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Writing About War

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“What a cruel thing is war: to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world.” Robert E. Lee in a letter to his wife 1864

Memorial Day weekend is over but I have not stopped reflecting on war and its cost. Having served in combat myself, and having stood over the wounded in field hospitals in Iraq and having seen the devastation of war up close and personal I have a hard time reducing war to the technology, the tactics and trivia that seem to satisfy the consumers of war porn. Call me whatever you want but I cannot get around the human cost of war. William Tecumseh Sherman reflected that “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” 

One of my favorite historians of the Second World War, Cornelius Ryan who wrote the magnificent accounts of D-Day, The Longest Day, Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far, and the Battle of Berlin, The Last Battle said about his accounts: “What I write about is not war but the courage of man.” I think that writing about courage is appropriate and I do a lot of that. But I think in addition to courage that we also must write about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, especially the leaders who plan and conduct war.

When I teach or write about military history I find it important to make sure that the people who made that history are not forgotten.  After all, as the British military theorist Colin Gray says “people matter most” when we deal with history, policy, or politics, especially in the matter of war. He is right of course, people are the one constant in war. Weapons and tactics may change, but people do not. 

Likewise we cannot forget that war, even wars for the most excruciatingly correct and even righteous reasons are always tragic. The cost of war, even so called “good wars” is devastating. Ernest Hemingway wrote “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” To the war porn addicts the words of Sherman or Hemingway surely are offensive, but they provide a necessary warning to the politicians, pundits and preachers who cannot get enough war to satiate their bloodlust and need for power. Sadly, most of the men and women who revel in war without end have neither served in combat or have any skin in the game regarding the wars that they support and those which they work so hard to bring about. Maybe if they did then they would not be so quick to send young men and women to war.

Those who follow me on this site know that I write about war a lot, some might say too much, but I cannot help that. My life has been forever changed by war.  If you look back through my archives you can see how my writing has evolved when it comes to dealing with war and part of that is because I do not want the sacrifices of the men and women who fought those wars to be forgotten or cheapened by a society which from the very beginning of our history has done so. Lieutenant General Hal Moore who co-authored the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young wrote: “in our time battles were forgotten, our sacrifices were discounted, and both our sanity and suitability for life in polite American society were publicly questioned.” By continuing to write and teach I hope to ensure that this does not happen. Maybe I am pissing into the wind so to speak, but I cannot stand by silently.

I am a combat veteran, I have seen the devastation of war, I have lost friends in war, men and women who did not come home. I have seen other friends struggle in the aftermath of war, and I have seen some lose that struggle. Because I am a military historian as well as a priest and I have a sacred duty to ensure that people know the real cost of war.

I do this in my official capacity teaching ethics and leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride for the Staff College where I have the honor to serve as faculty.This itself is interesting as I am spending the final few years of a three and a half decade military career teaching the men and women who in not too long of time will be our nation’s senior military leaders. That is a responsibility that I take most seriously. Thus I always, whether it is in teaching the ethics of war, or about the Battle of Gettysburg I attempt to impress this on my students. I preach from day one to every class that their decisions in the planning process, their recommendations to senior political and military leaders, and their decisions on the battlefield impact real people, their soldiers, the people in the lands that they fight and on the home front. 

I have been writing a text for the Gettysburg Staff Ride which I believe will eventually become at least two and maybe more books. I tie a lot of biographic material in with the text, again in order to make what could be a dry and mechanical affair more real to my students and readers. That is one of the reasons that I find going to Gettysburg and walking that hallowed ground so important.

I find that the lives, beliefs, motivations, relationships, and experiences of people to be paramount to understanding events. People are complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. All of my heroes all have feet of clay, which in a sense makes their stories even richer, and the events that they helped bring about far more more fascinating. By not denying their humanity, by understanding and appreciating their flaws, even the flaws in their character, I gain a more holistic perspective and develop a greater appreciation and empathy for them and a deeper understanding of my own flaws. As T.E. Lawrence wrote “Immorality, I know. Immortality, I cannot judge.” 

