I’ve stopped posting on this site. I have begun a new one. Here is the link to it: http://chadference.com/
Thanks for reading, and I hope you make the jump over to the other site.
I’ve stopped posting on this site. I have begun a new one. Here is the link to it: http://chadference.com/
Thanks for reading, and I hope you make the jump over to the other site.
I was accepted to present this paper at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature.
Virginia Woolf’s fiction largely revolves around solving a major puzzle of her life: why some moments are meaningful and everlasting and others are forgotten, if ever acknowledged. Woolf’s autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past” reveals much of her personal history and rather meticulously details her process of crafting in print what she called a “moment of being,” a heightened experience that lives freshly, if mysteriously, in the mind forever. The essay is exactly what the title suggests it is: a rough picture of the author’s childhood and earliest memories. Woolf wrote the essay late in life, many years after writing her much-praised novel To the Lighthouse. That novel is also claimed by critics to be Woolf’s most autobiographical. As the cover of my edition reads, “The subject of this brilliant novel is the daily life of an English family in the Hebrides.” Literary critic Daphne Merkin writes that although the novel is “[s]et in the Hebrides, it is based on Woolf’s recollections of idyllic childhood summers spent at St. Ives on the Cornish coast” (1). Taken together, then, in addition to divulging Woolf’s personal history, “A Sketch of the Past” and To the Lighthouse uncover the extent to which personal, subjective reactions to specific moments early in Woolf’s life influenced her decades-long experimentation with modernism and stream-of-consciousness narration.
In “A Sketch,” Woolf describes her first memory: the colors of her mother’s dress as the two of them travel to St. Ives. This memory leads Woolf to another, which, she writes, “also seems to be my first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories” (64): lying half asleep in her nursery at St. Ives, hearing the waves of the ocean crash on top of each other, basking in sunlight filtered through yellow blinds. Of this memory, Woolf writes, “I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail…” (65). The reason her description of the moment should fail is that Woolf first needs, she writes, to describe “Virginia herself” (65). But to write who a person is, Woolf continues, is as difficult as to write what a moment is; it’s as difficult to describe rightly what happened as it is to describe whom it happened to. To capture on page, then, a person’s familial history, idiosyncrasies, routines, internal thoughts (in all their whimsical oscillation), passions, fears, surroundings, and sensory input is Woolf’s goal. Woolf has all these various components coalesce into a single moment of being. To succeed at this is “to write [the memory] as it should be written.” It’s describing the person herself, what’s happened to her, and through what lenses she’ll see the world in front of her (for Woolf, a pale yellow or green one, like the sunlight in and the sea outside her nursery at St. Ives).
Woolf’s focusing on the interiority is conspicuous, and even a first-time reader will pick up on it quickly. What’s more difficult to pin down, though, is an understanding of the regular processes through which Woolf’s characters — and, indeed, Woolf herself — go to synthesize and utilize the emotions and memories that well up inside their consciousnesses while experiencing a moment of being. More difficult still is understanding what inspires a moment to cross the blurred line that somewhat separates heightened, remembered moments from what Woolf called moments of “non-being,” or unremembered life “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” (“A Sketch” 70).
Moments of being necessarily happen during — and punctuate! — ordinary life. Liesl Olson argues that in addition to writing the workings of a subjective mind, Woolf is “deeply invested, stylistically and ideologically, in representing the ordinary” (43). Olson argues that Woolf uses the habitual and relatable actions contained in moments of non-being to help craft her characters. Pointedly, Olson uses the character Septimus Warren Smith, in Mrs. Dalloway, to support her claim: he “is best revealed when he is doing ordinary, habitual things, and when he briefly reverts back to his habits before the war” (50). But separating too cleanly the ordinary (moments of non-being) from the heightened (moments of being) risks missing Woolf’s point: that heightened experiences can happen anytime, anywhere, and for any reason. Woolf herself, in a fit of modesty, admits to not being able to depict moments of non-being: “The real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being. … I have never been able to do both. I tried — in Night and Day; and in The Years” (“A Sketch” 70). Therefore, in Woolf’s fiction, “doing ordinary, habitual things” and experiencing extraordinary, heightened moments of being are not mutually exclusive; they can, and often do, happen simultaneously. The passing in and out of heightened moments of consciousness is too seamless — and puzzling — to place each in its respective mental compartment.
