Thursday, September 12, 2019


Dear Mr. President, I hereby resign, effective immediately, as assistant to the president for national security affairs. Thank you for having afforded me this opportunity to serve our country.
-- Sincerely, John R. Bolton

Bolton is out.

Another National Security Advisor down.

Bolton claims he quit. Trump claims he was fired. In the end, I don’t suppose it matters much.

Reportedly, Bolton was fired, or quit, after a furious argument with Trump over Iran.

Or maybe it was North Korea.

Or Afghanistan.

According to news reports – which Trump will no doubt decry as “fake news” any minute now – Bolton disagreed with Trump and Trump’s inner circle on nearly every aspect of the President’s … well, I suppose we have to call it “foreign policy,” though that implies some sort of coherent strategy beyond random tweets and the evidence really doesn’t support that.

And you know, it’s a damned bizarre world we’re living in when the slavering jingoist with a dead wharf rat glued to his upper lip is the sanest one in the room. 

Bolton has been vocally opposed to Trump’s repeated attempts to cozy up to Kim Jong Un, something the President seems determined to do for no discernable reason other than he just likes dictators. Likewise, Bolton has also been publicly critical of Trump’s repeated dismissal of Russian aggression, both against its neighbor and against the United States. Again, there’s no logical reason for Trump’s position. The same is true of nearly every other National Security issue from Syria to Afghanistan – especially Afghanistan. And we’ll come back to that in a minute. So, ultimately, it’s not really surprising that the same guy who is so utterly insecure he would order the Secretary of Commerce to threaten National Weather Service personnel over a mistake he made would fire the only guy in his inner circle who disagreed with him on a regular basis.

Now, before I go any further, understand something here: I’ll shed no tears for John Bolton.

Bolton’s entire worldview is based on the idea that might makes right, that force is the ultimate moral authority, that war is how the future should be shaped.

It’s difficult to understand just how terrible John Bolton is and just how much his influence on our government has shaped all the worst aspects of our nation today.

Bolton began as an intern in Spiro Agnew’s office. He was a vocal supporter of the Vietnam War – but, like many conservatives, actively avoided going to war himself, saying, "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost." He later explained his comments by suggesting that he would have gone to Vietnam if only liberals hadn’t “made certain we would not prevail and I had no great interest in going there to have Teddy Kennedy give it back to the people I might die to take it away from. ” Eventually Bolton wormed his way into the Reagan Administration and was involved in everything from the “War on Drugs” to Iran-Contra. And like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and all the other foul distillate from those years, Bolton returned when George W. Bush took office and he was right back to the same old tricks.

Then came 9-11.

That was the moment he’d been waiting for and Bolton milked the horror for all it was worth. He was there at every turn, on every channel, in every meeting, demanding war.

And he got it.

He finally got his war – with no danger of being drafted to actually go fight in this one.

And even after it turned out Bolton was wrong about everything from Yellowcake uranium to Saddam’s involvement in 9-11, he stood steadfast in his support of that war and said the “only mistake that the United States did with regard to Iraq” was to not leave earlier. Bolton said the US should have pulled out after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and told the Iraqis "Here's a copy of the Federalist Papers. Good luck.”

Bolton is the very worst of the Neocon hawks, a xenophobic warmongering jingoist who has been an influence on American policy in all the wrong ways for far, far too long. Good riddance and the only part of his departure from government service that saddens me is that it didn’t end with him being hauled away by grim faced men in dark suits and stuffed into a cold dirty cage on the Southern border. May his moustache be ever infested with syphilitic fleas and the ghosts of all the dead killed in all the wars he started howl forever in his ears. May we never hear his name again. I hope he dies alone after a long period of suffering, destitute, and in some hilariously embarrassing fashion.

Fuck John Bolton. 

But, as much as I despise Bolton – and despite the above paragraphs you really have no idea how much as an Iraq Veteran I despise John Bolton – I was in some ways glad he was there, a contrary gadfly among the simpering toadies and ass-licking sycophants of Trump’s administration. I’m opposed to nearly everything Bolton stands for, but if he daily threw sand into the gears of Trump’s ambitions then perhaps he served a useful purpose.

The Ironic part is that Trump fired Bolton not so much for being contrary, but for being right – well, on a few things anyway.

Bolton at least operated from cold calculation. His advice to Trump not to meet with terrorists at Camp David wasn’t so much because John Bolton doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, because he does, but because he’s a shrewd political operator and he knew both that the Taliban would betray any promises made and what it would look like to the American people.

Trump operates from his gut. And Trump’s instincts – driven by his ego and his all consuming insecurity and his overwhelming need to be seen as important – are almost always wrong.

