“Take up the white man’s burden …” Plus, your world record moment of Zen

Writing at the widely-read liberal blog Hullabaloo, David Atkins says the most recent US atrocity in Afghanistan means it’s time to pull the plug on what should, and in his estimation could, have been The Good War. He weeps for the Buddhas of Bamiyam (destroyed by order of Taliban leaders in 2001); he accuses his fellow liberals of parochialism and closing their eyes to the plight of Afghan women; he quotes both the penultimate stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic poem, The White Man’s Burden, and the exhortation scribbled on the final page of Kurz’s monograph in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Possibly I made that last bit up. But “Ye dare not stoop to less” and “Exterminate all the brutes!” are clearly visible just beneath the surface. He doesn’t despair that we invaded and occupied Afghanistan; he despairs that we didn’t do it better.

Oh, he cites the “enormous peril of foreign intervention in largely intractable situations,” and he says that “prolonged occupations anywhere are a terrible idea” because “[t]hese sorts of incidents are almost inevitable.” He says that “continuing this awful, endless occupation replete with civilian massacre after civilian massacre is no answer at all. It’s long past time to go.” But then he closes with this:

Still, weep for the people we will be leaving behind. Weep for the Shi’ite ethnic hazara who will likely be doomed upon our departure … And mourn the fate of a people who once had hope for a better future, and now have none because America ended up doing more harm than good when all was said and done. It didn’t have to be thus [emphasis mine].

Well, David: it did have to be thus. Because thus is what wars and invasions and occupations are.

Let’s dispense first with the practicalities: to have even a chance at the better outcomes Atkins envisions would have cost us trillions of dollars more than we’ve actually spent. Here’s why.

David Petraeus, who was elevated to demigod status* by press and pundit on account of The Surge in Iraq, oversaw the latest revision of the Army and Marine counterinsurgency manual in 2006. The manual cites a widely-accepted ratio of 20-25 troops per 1,000 inhabitants** as the level necessary to achieve and maintain stability in counterinsurgency wars. Petraeus is god, that’s his word and we believe.

28 million people live in Afghanistan. Going with the low end of the ratio, the number of troops required there to impose and maintain stability—defined by James Quinlivan, the researcher who came up with the ratio, as “an environment orderly enough that most routine civil functions could be carried out”—would be about 580,000.

The US doesn’t have the capacity to put 580,000 troops into combat without emptying out the Pentagon and every US military installation around the world and calling up most of the National Guard and Reserves. Doing so for more than about a year would require close to three times as many ground troops as we now have (and even then it would be a strain). Adding that many troops would cost about $500 billion dollars up front—to recruit, train, equip and house them all—and about $200 billion annually once they’re in place.*** That’s on top of what we already spend, not instead of it, and it doesn’t include the cost of maintaining five times as many troops in Afghanistan as we’ve actually had.

To succeed, then, if the word is even applicable, we would need startup costs of a half-trillion dollars (and a lead time of about ten years), a war department budget well upwards of a trillion dollars annually, and on top of that the cost of the war. Is taking down the bastards who blew up the Buddhas and bettering the lot of women in Afghanistan a good return on that investment? Even when you throw in the bonus of getting some measure of payback for 911, however misplaced, most folk probably wouldn’t think so. And of course the people who sponsored the invasion didn’t give a good shit about either the statues or the women.

If everything went quite perfectly, then, invading Afghanistan and sticking around long enough to help build the enlightened society Atkins wants would have cost us pretty close to a year’s GDP. For practical purposes, this means that the United States is out of the contested occupation business anywhere much more populous than Illinois. This is not bad news unless you’re Richard Perle and the fridge is running low on blood, or you’re David Atkins and there are stone Buddhas to be violently avenged.

There was a lot of discussion back in the day about the hazards of trying to do these wars on the cheap, but Atkins is pretty young and he probably wasn’t paying all that much attention at the time. There are some issues, however, that can be fully understood without any awareness of how much armies cost and how big they have to be to do particular stuff.

One of those issues is war crimes. Atkins says “[war crimes] are almost inevitable” in prolonged conflicts. But war crimes aren’t exclusively the product of the length of an engagement, and they’re not “almost” inevitable; they are absolutely so. There have been no wars in which war crimes were not committed. Advocates of war are advocates of war crimes. They provide the opportunity, the weapons, the perpetrators and the victims. There’s nothing to stop an advocate of war from making the case that the cause is worth the crimes, but pretending that the crimes are not invariably present in the equation is considerably less than honest.

Another is the assumption that we, the aggressors, have the right to wage war on behalf of anyone other than ourselves (and the conceit that we in fact do wage war on behalf of anyone other than ourselves). Atkins is a fan of human rights but he’s not only willing to deprive others of the most fundamental one in order to advance his own agenda, but feels positively obliged to do so—or rather, to have US military personnel do so on his behalf.

Among the worst of what he says is this, in which he equates opposition to the war with indifference to human rights:

While I understand that many progressives are have [sic] no problem at all with paying fervent attention to women’s rights within our own arbitrary national borders and closing their eyes with insouciance to what goes on in distant lands, I find it far more difficult.

It’s a miracle that those words didn’t sink the entire post from the sheer weight of sanctimonious self-regard, but it’s good that they haven’t. We all need a little reminder from time to time of how the blood-lust manifests in liberals. Atkins, by the bye, is a Democratic party activist in California, if you’re wondering where the party’s headed. Feminists for War!

And finally, that perfect moment of Zen.

The methodical destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was a crime not only against humanity but against history and civilization itself. I was in New York recently and walked by an Afghan restaurant, where a painting of the Buddhas lay fixed in the window. I stood and stared as the tears welled in my eyes. Just thinking about it drives me into a furious rage (emphasis mine).

That’s right: Atkins is enraged to the point of violence by the destruction of two statues … of Buddha.

*Petraeus now heads the CIA on account of a slick move that Barack Obama stole from the Gerald Ford playbook, when Ford appointed George H. W. Bush to head the CIA and sidelined him from politicking during the 1976 election.

**Remember when General Eric Shinseki (now the VA chief) got in so much trouble with the Bushies for telling Congress that a successful occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops? This is what he was talking about.

***The costs are roughly extrapolated from a 2003 Congressional Budget Office report commissioned by the late Robert Byrd on various scenarios for the occupation of Iraq.

3 thoughts on ““Take up the white man’s burden …” Plus, your world record moment of Zen”

    1. At least his spirit lives on.

      I read T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men before I read Heart of Darkness, and I clearly remember thinking “what the hell?” when I saw the Kurz epigraph.

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