Woolf has more questions than answers. After interrogating the moment for decades, she remains puzzled: “Unfortunately, one only remembers what is exceptional. And there seems to be no reason why one thing is exceptional and another not. Why have I forgotten so many things that must have been, one would have thought, more memorable than what I do remember?” (“A Sketch” 69-70).
Often in Woolf’s fiction, a moment that seems to be comprised of forgettable daily living is exactly the opposite, an unforgettable one. In the second paragraph of the novel, Woolf introduces the reader to a paradox: a moment of being is both simple and complex:
…James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling — all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code … though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity, with his … fierce blue eyes … so that his mother … imagined him all red and ermine on the bench… (3-4).
Here is the moment in all its complexity; nothing is left out. The wheelbarrow outside, the leaves whitening before rain, the caw of rooks all come into James’s mind, and are distilled there. Yet it is simple: Mrs. Ramsay hasn’t done anything and James is just on the floor cutting out ads. Nonetheless, their minds are discerning, at work. James is fringed with joy. Mrs. Ramsay’s mind is thirty years into the future as she speaks with “heavenly bliss.”
The past, the present, and the hopes of the future often interplay in a moment of being. Mrs. Ramsay, at the end of the first section, for example, experiences a heightened moment that results from the remembrance of the past day’s events and a mind overtaken by a Shakespearean sonnet. A scene in which Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay sit together reading and doing other small tasks, the final chapter of the first section is interesting in that it’s the last moment the reader has with Mrs. Ramsay. David Herman closely analyzes the few words spoken by the Ramsays in this chapter. Because there are nearly as many pages as there are “utterances” in the chapter, Herman argues that “Woolf uses the scene to suggest how inner and outer worlds, inferences and utterances, are integrated to form larger ecologies of talk” (78). What Herman writes of ecologies of talk is also true of heightened experiences, but instead of “inner and outer worlds” becoming “integrated to form larger ecologies of talk,” they become integrated to form larger, more heightened moments of being. Mrs. Ramsay’s moment of being builds itself slowly, adding layers as new sensory input and memories become available. Mrs. Ramsay
…waited a little, knitting, wondering, and slowly those words they had said at dinner, “the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee,” began washing from side to side in her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and to be echoed; so she turned and felt on the table beside for a book. (119)
Mrs. Ramsay has intangible things — words spoken at dinner — take on shape and color in her mind; not only are they red, blue, and yellow, but they, as separate entities, have motion in her consciousness. Her reading of the sonnet takes this moment even higher, literally heightening — and then solidifying — the experience:
“Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose,” she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, on to the top, on to the summit. How satisfying! How restul! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept, felt clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire; she held it in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here — the sonnet. (121)
Notably, the only sentence the reader gets from the sonnet is a line that comments not only on a rose, but on a rose of brilliant color. “Rose,” then, is a trigger word, connecting the moment at dinner, in which her husband recited the poem that contained the line about “the China rose,” with the present one, bringing about, for lack of a better word, a climax (“How satisfying!”). This is a process; the past and the present, “the odds and ends of the day,” the feelings being transmitted between the Ramsays, and the two poems all come together to form this “beautiful,” “clear,” “rounded” moment: the essence of life.