But it’s ironic that the final break should come, at least in part, over Afghanistan.

Maybe irony isn’t a strong enough word here.

Trump claims he’s always been opposed to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Twitter doesn’t go back that far, but maybe it’s even true. Maybe Trump was always opposed to war. His tweets and comments beginning in 2009 certainly seem to suggest so, he complained all through the Obama Administration that the US should just get out of Afghanistan – though his concern seems to always have been less about the staggering human cost and more about the money:

Afghanistan is a total disaster. We don't know what we are doing. They are, in addition to everything else, robbing us blind.
Donald J. Trump, March 12, 2012

Trump campaigned on pulling the US out of Afghanistan – famously claiming “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”

And so it’s ironic indeed that he should have nominated John Bolton, one of the principal architects of that very war, as his National Security Advisor.

And so here we are, three years later. There’s the part where Trump pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran Agreement, largely on the advice of his National Security Advisor because Bolton has openly advocated for war with Iran for more than 30 years now, but now it’s Trump who wants to secretly meet with Iran’s leaders and hash out some sort of peace deal.  Meanwhile it’s Bolton, the guy who was mad at Ted Kennedy for not staying the course in Vietnam but who then wanted to just walk away from Iraq, screw it, good luck, who thinks we need to stay in Afghanistan. And it’s Trump who thinks we should just pull out, walk away, screw it, good luck, because we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

You could get whiplash.

But that’s just it, isn’t it?

That irony, right there.

I’m reminded of that scene in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, where the characters are trapped in an ancient ruined underground city, destroyed by war and filled with endless enemies, and among the skeletons of the previous owners, Gandalf finds a journal and begins to read the final entry: They have taken the bridge and the second hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. The ground shakes, drums, drums in the deep! We cannot get out. A shadow lurks in the dark. We can not get out. They are coming.

That’s Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires.

Trump wants to cut and run.

Bolton wants to stay and kill some more.

Both are rotten options and with inevitable consequences.

If we run, more Americans will die. There will be more death, more destruction, more terrorism. It’s inevitable. Leaving the country ruined and in the hands of warlords, religious fanatics, and terrorists will, without doubt, one day come back to kill us.

Because it always does. Always. Every time.

If we stay, it’s more of the same. It’s just a continuation of the last 19 years. More war, more money, more dead, more terror. ‘Round and round without end.

We can’t get out.

We can’t safely retreat.

We can’t win. No matter what we do, we lose. Sooner or later, we’ll lose.

We can’t win in Afghanistan for one very good reason.

Because we never defined what winning is.

And again, ironically, for two guys who so vehemently disagree, the single trait that defines both Trump and Bolton is that very lack of definition.

Bolton has been involved in America’s wars since Vietnam – but he has never once, not one time, ever defined what “winning” any of those wars would look like.

Trump never defines anything. He’s the king of vague, undefined statements. Winning! We’re winning again! Make America great! And never, not once, not one time, has he ever defined what he means by “winning.”

Now, to be fair – and you have no idea how little interest I have in being fair to either of these two – it’s not just this administration.

This has been America’s foreign policy since 1945.

That’s what you think of when somebody says “win the war,” isn’t it? 1945. Sure. Simple. Bomb the enemy into submission. March into his capital. Make him sign the instruments of surrender. And, hey, war’s over! Now we’re all friends! Freedom and democracy magically spring from the ashes and we get a couple of new overseas bases granted in perpetuity. Johnny comes marching home again a hero and we have a big parade and that’s it. Over. Done.


Except that hasn’t happened since 1945. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the little wars in between from Beirut to Somalia, we have no idea what the end state looks like. None. It sure as hell doesn’t look like 1945.

What is victory in Afghanistan?

No. Don’t look away. Don’t roll your eyes. Answer the question, what is victory in Afghanistan? What does winning look like?

Trump says he could achieve victory in a week – but then again he knows more than the generals.

“If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I would win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill ten million people. Does that make sense to you?”

I could win that war in a week. That’s what Trump said.

By killing ten million people.

Pretty obvious what he’s talking about. Nukes. Burn the country down to the bedrock under a rain of radioactive fire.

Is that victory?

Is that winning?

Literally vaporizing an entire nation off the planet. Wage nuclear war against a third world country. Commit genocide on a scale to dwarf Hitler’s best efforts?

Do you really think the war would end there?

Do you?

Do you think the survivors of that nuclear bombardment would then just roll over? March down to the harbor and sign an unconditional surrender on the deck of a US warship. Do you really?


No, I suppose not even John Bolton would call that winning.

So what is?

What is winning in Afghanistan? Or Iraq? Or Vietnam? Or…well, let’s just stick to one problem at a time for now.

