Belmont Club

Friday Night Follies

Being sick with a flu has the benefit of enforcing a slight break in routine in the shape of enough space to watch two videos. The first was Conspiracy, a reenactment of the wartime conference in Wannsee, Germany during which the Nazi leadership planned out the extermination of the Jews. The second was the Battle of Marjah an HBO documentary following a Marine company tasked with winning the hearts and minds of a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan.

No two military organizations could be more unlike than the Nazi killing machine of 1942 and the US Marines of 2010. While the Nazis casually planned  — and actually did kill thousands of civilians per day for nothing more than to satisfy a psychopathic obsession, Ben Anderson’s documentary follows the Marine assault into a Taliban base. The Taliban walk in the open, casually passing in front of  the Marines, completely secure in the knowledge of their immunities under the rules of engagement. They take up positions, arm up, and get set under the full view of drones while every request to engage them is denied by lawyers hundreds of miles away.

The one sense in which these two videos are alike is that they depict a policy failure. Both record how immense organizations became sidetracked into pursuing in goals which had nothing to do with any rational objective.

By January, 1942 the last thing Nazi Germany needed to do was waste time, energy and manpower killing anything but the Soviet Army. The forces of the Reich, which had enjoyed a temporary local quantitative superiority at the outset of Barbarossa, was beginning to face the full force of a mobilized Soviet army. Nazi manpower in the theater would peak at about 3 million men. They would soon be facing double that number in Soviets. Worse, America had joined the war.

Yet here were Nazi bigwigs planning to expend vast amounts of resources to exterminate people who were in many cases, vital to their war effort.  Many of those marked for death did not even know they were “Jews” as classified under the secret code. They were technicians, skilled workers and scientists in Germany industry which no rational leader would doom. However that did not dissuade the the Nazis from planning the destruction of some of their most productive citizens. Wannsee represented not only a modern example of historical evil but also an instance of policy insanity; of actions undertaken not for the stated, but for the unstated reasons.

The Battle of Marjah, which was part of Operation Moshtarak, aimed to displace the Taliban and fill its place with a rejuvenated Afghan state, is tragic in a different way. It is impossible to watch the HBO video without being absolutely impressed by the professionalism, restraint and dedication to duty of the men of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. It is similarly impossible not think they are on defective mission.

Video maker Ben Anderson, who spent 2 months embedded with the unit, captures actual events in single continuous takes. The viewer is is almost there himself, excepting the absence of danger and discomfort. What is captured on camera are troops who maneuver intelligently, fight skillfully and are almost unbelievably brave.  It is possible that never before in the history of the world has there been such a highly controlled, disciplined and able fighting force.

Anderson speaks only once on video to a camera subject — in frank admiration of an engineer who rushes a suspected IED with a demolition charge, aware he is under the muzzles of perhaps a dozen Taliban guns who the Marines cannot engage for fear of “collateral damage”. The engineer blows it up under their noses and clambers back to cover. Anderson simply asks him how he can do this.  What kind of job is it that makes you do these things not the one time that would make a hero of any man, but regularly, day after day?

At some point you realize from the faces of the population that they are in spite of themselves, falling under the spell of a kind of hero worship of the Marines. Here are men who are beating the flower of Pashtun warriordom with all but their pinkies tied behind their backs.  A Marine captain senses this, “we are winning a big moral victory”. But the population know that these heroes — heroes they are — are still going to lose.

One reason is the Afghan Army, whose establishment in Marjah, the viewer is horrified to learn, is the whole purpose of this strange military evolution. The Afghan Army stumbles around making fools of themselves, looking all the worse by contrast to the Marines before the entire population.  They are as far below the level of skill of the Taliban as the Taliban are beneath the Marines. If the purpose of Operation Moshtarak was to instil in villagers respect for an “Afghan government in a box” ready to take over from the Taliban once the Marines left, the invidious comparison between these ill matched teachers and students seems to achieve the opposite result.

And so it proved. Ben Gilbert of the Global Post found the Marines still in Marjah six months later, with “the man who leases the Marines their compound [paying] off the Taliban” on the sly — resulting in the Marines indirectly funding the enemy. The offensive was never meant to succeed, at least by some quarters in Washington, except insofar as it gained votes.  It didn’t have much support from the President to begin with, according to David Sanger, who recently wrote a book about the administration’s Afghan policy in the New York Times. President Obama, after campaigning on the central importance of Afghanistan, quickly changed his mind about ‘winning’ what he called “a war of necessity”. Suddenly it became optional.