The complex and contradictory nature of humanity leads to a lot of confusion for people who see the world through the black and white lens of cosmic dualism where there is only good and evil and “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  Human nature shows us that things are much more complex, nuanced and blurry, there are far more than fifty shades of gray when it comes to humanity and the participation of men and women in war.

Because of this otherwise good and honorable people can find themselves for any number of reasons, fighting for an evil cause, while people who are more evil than good can end up fighting for a good cause. Now if you are one of those people who are trapped by an absolute ideological or religious certitude which cannot allow for such contradictions, that statement may confuse or even offend you. For that I do not apologize and I hope that you are offended enough to face the truth, for that is the human condition, and that my friends is what history, and especially that dealing with the most destructive and consequential issues involving humanity must deal with.

Over the weekend I did a series on this site about the tragedy of the British Battlecruiser HMS Hood and the German Battleship Bismarck which transpired over the course of a week in May 1941. In that week the two largest and most powerful warships of their day were sunk taking over 3600 of the roughly 3750 sailors aboard to a watery grave in the North Atlantic. While doing this I had the opportunity to go aboard the USS Wisconsin here in Norfolk, a ship that is roughly the same size of those two doomed warships. As I walked the passageways surrounded by massive armor plating It helped me, a sailor who has served aboard a modern Guided Missile Cruiser and other warships to appreciate the life and death of the sailors on those ships. I thought of the Hood’s who with the exception of three sailors being annihilated as the massive ship exploded, and then I thought about the crew of the Bismarck who had nearly half a day to contemplate their end before the British shells turned their ship into a funeral pyre.

So I will continue to write about war and try in the process to humanize it for my readers and to tell the stories of the tragedy that is war in such a way that even those who have not been to war, can imagine it and in doing so make wise decisions if they are to send other people’s children to fight their wars. The subject is far too important to be left to the purveyors of war porn who seek to satiate the bloodlust of others.

As for the form of my writing, I am becoming much more deliberate in trying to craft the story. Barbara Tuchman wrote something that I am now beginning to appreciate as I write my own book on Gettysburg and the Civil War: “I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book. I see no reason why the word should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry.”

Anyway, that is all for tonight. Over the coming week I should be putting out my next chapter revision to my Gettysburg text and some other articles.

I wish you all the best.

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under History, Military, philosophy

Battleship Row: The Story of the Battleships of Pearl Harbor

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“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost.” Except of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Speech December 8th 1941

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Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and as we were then we are at war. Of course it is not the same kind of war and most Americans live in the illusion of peace which makes it even more important to remember that terribly day of infamy.

I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic and very readable book about Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” when I was a 7th grade student at Stockton Junior High School back in 1972.  At the time my dad was on his first deployment to Vietnam on the USS Hancock CVA-19.  As a Navy brat I was totally enthralled with all things Navy and there was little that could pull me out of the library.  In fact in my sophomore year of high school I cut over one half of the class meetings of the 4th quarter my geometry class to sit in the library and read history, especially naval and military history.

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The main battery of either USS Arizona or Pennsylvania 

Over the years I have always found the pre-World War Two battleships to be among the most interesting ships in US Navy history.  No they are not the sleek behemoths like the USS Wisconsin which graces the Norfolk waterfront. They were not long and sleek, but rather squat yet exuded power. They were the backbone of the Navy from the First World War until Pearl Harbor.  They were the US Navy answer to the great Dreadnaught race engaged in by the major Navies of the world in the years prior to, during and after World War One.

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USS Pennsylvania passing under the Golden Gate

Built over a period of 10 years each class incorporated the rapid advances in technology between the launching of the Dreadnaught and the end of the Great War.  While the United States Navy did not engage in battleship to battleship combat the ships built by the US Navy were equal to or superior to many of the British and German ships of the era.