Marco Caracciolo fails to give this process its due. He also fails to understand the irreversibility of a “crystallized” moment. Caracciolo writes, “The Shakespearean sonnet was read by Mrs. Ramsay as an example of crystallized meaning … But in fact, this poem shows that nature has already crept into the human world and that all attempts at distinguishing between the two domains [humanity and nature] are ultimately biased: the words of the poem float on the other side of the window…” (262). Caracciolo, however, has mixed up the poems in this scene. Mrs. Ramsay never “sees” words from the Shakespearean sonnet float on the other side of the window. She does, however, see the words of the poem Mr. Ramsay read at dinner float there, but only before she reads Shakespeare’s words. After having read the sonnet, Mrs. Ramsay’s mind goes “up and down, up and down with the poetry” (122); the words are stuck, as if to a magnet, in her consciousness, residing exclusively there. Mrs. Ramsay internalizes, gives shape, color, and meaning to the poems, and they become inextricably enmeshed, or blended, with the emotions and remembrances of the day. As a stone — perhaps the “very stone [that] one kicks with one’s boot [that] will outlast Shakespeare” (Lighthouse 35) — exists as long as the physical world exists, this moment existed in Mrs. Ramsay from its formation until she herself perished (whenever that happened). Woolf’s focus is not determining whether certain moments crystallize in the mind; they do. Her objective is to convey these snapshots of the mind, these visions, these crystallized moments of being, in her fiction.
Eudora Welty writes in the forward of the novel that “beyond being ‘about’ the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality” (xii). The concept of “vision” runs throughout the novel; the mind has its own visions: Mrs. Ramsay “sees” colored words float in her mind; James “sees” the leaves whitening before rain. Woolf herself “sees” the yellow glow of sunlight through the blinds in her childhood nursery decades after it first shone there. So important is the internal vision of the mind that Woolf, for emphasis, chose the word for her novel’s last. Reflecting on her work of art, Lily Briscoe concludes both the novel and her painting at once: “Yes … I have had my vision” (209).
In the novel, Woolf never tells the reader what colors and shapes make up Lily’s painting. But she does describe what her own painting of her earliest moments of being would be comprised of:
If I were a painter I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers. I should make a picture that was globular; semi-transparent. I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent … Everything would be large and dim; and what was seen would at the same time be heard; sounds would come through this petal or leaf — sounds indistinguishable from sights … When I think of the early morning in bed I also hear the caw of rooks falling from a great height. (66)
The colors and the sweeping nature of Woolf’s personal remembrance of a moment of being matches the visual mental imagery of both Mrs. Ramsay and James. It’s comprised of many disparate entities — the sea, mothers, the caw of rooks — that vaguely and somewhat opaquely come together. A single thing, however, must bring these far-flung entities to each other. For Lily, it was the final brushstroke down the center of her canvas. For Mrs. Ramsay, it was the rose of the Shakespearean sonnet (itself a model of strictly structured, everlasting human emotion). In fact, there’s a wealth of examples in “A Sketch” demonstrating a singular thing bringing coherence to a moment of being :
We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr. Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr. Valpy’s suicide … I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark — it was a moonlit night — in a trance of horror. (71)
The grey-green apple tree came to represent, arbitrarily, the suicide of a family friend. The moment is rooted, shall we say, in Woolf’s consciousness by that tree. Woolf gives still another example of an object bringing a moment of being together at St. Ives: “I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; ‘That is the whole,’ I said. I was looking at a plant…” (71). That plant embedded another moment in Woolf’s mind, a moment in which she refuses to strike “Thoby,” opting instead to be beaten up by him.
The imagery is too consistent to ignore. The lighthouse, the apple tree, the plant, the rose from the sonnet, Lily Briscoe’s final brushstroke down the center of her canvas all organize and finalize the many actions, emotions, sights, and sounds that are present in a moment of being. There is something in the shape of the lighthouse that is significant for Woolf (what Freud would think of this is subject matter for another paper entirely). Again, Woolf explains this significance through the hypothetical painter Virginia Woolf: “If I were painting myself I should have to find some — rod, shall I say — something that would stand for the conception” (73). The conception of To the Lighthouse is represented by the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself, though, is meaningless, arbitrarily assigned to represent the conception as all symbols and words are arbitrarily assigned to the things they represent; the meaning is found in everything that that rod-like structure stands for. In both life and fiction, Woolf held her colorful, oscillating, semi-transparent, globular memories together with single, rod-like structures.
