In the last few days we have heard a great deal about the plight of Afghanistan, which is in stark contrast to the last two decades when there has been next to no news reporting from this war-torn and beleaguered nation. The officially recorded quarter of a million lives lost in the last twenty years of western invasion and occupation have mostly happened unseen; the millions more soldiers and civilians who lost their limbs, eyes, genitals or were otherwise mutilated by shrapnel and high explosives and others who fell victim to shadowy CIA-backed death squads have likewise hardly received any mention.
On December 18th 2020, Democracy Now! spoke to Andrew Quilty of The Intercept about his shocking exposé of how CIA-backed death squads in Afghanistan have killed children as young as eight-years old in a series of night raids on madrassas, which are Islamic religious schools:
Yet it is only in the aftermath of America’s shambolic and humiliating exit when suddenly there is any outpouring of expressed concern for the plight of women and children (in particular), as if all the drones and the air strikes and the CIA black sites and Trump’s “mother of all bombs” were their last and only salvation from the admittedly monstrous Taliban. And I say admittedly monstrous, but again, these are strictly speaking our monsters; ones America trained and funded to be the cat’s paw that ultimately defeated the Soviet Union.
As Hillary Clinton admitted an interview to Fox News: “we have helped to create the problem we are now fighting”:
More recently the western powers have trained, funded and also provided air support for comparable and arguably worse Islamist factions in order to bring about regime change in Libya and to attempt another overthrow in Syria – if you’ve never heard of it, look up Timber Sycamore. This is how western foreign policy operates covertly today.
For a better perspective on moral responsibility, here is Noam Chomsky’s response to a concerned pro-war critic speaking at a forum held on October 18th 2001 (the war began on October 7th) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
Click here to watch the full debate. The excerpt above is from 3:50 mins of the second part which is a Q+A session.
The extreme levels of hypocrisy and ahistorical revisionism surrounding the Afghan War (so often downplayed as merely an “intervention”) make the task of unravelling the truth a difficult one, so I shall leave it to two US war veterans turned activists to supply the details.
Mike Prysner served in Iraq and afterwards became co-founder of March Forward!, an organisation of active-duty members of the U.S. military and veterans that encourages current active-duty service personnel to resist deployment. Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. A veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, he also served in seven other conflict areas.
In an interview with Katie Halper (embedded below), Mike Prysner addresses a range of questions that cover the true historical background to conflict, the serious issues around women’s rights, and gives valuable insight into how for more than a decade the war was officially but secretly acknowledged as a failure. In more sardonic tone, Stan Goff gives praise to Biden for finally ending the perpetual war and considers the true repercussions of the US withdrawal. Please skip down the page for these excellent pieces.
Update: On Thursday 19th, Novara Media spoke with British Labour MP Clive Lewis, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who did not get a chance to speak during the previous day’s parliamentary debate:
My purpose here is instead to scrutinise the latent ideology that actually drove the West into this well-named “graveyard of empires” and that entirely inflamed the “war on terror”. Once this is properly understood, it becomes clear that as Joe Biden confessed in his recent White House speech on Monday 16th:
Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.
Of course, for these candid admissions, Biden has received furious bipartisan opprobrium from the usual hand-wringing politicians and media alike, although this part of his statement is nothing more than the unvarnished truth.
Moreover, when George W Bush told the world two decades ago that America was hunting down Osama Bin Laden “wanted: dead or alive”, he was clearly playing both to an audience traumatised by the attacks of 9/11 and one brought up on Hollywood stories where the guys with the white hats are unimpeachably good and always win.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the neo-con faction who seized power were eager to launch a global US-led military offensive on the pretext of a “new Pearl Harbor” that neatly fitted the one outlined in their own document Rebuilding America’s Defenses published almost precisely one year earlier.
Furthermore, if the Afghanis were the immediate victims of this neo-con strategy that got the ball rolling on “the New American Century”, then even from the outset it was abundantly clear that the next target would be Iraq. In a letter to President Bush dated September 20th (scarcely more than a week after 9/11), the neo-con think tank Project for the New American Century (PNAC) led by William Kristol and Rober Kagan already implored the president to ramp up his “war on terrorism”, specifying:
We agree that a key goal, but by no means the only goal, of the current war on terrorism should be to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and to destroy his network of associates. To this end, we support the necessary military action in Afghanistan and the provision of substantial financial and military assistance to the anti-Taliban forces in that country.
Continuing in the next paragraph under the heading “Iraq”:
We agree with Secretary of State [Colin] Powell’s recent statement that Saddam Hussein “is one of the leading terrorists on the face of the Earth….” It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
Clearly then, the neo-cons were not interested in “justice” (the official spin) but determined to embark on a vast neo-imperialist project that in their own terms would bring about a Pax Americana. However even this is a lie, of course, as they knew perfectly well too, since peace was never a serious concern. But the neo-cons unflinchingly justified every deception in terms their intellectual progenitor Leo Strauss espoused: for these were “noble lies”.
Significantly, the neo-cons are the direct heirs of Strauss and not only because Paul Wolfowitz was one of his most notable students. Strauss’s uncompromising worldview is the main inspiration to the whole neo-con ideology. In order to better understand their methods and motives, therefore, we must take a closer look at Straussian philosophy.
In 2003, Danny Postel, who is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and former senior editor of openDemocracy, produced an extended article based on an interview with Shadia Drury, professor of political theory at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and a leading scholarly critic of Leo Strauss.
The article entitled “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” is a really excellent one and its significance is very much resonant today – why? Because although the discussion surrounds the illegal Iraq invasion, it considers the motives of the same cast of neo-cons who launched the “war on terror” against Afghanistan; both conflicts clearly intended to deliver corresponding geopolitical ends.
Of course, it more or less goes without saying that the “war on terror” was an absolute godsend for the military-industrial complex. As America’s most decorated general Smedley Butler told us: war is a racket! – which is always the bottom line.
But what of the ideology behind the neo-cons and the importance of Leo Strauss? Well, the key to following their methods, and to seeing why their approach has been so succesful in inculcating a pro-war consciousness amongst the liberal classes, lies in understanding their basic stratification of society into three layers: the wise few (the elite, and in their terms, rightful rulers), the vulgar many (the majority), and the gentlemen. Crucially, it is role of the gentlemen to be the unwitting enablers, who, according to this scheme, although well-intentioned are simply useful idiots who are manipulated to achieve the desired ends for the ruling elite. As Shadia Drury says:
“There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the higher pleasures, which amount to consorting with their puppies or young initiates.
“The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that is, the illusions of the cave [reference to Plato’s cave]. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.
“The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.”
“For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.”
Drury then considers Strauss’s immediate philosophical influences, before summarising his general political outlook as follows:
“Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and creature comforts. Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.
“This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.
“I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.”
Understood in this context, it is perfectly easy to see why the neo-cons would be keen to initiate conflicts that might then go on indefinitely. Although Drury herself offers a caveat saying that factions within the neo-cons may also have somewhat different aspirations; ones that more closely align with those ‘the gentlemen’ are in fact encouraged to believe:
“I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these idealists and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.
