Beasts of War

     A birthday for a nation, like it is for a person, is a place to mark time. And this year, it seems like a time of great uncertainty.
     Late on Friday before the holiday, President Obama released numbers on civilian casualties from a subset of drone strikes, a military tactic he has championed. He also put in place a set of rules with the purpose of keeping those casualties down.
     In the morphing set of battlefronts and the increasing pace of soft target slaughter, it is easy to forget that there was a time during Obama’s administration when mistakes and civilian casualties from drone strikes were regularly in the news.
     The 2009 drone strike on a wedding party in Yemen that killed 37 civilians gained such notoriety that it has its own Wikipedia page.
     To his great credit, Obama reined in those mistakes. The results over his tenure in office also suggest that drones are now used more frequently to kill individuals in cars and trucks rather than large groups on the ground.
     The change in tactics has inevitably led to less civilian carnage.
     Decades ago, when the Israelis pioneered the tactic of firing missiles at individual leaders while they were in homes or cars, my first reaction was, “That’s assassination.”
     At the time, the word assassination had a strongly negative implication. It was an individual action against a leader, either military or political, that took place outside the battlefield and outside the law. It was dastardly.
     Times have changed. Traditional Cold War rivalries still flare up, but they bring a bit of nostalgia for a more civilized test of national will that involved spies, planes, submarines and saber-rattling. War is now unconventional.
     In that context, assassinations are accepted.
     The release by the Obama administration of the executive order on drones last week coincided with the publication of a CNS story timed for the holiday weekend. It was about two buddies from the Vietnam War, with one successfully campaigning on behalf of the other for a long-deserved Purple Heart.
     The photo especially struck me. It brought back all the craziness of those times, the psychedelic culture alongside mass anti-war demonstrations alongside the hell of the war abroad.
     A Mexican-American stands in worn, wrinkled, green army shirt, with misshapen pockets. A black American stands next to him, bare torso, dog tags, beat-up light-brown shorts, a floppy green hat and dark-shaded specs. Behind them are massive, dull-colored, partially rusted armored personnel carriers.
     Those guys were the grunts, the workmen of the war, the draftees, the machine-gun fodder of political ambition and deception at home.
     In their distant, almost ironic, exhausted expressions, in the enormous, scarred beasts of war behind them, you can see the jungle war they are fighting, the hard, deadly work of killing in close quarters where days and nights ran together for months on end battling a skillful, relentless enemy.
     There were no drones. This was fighting on the ground.
     A few years back, there was a fair amount of revisionism coming from the Republican side, about how the war was winnable and it was only a lack of will that lost it. Anybody who lived through those times, who was subject to draft, knows what a travesty that argument is.
     You have not heard it for a few years now. But the Republican candidate to replace Obama is not far away when he commits a related calumny, criticizing John McCain for being captured by the North Vietnamese.
     At the same time, the opposing Democratic candidate is a hawk, an energetic promoter of military action abroad. She too seems to have forgotten what a dark time in America that was.
     While it seems like a far-off comparison, the long-running wars of the Middle East in their ceaselessness, in the creeping, ever-expanding human cost, in their intractability are starting to remind me of the Vietnam War.
     So many points between the two are inapposite, a desert war as opposed to a jungle war, a theatre spread across much of the globe as opposed to one limited to Southeast Asia, a constantly morphing enemy as opposed to a clear opponent.
     But it is the fact that it never ends.

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