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US Battleships at the Grand Fleet Review of 1937

Through the 1920s and 1930s they were the ambassadors of the nation, training and showing the flag. During those years the older ships underwent significant overhaul and modernization.

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The Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet in 1941 included 9 battleships of which 8 were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th.  In the event of war the US War Plan, “Orange” called for the Pacific Fleet led by the Battle Force to cross the Pacific, fight a climactic Mahanian battle against the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy and after vanquishing the Japanese foe to relieve American Forces in the Philippines.  However this was not to be as by the end of December 7th all eight were out of action, with two, the Arizona and Oklahoma permanently lost to the Navy.

The ships comprised 4 of the 6 classes of battleships in the US inventory at the outbreak of hostilities.  Each class was an improvement on the preceding class in speed, protection and firepower.  The last class of ships, the Maryland class comprised of the Maryland, Colorado and West Virginia, was the pinnacle of US Battleship design until the North Carolina class was commissioned in 1941.  Since the Washington Naval Treaty limited navies to specific tonnage limits as well as the displacement of new classes of ships the United States like Britain and Japan was limited to the ships in the current inventory at the time of the treaty’s ratification.

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USS Oklahoma

The ships at Pearl Harbor included the two ships of the Nevada class, the Nevada and Oklahoma they were the oldest battleships at Pearl Harbor and the first of what were referred to as the “standard design” battleships. The two ships of the Pennsylvania class, the Pennsylvania and her sister the Arizona served as the flagships of the Pacific Fleet and First Battleship Division respectively and were improved Nevada’s. The California class ships, California and Tennessee and two of the three Maryland’s the Maryland and West Virginia made up the rest of the Battle Force.

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USS California passing under Brooklyn Bridge

The Colorado was undergoing a yard period at Bremerton and the three ships of the New Mexico class, New Mexico, Mississippi and Idaho had been transferred to the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor due to the German threat.  The three oldest battleships  ships of the New York and Wyoming Classes, the New York, Arkansas and Texas also were in the Atlantic. Two former battleships, the Utah and Wyoming had been stripped of their main armaments and armor belts and served as gunnery training ships for the fleet. The Utah was at Pearl Harbor moored on the far side of Ford Island.

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The ships that lay at anchor at 0755 that peaceful Sunday morning on “Battleship Row” and in the dry dock represented the naval power of a bygone era, something that most did not realize until two hours later. The age of the battleship was passing away, but even the Japanese did not realize that the era had passed building the massive super-battleships Yamato and Musashi mounting nine 18” guns and displacing 72,000 tons, near twice that of the largest battleships on Battleship Row.

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USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor

The Oklahoma and Nevada were the oldest ships in the Battle Force.  Launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916 the Nevada and Oklahoma mounted ten 14” guns and displaced 27,500 tons and were capable of 20.5 knots. They served in World War One alongside the British Home Fleet and were modernized in the late 1920s. They were part of the US presence in both the Atlantic and Pacific in the inter-war years. Oklahoma took part in the evacuation of American citizens from Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

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USS Oklahoma Capsized (above) and righted (below)

 

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During the Pearl Harbor attack Oklahoma was struck by 5 aerial torpedoes capsized and sank at her mooring with the loss of 415 officers and crew. Recent analysis indicates that she may have been hit by at least on torpedo from a Japanese midget submarine. Her hulk would be raised but she would never again see service and sank on the way to the breakers in 1946.

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USS Nevada aground off Hospital Point

Nevada was the only battleship to get underway during the attack.  Moored alone at the north end of Battleship Row her Officer of the Deck had lit off a second boiler an hour before the attack.  She was hit by an aerial torpedo in the first minutes of the attack but was not seriously damaged. She got underway between the attack waves and as she attempted to escape the harbor she was heavily damaged. To prevent her from sinking in the main channel she was beached off Hospital Point.