“I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching, which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the nocturnal or covert teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.”
To sum up then, the chief architects of the “war on terror” which began in Afghanistan hold views that are (in Drury’s own terms) wholly fascistic, although into that mix we must admit that some do believe in globalised neoliberalism. Soft or hard, the imperialist desire is both undeniable and unrestrained.
I have appended an unabridged version of their “guide to his influence on US neo-conservatism” that takes the form of Q+A interview with all highlights and links retained at the end and recommend reading it all – indeed following the link to read the original article.
Understanding Afghanistan with Anti-war Iraq Veteran Mike Prysner
On August 16th, political commentator Katie Halper invited Mike Prysner, an Iraq veteran, anti-war activist and organiser, producer of Empire Files and co-host of the Eyes Left Podcast to share his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan, what needed to happen, and what needs to happen next. Their discussion features in the first 45 minutes of the video upload embedded below. I have also produced a full transcript with relevant links included.
Katie Halper: [from 2:05 mins]
I just wanted to know your perspective on this as someone who was an anti-war former soldier, a current veteran – I guess you’re always a veteran – what you thought of what’s happening in Afghanistan. If you could just set up where we are right now and I guess the question I have is what could have been done? What should have been done? And what needs to happen now?
Mike Prysner: [from 2:30 mins]
I just want to say from the outset that I wasn’t in Afghanistan – I was in Iraq. I joined the army two months before the September 11th attacks in 2001, so I witnessed the Afghanistan war from an inside perspective. From the beginning, even though I was sent to, as Obama called it, ‘the dumb war’, instead of ‘the smart war’ which is Afghanistan: that whole framing…
But I’ve been super-engaged in this issue for the duration because after I separated from the military in 2005 and became a part of the anti-war movement, since then [I’ve been] very much a part of organising around the Afghanistan war specifically – so mobilisations for the anniversary of Afghanistan, but in particular, working with active-duty soldiers who were deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. And so, I got that inside perspective of organising with Afghanistan veterans who were then returning to the country, helping them resist orders to go, and still to this day I’m in touch with that community.
I know a lot of people normally don’t talk about Afghanistan – a lot of people are talking about it now who never talked about it before. But my engagement with the issue of Afghanistan was always around creating media content and agitation directed at active-duty soldiers who were about to deploy. So having to follow the issue very closely because we were literally on a military bases talking to soldiers who were having orders to go – and talking to them about their options for why they should not go, and all the political and strategic reasons why they shouldn’t as well.
My take on what’s happening now is… what we’re seeing now is what we knew back in Obama’s first term. You know I think in 2009-2010 there was probably still some hope among the Pentagon establishment that the war could be turned around. I mean the Taliban were dispersed within the first months of the US invasion, but then once they started mounting a comeback there was probably some belief in the Pentagon brass that they could turn the war around and emerge victorious.
But by 2011, it was clear to the military establishment – the top generals, the commanders, all of them – they knew that they couldn’t win. They knew that they could never defeat the Taliban. They knew that the only possible victory that the US military and US government could get out of Afghanistan was putting enough military pressure on the Taliban where the Taliban would enter a power-sharing agreement. Where they’d say okay we get 50% of the new government and the US-backed puppet government will get 50%.
So that since about 2010 that’s what the US has been pursuing. The troop surge in Afghanistan – all these massive strategies that led to large numbers of people dying on US and Afghan sides and the Nato side – all of that was on the understanding that the US couldn’t actually defeat the Taliban. All they could do was maybe give them enough of a bloody nose where the Taliban would concede and say maybe we’ll do a 50/50 government. So that’s really been the goal of the war for the entire time.
You know in 2011, is when there is this major report came out by a guy named Lieutenant-Colonel [Daniel] Davis, and he was tasked by the Pentagon to travel to every province in Afghanistan – travel 9,000 miles across the country – and give an honest assessment of how everything was going. And he came back and he went out to the media and he said ‘we’ve got to get out now’. He’s like ‘I’ve seen the war more than anyone else – for a longer period of years than anyone else – and we have lost and there is no possibility for us to win’. I mean this is back in 2011 that he did this.
From that point on the Pentagon knew that there was no military victory against the Taliban and the best they could do was unity government. Even that seemed almost impossible to accomplish because the Afghan puppet forces were not reliable, they weren’t capable, and you know the Taliban were just a strong resistance force. And that knew then too that if there was a US withdrawal the very situation we are seeing today would happen.
You know in 2019, we had the Pentagon Papers [aka Afghanistan Papers], the bombshell revelation that came out, which made a little bit of a media splash but not much – you know Joe Biden was very much implicated in the Pentagon Papers as one of the people who helped cover up how badly the Afghanistan war was going. He got one debate question the Primary that was hammering him for it, but he never really had to answer for that.
For those who don’t know, really what the Pentagon Papers revealed was that, particularly throughout the Obama administration, all of the generals were going to the White House and saying ‘by every metric we have lost the war – by every metric’ and the Obama administration went back and said ‘well create a metric that has us winning the war’. So they created all these false charts for progress of oh, we built this many schools compared to five years before, so that shows we’re winning! They just created all these fake rationales to show there was progress. To deceive the American people into thinking there was some hope for a victory in Afghanistan, while they knew all along they were just lying to the American people.
So, for example, the maps that we are seeing now of how quickly the Taliban took over – where you see the provinces outlined – and saying two months ago the Afghan government controlled all of these provinces and now it’s all Taliban controlled – I mean most of those have been under Taliban control forever – as the Pentagon Papers show, the US is just lying about what provinces the US-backed Afghan government controlled. So this has been, of course, a dire situation for the US for a long time.
For the United States they know that it looks bad for the image of the empire. A war that they can’t win – to just be bogged down for twenty years in a military quagmire where we can talk about how badly they were losing – but when they try to go out into the countryside they are hammered and kicked back to the main bases and then they could have dealt with maybe this endless stalemate situation, but that looks back for the empire. And so for a long time the Pentagon has acknowledged that they need to retreat. They need to leave.
And really this is what happened under Obama, when Obama announced his troop surge – his flooding of soldiers into every remote area of Afghanistan – like bulking up troop numbers to 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan bolstered by a lot of Nato forces too – because it wasn’t just a defeat for the US but every other major imperialist army was a part of this. You know when Obama announced we are going to do this troop surge but then we’re going to leave in two years – announcing the end of the war – they knew that they are going to be retreating and so it’s very similar to the Vietnam war where once the White House and the Pentagon knew ‘we’ve lost – we can’t win’ instead of just saying ‘well if we’ve lost and we can’t win and the outcome of a conquest by our enemies is the same no matter what, [so] why don’t we just leave right now and stop killing people and stop having our own people [killed]’ but the hubris of the American political machine doesn’t allow that.
