Right now, on the subject of the Afghan war, what dominates the discourse in Washington is narrowness of political vision — while news outlets are reporting that the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to “as much as double this year to 60,000 troops.”
It’s heartbreaking now to read the admixture of profound humanity and nascent war madness in the inaugural address of Lyndon Johnson. “In a land of great wealth, families must not live in hopeless poverty,” he proclaimed. “In a land rich in harvest, children just must not go hungry. In a land of healing miracles, neighbors must not suffer and die unattended.” And that wasn’t just rhetoric. LBJ went on to launch Great Society programs with great effects and far greater promise.
But the same inaugural speech foreshadowed the massive slaughtering of people in Vietnam, and the undermining of the United States — with what Martin Luther King Jr. two years later likened to “some demonic destructive suction tube” — bringing home terrible depths of human pain and bitterness. “If American lives must end, and American treasure be spilled, in countries we barely know,” Johnson said at his inauguration, “that is the price that change has demanded of conviction and of our enduring covenant.”
Pundits and congressional leadership nodded sagely as the president cited the threat of communism and proceeded to boost U.S. troop levels in Vietnam. Similar nodding — and nodding off — is now underway as the president cites the threat of terrorism and prepares to boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
Down the line, some key words from Obama’s inaugural address — telling dubious foreign leaders that “your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy” — will need to face a reflection in the mirror.