Posted by: N.S. Palmer | January 25, 2012

“Helping” the Afghans

By N.S. Palmer

A friend who’s active-duty military and who was in Afghanistan remarked that he didn’t think the Afghans could get by “without our help.”

Hmm. I held my tongue, but hmm.

My friend is a decent enough sort, but he’s in the Army and sees the world from that viewpoint. As a matter of psychological self-preservation, he must see the world from that viewpoint.

Nobody likes to see himself or herself as a villain. We always try to believe that we do what is right. If not right, then necessary. If not necessary, then what we had no other choice but to do.

When my friend thinks about the American occupation of Afghanistan, he thinks about building clinics and dispensing antibiotics to kids. As much as he can, he avoids thinking about the more common instances of bombing wedding parties, shooting kids, and urinating on the corpses. He doesn’t do that, so he tries to ignore it and focuses on any positive images he can find.

But “helping the Afghans”? Forget about making a sarcastic retort. It was all I could do not to laugh.

The Afghans did not request American “help” any more than they requested it from the Russians or the British, who previously attacked and occupied their country. They did not request that the United States install a puppet government. They did not request that their country be bombed and that their people be slaughtered.

One thing I’ve learned is that war is constant. Three reasons are most important.

First, human nature contains an aggressive and destructive impulse that war satisfies. That impulse often drowns out the voices of conscience and reason — in some of us more often than others.

Second, war is financially profitable for some people. Not for the soldiers who fight in it, and certainly not for the victims of its carnage. But bankers and weapons merchants make a killing,  figuratively and literally. Smedley Butler, a Marine Corps Major General, discussed this in his book War is a Racket.

Third, war is politically profitable for government officials. It allows them to pose as courageous heroes who defend the nation. It enables them to crack down on dissent and enact oppressive laws. It distracts the population from the country’s real problems: As Shakespeare put it in King Henry’s advice to Prince Hal, “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And it keeps the military busy overseas, instead of giving them free time to think about staging a coup at home.

I don’t have anything particularly wise to say to my friend about Afghanistan or America’s other imperial aggressions. As long as he wears the uniform, he has to believe in what he’s doing, and there’s no point in trying to talk him out of it. You or I would probably feel the same in his circumstances.

What I can do is talk more generally about how every person’s life is sacred; how war, killing, and destruction should be avoided whenever possible; and how America was founded to be a republic, not an empire.

War and oppression will always be around because they’re a consequence of human nature. However, from time to time, we can moderate and reduce them a bit.

It’s not as inspiring a goal as universal peace and brotherhood, but it’s what we can achieve on earth.

Copyright 2012 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.


  1. Good analysis of the underlying reasons we go to war. As I think back on what I remember of world history, these three ideas surely consistently fit.

    I used to think that a Star-Trekkian ideal of humanity overcoming its baser instincts was possible. I no longer think so. As Solomon famously said, there is nothing new under the sun. We are who we are.

    • Agreed, Jim.

      Or as Captain Kirk said, “War is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers … but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill – today!” (“A Taste of Armageddon”)

  2. The whole rush on to Afghanistan thing happened with frightening rapidity, if you recall. 9/11 was in September, obviously, and by October we were all suiting up. I was visiting my folks for Thanksgiving (ours is in October) and I got into an argument with my dad over our involvement. NATO had invoked Article 5 for the first time ever. My dad, who despite having been a navy man for over 20 years, was not the belligerent sort. Nevertheless he felt strongly that Canadian troops had to go; something had to be done.

    This was less than a month after the attack, and frankly, no matter what one’s misginvings, at that point in time, it was next to impossible to say “no” to any request from the US for assistance. Loyalty and sympathy trumped what might have been the advice of “the better angels of our nature” and we pretty much all signed on. It seemed to me that we were all ignoring our own principles, simply because Afghanistan was weak, the Russians were standing aside, and we could. Due process to find and extradite the real culprit? Then he might get away! Anyway, badges, we don’t need no stinking badges. And in we all went. And finding Bin Laden became removing the Taliban became “nation-building”. The mission creep was phenomenal.

    There are still Canadian and other allied troops in Afghanistan, over ten years later. That’s longer than we fought the Second World War. And for what? The Taliban still run the place anywhere outside the firing radius of any NATO rifle; hundreds of thousands have been killed and rendered homeless, what little wealth and stability the people had is gone, the people all rightly resent us (or worse), and the minute the last allied soldier comes home on the “Mission Accomplished!” float, the place will go back to being what it was and always will be till the Afghan people themselves rise to give their children something better… if ever. But that’s up to them, not us.

    It all could have, should have, been handled so much better. We listened to the calls of clan and empire instead of the civility we’ve achieved in spite of them both.

    • Hi, LP —

      Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

      I would only add that it’s important to remember the context. Thanks to revelations by Richard Clarke and other insiders, we know that the Bush-Cheney regime started planning its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in January 2001. The purpose of the 9/11 false-flag attacks was to put the American people into a state of shock, in which they would accept anything. The attacks succeeded spectacularly, providing an excuse for the regime’s aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq as well as domestic police-state measures such as the so-called “Patriot Act,” illegal wiretapping, torture, and murder.

      At the time, many people believed that 9/11 was exactly what the Bush-Cheney regime claimed, just as they believed Colin Powell’s “proof” that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons poised to attack other countries including in North America, If they knew of the regime’s paper-thin excuse for attacking Afghanistan, they assumed that Bush and Cheney meant well and had legitimate reasons for the attack.

      Of course, the Obama administration let them all get away scot free. So our country’s shame continues, as does its descent into tyranny and its eventual journey to the grave of empires.

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