I mean what President wants to admit defeat at the hands of an insurgency that’s using rifles from a hundred years ago? No-one wants to be in that position of admitting defeat and so what we’ve seen over the past more than a decade has really been a slow-motion retreat by the US empire. Knowing that eventually they are going to fully leave, but like Nixon did, the strategy of ‘peace through honour’, meaning ‘yes we’ve lost, we’ve got to end the war, but we’re going to kill a bunch more people on our way out, so it doesn’t seem like the empire has been defeated so badly’.
So that’s really been the strategy [with] an acceptance that the US would eventually leave…
[connection problems briefly cut the conversation]
Katie Halper: [from 10:40 mins]
I was listening to you on Brian Becker’s show on his podcast [embedded immediately below], and I don’t know if I ever knew this, or I don’t know if my politics were so naive that I didn’t think this was a big deal, but I didn’t realise that… the Taliban said that they were willing to give up Osama Bin Laden and the United States said ‘we refuse to negotiate with terrorists’ – again, it shouldn’t have been shocking, but it was shocking. Can you talk about that and what the significance is and what it reveals about the United States’ motives in Afghanistan?
Mike Prysner: [from 11:20 mins]
Yeah. Well, it’s important to remind people that the Taliban had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks – no role in it. Of course, Bin Laden from being essentially an operative and ally of the United States through the war in the 1980s and funded by the United States, you know had training camps and a base of operation for his al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. And maybe there was some overlap with Taliban people going to the al-Qaeda schools. You know they’re in a war with a group called the Northern Alliance and so they would send some of their soldiers to al-Qaeda training camps that existed in Afghanistan.
But the Taliban did not support the 9/11 attacks. They condemned the 9/11 attacks, so it was a shock to them when all of a sudden the US was talking about the Taliban and at the time the Taliban was trying very hard to prevent that from happening.
And we’re not just talking about this ragtag group that’s just issuing statements from the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had a robust press network and so they’d have spokespeople who would give press conferences in English in countries in the region and would be talking directly to the United States saying ‘we’re trying to negotiate; we don’t support what happened; we want to find a resolution’ and they even said in these press conferences ‘the United States used to call us freedom fighters, not too long ago – and then all of a sudden we’re terrorists and they won’t negotiate with us’.
So that is what happened, as you recounted it Katie. The Taliban offered a solution where the US didn’t have to invade and occupy the government in Afghanistan but that wasn’t really the motives for the US going into Afghanistan. The US didn’t really invade Afghanistan because they thought that was the only way to destroy al-Qaeda and get Osama Bin Laden. They easily could have done that through other methods.
The reason that they wanted to invade Afghanistan is because the Taliban weren’t subservient collaborators to the United States. I mean Clinton in the ’90s had tried very hard to build relationships. He didn’t care that the Taliban lynched people when they came to power in the ’90s. He just cared that maybe they could sign an oil contract together. Unocal, the oil company, flew delegations of Taliban leaders to Texas to stay in their ranches and discuss plans for oil pipelines.
But the Taliban wasn’t that interested in that kind of development and they weren’t a subservient client state to the United States. So any country that is in its own orbit – [enjoys] its own independence – and isn’t a client to US corporations and subservient to the US government, they get targeted for destruction. And so when 9/11 happened, the US government said ‘great, this is perfect’ because we’ve been trying to negotiate with these guys and they won’t let us build this pipeline, or they won’t let us have a military base, so we’ll just overthrow them, set up our own puppet government – move over to Iraq, overthrow them, set up a puppet government, move over to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Sudan – all the countries that were on their list for overthrow after the 9/11 attacks.
So that was the reason in the first place. I mean that’s really what’s behind it. It was never really about al-Qaeda. And it was never really about giving the Afghan people a better life from the Taliban. But to answer your question, yes, it was a totally avoidable war in the first place – there was no reason to do – but if you can remember at that time, I mean support for it was high.
[And 9/11] was used as a way for the US to achieve its other objectives, which is proven by the fact that we ended up in Iraq a year later, which had less to do with 9/11 than the Taliban.
Katie Halper: [from 15:25 mins]
There’s a kind of parallel between the way people frame the war in Afghanistan with the first Iraq War. There’s a whole group of liberals who consider the first Iraq War, ‘the good Gulf War’, and the war in Afghanistan, ‘the good response to 9/11’. As you have pointed out, and others have pointed out, that’s not the case and… I don’t know if you know about Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez – they started “not in our name” – their son Greg was in one of the towers when he was killed, and they immediately knew that the US government was going to try to use this to justify a war and they wrote a letter saying “Not in our son’s name”… you know, he didn’t die so that you could use his name to invade another country.
And you know what she told me…? She told me that they wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that they didn’t publish. Can you imagine? Right after 9/11, you have one of the parents of the people who died saying ‘don’t go to war in our son’s name’ – can you imagine the gall of the New York Times not even printing that op-ed? Like not even seeing the newsworthiness of it? They’re such ideologues that they would not publish that.
Mike Prysner: [from 16:50 mins]
The first major demonstration against war on Afghanistan occurred, I think it was four days after the September 11th attacks. It was about 40,000 people – so it’s not a small crowd. The slogan of the march: the banner was “war won’t bring our loved ones back”, and the march was led by people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks [Guardian report from Sept 20th ] .
And then all the headlines about this fairly significant anti-war demonstration after 9/11 was like ‘people rally in support of terrorists’ and ‘people rally in support of negotiating with terrorists and not fighting terrorism’ and things like that. So it just gives you a window into the war fervour in the country post-9/11, which continued for quite a long time.
I mean even in the anti-war movement there was an entire sector that supported the Afghanistan war. Even in Veterans Against the War, it was controversial – it wasn’t okay to talk about Afghanistan too, in fact it was too alienating to lots of veterans who were in the anti-war movement – ‘I joined the army to go fight in Afghanistan, I didn’t join to go fight in Iraq’. It was a significant faction that had to be battled against for a long time.
And so that’s [what] Obama essentially campaigned on: he campaigned on the intense opposition to the Iraq War, but kind of this idea: ‘weren’t we supposed to go fight in Afghanistan…? And then immediately we went to Iraq and then we lost the war in Afghanistan’. So Obama’s thing was, we’re going to get out of Iraq (‘the dumb war’) and then we’re going to win the war in Afghanistan. And that got a lot of support from liberal-minded people as well.
But that’s when that new era began that really defined the Afghanistan War. The US said: ‘okay, we were slacking, focussing too much on Iraq, so now we’re going to get everyone out of Iraq (not everyone) but we’re going to get a good portion of people out of Iraq and send them right to Afghanistan, and then we’re going to try to completely overwhelm the Taliban’. And even when the United States had an insane number of troops there – and they were everywhere in Afghanistan – there was really no place where they really could win or beat back the Taliban. So I think that’s one of the hidden histories of the Afghanistan War.
I mean you have the US outposts out in the middle of the countryside with [about] 40 soldiers there – 40 US troops – this is what a normal day would be like: you would get up (and this is just recounting from countless friends of mine) and you would leave the gates of your base to go on a patrol that had no purpose other than to say ‘hey, we’re here! we’re patrolling this area’.
