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15 September 2013


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a great piece but I have to say that the characterization of the VN War as a war against guerrillas is incorrect.

It was a war against:

- The political apparatus of the communist party complete with its murderous agitprop teams
- Local VC guerrillas (the least formidable forces)
- Full time VC combat units of battalion (500 men) and regimental (1,000 men) in size.
- The North Vietnamese Army which deployed a dozen divisions and division equivalents to the South . These units had a lot of heavy equipment including artillery and tanks.

In addition to all this the air war in the North was intense. The NV Air Force had MIG-21a, MIG-19s, MIG- 17s and a lot of anti-aircraft missiles.

William R. Cumming

The complexities of a world where simple explanations convince some of their merit. Thanks Richard for the reminder.

robt willmann

Mr. Sale,
A little typo: after the subheading "Sen. Paul's Brainlessness", the first sentence starts, "I don't mean to be rude, but Sen. Ron Paul sings in his op-ed ...." You seem to mean Sen. Rand Paul, and his editorial in Time Magazine and/or on its website, and not former Congressman Ron Paul.


This reads article makes some very good points. To say the Russians invaded Afghanistan for no legitimate reason boggles the mind. I like Ron Paul, but like a lot of Americans he looks at America though rose colored glasses.

That said somebody, I forget who once said "we are all hero's in out own play" That's the case with people as with nations. People as with nations are loth to give credit when credit is due.

The US has came a long way since the Nineteenth Century. The Russians have came a long way since the end of the Soviet era, but the Russians have had a much darker road to travel a Civil War, The Soviet era, The end of the Soviet era, Stalin, a World War, I believe from a demographic stand point The Russians are still paying for. I believe the world owes both nations a great debt. The Russians for stopping Hitler, and proving to anybody not delusional and willing to look with an open mind proving that Communism doesn't work. The United States, for holding the line against Communism, and for government by the working Joe holding the vote works (or at lest used to). Both nations still have a long way to go.

robt willmann

"The NV Air Force had MIG-21a, MIG-19s, MIG-17s and a lot of anti-aircraft missiles"--

And, as I understand it, Russian pilots to fly some of them and Russian air controllers with which they would communicate. In fact, I was told that the Russian pilots insisted on having Russian controllers in Vietnam.


Mr. Sale,
I greatly enjoy your writing, but your research might need some help. I could recommend Peter Tomsen, "The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers."

It's Babrak Karmal, and Nur Mohammed Taraki, and the mistakes in the names are only minor.


The idea that "other people" do things for no good reasons, but "we" do things for good reasons is, unfortunately, a disease that infects so many people in every nation. We (defined broadly) don't know other peoples' histories, their values, their morals, generally what constitutes "legitimate" reasons for them. No doubt that there are many around the world who say we, the US, got involved in any number of our ventures for "no good reasons." As my mother likes to say (supposedly a Korean proverb), every grave has a corpse in it. People do things for reasons that are, in context, "important." A smart policy planner has to recognize this fact, even if he or she may not agree that those are, given his or her beliefs, "important enough," because, in the end, "the other people" (to whom they are important) are makers of history too...


T.S. Eliot succinctly encapsulated the problem in "Gerontion" (1920).

"fter such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, 35
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still believed, 40
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues 45
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes."

Does anyone not see the irony in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians? Russia harbouring an American whistle blower? America arming itself with all the trappings of a police/surveillance state?

Almost as bizarre as Australia chairing the U.N. Security Council at present.


This was not Ron - this was his son Rand.

I wonder how much of his piece was agitprop for the Tea Party types and how much he really believed. Listening to Mark Levin's show, he had on a guest host who continually referred to Putin as a "KGB thug" and couldn't get over the fact that Putin was in the KGB and therefore was totally unAmerican.

What is "American" nowadays? Miley Cyrus licking teddy bears? Abortion on demand with post partum abotion coming our way? Every sexual taboo broken in the name of freedumb? There's definitely a certain denial on the part of many conservative figures that we are not moral exemplars and the world doesn't want their daughters becoming whores and their sons turned into overweight children who play video games into their 40s. The polarity has changed - we now push godless democracy and consumerism, while the Russians are stepping up in the name of Christ. This reality is too much for many, ergo "KGB thug" when Putin cracks the whip on a bunch of deluded women for daring to defile Orthodoxy's highest cathedral.

I've said on here before that Putin's game is much more than the black or white paradigm that a majority of America is unable to see past. Call Putin an autocrat or an enlightened despot, and you'd get a lot of blank looks I'd imagine.

