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What is to be done this Memorial Day? A Response to Walter Brasch


Afghan villagers gather at a house destroyed in a NATO raid in Logar province today which killed 18 civilians.

Mr. Brasch’s recent piece on Memorial Day read like an apologia to the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy, and unfortunately did not seize the opportunity to engage in critical inquiry on an important issue. How might we celebrate Memorial Day in such a way as to improve our critical understanding of violence in the world? Ultimately, how might we create a world that is more just and peaceful?

As Mr. Brasch would have it, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last ten years have been a fairy tale epic. In the first act, the puerile Bush neocons mistakenly led the country to war in Iraq, distracting from the “noble” mission in Afghanistan. In the second, the knight in shining armor, president Obama, swooped in to the rescue, and “reasserted American presence in Afghanistan, sought out and killed Osama bin Laden, and then created a way for complete U.S. withdrawal from combat.” All this seems rather too neat and tidy, though tinged with tragedy.

The only thing left to do, it seems, is to remember the fallen and repeat Tony Benn’s rather trite observation that “War represents a failure of diplomacy.” Mr. Brasch ends his article with the bleak thought that “there will be more deaths today and tomorrow and the next day and the day after that and every day thereafter. And once a year, Americans will honor the deaths of young men sent into battle by intractable politicians, supported by media pundits and a horde of civilians with the wisdom of asphalt.” Ah yes, the damn politicians and corrupt media! This sentiment comes cheap; it is a political and intellectual cop out. If we are to understand what the current conflicts mean and how we might create a more just and peaceful world, we are going to have to do better.

Mr. Brasch would be well served by reading a little more Marx. His Manichean view of war holds that there are wars fought for noble purposes and wars fought for ignoble purposes. He forgets that the Revolutionary War was also a power grab for merchant and planter elites against the faraway monarchy. Much of the popular wing of the Revolutionary War was crushed in the Whiskey Rebellion as well as the bank incorporations and foreclosures that marked the period after the revolution. World War II, Mr. Brasch’s other example of a noble war, was an inter-capitalist war fought for control over markets by the different industrialized powers. Conversely, Mr. Brasch’s “ignoble wars” – the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars -though rooted in the exigencies of capital, were by no means without their animating ideals and ideological justifications. The world is far too complex a place to allow for Mr. Brasch’s quaint notion of good and bad wars. Perhaps there is something to be said for the concept of “Just War” and holding the Obama administration accountable to it – and interesting example of this came out recently in an article by Michael Brenner – but when Obama creates kill lists while wielding volumes of Thomas Aquinas, well, I’m skeptical.

After reading the accolades given the Obama administration in the article, I had the impression that Mr. Brasch scarcely reads the news about the conflict in Afghanistan! So let us turn a closer eye to Afghanistan. What is going on there right now? Well, as Mr. Brasch points out, a way is being created for complete U.S. withdrawal. This withdrawal, however, is proving to be extremely rocky. The past few months have been marked by what seems to be the complete collapse of confidence and cooperation between NATO forces and Afghani society. In addition to the constant stories of drone strikes killing civilians, there was the explosion of violence and unrest that followed the burning of Qurans by U.S. troops and more recently over the alleged murder in cold blood of sixteen Afghanis by a U.S. soldier. Meanwhile, NATO has recently closed up a deal with the Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan), to evacuate equipment overland by the northern routes that the Soviet army utilized in its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The reason for this costly evacuation route is the complete freeze in Pakistani-U.S. relations over the last seven months. The frieze came following Pakistan’s feelers to the Taliban in Afghanistan in preparation for their return to power following the NATO withdrawal. There was already a huge amount of tension in the relationship as a result of Pakistan’s “give peace a chance” policy with regard to the militants in their border regions and the many violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty – including the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. In response, the U.S. is now courting Pakistan’s blood-enemy, India, to take a larger role in a post-NATO Afghanistan, something that would of course be a strategic nightmare for Pakistan. At the same time, China is stepping up to assume a larger role in post-NATO Afghanistan. I write all this because it is a disservice to the memory of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan to paper over what is going on there in the service of the DNC’s political line. This conflict is not ending – it is entering a new phase.

What does all this maneuvering amount to? It means that the same old power politics are still being played by the Obama administration. To argue that he is playing them more intelligently than the Bush neocons is to set our political sights low indeed. Moreover, to view the withdrawal as a gift given us by the Obama administration is also to ignore what is actually going on in Afghanistan: nothing less than the total breakdown of the occupation due to a popular insurgency.

On memorial day, I shared a minute of silence with two friends from the U.S. who I was traveling with in Hungary. During that time of reflection, I resolved to demand a thorough reassessment of the war on terror, both on the part of government institutions and within the public at large. We need to keep asking hard questions of the Obama administration on a wide variety of social questions, including whose interests are served when it wields military violence. To create a more peaceful world, we must first create a more just world.

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One Response “What is to be done this Memorial Day? A Response to Walter Brasch”

  1. brasch
    June 10, 2012 at 5:26 am

    I don’t know which article the replier was looking at. I don’t think it was mine. If it was, he missed the essence of the column in order to insert his own opinions and biases. I guess that’s perfectly acceptable– after all, authors usually like readers to come to their own truths and conclusions. I won’t go into specific counter-rebuttals, because that would take far morfe time than I have. But, if this replier believes I am an apologist for the Obama administration, he definitely read the wrong article. If he has questions or hatreds about the Obama administration–as do the radical left and the reactionary right–he can write an article and we can read it and comment upon it. But to hijack this article (by a long-time social justice, peace, and environmental activist) somehow seems a bit smarmy.

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About Jonathan Dentler

Jonathan Dentler currently lives in Berlin where he studies the history of German influence on American progressivism.