You get a hundred yards off the base, if you’re lucky, when you start getting shot at by people that you do not see – they are a thousand yards away just harassing you with sniper fire and machine gun fire – at some point on your little walk, your little pointless walk through a bunch of fields that have no purpose to walk through for any reason, some will get blown up by an IED because you’re walking on paths every day – and you know the signature wound of the Afghan War around that time (the surge time) was triple amputations; so losing usually two legs and one arm and your genitalia (I think when the troop surge happened there was about a 92% increase in wounds to genitalia – that became really the most common wound)… If you kept your legs you probably lost a bunch more flesh down there.
So every day you’d go on these completely meaningless, pointless patrols, where basically the point was just to get shot at so then you know who to shoot back at, which most of the time they didn’t do anyway. Then you’d go back to your base at night, and then at night you would just come under heavy assault by missiles and mortars and indirect fire. And sometimes you’d have hundreds of Taliban fighters assaulting a little outpost that had 40 US soldiers. And this was happening all over the country… and in a lot of cases you had Taliban fighters getting over the wall, and being inside the US base and being killed inside the US base.
The job of US soldiers then was basically to be bait for these Taliban to come – it was exactly like the Vietnam War: you’re on a hilltop [and] you’re just bait for the Taliban to attack, and your job is to survive long enough for air support to get to you. So you start getting attacked, you call in air support, it takes 30 minutes or so for the Apache helicopters, the A-10s, [and] the B-52 bombers to come in and just level the area where you’re being attacked from with heavy munitions.
So that really defined the troop surge era of the war. I mean it was just a complete failure from a military standpoint and it was just completely senseless bloodshed. There’s even a lot of rebellion and opposition among soldiers who are very pro-military and pro-war – blowing the whistle on all this, just saying there’s no reason for us to do this; there’s no reason for us to go on these convoys; no reason to go on these patrols. We’re just meant to be bait. We’re just meant to be sitting ducks.
All of those deaths then were just completely pointless. And then the US realised, you know this strategy doesn’t work at all. They retreated from all those areas all across the country – you know places like Korangal Valley [nicknamed “The Valley of Death”] which was ‘the most strategically important valley’ of the Afghanistan War. Like 120 US soldiers died defending just this one valley and then at the end of this two year period of huge battles there, the Pentagon said: ‘you know what this valley doesn’t actually matter at all, we’re just going to go back here’. So that really was emblematic of the war.
So then the US pulled back to its main bases and that defined the war in the post-surge era when US casualties went down, but that’s because they basically had retreated from most of the country already [and] were just holed up on the big bases, where they are operating through proxy forces and special operations. And then the ironic thing about that too is that the US said: the US casualties are getting too serious, we need to just hide out on the bases and send our proxy forces out. Well, when they tried that strategy the number one killer of US troops became the Afghan soldiers who they were training just killing them.
So you had tons of people who were either Taliban or just anti-US joining the Afghan army and then within a week they’re sitting there with US soldiers getting trained on how to shoot, they just turn their guns around and kill all the US soldiers training them. So then it became even too strategically untenable to have US soldiers training troops back in these supposedly super-safe and secure bases. So from every angle it was a total military defeat. Mind you we’re talking about a decade ago that it was that bad, and they knew at that point we’re not going to make any more progress.
You know Trump came in and thought he could win the war by taking bombing to a whole new level, and that was really Trump’s legacy in Afghanistan. Although he campaigned on ending the war, he was responsible for more civilian casualties for two years in a row than any other previous year of the war, just through air strikes. And that says a lot because Obama was in charge of the troop surge. A lot of people died in the troop surge. Trump killed more people just by changing the rules of engagement so they could really drop huge munitions everywhere in the country. And that didn’t do anything either.
I mean I guess it got the Taliban to the table in the sense that they would accept this deal which they did accept – and the Taliban spokesman before we started talking said we are going to honour our commitment to not allow terrorist attacks against the United States from Afghanistan, and we’re not going to punish anyone in the former government – it’s kind of sticking to the Doha Agreement so they have some kind of legitimacy.
I think the important thing is that the generals, the Pentagon, the White House; they’ve always known that this was inevitable anyway, unless we just stayed forever holed up on a base in Kabul. But what we didn’t have was a president that was willing to say: ‘I’m going to end the war and I accept the responsibility for it looking bad when the Taliban comes in to take over’.
And it’s funny that Biden is that person, because Biden doesn’t have any guts. He never has been advocating for withdrawing from Afghanistan because it’s the right thing [and] it is the right thing. A full, complete and immediate withdrawal of US troops is the right thing. Biden never advocated for that. He always advocated staying until the Afghan government was stable enough to stand on its own, which was always a pipedream.
So I think he was just kind of the fall guy, you know. He came in after campaigning on staying in Afghanistan – criticising Trump’s Taliban agreement and saying that we need to leave 3,000–4,000 troops because we can’t abandon the Afghan government. After a couple of months in office, he’s like: ‘actually, you know what? we’re going to leave Afghanistan fully’. So he does press conferences now and [he gets]: ‘what do you mean the Taliban are going to take over the government? what are you talking about?’
So instead of having a president saying ‘finally I’m willing to do the right thing even though it’s going to end up aesthetically bad, it’s still a war that we need to get out of’, he didn’t do that for that reason… and the proof that Biden thought it was going to look good for him – ‘I’m the one who ended the war that the Americans are tired of’, which they are; polls show that about 70% of Americans support the withdrawal – Biden actually thought he could have a 9/11 victory lap celebration. And they’ve been planning this event for 9/11 where he could boast that our administration ended the war: we did it; we ended a long, unpopular forever war. I don’t think they’re going to be doing that celebration any more.
And even if back in April they were getting some good press around this: for ending the war; people want the war to end. You know this is maybe a good thing. Kamala Harris came out and leaked to the press back in April: ‘I helped convince Biden to do a complete withdrawal’ and ‘the last person Biden talked to before making his decision was me, Kamala Harris’; trying to take credit because she anticipated that the story was actually going to look good for the Biden administration.
I think now that the press is pretty negative – it’s a pretty humiliating, embarrassing defeat for the US that their puppet forces fell so dramatically – but the Pentagon knew. You had Pentagon insiders weeks ago saying the Taliban will probably take over within 30 days. And there was a real disconnect between what Biden and Harris were projecting out to the public and what the actual Pentagon officials were telling them.
Katie Halper: [from 27:35 mins]
So why is the withdrawal happening when it’s happening?
Mike Prysner: [from 27:40 mins]
I think the US really just needed to get out. I mean obviously the US is going to stay engaged in some way. They’re going to continue with probably bombing Afghanistan whenever they feel like it; just like they did a B-52 bombing just a week ago against a school and a health clinic and killed about 20 civilians. There’s still going to be CIA operatives and proxy forces on the ground – you know the death squads that have been terrorising the country for 20 years. They are of course still going to be there.
