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January 30, 2010

Essential Continuity

Just about exactly seven years ago I was arguing with someone about the coming invasion of Iraq. He'd spent some time training at Fort Benning, and wasn't an idiot. So he knew about the School of the Americas and our Grand Guignol policy toward Central America. But, he heatedly told me, this war would be completely different from all that.

Todd Greentree, a State Department official during the eighties, recently wrote a book called Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America. Here's one of its blurbs, from Francis Fukuyama:

"Between Vietnam and Iraq, the United States was involved in another set of now-forgotten conflicts in Central America during which it was forced, painfully, to re-learn the principles of insurgency counterinsurgency warfare. Crossroads of Intervention tells this tale in a gripping fashion, and demonstrates the essential continuity in the nature of these conflicts. It's only too bad that this book had not been available before the start of the Iraq War.”

Hooray, I was right! Too bad about all those Iraqis our allies murdered with electric drills.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 30, 2010 07:43 PM

If you want a hoot, you should really check out page 2 of that book in the Amazon preview. The map's pretty funny, but the bit about the Cheney-Edwards VP debate is hifuckinglarious.

And then muse on how the liberals' favourite wingnut, Andrew Bacevich, calls the book "even-handed" and "a model of good scholarship".

Posted by: weaver at January 30, 2010 09:35 PM

He[...] wasn't an idiot. [H]e knew about the School of the Americas and our [...] policy toward Central America. But, he heatedly told me, this war would be completely different from all that.

So, then, exactly what is your definition of an idiot?

Posted by: NomadUK at January 31, 2010 04:47 AM

That's a very good post. JS has a remarkably good eye and memory for this sort of thing.

nomaduk's question is good. how smart people, and sometimes whole nations, are led to self-deception indistinguishable from idiocy would be good for everyone to understand. I had a lot of futile talks with people at that time too. Most people just would not believe that our leaders intended to do something evil. Wrong, maybe. Stupid, maybe. Foolish, maybe. Evil, no. That was the time when a whole lot of cultural programming in my head was destroyed by the sudden, shocking awareness that yes indeed, almost everyone could in fact be totally bamboozled and neither the media nor the Democrats nor anything else would brake the trance. It almost felt to me like mass hypnosis that I for some reason wasn't part of.

Bacevich has a lot of very important things to say about all that. Of course, he's basically conservative and certainly not a Trotskyite or a Maoist, but that makes what he has to say about the military today more important, not less, just as that's true of Chalmers Johnson. Nobody has to be in love with people who have something to say that's worth understanding.

Some time ago, possibly at the suggestion of Donald Johnson (either that or in response to something he said) I looked at a 1990 article by Greentree on our Central American counterinsurgency strategy in the 80s. Greentree was a low-level State Dept. participant and so had first-hand knowledge. I doubt his book is in any way an apologia. He didn't seem to happy about what we had done in El Salvador. He went to El Mozote right after the massacre, so he can't feel good about that. (I'll certainly be disgusted if he isn't mad about that.)

Dick Cheney knew exactly what he was saying when he said we were going to employ "the Salvadorean option" in Iraq in 2004. But the remark made no sense to most people in the US, who are addicted to the worst kind of patriotism. Though I didn't learn it until later, the heretic Doug Valentine wrote contemporaneously about the continuity between the Phoenix Program, about which he wrote a good book, and what we did in Central America in the 80s. Speaking of continuity, that was the great service Zinn performed--helping people that sort of continuity. That is what I think was the great value of his People's History, whether or not it's good history. (I don't even care.)

Posted by: N E at January 31, 2010 09:47 AM

There is an essential continuity between the occupation of Iraq and all of the dirty little wars of 1980's, but what I think a lot of people miss is that the actual Iraq invasion itself was a virtual remake of one in particular, the 1989 invasion of Panama. The invasion of Panama saw the first use of the "doctrine of rapid dominance" i.e. shock and awe. If you equate Saddam Hussein with Noriega and Ahmed Chalabi with Endara, you get an idea of how neoconservatives thought the Iraq invasion was going to play out; I really think it is that simple.

It's also more than a metaphor, the invasion of Iraq seems similar to the invasion of Panama, because many of the same people did the same things in both cases. The guy who sold America on the virtuousness of Guillermo Endara, John Rendon, did the same thing for Chalabi -- that Rolling Stone article, "The Man Who Sold the War", from a few years makes the case that John Rendon basically created Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.