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USS Nevada at Normandy 

Nevada was raised and received a significant modernization before returning to service for the May 1943 assault on Attu.  Nevada returned to the Atlantic where she took part in the Normandy landings off Utah Beach and the invasion of southern France.  She returned to the Pacific and took part in the operations against Iwo Jima and Okinawa where she again provided naval gunfire support.  Following the war the great ship was assigned as a target at the Bikini atoll atomic bomb tests. The tough ship survived these tests and was sunk as a target on 31July 1948.

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USS Arizona

The two ships of the Pennsylvania Class were improved Oklahoma’s.  The Arizona and Pennsylvania mounted twelve 14” guns and displacing 31,400 tons and capable of 21 knots they were both commissioned in 1916. They participated in operations in the Atlantic in the First World War with the British Home Fleet. Both ships were rebuilt and modernized between 1929-1931.

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They were mainstays of the fleet being present at Presidential reviews, major fleet exercises and making goodwill visits around the world.  Pennsylvania was the Pacific Fleet Flagship on December 7th 1941 and was in dry dock undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack. She was struck by two bombs and received minor damage.

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She was back in action in early 1942. She underwent minor refits and took part in many amphibious landings in the Pacific and was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait.  She was heavily damaged by an aerial torpedo at Okinawa Pennsylvania and was repaired. Following the war the elderly warrior was used as a target for the atomic bomb tests. She was sunk as a gunnery target in 1948.

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Arizona was destroyed during the attack. As the flagship of Battleship Division One she was moored next to the repair ship USS Vestal.  She was hit by 8 armor piercing bombs one of which penetrated her forward black powder magazine. The ship was consumed by a cataclysmic explosion which killed 1103 of her 1400 member crew including her Captain and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One.  She was never officially decommissioned and the colors are raised and lowered every day over the Memorial which sits astride her broken hull.

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The Tennessee class ships the Tennessee and California were the class following the New Mexico class ships which were not present at Pearl Harbor. These ships were laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1920. Their design incorporated lessons learned at the Battle Jutland. They mounted twelve 14” guns, displaced 32,300 tons and were capable of 21 knots. At Pearl Harbor Tennessee was moored inboard of West Virginia and protected from the aerial torpedoes which did so much damage to other battleships. She was damaged by two bombs. California the Flagship of Battleship Division Two was moored at the southern end of Battleship Row. She was hit by two torpedoes in the initial attack. However, she had the bad luck to have all of her major watertight hatches unhinged in preparation for an inspection.

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Despite the valiant efforts of her damage control teams she sank at her moorings. She was raised and rebuilt along with Tennessee were completely modernized with the latest in radar, fire control equipment and anti-aircraft armaments. They were widened with the addition of massive anti-torpedo bulges and their superstructure was razed and rebuilt along the lines of the South Dakota class.

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USS California following Modernization

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USS Tennessee with another ship, possibly California in reserve awaiting the breakers

When the repairs and modernization work was completed they looked nothing like they did on December 7th. Both ships were active in the Pacific campaign and be engaged at Surigao Strait where they inflicted heavy damage on the attacking Japanese squadron. Both survived the war and were placed in reserve until 1959 when they were stricken from the Navy list and sold for scrap.

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USS West Virginia 

The Maryland and West Virginia were near sisters of the Tennessee class.  They were the last battleships built by the United States before the Washington Naval Treaty. and the first to mount 16” guns. With eight 16” guns they had the largest main battery of any US battleships until the North Carolina class.

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They displaced 32,600 tons and could steam at 21 knots. Laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1921 they were modernized in the late 1920s. They were the most modern of the Super-Dreadnoughts built by the United States and included advances in protection and watertight integrity learned from both the British and German experience at Jutland.

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USS Maryland behind the capsized Oklahoma

At Pearl Harbor Maryland  was moored inboard of Oklahoma and was hit by 2 bombs and her crew helped rescue survivors of that unfortunate ship.  She was quickly repaired and returned to action.  She received minimal modernization during the war. She participated in operations throughout the entirety of the Pacific Campaign mainly conducting Naval Gunfire Support to numerous amphibious operations. She was present at Surigao Strait where despite not having the most modern fire control radars she unleashed six salvos at the Japanese Southern Force.

