afghanistan the election empowered the warlords, enshrined a corrupt order; and, in the case of the 2009 elections, completely discredited the government and its foreign backers.

Strategy in Afghanistan was put on hold so that elections could be held. Turnout in the south was less than ten percent, and zero in some places. There was overwhelming evidence of systematic election fraud and ballot stuffing. The Taliban managed to reduce the turnout compared to previous years. There were even thousand polling stations throughout the country, so the Taliban could not actually disrupted voting too much. It would have been bad PR for them to kill too many civilians. Their lack of operations might have shown that even they knew the elections didn’t matter and that nothing could better serve their ends than letting the elections take place and ending up with a deeply flawed result. Meanwhile, the Americans and their allies immediately hailed the elections as a success, merely because violence was low, thus further associating themselves with a corrupt government. How could Afghans take Americans seriously when they backed a corrupt government and were deeply implicated in corruption? The flawed elections were a message to Afghans that there was no hope of improvement or change.

In September 2009 Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s assessment of the war in Afghanistan was leaked to the media. He had been advised by a team of experts, many of them celebrity pundits from Washington think tanks. Only one of his advisers was an expert on Afghanistan. When Petraeus conducted his Iraq review, he called on people who really knew Iraq to join his “brain trust.” McChrystal called in advisers from both sides of the political divide in Washington who already believed that population-centric COIN was the solution to everything. It was a savvy move, sure to help him get support in Congress. There was a cult of celebrity in the DC policy set. Many of the same pseudo experts who were once convinced that the war in Iraq was the most important thing in the world, even at the expense of Afghanistan, were now convinced that Afghanistan was most important thing in the world, and were organizing panels with other pseudo experts in Washington think tanks. They offered trending solutions, like an industry giving managed and preplanned narratives about was going on. COIN advocates from DC think tanks were connected to political appointees who came from DC think tanks. There was an explosion of commentary on Afghanistan coming from positions of ignorance, quoting generalities. McChrystal himself had been chosen because he could drum up bi-partisan support. He was another hero general like Petraeus, with an aura of infallibility – he was there to save the day. Fawning articles praised his low percentage of body fat, his ascetic habit of eating one meal a day, his repetition of simple COIN aphorism that had already become clichés in Iraq by 2007. He was another warrior scholar the media could write panegyrics about.

Supporters of McChrystal said  “he gets it,” as if there was a magic COIN formula discovered in 2009. But Afghans have a memory. They remember, for example, that the American-backed mujahideen killed thousands of Afghan teachers and bombed schools in the name of their anti-Soviet jihad. The Taliban atrocities had not arisen in a vacuum. Similarly, past American actions have consequences. Opinions were already formed. The Taliban were gaining power thanks to American actions and alliances. Warlords were empowered by the Americans. No justice was sought for victims. The government and police were corrupt. The president stole the elections. The message was that there was no justice, and a pervasive sense of lawlessness and impunity had set in. Afghans who had been humiliated or victimized by the Americans and their allies were unlikely to become smitten by then merely because of some aid they received. And the aid was relatively small compared to other international projects, like Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and East Timor. The Americans thought that by building roads they could win over opinion. But roads are just as useful for insurgents as they are for the occupiers. The Americans failed to convince the Afghan that they should be like them or want them to stay, and they certainly had not been convinced that Karzai’s government has legitimacy. You can’t win hearts and minds when you are an occupying force.

The Taliban was the most obscurantist, backward, traditional and despised government on earth. The fact that the Taliban was making a comeback was a testimony to the regime that the U.S. set up there, and to the atrocities that had been committed in Afghanistan by occupation troops and their Afghan allies. It was sheer arrogance to think that adding another thirty thousand or fifty thousand troops would change the situation so much that the occupation would become an attractive alternative.

There is little evidence that aid money in COIN had an impact. There was not a strong correlation between poverty and insecurity or between aid money a security. The more insecure you were, the more development money you got. The safer provinces felt as if they were being penalized for not having Taliban or poppy cultivation. The aid system raised expectations but didn’t satisfy them. Life remained nasty, brutish, and short for most Afghans.

Aid and force do not go well together. The Americans assumed that material goods superseded all other values. This was not true in Iraq or Afghanistan. Positive as the aid was, it did not outweigh the civilian casualties or the offensive and humiliating behavior of the past eight years. In Iraq it took the trauma of the civil war to make the Americans look good. There might be a new administration in Washington, but for Afghan it was the same America: the America of civilian casualties, night raids, foreign occupation, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib – the America seemingly at war with Islam.

The Pentagon propaganda machine, for instance, turned Marja from a backwater to a key strategic city, and the American media accepted it. But in fact there were only a few thousand people living in Marja. It took months and thousands of troops for the Americans to seize Marja, only to learn that the Taliban were popular there. And there were up to twenty thousand similar Marjas throughout the country. In Marja ANCOP too proved a failure, incompetent and dependent upon the Americans. Fighting remained frequent. The Americans were not effective in evaluation Afghan police units. Although hailed as an elite, the ANCOP annual attrition rate due to all causes ranged from seventy to one hundred and forty percent. Even by local standards they weren’t an elite.

The story of Marja was meant to be the first sally in a larger campaign to expel the Taliban from the southern heartland, especially Kandahar. The Americans thought if they could wrest it from Taliban hands, then it would turn the tide against the Taliban. But Kandahar meant little to anybody that wasn’t a Kandahari. It was part of the same focus on population centers that were overwhelmingly urban.

Violence was getting worse. How long would the Afghan people accept the presence of armed foreigners in their country?  Even a message of help can be humiliating, more so when it is backed by a gun. The Americans underestimated the importance of dignity and the extent to which their very presence in Afghanistan was deeply offensive.

In May 206 riots erupted in Kabul after a road accident with American forces, and the Americans shot at the crowd. The episode revealed an underlying anger that could explode at any moment. In September 2009 a British plane dropped a box of leaflets that failed to open, landing on a girl and killing her. Given that most Afghans are illiterate, it would not have been any more persuasive had it opened. Despite the lip service given to “protecting the population” in 2010 the American-led coalition killed far more civilians than previous years. In February a night raid by American special forces killed two pregnant women; the Americans attempted to cover it up. “Son of an American” has become and insult among Pashtuns the way “Son of a Russian” once was.

At any rate, Americans lacked the political will for a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Americans would bail on Afghanistan sooner or later. It would be tragic if it happened within Obama’s eighteen- month deadline or after five years. There was no way to “fix” Afghanistan.  In fact, the Soviets themselves never lost their war in Afghanistan; the puppet regime they installed had pretty much crushed the mujahideen until the Soviets withdrew support. The Soviets won their last battle in Khost’s Operation Magistal. But it made no difference. Only the rusting ruins of tanks and a few Russian-speaking Afghans remain. The Americans too weren’t losing, stressed a retired military officer working on security in Afghanistan. “Every time our boys face them, they win,” he said. “We’re winning every day. Are we going to keep winning for twenty years?”