What is winning in Afghanistan?

What’s the end state?

You notice that in nearly twenty years of war, no one, not Bush, not Obama, and certainly not Trump, has told you what it is that we are fighting for. What the end state is. What victory is.

Is it a functioning government? A stable civilization? Is that the end state we want?

Is it?

What kind of government? Do we even care so long as the resulting nation is stable and no threat to the rest of the world? Then find the meanest, most ruthless son of a bitch and put him in charge. Give him guns and tanks and let him conquer the country, root out the terrorists, get the population in line. What skin is it off our ass if the Afghanis are crushed under oppression so long as they’re no threat to us? I mean, right?

What’s that?

We can’t do that?

But why not?

That’s Russia’s basic strategy in Syria, you say?


Well, okay, sure. And far be it from me to point out that was the same basic policy we used with Marcos and The Shah and Batista and Saddam and Noriega and …

Fine. I’ll stop. Okay. That’s bad. Don’t do that. Got it.

So, then what?

If not a ruthless dictatorship, what kind of government? Democracy? A republic? Sounds good.


How do you build that from the ruins of Afghanistan? Representative republics are built on a foundation of existing civilization, they don’t sprout fully formed from nothing. In Germany and Japan, there had been functioning civilizations before the war, before those nations were bombed to rubble. The people there had experience with government, with civilization, they were essentially unified as a people. Germans. Japanese. But Afghanistan? There has been war and ruin in Afghanistan for so long that we are now generations removed from a functioning nation and no one there has any experience in building a republic from the ground up nor does the population have any such desire, and they are far, far from unified as a people.

And when I say this to Americans, they all respond with the same thing: Well, duh, they’ve been fighting there for 1200 years!

And again, it’s ironic.

Yesterday in America was the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. 3000 people died. A terrible day.

And yesterday the message from our leaders was this: never forget.

Never forget.

Never. Forget.


Never forget the horror.

Never forget the fear.

Never forget the pain.

Never forget that we were attacked.

Never forget that we were wronged.

Never forget those who died.

Never forget who the enemy is.

Never forget.

Never forget. As I said, ironic, because that’s Afghanistan. That’s the people of Afghanistan. Proud. Fierce. Vengeful. They never forget. They never forget who did them wrong, who their enemies are, the slights and insults of the past, the dead, the wars, the invaders.

In our nation we shout NEVER FORGET! 

In Afghanistan, you see the devastation all around you of a people who never forget.

Never forget, we shout here in America. Never forget. And yet we expect others, those we attacked to forget. To forgive. To let it go and come together and build civilization from the ruins – not for their sake, but to make America safer.

Maybe not so much ironic as hypocritical, now that I think about it.

And to do that, to build that nation, that democracy, that republic, the one that puts aside its terrible past, you’ll need at least two generations. You’ll need stability, long term education, infrastructure, a functioning method of discourse, and a thousand other things – none of which are the skillset of militaries. If you want to build that nation, from scratch, it’s going to take decades, and it’s going to cost trillions, and it’s going to take a lot more than just dropping bombs on people.

And we don’t have the stomach for that.

We can’t even commit that sort of effort to our own nation, let alone Afghanistan.

We can’t forget, not for a generation or two at least, and neither can they and that’s how long it would take. 

We don’t have the fortitude for nation building, we can’t just walk away.  What’s left? Nuke ‘em? Meet with the terrorists at Camp David and hope for the best?

Here we are.  Donald Trump has now arrived at exactly the same place Barack Obama and George W. Bush did before him: Trapped.

Trapped by John Bolton and those who pushed America into this war for their own selfish ideology.

I don’t know what the answer is at this point, but I know for goddamned certain Donald Trump isn’t equipped to find it.

No one who surrounds himself with only those who tell him what he wants to hear will ever be so equipped.

We can’t get out.

We can’t get out.

History calls Afghanistan the graveyard of empires.

And John Bolton is the man who buried us.

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains
and the women come out to cut up what remains
jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
and go to your Gawd like a soldier
-- Rudyard Kipling


  1. couple of typos to fix: flees > fleas 2090 > 2009

  2. Outstanding!!

    Not for publishing- small typo - flees should be fleas

    May his moustache be ever infested with syphilic flees and the ghosts of all the dead killed in all the wars he started howl forever in his ears

    Once again - outstanding

  3. I helped evacuate Vietnam in 1975. I saw it first hand. I didn't think we'd ever be that foolish, that craven, that stupid again.

    I was wrong

    1. I wonder why it is so easy for some to forget.

    2. 1) They don't care.
      2) There's money in it.

      Always, always, always follow the money

  4. Americans keep trying to succeed at what Alexander the Great couldn't achieve. The borders and the poppies are what really matter.