Charles I

Exceptionalism requires no critical spirit. Thanks very much for yours.

Tom in Texas

Thank you for your thoughtful article, Mr. Sale. As to Sen. Paul's juxtaposition of "plank" and "speck", the words are not his, but from the Gospel of Matthew, 7:5 New International Version: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." http://biblehub.com/matthew/7-5.htm So the op-ed delivers a Gospel-approved shout-out to American Exceptionalism. Paul knows the Christian audience he is (in part) targeting (i.e., "dog-whistling") will get the reference, and feel properly righteous.


Junger must think Switzerland is the most genocidal nation on earth.


I am more than ready to pass the baton, but to whom?

The US may stick its nose into too many things, but it also provides a lot of help and resources that there's general agreement should be provided.

I do not see how we will stop unless other countries or group(s) take over. I am certainly tired of us unilaterally doing a lot of world rescue and absorbing the costs for it.

But what's the alternative?


Respectfully, the American people want to believe in the divine righteousness of our belief rather than deal with the profane wickedness of our disbelief.


I read a bit about atrition rates in Vietnam. The US military has never seen anything like that since then. Good for them.

In WW-II the US were at times badly mauled by German units. Losses in Kore were often severe. In Vietnam, beyond the ground war, the US last faced an effective air defence that caused some serious fleet attrition.

One could argue that as a result of the historical distance, the US have forgotten - thanks to skill of arms, a professional army that doesn't represent society at large, immense spending and superior technology - that war has to it also a receiving end and how that feels like.

Contrast these wars with who they US are fighting right now.

If the calls for the US to, finally, bomb Syria - because not doing so would indicate US weakness to Syria, Iran - are any indication, today the 'Ledeen doctrine' appears to eventually have found bipartisan acceptance.

"Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business,"

You only do that with countries that can't fight back of course, so that the use of military force comes at 'little cost', as long as you're not in the army of course (but they have all signed up for it, and thus no right to complain I remember being told in 2003).

And if US urges, for instance the Cheneyite urge to attack Russia over Georgia, are any indication, the US feels currently so powerful that they consider Russia nother such pushover.

And yet ... like the Rusians before them, the US failed to impose their will on Afghanistan. And the US failed to impose their will on Iraq.

That there are limits to America's power and limits to what force can accomplisn appears to be something that yet has to sink in. In addition the messianic sense that America is called upo to right the world's wrongs, there are delusions of American military omnipotence abound.

All this is often being further obfuscated by moralistic babble of having to spread Freedom (tm) (neo-con/Republican variant) or an asserted responsibility to protect (Liberal variant), and a general sense that America MUST do something.

Arguably, and curiously, all this benevolence on the receiving end feels like 1000 pound bombs all the same.

r whitman

Can someone give me links to Jungers and Pauls statements referred to in the article.


But he could easily be nominated for President in 2016, and he could win. "Rand Paul stood up for America and Americans when everyone else wanted to get us into more war." Add the pre-August 31 sound bytes. He's the Son of Ron, and there's an affection there because of it.

This time Clinton said "I support my President," instead of her full out support for Iraq; however, that's not the same as saying no more war when it's not popular.

Great post, BTW.



I don't think that "attrition" is the right term to apply to US casualty rates in VN. However many we lost there were always more coming across the pond in an unending stream of commercial airliners. Unit strengths never fell. Losses were always replaced. The attrition took place in public and political will in the US. pl

robt willmann

Senator Rand Paul's editorial, Time magazine--


Sebastian Junger's editorial is probably here, at the Washington Post--



Fair point.


I think that one of the key insights I have taken away from SST over the years is to give far more attention to the extent to which US foreign policy is indeed driven by partly subconscious messianism and triumphalism, ranging from economic matters to foreign policy and military matters.

The cynics don't offer plausible explanations - saying it is about oil or money or arms trades or some mother material interest cannot explain the fervor, tenacity and treasure Americans sink into endeavours, let alone the red hot indignation over an attempt at criticism that was at full display in 2002/2003. In the end the materialists fail to take into account human agency.

The mere idea to openly formulate as a policy goal 'regime change', just as if the national sovereignty characterising the Wespfalian system doesn't matter, is in itself a grand conceit, underlining the American claim to hegemony - and the mainstream doesn't even give it a second thought in DC, suggesting that the underlying claim to global leadership is utterly self evident to them. Indeed, who else?

And needless to say, if anybody else came along, that nation is inevitably being characterised as a 'threat' (not to the US proper, but as a threat to 'US dominance').