But the US lost and I think a lot people just thought well there’s money to be made in the Afghanistan War and so they’re going to stay forever. So job of the state (which includes the military establishment) is to advance the collective interests of the ruling class, right? – so yes, there are particular industries (the weapons manufacturers, the mining companies, energy companies) that probably aren’t happy with the withdrawal. But it’s not about this or that sector of the ruling class that matters, it’s what collectively is good for the empire; what’s collectively good for American capitalism and American imperialism.
And so the state [and] military establishment calculated that ‘you know we’re not really achieving our objectives here’. We can’t have a puppet government because the Taliban are too powerful. We can’t defeat the Taliban. And this idea of well we can be there to steal Afghanistan’s mineral resources – well, how are you going to build a mine if you’re coming under attack by the Taliban constantly? And they knew that it was never going to be resolved. They were never going to be able to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, or mine Afghanistan, so long as they were in a war with the Taliban.
So they figured we can get out of Afghanistan and then just do what we do with every country: we negotiate with them; sanction them if they don’t do what we want; bomb them if they don’t do what we want; but try to get something out of the situation. Because they knew that staying and fighting endlessly wasn’t going to. So they felt that the time had finally come. They had a president who was willing to – whether he was conscious of it or not – bear the brunt of all the negative press that’s going to come down. And then they’re going to treat the Taliban government like they do others that they try to get something out of who, you know, they don’t approve of everything they do, but well as long as you’ll meet our strategic interests we’ll work with you, and if you don’t we’ll just bomb you.
Katie Halper: [from 30:15 mins]
And what do you say to people who are arguing that women are going to be especially vulnerable? I’m not talking about cynical people who have shitty politics. I’m talking about people who really are in good faith worried about the civilian population. What’s your response to that?
Mike Prysner: [from 30:35 mins]
Sure well, the backwardness that exists there, first of all is a construct of the United States. It was the legacy of US intervention in the country that even brought to prominence these reactionary forces; these right-wing forces. I mean they are completely born from the US intervention in the ’80s. So first off, the situation for women in Afghanistan is because of the United States in the first place. So the idea that it could be solved by continued US intervention is just also kind of absurd.
Everyone talks about the Taliban’s treatment of women but the Afghan puppet government was also really bad towards women. And that was never really scandalous in the media that the Afghan puppet government had almost the same policies towards women as the Taliban…
To understand that the majority of civilian casualties – for people who care about women in Afghanistan – are from US air strikes, and US forces, and US proxy forces. So it’s kind of disingenuous to say the US military can play some sort of role of protecting women in Afghanistan. But how many women have been killed by US air strikes over the last 20 years? A lot.
The US government doesn’t care about that. They’re happy to work with Saudi Arabia. They’re happy to work with other countries that have horrible repressive policies towards women. And they will be happy to work with the Taliban, as long as the Taliban say ‘hey, we’re ready to work with you’, the US government [in] Washington will forget about all of the criticisms they have of the Taliban’s treatment of women.
And just one thing I’ll say about the conduct of US forces in Afghanistan. There is an expose by The Intercept. It was covered on Democracy Now! I think the Washington Post did a story on it also. But the CIA, you know these Special Activities Divisions – the CIA soldier, ground troops – did a couple of operations where they went to religious schools in Afghanistan. They rounded up these children – some of them were as young as eight-years old, nine-years old – they took them all into one room together and then they executed them.
I mean this is Americans – CIA soldiers, ground troops – who were executing children. Shooting children in the head to create the sense of terror that if you one day – you know, this is what happens if you go to a religious school that could one day feed people into the ranks of the Taliban army. And that’s pretty brutal. That’s pretty representative of the conduct of Afghan military, Afghan special operations, US special operations. I mean summary executions were so, so commonplace, especially by special operations, US and CIA and others.
So the idea that an occupying military force that is carrying out over the last 20 years these type of actions can be some sort of force that can protect people is just false. Afghanistan can [move] forward; it can move towards progress; just like so many other countries that are plagued with the backwardness of just the impact of US imperialism. They can’t begin to move forward – they can’t begin to progress – until they solve that main contradiction, which is the contradiction with imperialism; an occupying foreign army.
So any [progressive] forces in Afghanistan – women’s activism – none of that will be able to get momentum or steam to push Afghanistan in the direction that it needs to go socially if there’s a war in the country between an occupying imperialist power – multiple ones – and an insurgent force that’s fighting it – that gets pretty popular fighting it, because most people don’t like the foreign occupying troops.
Of course we want to see social progress in Afghanistan, but that is a chapter that has to start with the elimination of an occupying imperialist force – when that exists it sucks up everything [and] becomes the main problem in the country. And I think now that that’s gone, it opens up an entirely new space for there to be social progress.
And the last thing I’ll say is I don’t want to paint any kind of rosy picture of the Taliban, or make any optimistic predictions about the kind of government that they’re going to impose on the country, but I will say that one of the recent statements by the Taliban was saying ‘we want to create a unity government’, and even said specifically ‘we believe in the right of women to get an education and so forth’ and so they seem to be trying to have some kind of PR around the fact that ‘we’re not what everyone says we are, we’re not going to do things that are objectionable, we’re going to be a legitimate government of a sovereign country on the world’s stage’.
So I don’t want to give that too much credence – I mean we’ll have to see – but that’s also the kind of thing that you don’t see in the dire projections. Not only that but also the impact on women by the US occupation.
Katie Halper: [from 35:55 mins]
Yes, that’s a really important point, and the civilian deaths are something that don’t really get talked about.
Can you also share what changed your politics? I mean you were in the army, so what changed your politics? Why are you anti-war now? And what were your politics like when you enlisted?
Mike Prysner: [from 36:15 mins]
Well like I said, I joined before 9/11, so it was just a different climate. Everyone I was in training with, everyone was just like ‘we’re not going to have to go to war’. Like the last war in our memory was the Gulf War when barely anyone went and all of the soldiers who died – like 99% – died from friendly fire: everyone blowing themselves up!
So there wasn’t really a consciousness about ‘oh, we’re going to go to war’. The memory of Vietnam was [that] that was the way wars were fought in the past, whereas they aren’t fought this way anymore. So everyone in my generation who joined was like ‘ah, we’re never going to go to war’.
I think the Iraq War in particular was just so outrageous, so heinous, that it didn’t matter how much propaganda and racism we were fed. I mean being in Iraq as an occupying soldier, pretty quickly you see that everything Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were saying on TV when you were going were just complete lies and that there was no justification…
For me I think that the thing that turned me around – which was the thing for most soldiers, because thousands of active-duty people turned against the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War too, but predominantly the Iraq War – is realising we’d be doing the same thing if we were Iraqi. And seeing what US forces were doing in the country.
I mean even if they weren’t just driving around shooting random people – which was happening – just being there, just being this kind of messed up occupying force, you know imposing a new government on people, subjecting people to checkpoints and home raids and all of these things – everyone I was with was basically like: ‘if I was Iraqi I’d be shooting at American forces’. You know who wouldn’t? It was like Red Dawn – everyone’s like this is like Red Dawn, except that we’re the bad guys!