  5. I am drawn to your essays like a moth to a flame. But all of this truth is sending me down the path to clinical depression. If there one thing I could do, besides waiting to vote, I would do it. But for now, I'm cuddling up to fiction, enjoying my own flavor of crazy in the rain.

    1. Oh, I know *just* what you mean about depression *and* about
      fiction. Can't watch the news for fear of reality, but even fiction has to be chosen carefully.

    2. Look on the "bright" side - even military SciFi is likely to cheer you up over the clusterfck we're currently living...

    3. Well, the people in the sci-fi books are rational.

      That's not what happens in the real world.

    4. *Some* of the people in the sci-fi books are rational. But the irrational ones are typically the adversaries rather than the "heroes".

  6. "And so it’s ironic indeed that he should have nominated John Bolton, one of the principle architects of that very war, as his National Security Advisor."
    Should that be "principal"? Or is it perhaps an intentional pun?

  7. Spot and we'll said sir as are correct and the ending perfect

  8. Sorry, one more typo: "We can even commit that sort of effort to our own nation, let alone Afghanistan." Shouldn't that be "can't"?
    A very depressing but accurate analysis.

    1. Is anybody else tired of the grammar nazis,I know I am.

  9. Trapped by John Bolton and those who pushed America into the this war for their own selfish ideology. The this. Remove one.

    We can even commit that sort of effort to our own nation, let alone Afghanistan. Can't vs. can in this sentence

    MINOR typos. Thank you for this excellent piece.

  10. Bravo.Best essay yet,but really disconcerting......

  11. Trump picked Bolton because he was a militant bomb-thrower. He wanted to bring a spine to his foreign policy. Problem was, Bolton is a complete asshole, but he's not stupid. When he tried to keep Trump from Trump's worst "gut instincts," Trump got rid of him. Like you, I have no sympathy for Bolton. However, it's a telling sign of how far we've declined when Bolton is a voice of reason. (That was hard to type.)

  12. Eisenhower warned us, but we didn't listen. Winning isn't defined because we're not meant to win - just fight. https://youtu.be/Gg-jvHynP9Y

  13. What’s the end state?

    The question that must be asked, but isn't. It's up there with "Follow the money".

    And Afghan memories go back to Alexander the Great. See "The Man Who Would Be King", set in Afghanistan in the late 19th Century. It's about as close as you can get to a perfect little movie.

    1. YES. Loved that movie - and it captured the Afghan mindset to a tee...Arabia was much the same before Mohammed - a bunch of primitive violent tribes who spent most of their time slaughtering each other. Militant fundamentalist patriarchal religion united them into a world-conquering force (before it disintegrated, like monotheistic religions do, into a zillion sects). And that's about all that unites the Afghan tribes today...Afghanistan is an artificial construct, and holding it together democratically would be almost impossible. We should have taken out the Taliban, captured bin Laden and killed him, and left. But we keep insisting that democracy be planted and then we insist on staying to see it maintained. The final lesson of Vietnam was, we lost, left and now they are a stable country and trading partner, even though they are not remotely democratic. There is no good answer...

  14. Wow. I hadn’t realized that this arse went all the way back to Agnew. This is quite the history lesson and analysis. It will be interesting (and probably frightening) to see how 45 handles the no-win situation that his predecessors were in too.

    1. "It will be interesting (and probably frightening) to see how 45 handles the no-win situation that his predecessors were in too. "

      No. He'll wind up kicking that can further down the road and then blame Obama. We can not get out. This is the price we pay for our ignorance of history.

    2. It's the Nixon cancer, metastasizing again.

    3. It is astonishing how many of the causative factors that have brought down the United States as a liberal democracy trace straight back to the Nixon Administration. From the jerkwads who ran "Proposition 187" in Florida-- as a freaking EXPERIMENT to please a buddy who wanted "in" to Republican political campaign power circles!-- to Fox News, which was planned as a propaganda arm of Republican politics by Ailes and Stone and their ilk, to detach the right-wing base from any tether to consensual reality and allow them to control what those voters believed was true about the world!

  15. Oh yes. This is my secret dread put brilliantly into words. "How does this end?" Badly, very very badly. Some rabbit holes you should know better than to go down but there was money in it somewhere for someone and I believe those people don't care if it NEVER ends.

  16. Impactful essay.
    (Typo question - did you mean 2090? Or 2009?)

  17. I should've waited til after 7 to read this. Then I could've poured a proper measure and sipped my way through.

  18. We fell for one of the classic blunders; Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

  19. Does this start with how we teach history? Just stop defining history by the wars and the conflicts and sometimes what led to those wars & destruction & vengeance. Start teaching the eras of peace & construction & common compassion and what led to those. Maybe if more people knew of the nation-building the US did after the win of 1945 and had of clue of how that might have led to peace and co-operation - at least among the Allies if nowhere else - maybe the term nation-building won't have such a bad reputation. Would it help? Is it possible? I don't know.