Think China. Think Russia. Think the EU. Think Japan. Ponder India. Ponder Brazil.

Babak Makkinejad


Forty years of war has regressed Afghanistan.

Used to be that a male teacher in a provincial town could dress himself in European-style pants without it being an issue.

Now wearing such pants has become a point of debate as to whether it is or is not against Sharia.

On the other hand, the traditional "Shelwar" is a remnant of the pre-Islamic times; you can see men wearing such pants on the frescos of Persepolis or Taqi-Bostan.

I think it will be decades of peace before Afghanistan gets back to something corresponding to what obtained there in 1975.

I do not think there is any country in the world that has the power to expedite that.


Tyler: Even worse: How can someone ratioally respond to Junger's idiocy? 5.4 million people have died in the Congo during their civil war. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Congo_War

No one--not even Samantha Power--has yelped about our responsibility to protect the Congolese.

Humanitarian interventionalism is the ultimate oxymoron.


Walrus: The cynics realize that "values" can be effective weapons.


Those Congonlese dead are black. Samantha Power is equally unconcerned about the 1,000,000 dead North Koreans, but they died of starvation and their country has both a large army and nuclear weapons so don't expect conern from the R2P crowd.

Charles I

Thanks for the proverb.


I'm coming to the view that US foreign policy is driven by people with a pathological need to be in charge and that policymakers view the world simply as a Risk board. They express their pathology with messianic ravings.

Their pathology is bolstered by pathetic pundits, think tankers and law makers whose low self esteem gets assuaged by being part of the winning tribe and by yearnings for group acceptance that comes from cheering the tribe on. With success, this gets expressed as triumphalism.

It would be nice if these sick personalities could learn to live and let live...unless there is a genuine threat to our ability to do so.


If "they" thought they could get away with engaging us in a massive land war in Africa, we'd be there. As it is, R2P is more utopian globalist nonsense by a bunch of soft bodied idiots who have never faced the sharp end of the bayonet.


It's not a relay race.
Drop the baton.
Stop running.
Walk away.
Look back and see that no one else wants the baton.
No one has to "take over."
No one needs to "take up the American man's burden." Where you say "general agreement, I think you mean legacy media agreement; which brings us back to the who whom question who programs what is acceptable discourse and for whom are the benefits. ( Answer not for the benefit of the USA )
Things that need to be done, will get done.
Some of it ad hoc, some of it by voluntary means.
I.e. the alternative is let people do for themselves as and what they see fit; not force them to accept what the USA sees fit.


Those people stay poor just like they were before we tried to westernize them.


Actually, we don't.

In terms of material foreign aid, whether humanitarian, development, or whatever, US doesn't contribute much. We send armies around on "humanitarian interventions," we send military aid to our allies, we strut around shouting slogans of liberty, but we don't send much money to feed the hungry or clothe the poor.

Of course, the money that the Norwegians, say, send to feed the hungry and clothe the poor doesn't exactly do what it is supposed to do either, in most cases. A lot of it winds up being embezzled by and/or offered up as bribes to warlords, bandits, corrupt politicians, and other such people in 3rd world countries, but that's a different story altogether.


I was thinking of all the things we do by virtue of our role as only remaining superpower, world's richest country and overall great guys, blind fools, and useful dupe with big pockets.

Now that I've thought about things more, it seems to me we spend much more on other first world We countries than anybody else. We have spent trillions on NATO and protecting the rich countries of Asia. We just opened a base in Australia that we are paying for completely but which mostly benefits others.

Much of what is counted as "America's interests" is the interests of multinational companies headquarters in the US, but who only see themselves as American when they want something.

Otherwise, they are solitary sharks trawling the world looking for profit and taking it wherever they can find it. At the time, they are constantly on the lookout for new ways to avoid paying American taxes.


They do if they stay home and continue to get robbed by their elites.

In many cases now, those elites are encouraging their poor to come here and to other, richer foreign countries.

Our own elites try to convince us all that we owe the poor of the world a job and a place at the American table of riches. Of course what they really want is to take advantage of cheap labor and increase the size of the American economy. The fact that GDP per person is going down and that much of the increased economic comes from government spending on education and benefits for low income immigrants is completely overlooked.

For all the noble talk, it looks like the elites around the world are getting much richer and more powerful -- not less.


There's a thousands things we do, much of it because we've been doing it since WWII and haven't rethought our role in the world since the Berlin Wall fell and our percentage of worldwide wealth is much less.

What about the technical aid we sent to Japan a few years ago -- the equipment that only we had?