It was just one brief exchange about Afghanistan with an aide late in 2009, but it suggests how President Obama’s thinking about what he once called “a war of necessity” began to radically change less than a year after he took up residency in the White House …

“I think he hated the idea from the beginning,” one of his advisers said of the surge. “He understood why we needed to try, to knock back the Taliban. But the military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

The president’s doubts were cemented as the early efforts to take towns like Marja in Helmand Province took months longer than expected. To Mr. Obama and his aides, Marja proved that progress was possible — but not on the kind of timeline that Mr. Obama thought economically or politically affordable. …

By early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.

The key decisions had essentially been made already when Gen. David H. Petraeus, in his last months as commander in Afghanistan, arrived in Washington with a set of options for the president that called for a slow withdrawal of surge troops. He wanted to keep as many troops as possible in Afghanistan through the next fighting season, with a steep drop to follow. Mr. Obama concluded that the Pentagon had not internalized that the goal was not to defeat the Taliban. He said he “believed that we had a more limited set of objectives that could be accomplished by bringing the military out at a faster clip,” an aide reported.

The Taliban saw facts that the Marines shut their eyes to: that the artificialities of the rules of engagement signified something else was going on. That the war was going to be decided politically, battlefield bravery and skill be damned. Rifles and explosive line charges would not affect the outcome of the campaign by one whit. For the war was not in Afghanistan, nor even Pakistan. Ground zero was Washington  and in the MSM news. The battle of “hearts and minds” was not for Marjah but for hearts and minds of the American electorate.

In that sense the conference at Wannsee and the documentary of Battle of Marjah share a similarity, despite the vast differences in the two forces depicted. They are both stories of the tragedies created by political indirection.  Hitler may have invaded the Soviet Union not for strategic advantage, but to fulfill some strange  mystical aspiration.  “As early as 1925, Hitler suggested in Mein Kampf that he would invade the Soviet Union” to achieve this fantasy.

Hitler imagined a colonial demodernization of the Soviet Union and Poland that would take tens of millions of lives. The Nazi leadership envisioned an eastern frontier to be depopulated and deindustrialized, and then remade as the agrarian domain of German masters. This vision had four parts. First, the Soviet state was to collapse after a lightning victory in summer 1941, just as the Polish state had in summer 1939, leaving the Germans with complete control over Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, western Russia, and the Caucasus. Second, a Hunger Plan would starve to death some thirty million inhabitants of these lands in winter 1941-1942, as food was diverted to Germany and western Europe. Third, the Jews of the Soviet Union who survived the starvation, along with Polish Jews and other Jews under German control, were to be eliminated from Europe in a Final Solution. Fourth, a Generalplan Ost foresaw the deportation, murder, enslavement, or assimilation of remaining populations, and the resettlement of eastern Europe by German colonists in the years after the victory.

From that point of view, Operation Babarossa was just a means to an end. Not even a strategical end, but some darkly religious one. The result was a monstrous tail wagging the geopolitical dog. In a smaller sense the campaign in Afghanistan may also have been fought for inverted reasons. It became useful a “war of necessity” simply because someone needed a talking point to contrast to the “war of choice” which was Iraq.  The battles were useful as political statements to rival factions in Washington and in politics.  Their significance on the ground was perhaps entirely incidental. In the end, Afghanistan proved a war of choice too, and as such disposable.

It seems strange but true that things are often undertaken for reasons other than those given. As the common European currency crumbles, it is instructive to reflect that it was never created for itself. As an act of economic policy it was lunacy. What it had to recommend it was political ambition. When the simple common market idea became transformed into the  project to build a new European superstate, they needed a cement to glue everything together and the Euro was it.

Towards that goal a massive bureaucracy and the destructive currency were adopted, not because they brought any benefits by themselves, but because they advanced the expansion of Europe, the dream leading the EU legions into Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. Had they held out longer the Euro would have been Turkey’s currency.

Ultimately the most depressing thing about watching a movie about Wannsee in convalescence is knowing that the Wannsees of history are not over. Perhaps they never will be. Someday someone might produce a video about the origins of the Euro.  The Wannabee Conference.  Here folly reprises itself, this time fortunately, with a comedic cast and only farcical results.  But that is for another day of flu; for another day of rain.

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