    Don't get me wrong. I understand that wars and conflicts are part and parcel of human history. I just would like to see progress and achievement get as much attention as destruction and death.

    1. i sometimes think that we didn't so much win WWII as survived it as The Last Nation Standing. Much blood was still being shed post-1945 in the former battleground countries, but since little of it was American blood it went largely unremarked.

      And then came Korea, and all the subsequent police actions and brushfire conflicts and overthrows and the fear of Dominoes falling...

      And here we are again today. What, exactly please, have we accomplished? Have we stopped the falling dominoes, or are we merely setting up the next row of tiles?

    2. The US didn't even win in 1945. It took less than 5 years for them to stop denazification and buddy up with the Nazis because they were such staunch anti-Communists.

  20. GodDAMN, Jim. How are you not a fucking billionaire? You are the best writer I know, bar none; the kind of writer that makes dilettantes like me develop a sudden and absorbing interest in model planes, or competitive Bingo, or discovering new avocado cultivars. Because no way can I write like you do. As much as I'd like to, it ain't gon' happen.

    Gotta go fly an avocado to my Bingo game. But thank you. Thank you.

    1. Well said. I completely agree. Well, except for the competitive Bingo. For now.

    2. LOVE this comment and agree that Jim's writing is incomparable, and I have been a booklover and avid reader for over 50 years so I treasure and follow the best writers I've stumbled across, like Jim.
      Also, I do have 5 avocado seedlings that vary from 1-5 ft tall so your comment struck a chord with me. I don't bingo though. :-)

  21. Here is yet another post that I will share with all my FB friends. We 'Murkins don't think much about Afghanistan, I suspect, because we really don't want to know what is happening there. Same is true of Iraq, or really anywhere outside the US. We're the Big, Bad, Yew Ess Of Ay, strutting around the globe with our virtual assault rifle slung over our virtual shoulder, ready to show anybody who challenges us (or our interests) who the boss really is. And THAT, to my mind, is the root problem, which led to Bolton getting as much influence as he did. Republicans know the concept plays really well to their base.

    A friend of mine is convinced that the US is irreparably divided now between those who would help the oligarchy to build an empire, and those who want to return to some semblance of democracy. Bolton is firmly on the side of the empire, and he'd like to be the general-in-chief. Trump would like to see himself as emperor, which would please his oligarchical handlers no end. This may be a good parting of the ways for those of us who want to take down the incipient empire.

  22. I always have a hard time figuring out whether to be depressed or hopeful when reading your essays. Depressed by the grim picture painted or hopeful that you are inspiring us to be aware and to be a better nation.

  23. Your posts always get to me, but this one really gets to the heart of it all. I wish I did enjoy whiskey...

  24. My Vietnam Service ribbon has 3 stars it. On Remembrance Day (Nov.11) I attend the national ceremony at the War Memorial in Ottawa. I live here as a transplanted American for the past 45 years and I've never looked back. I understand your visceral hatred for John Bolton. I have kept my sights trained on McNamara, Kissinger and Westmoreland. They're not ALL dead yet! I'm starting to wonder whether Kissinger will outlast Keith Richards!

  25. btw, it's not a wharf rat, it's a puppeteer from Heinlein's universe controlling him . . .

  26. Having watched our nation's attempts at foreign policy for 85 years, I know that there is no such thing as 'winning' in the middle east for the USA. We have screwed up there so many times, from the elimination of Mossadegh and putting the Shah on the Peacock Throne to starting wars against people for the wrong reasons in Afghanistan and other places. Our collective xenophobia increases daily, and yet, we are a nation built upon ideals and not religion or language or ethnicity and we should welcome diversity and change because of that. We don't. Many of us live in fear of 'the other', however we imagine that 'other' to be. What a sorry nation we are.

    1. Except that the American oligarchs have thrown our ideals into the crapper by using the message but changing the definitions. A good read for this is "Don't Think Of An Elephant" by George Lakoff.

  27. I am not the smartest person in any room ever, but I was saying--to anyone who would listen--during the propaganda run up to this war, what you have so poignantly stated here. Most did not want to believe it because after all, the US had the biggest, smartest, most well equipped military in all of history. How could we possibly lose? Of all the things I was ever right about, this is the one time I wish I wasn't. I remain in awe of your ability to cut to the heart of most any issue.