So it wasn’t a big leap for people to not only to see through the propaganda, but identify with the people that we were told were enemies – and to see a great deal of commonality between the Iraqi people and ourselves. That’s really what moved me was feeling an intense brotherhood and kinship and commonality with the people that I was interacting with every day as an occupying soldier and understanding.
You know it reached the point where we’d be getting attacked and I’d be [thinking] I support this even though I might die, you know I definitely support that this is happening. Because I’d become so disgusted with what the Iraqi people had been made to live under.
And so I think that that actually happens in every war that the US wages, and that’s really the history of US intervention in every war – I mean going back to the 1800s [with] US occupation of the Philippines and so forth, you had soldiers who basically switched sides. I think that’s going to be the case in future wars also, but it’s also part of the history of the Afghanistan War. Large numbers of Afghanistan veterans became fighters and activists against it and they’re as much a part of the history as the history that’s going to be written for us.
After Obama ended the Iraq War, you know he declared this new national holiday: I thnk it was called ‘Freedom Day’ or something; marking the end of the Iraq War. And just laid out: this is the legacy of the Iraq War. The White House gave their own convoluted narrative history of the Iraq War, which was completely false and fake.
So it’s up to people like us to make sure they don’t do the same thing with the Afghanistan War. They’re going to try to rewrite the narrative, rewrite the history of what happened, what US forces did, but of course it’s going to bear no real resemblance to what really happened, and that’s up to grassroots independent media to make sure that stuff is still on the record.
Katie Halper: [from 40:10 mins]
A lot of people are talking about the poppy fields. Do you know what the significance of those are and the motives of the United States?
Mike Prysner: [from 40:25 mins]
Yeah, Afghanistan is like the biggest heroin producer. I mean it wasn’t until the US invasion. The Taliban had strict rules against cultivation of opium and so they had eradicated most of the opium production in the country. The US comes in and I think there’s a lot of speculation that the CIA wanted the opium because it was using it for dark money for black ops, and there probably was some degree of that.
The Taliban and the US basically allowed the cultivation of poppy in the country. The Taliban because it was a big money-maker. They had moral objection to it, but when you’re fighting a war against not only the United States, but all of the Nato powers, all the big imperialist countries, and all of their technological advance, it helps to have, you know, a few million dollars a week rolling in in heroin money.
But also the US allowed the heroin production because the US is stationed in all these middle-of-nowhere areas in Afghanistan; they’re having to have the loyalty of local farmers [as] people that they want to trust and say don’t let the Taliban put IEDs on our path. Tell us if there are insurgents who are going to come kill us. So in order to maintain good relationships with farmers in the countryside, they had to not just let them grow opium, but protect the opium.
And so you’ll hear any soldier who was stationed in the area where they were growing opium – there’d be paths where there would be IEDs on them, where you know if you walk down this path you’re going to get blown up – then there’s the opium field where you know if we walk through the field there’s probably not a good chance that there’s going to be an IED because where would you put them, it’s such a huge field? But they would get in trouble for walking through the opium field, because then the farmer would get mad and then they would call the commanders and the commanders would say ‘don’t walk through the opium fields’.
So then who knows how many people are walking around right now, or who are not walking around, [but] in wheelchairs or missing arms and legs, missing their genitals, simply because they didn’t want to walk through the opium fields because they would make someone [mad] who the commander thought was strategically important. So that speaks to the absurdity of the war the entire time.
The US of course would have liked to have a puppet government in Afghanistan – you know big pharma buys opium from places like India – I mean it is a commodity on the market; the US doesn’t really grow it itself. So of course the US, if they had won the Afghanistan War, would have thought ‘oh great, now we have a supply of opium that’s under our own jurisdiction’. And so yes, that was probably one of the ideal outcomes for the US war on the country – not just the oil industry, not just the mineral industry, not just the defence industry, but big pharma had a lot to gain from it also.
So I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of opposition in the media. In the corporate media there’s a lot of anger about the withdrawal right now. Number one, because it’s just humiliating and makes the US look bad, and so they’re all mad that it happened in such a disastrous way. But there are sectors of the ruling class that are pissed that they are going to miss out on a huge cash crop unless they can have some kind of long-shot deal with the Taliban.
It’s funny because normally the media are just stenographers of the Pentagon, but it’s more that they’re just supporters of war whatever war it is. Because the Pentagon wants to leave: this is the Pentagon’s plan, and so it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the entirety of the establishment media, and all these big talking heads, go against the wishes of pretty much the entire Pentagon establishment is when they’re actually pulling back from a war. So it made me reevaluate that they don’t just repeat everything the Pentagon says, but [only] when it’s pushing more war around the world.
Katie Halper: [from 44:15 mins]
Yes, that’s really interesting.
And finally, [a listener] asks “isn’t this withdrawal to help with the new cold war with China?”
Mike Prysner: [from 44:20 mins]
Oh, absolutely. I mean that’s probably the most important thing about this.
When Obama came into office, he became very critical of Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He said, ‘you screwed up Afghanistan; that should have been a quick easy in-and-out war’. But the case that Obama made was not that Iraq was just immoral and wrong, Afghanistan was a complete mistake to do this – his thing was: the American empire has become bogged down in the Middle East, and it is preventing us from pointing towards our real enemy which is China, and this doctrine of great power confrontation.
‘The Asia Pivot’ – many people will know that term, ‘the Asia Pivot’, which was Obama’s foreign policy orientation towards confronting China and building up military forces against China and rallying all our allies and potential allies to create confrontation and conflict with China
Pivot away from what? He meant pivot to Asia from the Middle East. So that was the Obama Doctrine: pivot away from the Middle East towards our real enemy China.
The drawdown, which is also happening in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, this is very much a re-orientation. That’s been happening for a little while. A re-orientation of US foreign policy and imperialism to try to disrupt and confront China, and other places in the world as well. But it’s harder to do that when you’re bogged down in a lost war. So yes, that’s obviously something everyone needs to be very conscious of.
You know I see a lot of comments saying, ‘the empire’s crumbling, the empire’s in decline’, because it’s been dealt this big embarrassing, humiliating military defeat. You know it was defeated very badly in Korea. The US was defeated very badly in Vietnam. That didn’t mean the US backed off at all: ‘hey man, we’ve got to relax on this war stuff’. They just went towards other parts of the world. They went to Latin America, and they went to the Middle East. I mean it doesn’t matter and it’s almost like they need to redeem themselves.
You know after the defeat in Vietnam, they were like: ‘communism got one over on us, but we’re going to get one over on the communists in Latin America’, and sponsor all these dirty wars, and start funding coups of independent and socialist governments around the world.
They’re not going to take this well. They know they look very bad. And what they can do to recover from it is focus everyone’s attention on some other theatre or some other American victory around the world, which we should be a little nervous about, but also prepared to confront it, because that’s of course what’s necessary.
