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Posted on Jan 5, 2010 in Carlo D'Este, War College

The End Of A Forgettable Year

By Carlo D'Este

December 17, 2009. Marine 1st Lt. Matthew Orr, assigned to Embedded Training Team 7-5, and Afghan national army soldiers conduct a patrol through Kolak village in Kunar province, Afghanistan. (Sgt. 1st Class Leonardo Torres)

I doubt I’m alone in my desire to have seen the last of 2009. It has not been a good year in a great many ways. The global recession has hit the United States the hardest and with the jobless rate well over 10-percent, and with no end in sight, the prospects for 2010 and beyond don’t bode particularly well either. Foreclosures and unemployment continued to mount; the unthinkable occurred when the one-time bulwark of our economy, General Motors, declared bankruptcy and survived only because of a massive infusion of government money. We dodged the bullet of another depression that would have rivaled that of the desperate 1930s. Anyone who has doubts about just how close we came to economic catastrophe need only peruse the December 28/January 4, 2009 issue of Time magazine. Had the U.S. economy collapsed (as it very nearly did), the entire world economy would have followed, with catastrophic results. The year ended with another attempt to blow up an American airliner that ought to have been foiled had proper attention been paid to the warning signs.


What was equally disturbing about 2009 has been the lack of even the semblance of a civil discourse in this country. Of course there is bound to be disagreement over health care and other hot button political issues but it doesn’t have to be so uncivil that there is scant room for reasoned debate on the issues. 2009 was the “gotcha” year: when every misstep by a public person found its way on to TMZ, YouTube, Twitter or some other media within minutes of its occurrence. There is something horribly skewed when the headlines on the Internet, on TV, and in newspapers seem more concerned with unearthing and trumpeting stories about Tiger Woods or David Letterman, Charlie Sheen’s domestic problems or some Hollywood nobody’s latest divorce or DUI.

2009 was memorable in other ways, not all of them negative. The year began on a dramatic note when US Air Flight 1549 successfully ditched in the Hudson River after its engines were crippled when the Airbus A320 was struck by a flock of Canadian geese minutes after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The magnificent piloting of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saved the lives of all 155 people aboard in what the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators has rightly called “a heroic and unique aviation achievement.”

Capt. Sullenberger and his crew were indeed heroic, which is more than can be said for the greedy sharks of Wall Street whose avarice nearly brought down the economy and who continue to award themselves extravagant amounts of bonus money for failing at their jobs. They deserve our contempt.

What lies ahead in 2010? The economy remains far from stable and no let up in unemployment is expected. To the contrary, many experts are predicting it will rise to even higher levels, as many jobs that have evaporated are simply not coming back.

Overseas, while the six years of war in Iraq have shown encouraging signs (December was the first month since the war began in 2003 that there were no combat deaths), Afghanistan and Pakistan have evolved from merely troublesome to positively dangerous. New evidence has emerged about just how badly we squandered opportunities to have captured or killed Bin Laden in 2001. Instead, he was permitted to escape into the wild border area inside Pakistan and has not been spotted in years.

The war in Afghanistan is now entering its ninth year and rather than showing signs of progress, the Taliban have returned and the future remains grim. As we enter 2010 the unanswered question is if Afghanistan is still salvageable. The additional 30,000 troops ordered there by Pres. Obama is no guarantee of success, particularly inasmuch as a timetable on their retention has been imposed. The thankless task of Gen. Stanley McChrystal is somehow to save Afghanistan. As veteran New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins reported recently, when McChrystal arrived in June he said: “Gentlemen, I am coming into this job with 12 months to show demonstrable progress here ― and 24 months to have a decisive impact,” he said. “That’s how long we have to convince the Taliban, the Afghan people and the American people that we’re going to be successful. In 24 months, it has to be obvious that we have the clear upper hand and that things are moving in the right direction. That’s not a choice. That’s a reality.” (Dexter Filkins, “Stanley McChrystal’s Long War,” NY Times Magazine, October 14, 2009.)

And while the Taliban has made a strong comeback inside Afghanistan the real problem remains Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. Al Qaeda would like nothing better than to get their hands on a nuclear weapon, and to set it off in a Western city. At best, Pakistan is an uneasy ally, at worst it is a desperately unstable nation that is being held together by its military, some of whom support the Taliban and either directly or tacitly, Al Qaeda, both of which have found support and sanctuary in the border area. The increasing frequency of terrorism in Pakistan is ample evidence of its mounting problems and its instability.

Other lingering problems abound, such as Middle East volatility; the tinderbox that is Iran, with a population in revolt, and a theocracy hell-bent to acquire a nuclear capability that would further destabilize the Middle East, threaten both Israel and even Europe, and invariably lead to other nations such as Saudi Arabia also arming themselves with nukes.

Elsewhere, there are some encouraging signs: companies large and small around the globe are showing signs of getting the message that going green is not only good business but that it contributes to making planet Earth a better and safer place. Investors are finding that putting their money into green ventures can be profitable. There are few green buildings where I live but in our town a new library is nearing completion that will be LEED certified, and will, in the long term, save big on operating costs while significantly reducing greenhouse emissions. Hopefully it is the start of a long-term trend. Advances in medicine, science and technology are also producing some astounding results.

Our latest battles with extremism and recession will continue to be a painful journey but we have endured many other hard times throughout our history and if we do not falter we will survive these challenging times.

I’d like to begin 2010 with this admonition: unless our leadership can begin to convince the American public that we are a nation at war, the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will never be taken with sufficient seriousness. Since 9/11 neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have called for a national sacrifice such as we had during World War II. Our armed forces are carrying an exceedingly heavy burden, with no end in sight to repeated deployments into harm’s way. Our gallant men and women need the full support of the American public but the sad thing is how few of our citizens even recognize that we are a nation at war. We’ve been at war in Iraq for nearly twice as long as World War II, and in Afghanistan we will soon eclipse three times as long. One of the reasons the Vietnam War was such a fiasco was a lack of support by the American public. We face a similar prospect over Afghanistan, but with indifference largely trumpeting the outrage generated over Vietnam. However, if the war in Afghanistan drags on and combat deaths mount we will likely see a repeat of the 1960s and 1970’s anti-Vietnam sentiment. Our military deserves better.

No matter how this year turns out, I want to take this opportunity to dedicate 2010 to our armed forces that are sacrificing so much so that we can pursue our lives in relative peace. Recently I received a wonderful tribute to the men and women who keep us safe, called When a Soldier Comes Home; click on the link to see this touching slideshow.

A very happy and healthy New Year, everyone!


1 Comment

  1. Reference catching Bin Ladin, why should we trust the same intelligence system that misled us on WMD in Iraq? Besides, as you know better than most, being an historian, in war, more often than not, things go wrong and what appears easy in an “armchair” are not so easy, especially in the mountains of Afghanistan.


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