  28. Dammit Chief. You keep hammering the hard truths into us. It's like you never changed careers...

  29. ...grim question that, what is winning. Can the answer be any brighter given what/whom we have to work with and the proven profitability of war? Yep, humanity is fucking crazy stupid.

  30. Every time I read your essays, I feel a little more enlightened, a little bit more cautious, and a lot more uncomfortable with today's global political climate. Excellent question , "What is the endgame in Afghanistan?" I know what I will be ruminating about tonight when the insomnia kicks in. Brilliant essay!

  31. Great piece. I would only suggest that we did have success, since 1945, by getting involved in the war in Bosnia. The current countries that were formed out of the former Yugoslavia are living in peace. In fact, our help is still remembered and greatly appreciated. I was in Albania and North Macedonia, in May, on vacation. Whenever locals asked where I was from, they each said -- each and every one of them, "Thank you, America." And they'd shake my hand. They still love Bill and Hillary Clinton. I mean *LOVE* them.

    And also, maybe, Kuwait could be added to the list. It was a relatively short in and out, with, at the time, the desired outcome.

    Thanks for your thoughtful pieces, yesterday and today.

  32. Sad to say, I still hear opinion on what we "should do" in Afghanistan, and it usually takes the form of carpet bombing the country into the stone age. I do believe we tried that in Vietnam, and I know too many people who had served there while our current administration is hard pressed to find anyone with wartime military service. This attitude isn't winning.

  33. Gosh ... leadership ought to be able to define some acceptable euphemism for victory or winning in Afghanistan. We do need to get the heck out of there .. but .. gawwwd.. this is ugly.

  34. "Never forget, we shout here in America. Never forget. And yet we expect others, those we attacked to forget. To forgive. To let it go and come together and build civilization from the ruins – not for their sake, but to make America safer." This is something I have wondered about (with dismay) from the beginning; from the time I was old enough to watch us invade and attack whoever we wanted to and for whatever reason was drummed up.

  35. The mighty British Empire entered Afghanistan in 1837; Baker Rifles and 4-pdr cavalry guns against flintlock Jezails and 16th century matchlocks (they installed one William McNaughten as Lord Minister or some rubbish in Kabul, interestingly). By 1840 they had beaten back the warlords and handed young Queen Victoria her first imperial victory. Forty years later they would have to do it again; this time with gatling guns and Martini-Henry rifles against the same Jezails.

    Then, in 1918, while Britain still possessed the mightiest land army that has ever been fielded, they went in for one final stomp-down. Then in 1921, still at the head of the largest military in the world, the Brits had won. Barely two building blocks touched each other across the whole country, and when it was said and done what did the British Empire of King George V do?

    They chucked it in. They just walked away. "Let the Russians deal with the Pathans; if they think they can beat them, we'll deal with them in the Hindu Kush..."

    Then the Soviets thought they could do better; and I am reminded of the image of the T-72 stuck in a mountain pass. Rebels had rolled a boulder off a cliff with a log for a lever, and the impact had knocked a tread loose. The tank crew were pretty safe, still, Martini-Henry rifles (and probably some SMLEs from the Brits in 1919-21) could do anything to a T-72. But the rebels noticed that the tank was also leaking fuel. One wag wrote that someone popped off their turban, lit it on fire, and rolled it under the tank with the expected results. I doubt that it was a turban, but they did get the fuel to light somehow, cooking the tank crew.

    And that's Afghanistan. "Graveyard of Empires" as Jim writes, because no one cares about the Afghan people, they're just in the way of what the aggressors want; whether it's a route to the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, opium, whatever... just kill more Afghans until you get what you want. Strangely, they have resisted this.

    One wonders what might happen if say, we offered aid to the Afghan people, with the intention of improving infrastructure... Oh, right. Revenge. Gazpacho. Libtards.

    1. After we helped the Afghans push the Russians out, Rep Charlie Wilson (R-TX), the man responsible for the deed, wanted us to stay and help the Afghans build (rebuild?) their country, but the powers-that-be patted him on the head and told him to go play somewhere else. Imagine the world today if we had listened to Mr Wilson.

  36. The measure of winning modern wars is in profit levels for the arms dealers. It certainly isn’t defined in any other way.

  37. Arguably, there are two things that destroyed the USSR:
    Spending in the colder war with the US
    Spending in Afghanistan

    I'm sure those with backgrounds similar to Jim will know of other reasons, but these are the main ones I have seen.

    We will go the route of the USSR if we don't get the hell out of there sooner or later. It's an endless money pit that you just can't spend your way out of.