The reasons for which Woolf’s mind — or rather, considering the timelessness and popularity of Woolf’s writing, every mind — works this way remains a puzzle. Woolf hasn’t solved it. Her awareness of the limits of the printed word in her pursuit to solve it is evident throughout both To the Lighthouse and “A Sketch of the Past,” hence the reliance on visual art in both works. In “A Sketch,” Woolf even dreams of “ some device” in the future that will tap into and playback her moments of being completely, purely (67). Clearly, though, Woolf underestimated the power of her fiction to do, in effect, what she’d have technology do: write the moment as it should be written. She has done that.
Caracciolo, Marco. “Leaping into Space: The Two Aesthetics of To the Lighthouse.” Poetics Today 31.2 (2010): 251-284. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 November 2012.
Herman, David. “Dialogue in a Discourse Context: Scene of Talk in Fictional Narrative.” Narrative Inquiry 16.1 (2006): 75-84. MLA Bibliography. Web. 20 November 2012.
Merkin, Daphne. “To the Lighthouse and Beyond. The New York Times. 4 September 2004. Web. 18 January 2013.
Olson, Liesl M. “Virginia Woolf’s ‘Cotton Wool of Daily Life.’” Journal Of Modern Literature 26.2 (2003). 42-65. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 30 October 2012.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981. Print
—. “A Sketch of the Past.” Moments of Being. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. Orlando: Harcourt, 1985. Print.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 needs no introduction, so allow me to introduce it. So popular and deeply entrenched is the novel in American culture that it’s difficult to find a single person who’s read it. Such illogical, paradoxical, and absurd statements characterize the plot and subplots of the hilarious, disciplined, in-a-class-of-its-own novel. The crux behind its nearly 500 pages: Yossarian, a bombardier in WWII, has flown his quota of missions and doesn’t want to fly anymore; he wants to be grounded. Colonel Cathcart, however, raises the bar every time it’s reached. In order to get grounded for good, then, Yossarian, a regular at the hospital for both real and imagined illnesses, has to prove he’s crazy, as in insane and unfit to fly. But there’s a catch: he who’s afraid of flying bombing missions and desires to be grounded is perfectly rational and sane, and since he’s sane, he has to fly. In the words of the novel’s omniscient narrator, speaking of Yossarian’s best friend and roommate, Orr: “If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” says Yossarian, using the official name of the rule.
Heller himself was a bombardier in WWII, but he emphasized that the novel is not autobiographical:
Virtually none of the attitudes in the book — the suspicion and distrust of the officials in the government, the feelings of helplessness and victimization, the realization that most government agencies would lie — coincided with my experiences as a bombardier in World War II. The antiwar and antigovernment feelings in the book belong to the period following World War II: the Korean War, the cold war of the fifties.
The novel, then, rails not against a single war, but against what President Dwight Eisenhower contributed to and, finally, saw as problematic at the same time Heller was handwriting his masterpiece: the military-industrial complex and the wars of choice it demands. And so as Agent Orange wilted the trees and blood soaked into the ground of Vietnam, the printing runs of the paperback edition of Catch-22 had to be more than doubled, according to Heller. Although the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t caused a similar spike in readership, the wrath camouflaged in Heller’s black humor should nonetheless still be directed at those wars. Certainly, the Afghanistan war, being the United States’ longest and, perhaps, most convoluted war, falls under Heller’s bombsite.
One character in the novel, Milo Minderbinder, especially captures the essence of the amoral, opportunistic American war profiteer. Money dictates Milo’s morality. He is at the helm of a vast syndicate, “M & M Enterprises,” and what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country, and everybody has a share, he says repeatedly. Minderbinder aims to corner the world market on any and all foodstuffs: eggs, pitted dates, oranges, chickpeas, and so on. Milo sells his products to the mess halls — at a profit. Here’s Milo’s justification for war profiteering: “Look, I didn’t start this war, Yossarian…. I’m just trying to put it on a businesslike basis. Is anything wrong with that?”
