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Will Afghanistan Be Worse Than Vietnam? 7 Tough Questions to Ask Obama Before He Sinks Us Into a New Quagmire

These are the questions on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that Obama should be asked at his press conferences.

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By the end of 2009, the cost of the Iraq War -- that is, of putting down another set of rag-tag insurgents -- will pass that of the Vietnam War and, in dollars spent, stand second only to World War II in U.S. history. Add to that the rising expense of a never-ending Af-Pak War and -- in the worst of economic times -- you have the equivalent of a vast financial hemorrhage, an economic sinkhole. In short, if "Obama's war" proves a "quagmire," it may not be a Vietnamese-style one.

In one way, however, the Af-Pak War has borne, and continues to bear, a certain eerie resemblance to the Vietnam one: in the manner in which Americans have chosen to fight it. Not surprisingly, as retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore points out in the following striking piece, in this we resemble ourselves 40 years ago. As a result, for anyone who remembers Vietnam, much of our military's "new thinking" on counterinsurgency warfare, which has gotten such media praise, looks old and tired indeed. But let Astore take up the tale from here. Tom


Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan

Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President

By William Astore

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country's role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group , went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy's accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who'd say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist's keen eye to America's activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam -- she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon -- her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama's next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy's most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply "technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this." At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as "wicked" because of its "absolute indifference to the cost in human lives" to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

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