  38. Move over, Samuel Clemens. You have met your match!

  39. IF we hadn't taken our eyes off Afghanistan to deal with someone's daddy issues in Iraq we might have had a chance, maybe...Decisively toppled the regime that harbored those that attacked us, maybe there were enough remaining people from the pre-russian times that something could have been hatched, it would not have been Jeffersonian, probably could have used pre-Erdogan Turkey as an example of a muslim democracy that worked. Helped them rebuild from 20 years of russians and civil wars, created something stable. But we blew it.

  40. Sir,

    If I ever meet you, I would politely ask you to just talk, tell, explain for as long as I could be awake. Your voice is one of the American voices that truly give me hope about your country.

    Excellent piece this.

  41. I really enjoyed that, as depressing as it is. Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking read. Keep it up, sir.

  42. Excellent essay. Spot on.

    Thought for another alternative "win" option here : What if Afghanistan is broken up into various provinces that each govern their people & becomes a set of smaller nations. With no central govt just internationally recognised provincial ones becoming smaller countries from its wreckage? Like the former Yugoslavia turned Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia etc.., the former Sudan turned also South Sudan (ok not the happiest example there) or the breifly united West Indies (I think) & brief United Arab Republic (Nasser's Egypt & Syria under, er, somebody.) Could recognising the various tribal chiefs & warlords of current Afghanistan as leaders of their own micro territories; having each of those mini-states trade & deal & learn to live with the others & the rest of region work out least bad? If Afghanistan breaks up & vanishes evolving into Pashtunistan, Hazarastan, Waziristan, Helmandistan etc.. as more manageable, quieter, stabler units.

    Would that be a "win" if we arrange it somehow by getting out, getting diplomatic, recognising that mere international lines on a map cannot make a country if the people living there don't want it to be one? Dunno if that is the best answer or possible. Not sure it would work . Still might it be another possible least bad answer? Thoughts?

  43. I keep thinking of the movie "Charlie Wilson's War"and that, to me, was the only possible moment when we could have had an impact on a positive outcome in Afghanistan. I realize it is a movie, and as such, the lines are broadly and clearly drawn for entertainment purposes. But the fact remains that Congress was willing to spend untold millions on weapons, but not even a tithe of that on education and redevelopment. I suppose if the major gun manufacturers also built and sold bulldozers, there might be some different outcomes. But why should they diversify, when weapons are clearly one of the most lucrative products manufactured in the world today. That profit margin drives all of the so-called "policy."

  44. If I might add there was a missing piece in this puzzle with no end. Skin Color and religion factor in to this equation. Money goes where evangelicals fear to tread and would have all nonchristians killed in any way that is most heinous, as well as keeping dominion over the oil pipe lines and poppy fields. There is no wish to improve their lives like we did in Germany and Japan post WW2. Keeping the heathen population uneducated and poor is the best control as we are seeing for centuries. Bigotry wins even if they die in their dedication to eradication.

  45. Well said, Jim. I'm curious if you're aware of the local governments the Kurds were setting up as they slowly pushed back the ISIS (or ISIL) militants. In each of the cities or villages they conquered, they set up an amazing Rep Democracy that took into account the religious & ethnic diversity of the region, then established a government made up of 50% males, 50% females in the same ratios of religion & ethnicity. I have a friend who presented their process to the Obama White House. It was inspired. I think that could be a good definition of winning, if we followed their example. But then, from my armchair I'm an idealist.
    Best wishes.

  46. One of my favorite essays so far. But I think you've answered the question about winning. When left with no formal statement, just look at the actions, and follow the $. In the 50's, Eisenhower (and others) saw this being birthed, the rise of the military industrial complex. Long story short, as long as there is at least one place where we can keep a "war" going, then the Lockheed's and the Northrop's and all the others will keep their war chests full of our tax dollars. Other people will die, some Americans too, but as long as the system is allowed to continue, our main export will continue to be death and it will remain very profitable.

  47. As a Venezuelan who is generally sympathetic towards the US (Yet, I must confess, It's become harder to like you guys ever since that Trump person was elected). I'd like to know your opinion on Trumps's hoo hah hah regarding Venezuela Mr. Wright.

  48. Thank you. I expect well-thought and insightful, but this was also somehow moving. I particularly like the reminder of "The Young British Soldier" at the end. I want to expect the best of America and Americans, and as a people we have seemed to try diligently to do good in the past... but we really have seemed to have lost our way. And why, I cannot say with certainty. Again, thank you.

  49. As always, I know more after reading your essay, but I wish it could make me feel better. And I will probably steal "foul distillate"for my own use at some point. The only unplucked typo I saw was "discernable," which should be "discernible."

  50. About halfway through reading your essay I decided, as a thought experiment, to try to define "Winning in Afganistan."