In Praise of Joe Biden | Stan Goff
The following extended excerpt is taken from an article published by Counterpunch on August 18th.
The US is not morally, socially, or politically fit to run the affairs of people halfway around the world. Forgotten — in the plethora of images being pumped into the fires of public outrage by the military-industrial-media complex — are the atrocities of “our side,” of the state of extreme exception that has been normalized since 2001, of the expansion of the war into seven countries by Obama, of the torture and execution black sites, the drone strikes against civilians, and the fascist Patriot Act. Unreported were the day-to-day humiliations and abuses that are committed by ALL occupying forces everywhere and throughout history.
I’ll tell you who made out like bandits, though. War industries and their politicians. Mercenary “contractors.” Cable news.
I completely understand, even if I disagree with, the sentiment of veterans and military families: “Can this all be for nothing? Did all those people spend all that time and effort, some losing life, limb, or eyesight . . . was all that treasure spent ($2.26 trillion conservatively) . . . for nothing?”
It’s an important question, because it’s the question that will become a campaign slogan soon enough, even though the answer is far less satisfying and politically effective than attacking Joe Biden for this affront to the nation’s masculinity. To those veterans and military families — from a retired Army veteran who belongs to a very military family — I say, yes, it was all for nothing . . . like a tragic accident, only one that someone did on purpose. It was all for nothing . . . if we let it be; that is, if we fail to learn from this. That’s how we make it “worth it,” as if such an accounting weren’t part of the bodyguard of lies that accompanies all wars.
I’m praising Joe Biden. This departure took guts. It takes guts in a culture so steeped in simulacra, manufactured myth, and incessant political maneuvering to do a thing that’s simultaneously necessary and sure to produce unsavory results. Whatever else Biden does that pisses me off in the future — and that’s a sure thing — he deserves credit, not all this hand-wringing and blame. He has confronted the Archons of the military-industrial-media complex, who are writhing and raging now across the screens of cable news — an industry taken over by the same ideology that got us into Afghanistan in the first place: neoconservatism, an arrogant and clueless late imperial ideology now spouted on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.
Biden is not to blame for a “debacle” in Afghanistan.
This exercise in mortal stupidity started with George W. Bush, and cheered on by the media. It was extended and expanded by Bush II (Obama). It was denounced by Trump, but allowed to go on, because even Trump didn’t have the guts to risk a hit to the very performative masculinity that fueled his popular appeal. The occupation was not wine, improving with age. It was a wound festering to gangrene, and now there had to be an amputation. And none of them, not Bush, not Obama, not Trump, had the guts to say, “Stop!” Only Biden, at long last. Praise be!
Click here to read the full article entitled “In Praise of Joe Biden” by Stan Goff, published by Counterpunch on August 18th.
Addendum: a guide to Leo Strauss’s influence on US neo-conservatism
A natural order of inequality
Danny Postel: You’ve argued that there is an important connection between the teachings of Leo Strauss and the Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq war. What is that connection?
Shadia Drury: Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States the business about weapons of mass destruction and a fictitious alliance between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime. Now that the lies have been exposed, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the war party are denying that these were the real reasons for the war.
So what were the real reasons? Reorganising the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of Israel? Expanding American hegemony in the Arab world? Possibly. But these reasons would not have been sufficient in themselves to mobilise American support for the war. And the Straussian cabal in the administration realised that.
Danny Postel: The neo-conservative vision is commonly taken to be about spreading democracy and liberal values globally. And when Strauss is mentioned in the press, he is typically described as a great defender of liberal democracy against totalitarian tyranny. You’ve written, however, that Strauss had a profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy.”
Shadia Drury: The idea that Strauss was a great defender of liberal democracy is laughable. I suppose that Strauss’s disciples consider it a noble lie. Yet many in the media have been gullible enough to believe it.
How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat? The ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born neither free nor equal. The natural human condition, they held, is not one of freedom, but of subordination and in Strauss’s estimation they were right in thinking so.
Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the moderns was the whole point of Strauss’s most famous book, Natural Right and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature – not the natural rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe) but the natural order of domination and subordination.
The necessity of lies
Danny Postel: What is the relevance of Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s notion of the noble lie?
Shadia Drury: Strauss rarely spoke in his own name. He wrote as a commentator on the classical texts of political theory. But he was an extremely opinionated and dualistic commentator. The fundamental distinction that pervades and informs all of his work is that between the ancients and the moderns. Strauss divided the history of political thought into two camps: the ancients (like Plato) are wise and wily, whereas the moderns (like Locke and other liberals) are vulgar and foolish. Now, it seems to me eminently fair and reasonable to attribute to Strauss the ideas he attributes to his beloved ancients.
In Plato’s dialogues, everyone assumes that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece. But Strauss argues in his book The City and Man (pp. 74-5, 77, 83-4, 97, 100, 111) that Thrasymachus is Plato’s real mouthpiece (on this point, see also M.F. Burnyeat, Sphinx without a Secret, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]). So, we must surmise that Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato (alias Thrasymachus) that justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make the rules in their own interests and call it justice.
Leo Strauss repeatedly defends the political realism of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli (see, for example, his Natural Right and History, p. 106). This view of the world is clearly manifest in the foreign policy of the current administration in the United States.
A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.
The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the tyrannical teachingof his beloved ancients. It is tyrannical in the classic sense of rule above rule or in the absence of law (p. 70).
Now, the ancients were determined to keep this tyrannical teaching secret because the people are not likely to tolerate the fact that they are intended for subordination; indeed, they may very well turn their resentment against the superior few. Lies are thus necessary to protect the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.
The effect of Strauss’s teaching is to convince his acolytes that they are the natural ruling elite and the persecuted few. And it does not take much intelligence for them to surmise that they are in a situation of great danger, especially in a world devoted to the modern ideas of equal rights and freedoms. Now more than ever, the wise few must proceed cautiously and with circumspection. So, they come to the conclusion that they have a moral justification to lie in order to avoid persecution. Strauss goes so far as to say that dissembling and deception in effect, a culture of lies is the peculiar justice of the wise.
Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato’s concept of the noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of Plato’s noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.
In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that not all human beings are morally equal.
In contrast to this reading of Plato, Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one (Natural Right and History, p. 151). For many commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian, the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him. Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him.
The dialectic of fear and tyranny
Danny Postel: In the Straussian scheme of things, there are the wise few and the vulgar many. But there is also a third group the gentlemen. Would you explain how they figure?
Shadia Drury: There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the higher pleasures, which amount to consorting with their puppies or young initiates.
The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.
The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.
Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato’s real solution Strauss pointed to the nocturnal council in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.
The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss’s The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon makes that clear to us.
For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.
Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.
This is made clear in Strauss’s exchange with Kojève (reprinted in Strauss’s On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and creature comforts.” Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.
This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.
I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.
Danny Postel: You’ve described Strauss as a nihilist.