Yossarian thinks there is. But Yossarian’s crazy: he’s naked and sitting on the limb of a tree as he listens to Milo make his case. The Afghanistan war is plagued by Milo Minderbinders, and is bereft of (in)sane Yossarians. The profits being made in that country are obscene, considering the human suffering happening there. In Kandahar Province, one of the most dangerous in the country, a huge Post Exchange — a type of retail store located on military installations worldwide — is swimming in profit. The Post Exchange sells everything from Operation Enduring Freedom teddy bears to Harley-Davidson motorcycles, according to Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America. Echoing Milo’s repeated sales pitches that, say, casaba melons are “going for a song in Damascus” or that “Polish sausage is going for peanuts in Cracow,” the Harley-Davidson dealership promises the lowest prices and a prompt delivery as soon as the purchaser returns to the States.
Milo, always looking for a way to diversify his income, even contracts with the Nazis, getting a good return on destroyed American planes and supply sheds. There is, of course, no direct real-world comparison for Milo’s doing business with the Germans. But Heller never suggests that an equivalence exists: to make his points starker, Heller strips his characters’ actions of their expedient rationalizations and justifications, laying bare the moral maneuverings underlying them. Philip Toynbee, in “Here’s Greatness — in Satire,” praises Heller’s satirical technique, “The method of satire is to inflate reality so that all its partially concealed blemishes turn into monstrous and apparent deformations.” Viewed satirically, then, Milo’s contracting with the Germans invites many real-world comparisons.
The C.I.A., for example, sold Stingers — portable, shoulder-fired launchers equipped with heat-seeking missiles — to Afghan rebels in the 1980s. The Afghans were fighting off a Soviet invasion. (Soviets were attempting to shore up the communist Afghan government. Americans were fighting the Cold War against the Soviet Union and saw an opportunity to give the Soviets “their Vietnam” in Afghanistan.) Although the United States and the Afghan rebels momentarily had a common enemy in the Soviet Union, each group would eventually turn on the other, and many of the Stingers “had gone to commanders associated with anti-American radical Islamist leaders,” according to Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars. The plan was a “success”: after years of hemorrhaging money and taking casualties, the Soviets withdrew, defeated. But then civil war broke out in Afghanistan.
Because the lethal, accurate, and high-tech Stingers could be turned on commercial airliners and warplanes alike, the weapons had to be bought back. The money to repurchase the Stingers, though, would go directly to those who had them: “the warlords who were destroying Afghanistan’s cities and towns” in the civil war, according to Coll. Many of the cash-receiving warlords, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, were anti-American, and these same warlords — minus the ones who decided to re-brand themselves and become a part of President Karzai’s government — are now either members of the Taliban insurgency or an associated militant group. Meanwhile, Milo Minderbinder is making it hand over fist selling, buying back, and then reselling the goods. Everyone has a share, and what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country, he assures his superiors.
But the self-defeating logic of the Afghanistan war goes beyond the foolish and short-sighted exchange of weapons. Another major theme in Catch-22 is bureaucratic incompetency. That’s also a theme in the Afghanistan war. In Afghanistan, as in Catch-22, people of power let internal disputes hinder the larger mission. The State Department battles behind the scenes with the Defense Department. President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, had deep rivalries with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Doug Lute, of the National Security Council. Lute and Eikenberry are old friends and had conspired against Holbrooke. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in Little America, reports:
Lute spent much of his time organizing meetings and compiling data that showed how the war was being lost. He believed his work was of vital importance, and he thought that Holbrooke needed to follow his lead. He bristled at the attention journalists lavished upon Holbrooke…. Before long, the two men’s staffs were in open warfare with each other. Lute’s team would shcedule key meetings when Holbrooke was out of town.