    I continued to read while the back of my mind was spinning up education and infrastructure and then got to your paragraph about precisely those those things, and the decades of sustained effort and money required. And I must agree, that is exactly what it will take.

    Now I have to wonder, why aren't we doing that? As a world community? Why do we, as a nation, as a world community, have so much trouble putting in the long-term investment that is required for true peace?

    The answer to that question is critical and becoming more so every year.

    How do we, humanity, get to the long-term thinking needed to save ourselves?

  51. One minor point on the Viet Nam War: anyone that thinks we could have "won" by invading North Vietnam should study the Korean War. When McArthur's UN forces got too close to the China-Korean border, the Chinese Army joined in and pushed the UN forces all the way back to the current border. Look up the Chosin Reservoir battles, and you'll have a good why invading North Vietnam was not a good idea.

  52. Outstanding work here.
    "So it goes." --K. Vonnegutt

  53. Dear Jim –

    Great essay. Must say I’m glad you’re publishing more regularly! I hadn’t checked your site for a while because I figured there might another long lag. Truth is, I’d recently set up payments for a small monthly stipend to Stonekettle (because I won’t do Twitter or Facebook, though I know they are the lifeblood of you and many other worthies), and was a bit alarmed by your lengthy hiatus. What’s going on with Jim? Whatever it was, keep on keepin’ on, man.

    I recall some years ago, when I read in a mainstream media outlet that Afghanistan has billions of dollars in mineral wealth. The fact that it was so out in the open (combined with the documented fact that other countries wanted to run pipelines for natural gas through Afghanistan), just emphasized the real reason we were there. Anything about “strategic importance” in terms of security are completely overshadowed by our economic interests. Except for the terrorism thing, I suppose you’re right about that. We made 'em, now we have to play with 'em. It's never going to end, it seems.

    Here’s an interesting article about this very same thing. Remember when the Donald proposed buying Greenland? I had no idea that the idea had been proposed before. We even have a military base there, whoda thunk?


    Pompeo, religiously insane man of power, is right there next to the guy who gets his urine-soaked cotton candy pompadour put in place, somehow, every day. Gotta give it to Trump, he knows a cretin when he sees one, and is always ready to hold hands.

    Last thing, it would be great if you included links to your sources for quotes. I can find them myself, but it would make your journalism – because that’s how I see you, as a journalist – more effective for those of us who want to share your Stonekettle essays.


  54. Afghanistan is not only called "graveyard of empires" but also, notably, "the land of Cain". Its people and culture do, notably, use ideals like violent revenge for past slights as measures of worth for men and nations. And since so much of it is vertical, and its young men raised to admire nothing so much as shooting the young men of the next valley over using whatever antique rifle they have handed down from the Russians or the British or the Americans, and also hate nothing whatsoever so much as the idea of foreigners interfering with them, every empire with the stupidity and hubris to "go to war" with the Afghan peoples has pulled back a bloody stump (leaving behind the weapon that once it held, to be treasured for generations, as long as it can still be coaxed to fire a bullet).

    Nothing could be so helpful as analyzing the history of invasions of Afghanistan and their various versions of "victory". For instance, the first British war against Afghanistan was declared "won" when their forces captured and decisively occupied Kabul. (Hurrah!) The British, like we ourselves, suffered from the illusion that Afghanistan was "a nation" with "a people" that would accept a leader installed by a foreign power and cooperative with its aims; instead, they found that any leader who could be suspected of foreign support would be slaughtered by one of the many tribes and factions to which those young men with rifles adhered. It bears remembering that subsequent to the "winning", those same forces were slaughtered trying to get back out again, thirty-five THOUSAND British killed in the snow trying to return to Peshawar. One single survivor arrived. Does this suggest there really can be such a thing as winning an invasion of Afghanistan-- in the sense of any victory that can be meaningfully distinguished from a defeat? A successful invasion of the area might be best imagined as, for instance, sending your troops for a week in Maui instead.

    1. I pointed that out repeatedly, to deaf ears in my own government.

  55. Yeah, never piss off Afghanis. They'll follow you, kill you and all your family. I got thrown in gaol there, very unpleasant.

  56. Terrific essay.

    I was startled to read your summary of the "argument" advanced by friend-of-Epstein Dershowitz. I suppose that by now we shouldn't be surprised by any depravity coming out of the Trump cult, and in my defense I've never paid attention to the little shit since his full-throated defense of torture. Even so, it's sobering that the fascists don't even try to wrap things in the usual cliches about fairness and justice and the Constitution. The cult is hostile to such values, as you say.

    You might be interested to know that the development economist Dani Rodrik agrees with your central point about Trump's value to mainline Republicans: https://twitter.com/rodrikdani/status/1223726202613043202


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.