Shadia Drury: Strauss is a nihilist in the sense that he believes that there is no rational foundation for morality. He is an atheist, and he believes that in the absence of God, morality has no grounding. It’s all about benefiting others and oneself; there is no objective reason for doing so, only rewards and punishments in this life.
But Strauss is not a nihilist if we mean by the term a denial that there is any truth, a belief that everything is interpretation. He does not deny that there is an independent reality. On the contrary, he thinks that independent reality consists in nature and its order of rank the high and the low, the superior and the inferior. Like Nietzsche, he believes that the history of western civilisation has led to the triumph of the inferior, the rabble something they both lamented profoundly.
Danny Postel: This connection is curious, since Strauss is bedevilled by Nietzsche; and one of Strauss’s most famous students, Allan Bloom, fulminates profusely in his book The Closing of the American Mind against the influence of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.
Shadia Drury: Strauss’s criticism of the existentialists, especially Heidegger, is that they tried to elicit an ethic out of the abyss. This was the ethic of resoluteness choose whatever you like and be loyal to it to the death; its content does not matter. But Strauss’s reaction to moral nihilism was different. Nihilistic philosophers, he believes, should reinvent the Judæo-Christian God, but live like pagan gods themselves taking pleasure in the games they play with each other as well as the games they play on ordinary mortals.
The question of nihilism is complicated, but there is no doubt that Strauss’s reading of Plato entails that the philosophers should return to the cave and manipulate the images (in the form of media, magazines, newspapers). They know full well that the line they espouse is mendacious, but they are convinced that theirs are noble lies.
The intoxication of perpetual war
Danny Postel: You characterise the outlook of the Bush administration as a kind of realism, in the spirit of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli. But isn’t the real divide within the administration (and on the American right more generally) more complex: between foreign policy realists, who are pragmatists, and neo-conservatives, who see themselves as idealists even moralists on a mission to topple tyrants, and therefore in a struggle against realism?
Shadia Drury: I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these idealists and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.
I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching, which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the nocturnal or covert teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.
The issue of nationalism is an example of this. The philosophers, wanting to secure the nation against its external enemies as well as its internal decadence, sloth, pleasure, and consumption, encourage a strong patriotic fervour among the honour-loving gentlemen who wield the reins of power. That strong nationalistic spirit consists in the belief that their nation and its values are the best in the world, and that all other cultures and their values are inferior in comparison.
Irving Kristol, the father of neo-conservatism and a Strauss disciple, denounced nationalism in a 1973 essay; but in another essay written in 1983, he declared that the foreign policy of neo-conservatism must reflect its nationalist proclivities. A decade on, in a 1993 essay, he claimed that “religion, nationalism, and economic growth are the pillars of neoconservatism.” (See The Coming Conservative Century, in Neoconservatism: the autobiography of an idea, p. 365.)
In Reflections of a Neoconservative (p. xiii), Kristol wrote that:
patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. Neoconservatives believe that the goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of national security. It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny not a myopic national security. The same sentiment was echoed by the doyen of contemporary Straussianism, Harry Jaffa, when he said that America is the Zion that will light up all the world.
It is easy to see how this sort of thinking can get out of hand, and why hard-headed realists tend to find it naïve if not dangerous.
But Strauss’s worries about America’s global aspirations are entirely different. Like Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojève, Strauss would be more concerned that America would succeed in this enterprise than that it would fail. In that case, the last man would extinguish all hope for humanity (Nietzsche); the night of the world would be at hand (Heidegger); the animalisation of man would be complete (Kojève); and the trivialisation of life would be accomplished (Schmitt). That is what the success of America’s global aspirations meant to them.
Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is a popularisation of this viewpoint. It sees the coming catastrophe of American global power as inevitable, and seeks to make the best of a bad situation. It is far from a celebration of American dominance.
On this perverse view of the world, if America fails to achieve her national destiny, and is mired in perpetual war, then all is well. Man’s humanity, defined in terms of struggle to the death, is rescued from extinction. But men like Heidegger, Schmitt, Kojève, and Strauss expect the worst. They expect that the universal spread of the spirit of commerce would soften manners and emasculate man. To my mind, this fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.
To be clear, Strauss was not as hostile to democracy as he was to liberalism. This is because he recognises that the vulgar masses have numbers on their side, and the sheer power of numbers cannot be completely ignored. Whatever can be done to bring the masses along is legitimate. If you can use democracy to turn the masses against their own liberty, this is a great triumph. It is the sort of tactic that neo-conservatives use consistently, and in some cases very successfully.
Among the Straussians
Danny Postel: Finally, I’d like to ask about your interesting reception among the Straussians. Many of them dismiss your interpretation of Strauss and denounce your work in the most adamant terms (bizarre splenetic). Yet one scholar, Laurence Lampert, has reprehended his fellow Straussians for this, writing in his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche that your book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss contains many fine skeptical readings of Strauss’s texts and acute insights into Strauss’s real intentions. Harry Jaffa has even made the provocative suggestion that you might be a closet Straussian yourself!
Shadia Drury: I have been publicly denounced and privately adored. Following the publication of my book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss in 1988, letters and gifts poured in from Straussian graduate students and professors all over North America books, dissertations, tapes of Strauss’s Hillel House lectures in Chicago, transcripts of every course he ever taught at the university, and even a personally crafted Owl of Minerva with a letter declaring me a goddess of wisdom! They were amazed that an outsider could have penetrated the secret teaching. They sent me unpublished material marked with clear instructions not to distribute to suspicious persons”.
I received letters from graduate students in Toronto, Chicago, Duke, Boston College, Claremont, Fordham, and other Straussian centres of learning. One of the students compared his experience in reading my work with a person lost in the wilderness who suddenly happens on a map. Some were led to abandon their schools in favour of fresher air; but others were delighted to discover what it was they were supposed to believe in order to belong to the charmed circle of future philosophers and initiates.
After my first book on Strauss came out, some of the Straussians in Canada dubbed me the bitch from Calgary. Of all the titles I hold, that is the one I cherish most. The hostility toward me was understandable. Nothing is more threatening to Strauss and his acolytes than the truth in general and the truth about Strauss in particular. His admirers are determined to conceal the truth about his ideas.
Respond to this article, and debate Strauss, philosophy and politics in our forum.
My intention in writing the book was to express Strauss’s ideas clearly and without obfuscation so that his views could become the subject of philosophical debate and criticism, and not the stuff of feverish conviction. I wanted to smoke the Straussians out of their caves and into the philosophical light of day. But instead of engaging me in philosophical debate, they denied that Strauss stood for any of the ideas I attributed to him.
Laurence Lampert is the only Straussian to declare valiantly that it is time to stop playing games and to admit that Strauss was indeed a Nietzschean thinker that it is time to stop the denial and start defending Strauss’s ideas.
I suspect that Lampert’s honesty is threatening to those among the Straussians who are interested in philosophy but who seek power. There is no doubt that open and candid debate about Strauss is likely to undermine their prospects in Washington.
Click here to read the full article written by Danny Postel based on an interview with Shadia Drury, published in October 2003.