Compare that with the following excerpt from Catch-22:
“Yes, I know I understand. Our first job is to capture Dreedle away from the enemy. Right?”
General Peckem laughed benignly, “No, Scheisskopf. Dreedle’s on our side, and Dreedle is the enemy. General Dreedle commands four bomb groups that we simply must capture in order to continue our offensive. Conquering General Dreedle will give us the aircraft and vital bases we need to carry our operations into other areas. And that battle, by the way, is just about won.”
The leaders of the war for Afghanistan and the leaders of the war unfolding around Heller’s fictional island of Pianosa have fratricidal tendencies. The top leaders of both wars are stuck in an unproductive cycle of one-upmanship. Chandrasekaran reports that, when it came to Afghanistan, “The war cabinet was too often at war with itself,” adding that Holbrooke, Lute, and Eikenberry could have accomplished much more “if they hadn’t been consumed with one-upping one another.” The warring sides of the war cabinet wanted to win their way, and the internal fights over the way that the Afghanistan war should be executed ultimately damned the entire military effort to failure, Chandrasekaran concludes.
Colonel Cathcart, as with other colonels, generals, and officers in Catch-22, lets the desire of personal glory cloud his execution of the larger war. Colonel Cathcart no longer cares if the bombs his bombardiers drop hit their targets. He’d rather have the bombs fall in a tight bomb pattern, which makes for a better aerial photo and increases the likelihood of having his picture in The Saturday Evening Post. Colonel Cathcart never thinks of the lives of the men risking everything to fly these missions. Nor does he think of the enemy targets that stand intact after the mission.
In Afghanistan, the military’s top brass had been obsessed with a similarly misguided pattern: the tight concentration of President Obama’s “surge” troops. The majority of the troops went to sparsely populated, strategically unimportant regions in Helmand Province. The failure to deploy more of troops to more crucial areas in Afghanistan — to Kandahar, the birthplace and a stronghold of the insurgency, and to eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other insurgent groups cross the Pakistan border to attack NATO and Afghan forces — is a major focus of Chandrasekaran’s reporting.
Once deployed, following the orders of their superiors, the Marines dug in. Marine commanders obstinately refused to move their forces from the villages and hamlets they patrolled. Marine generals wanted to make Helmand a “showcase.” Chandrasekaran saw that the Marines might win Helmand, but in the fight for it, they’d lose Afghanistan. He voiced this concern to a general, and the general had this to say: “That would be just fine for the Corps.”
But the war effort was damned long before the formation of the Obama administration. The ruling class of our nominal ally in the region, Pakistan, is so obsessed with enriching and glorifying itself that the entire country’s coming undone. To keep pressure on India, its archenemy, Pakistan not only allows but encourages Islamic extremists to operate within its borders. (American officials should understand this: it’s not much different from what they did in Afghanistan during the proxy war there against the Soviet Union.) These extremist groups not only provide safe havens to the Afghan insurgency; they also provide fighters and suicide bombers. Because the country believes it needs them to counter India’s superior military, Pakistan is unwilling (and possibly unable) to eradicate the Islamic radicals.
The United States can’t cross the border to take out the insurgents for fear that Pakistan will retaliate by increasing its support to insurgents or by closing down U.S. supply routes that run from its port city of Karachi to landlocked Afghanistan, or both. So: on the one hand, if the United States doesn’t act to disrupt the insurgency’s network of havens that it uses to recuperate, regroup, and resupply, then it loses; on the other, if the United States does go into Pakistan to see the war it began to its necessary end, then it loses its most important “ally” in the region, and along with it, the ability to resupply its troops. The United States loses.