Posted by: Joe at January 31, 2010 02:37 PM

I like Andrew Bacevich, what I've read of him anyway. I could have missed something.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 31, 2010 06:58 PM

Kissinger still walks around a free man.(unless he goes to Spain) continuity? napalm, Ford Falcons, drills.

Bacevitch lost a son in Iraq which may have forced his head around but he is still an apologist for capitalism.

Posted by: troutsky at February 1, 2010 12:57 AM


The death of Bacevich's son didn't turn his head around. And Bacevich doesn't write about economics. That isn't his field or interest.

In 2002, Bacevich wrote American Empire: The Reality and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. It is an prescient book about the developing problem in American militarism and imperialism that Bacevich saw building then. The book uses as a point of departure a rehabilitation of the views of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, neither of whom is widely known as a capitalist apolgist. (Guessing isn't necessary if you are willing to spend 15 minutes with The Google or your oracle of choice, though that might take the fun out of Troutskyism.)

After that book, as the war in Iraq intensified, Bacevich's writings became more and more critical. The New American Militarism (2005) develops many of the points made in American Empire, particularly the increasing politicization of the military and its thinly veiled dominance over American politics. To me, it speaks well of Bacevich, a career soldier, that he could recognize serious problems in the military, the institution to which he had dedicated his professional life.

The only book written by Bacevich after his son's death in Iraq in 2007 is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). That book is a devastating critique, but Bacevich is no fool or hypocrite who couldn't see evil until it affected his family. His critique had already been well formed and its conclusions previously published. He had opposed the Iraq war from BEFORE its outset.

The Limits of Power rests heavily on Bacevich's respect for Niebuhr. Bacevich is a Catholic conservative who grapples with some of the issues Nieburh grappled with. Even though such views are quite unlike mine, I admire sincere Catholic conservatives who take consistent moral positions. Some such people are true heroes. Franz Jaegerstaetter immediately comes to my mind, simply because of his unflinching courage and uncompromising morality. (He was beheaded for refusing to fight for the German army.) And yet Jaegerstaetter wasn't even a Troutskyite! (For an exploration of Jaegerstaetter's courage and moral strength, rooted in faith, check out Gordon Zahn's 1964 biography of him, In Solitary Witness.)

Bacevich has much wisdom and knowledge to offer. Plus, if people do not respect each other's views, they are easily pitted against each other. A blog works as well as a blowhorn to do that. The fostering of political splintering is one of the chief mechanisms by which elite control of our society is maintained. It's divide and conquer applied internally, though that isn't admitted. In this imperial age, we're not much different from Kurds and Sunnis and Shias who have been pitted against each other, but the budgets that fund the efforts to do it are classified, because Americans get really pissed when they suspect that they are being treated like Iraqis. (Even the CIA's total budget is classified.)

Bacevich is praiseworthy.

Posted by: N E at February 1, 2010 03:00 AM

As a small aside, the number of employees for the National Security Agency in itself is classified..

..Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging :-).

Posted by: Nikolay Levin at February 2, 2010 12:24 AM

Too bad about all those Iraqis our allies murdered with electric drills.

Let's not distance ourselves too far from our "allies." But then, too bad about all those Iraqis we killed with missiles, tanks, and automatic weapons. Shock and awe, shock and awe.

Posted by: Duncan at February 2, 2010 09:47 AM

[United States] was forced, painfully, to re-learn the principles of counterinsurgency warfare

And then "forced" immediately afterwards to pretend again that nothing of the kind had taken place, so that when the next troublesome resistance occurred the national security state's operatives could pretend to start from zero.

Again and again and again.

Posted by: Nell at February 3, 2010 03:49 AM

True, Nell, but nobody could have predicted that anyone anywhere in the world would want anything different from what the US wants. The shock renders us helpless and amnesiac every time.

Posted by: Duncan at February 3, 2010 10:44 AM

A major problem is that journalists really don't actually know much of history, let alone military history (which isn't their fault, mind you--becoming experts on the subject matter on which they report isn't what they are supposed to do).

But an even bigger problem is that they then just print what they are told, either by the government or the military. They are thus basically stenographers, which is why they didn't like to hear Stephen Colbert come right out and make a joke about it a few years ago. Thinking of yourself that way just takes all the fun out of having all those impressive Ivy League credentials that one needs to get a high-quality stenography position.

(Don't get me wrong, the writing is pretty good. A little dry, but otherwise first-rate fiction.)

Posted by: N E at February 3, 2010 03:33 PM