The institution of the “volunteer” military, one of Richard Nixon’s top two long-term schemes to destroy the country that refused to love him, continues to rot America from without and from within, as it was designed to. Yesterday, the Military Times reported on remarks delivered by H.R. McMaster, the retired general and former National Security Advisor for the Trump administration, at a public forum this week, in which McMaster complained about a “defeatist narrative” surrounding the endless and unsuccessful war in Afghanistan.
McMaster—who served in Kabul during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh years of the 17-going-on-18 years of the Afghanistan war—objected to the “inaccurate” belief, among American civilians, that the war is a failure:
The American public is not properly weighing costs when debating the military’s role in the Middle East, according to McMaster, who pointed to a recent town hall debate he watched.
“A young student stood up and said ‘all I’ve known my whole life is war,’” McMaster said. “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war-weariness.”
If you think you hate war so much, son, why don’t you go fight it yourself? This is the metastasized logic of removing civilians from the risks—and responsibilities—of armed conflict. Moral and practical authority over war has been ceded to the war people, while responsibility for war is assigned to nobody at all. Not Congress, which chooses to pretend it has no power or duty to say which wars we fight; not the general civilian population, which lacks the expertise; not the military, which is just doing the thing it was built to do.
The work of justifying it falls to people like H.R. McMaster, who offered up recycled Cold War domino theory to explain why the United States can’t be allowed to lose to the Afghan forces it can’t defeat:
“They’re trying to establish these emirates,” he said. “And then stitch these emirates together into a caliphate in which they force people to live under their brutal regime and then export terror to attack their near enemies, Arab states, Israel, and the far enemies, Europe and the United States.”
We’re—they’re—fighting the Taliban over there so that we—you—don’t have to fight them here. Since you, over here, don’t have much interest in fighting, do you?
What are civilians supposed to say about that, across the rift between contemporary democracy and contemporary war? One of the true greatnesses of the World War II generation was that its members had been through real conscription, and so everyday life and politics were full of people who had firsthand knowledge that the military was not a holy caste but a big dumb organization like any other, where dumb bosses gave dumb orders. Now it’s a separate domain, so much so that a savvy young meritocrat with political ambitions now goes out and does a tour to get a credential that’s otherwise unavailable.
And H.R. McMaster’s big concern about war is that we might get too caught up in new war plans and neglect the wars we already have:
While there is an important shift to focus on conventional military force in an era of great power competition, McMaster added that China and Russia shouldn’t be used as excuses to shirk tough challenges in the Middle East.
“I think what’s happening now is almost an exclusive focus in some places on the return of great power competition,” he said. “It has become almost an emotional cathartic to get beyond the wars of unanticipated length and difficulty in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
When war belongs to the experts, the experts need to keep the war going. Otherwise, what would they be experts on?