The Afghanistan war, then, is so convoluted that it even outdoes Heller’s seemingly exhaustive satirical wit. Luke Mogelson, a writer at The New York Times Magazine, in his most recent piece, proved that he has the eye and the talent to capture the absurd, Heller-ian side of war. Briefly in the piece, Mogulson addresses the recent rise of “insider attacks,” or attacks by Afghan National Army soldiers — our allies — on NATO forces:
The Americans claim that many of the killings result from cultural differences; the Taliban claims to have infiltrated the security forces; the Afghan government claims “foreign spy agencies” are to blame. Whatever their provenance, the attacks have eroded trust to such a degree that NATO has begun designating some personnel as “guardian angels.” It is the guardian angel’s job to protect the NATO soldier from the Afghan soldier whom it is the NATO soldier’s job to train.
That’s some catch, that Catch-22.
Entrepreneurs, eighth graders, small business owners, innovators, electric battery cars — these are topics lifted from the third and final presidential debate. It was billed as a foreign policy debate. The ninety-minute rehashing of petty campaign-trail soundbites, however, was anything but that debate. With a failed conventional war ending with drastically altered objectives, with wars being covertly fought in Africa, the Middle East, and Pakistan, with the upsurge of drone strikes, a nuanced debate of America’s foreign policy needed to be had. Sadly, shamefully, it didn’t happen.
Not a single Afghan was mentioned by name. The all-important presidential election in Afghanistan, set to take place as the United States completes its troop drawdown, in 2014, wasn’t broached. Neither were so-called insider attacks, which have killed more troops so far this year than in any other year of the war. The political corruption that pervades President Karzai’s government went similarly unremarked on. The plague of illiteracy among members of the Afghan security forces disproves each candidate’s claim that Afghans have been equipped to handle their own security — but moderator Bob Schieffer didn’t press either candidate on any of these issues, and even if he would have, neither candidate differs enough on the Afghanistan war to actually debate it.
Both President Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney repeated that they’re committed to the 2014 withdrawal date, saying that it’s time for Afghans to take responsibility for their own security. Embedded in their simplistic telling of it, though, is a misrepresentation: that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be as complete and is as easy as flicking off a light switch and leaving a room. “Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014,” Romney said. Obama was less assertive, saying that the United States is now able “to transition” out of Afghanistan. There was no meaningful mention of the residual force, which some estimate will be as high as 25,000 troops, that is to remain in Afghanistan long after 2014.
Schieffer did note that the United States will “leave a smaller force of Americans, if I understand our policy, in Afghanistan for training purposes.” This is where the upsurge of insider attacks is particularly relevant and troubling. Not only do insider attacks threaten the lives of the 68,000 troops currently in Afghanistan, but they also threaten the smaller force of American troops that will remain there after the withdrawal to assist Afghan forces. Schieffer, then, could have asked a two-part question that deals directly, as opposed to hypothetically, with the war: How is the United States eliminating the circumstances that solicit or allow for insider attacks, and if they continue, will they affect the number and effectiveness of the troops that are to remain in Afghanistan after 2014? This question is more difficult to evade. Certainly, it would preclude President Obama from bringing up nation-building in swing states.
But the failure to discuss important national security threats in presidential debates is nothing new. Romney, in fact, seemed to take pride in it. He said, “In the 2000 debates, there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty. And that means a strong military. I will not cut our military.” Terrorism, though, was not an uncertainty when those debates took place. The U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been attacked by terrorists in 1998. Moreover, between the second and third presidential debates of the 2000 election, the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy destroyer, became the target of a suicide attack, killing 17 American sailors. Each of these attacks was at the time tied to Osama bin Laden, then in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and al Qaeda.
It should not be surprising, then, that a full twelve years after the 2000 presidential debates, foreign policy is still not meaningfully discussed in public view, if at all. It’s also not surprising that Romney, in closing, had this to say: “The president’s path will continuing declining [sic] in take-home pay … I’ll get people back to work with 12 million new jobs. I’m going to make sure we get people off of food stamps not by cutting the program but getting them new jobs.”
Obama fared no better in his closing statement: “Yes, I want to reduce our deficit by cutting spending that we don’t need, but also by asking the wealthy to do a little more so that we can invest in things like research and technology that are the key to a 21st century economy.”