What about the high cost of pharmaceutical products in the US -- and the low cost in other first world countries? The way the system is structured now, Americans are propping up the medical research and pharmaceutical industry for the world.

When somewhere in the world is devastated by natural disaster don't we and the rest of the world -- at least the first world -- want big ships and lots of help to go out? That expectation is there. There certainly is no reason all the big ticket items should be owned and paid for by us alone, though.

Or do you really mean you want the leadership role we've taken to be just dropped, with no substitutes?

Charles I

Think about it. You don't need Saudi oil. You don't need Israel. For all The Chinese need every drop of oil they can get and will keep ME oil flowing by sheer demand, so your export customers can still function at er, market prices, while what, a quarter of the navy is parked. International institutions the U.S. finds felicitous are not going to disappear on account of any of that.

Of course that would free up a lot of er, "leadership" resources to apply at home for domestic benefit. Given current calibers that might not be such a good thing, your leadership appears to need something to shoot at 24/7, never mind the monitoring fetish.


Yes. Substitutes will develop for anything the USA have done that is profitable, useful, moral and those things the USA does that are painful, evil, vapid will be allowed to go fallow.
Our high tech leadership is slipping; that is inevitable since knowledge cannot be put back into the bottle. The lead times to use knowledge are always shortened by successful spying/intelligence gathering. What we did not willingly sell was stolen by our "friends" and traded to our competitors. More and more of the foreign nationals who graduate from American colleges are returning to their homelands and educating there. In China if you are 1 in a million you have 3000 just like you.
Our meds are overpriced, true, but a trip to Mexico or Canada or India or Thailand can get one better health care at lower cost; citizens of the USA are captive milk cows sold by our government to their crony friends in the pharma and FIRE industries. It was ever thus.
Americans did indeed dig deep to help others, it is called charity and it is voluntary. And since 2008 it has diminished as the middle class has been defenestrated.
Let people do for themselves and they solve problems; meddlesomeness does not solve problems it exacerbates them; and the USA is a meddlesome nation.


That's right, Carlos Slim, all $72 Billion of him, is quite content to send millions of his fellow Mexicans here where they contribute to lower wages and lower benefits for poor Americans due to their competing for low wage jobs. We should send Mr. Slim the bill, or send his fellow citizens back to liberate their own country from the robber barrons.


I think most Americans are like me, before I looked up Mexico and saw that they are something like the world's 13th or 14th richest country by GDP. They assumed all they'd heard about Mexico being poor was true. But it is actually a very rich country compared to the rest of the world.

Boy did that wake me up. It is possible to have a rich country be full of poor people. That is what the US is turning into, right now, yet nobody is paying attention.

And yet nobody says a word. We are continously told that we have a obligation to the poor of Mexico who have managed to get up here while nobody says that to anybody there -- not even the billionaires and millionaires.

Most of the poor and exploited will end up staying where they are; most will not leave. That's just a fact. So all the concentration on making things easier for them to move and reestablish themselves in another country is grossly unfair to the 90%+ of the poor abandoned to their fates where they were born.

We will know when we are serious about immigration reform when we start telling the world "We would love to more people come to the US as visitors but we must discourage most of you from planning on living and working here. Unless you have special jobs skills we need, you won't qualify for a visa. And there will be no future amnesties, so there is no point in coming here illegally."


In an odd way, the poor of the world should stay where they are, so that they can try to change their own political and economic systems, to get their fair share. Dealing with the political, economic, and social problems in US is the business of Americans and no one else, likewise, dealing with the problems in Mexico, Iraq, or Syria is the job for their citizens. By interfering in their affairs--even to the degree of cooperating with their elites dumping their poor across the border--we are not helping them. Will things turns out in these countries as we'd like? Probably not. But, in the end, that's not really our problem (well, we do have a business in Mexico not becoming a problem for us....but that's a different question, slightly.)


I don't know if I'd ever go so far as to say that we are just protecting "corporate" interests, but you are right that we are spending vast sums on those who don't really "need" it and that we rarely think seriously about what our "interests" really are--and what the elites think (which often involve getting into distant and complicated squabbles in foreign lands shouting grandiose but vacuous slogans) and what the public thinks don't match up well...and not so much because the latter don't know (a common lie that the elites tell themselves)...



Take a look at Kabul and Afghanistan before the neocons ruled:

And take a look at Karachi before the neocons got involved:

You should see what Palestine looked like in the mid-40s before Israel ruined it. I can't find the link right now. Art Deco movie houses, beautiful gardens and houses (the Israelis stole the best ones for themselves). Olive gardens and orchards.

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