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USS West Virginia, sunk, raised and in dry dock, note the massive damage to Port Side

West Virginia suffered some of the worst damage in the attack. She was hit by at least 5 torpedoes and two bombs. She took a serious list and was threatening to capsize. However she was saved from Oklahoma’s fate by the quick action of her damage control officer who quickly ordered counter-flooding so she would sink on an even keel.  She was raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor and after temporary repairs and sailed to the West Coast for an extensive modernization on the order of the Tennessee and California.

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USS West Virginia after salvage and modernization 

West Virginia was the last Pearl Harbor to re-enter service. However when she returned she made up for lost time.  She led the battle line at Surigao Strait and fired 16 full salvos at the Japanese squadron. Her highly accurate gunfire was instrumental in sinking the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro in the last battleship versus battleship action in history.  West Virginia, Maryland and their sister Colorado survived the war and were placed in reserve until they were stricken from the Naval List and sold for scrap in 1959.

The battleships of Pearl Harbor are gone, save for the wreck of the Arizona and various relics such as masts, and ships bells located at various state capitals and Naval Stations.  Unfortunately no one had the forethought to preserve one of the survivors to remain at Pearl Harbor with the Arizona.  Likewise the sailors who manned these fine ships, who sailed in harm’s way are also passing away.  Every day their ranks grow thinner, the youngest are all 89-90 years old.

As this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack passes into history it is fitting to remember these men and the great ships that they manned.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy, world war two in the pacific

Why Aren’t Any Politicians Talking About the War and Why don’t Voters Care?

“The military is at war and the country is not.” Former US Representative Patrick Murphy

Seven more American Soldiers were killed in Afghanistan when their UH-60 Blackhawk was either shot down or crashed due to other reasons yesterday. 41 were killed in July and 10 last week. But who cares? The news of each incident went across the ticker on the bottom of the cable TV news feed and the obligatory 15 second spot on the headlines of the hour before it is subsumed by the latest political lie-fest or celebrity scandal. Have we no shame?

It seems that nobody really gives a damn about the war in Afghanistan or for that matter anywhere else that the United States and its allies are fighting. I mean really. Think about it.  The war constantly ranks among the lowest of issues that American voters rank as important and it certainly doesn’t seem to register as important among most political candidates unless hey can be photographic hugging a tank so they can show that they support the troops.

From what I see it looks like the only person in the Washington DC political sewer who even thinks about the war is Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta in frustration said Tuesday:

“I realize that there are a lot of other things going on around this country that can draw our attention, from the Olympics, to political campaigns to droughts, to some of the tragedies we’ve seen in communities around the country…. I thought it was important to remind the American people that there is a war going on.”

84,000 U.S. Military personnel are currently serving in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of DOD civilians, contractors as well as FBI, CIA, NSA, DHS, and State Department employees are also in harms way. Likewise another 30,000 or so troops from NATO or other coalition allies are risking their lives serving alongside of our personnel.

In July the Army recorded a record number of suicides. We don’t hear about the numbers of wounded because frankly aside from those directly affected and their friends or families most people would just prefer to ignore the war.

But then they can. Liberals have been accused of being anti-military and some are. But even the supposedly conservative God-fearing , military loving and Islam-Facist, Commie bombing Republican Presidential team of Romney-Ryan refuses to acknowledge the war when speaking in front of the World War II era battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk. No one of either party seems to have a plan for actually successfully ending the war and all seem to be content to let the war fester. I found that reprehensible. Whatever happened to Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman? Oh wait they’re dead.

But there is no real shared sacrifice in this country when it comes to national defense. There is no draft, no taxes have been levied to support the wars and many Defense contractors responsible for producing the weapons of war needed to fight the current war and prepare for future wars seem only to care about their bottom line. Future weapons systems are over-budget, long-delayed and fail to meet the expectations of either the services or the nation. Name the system. The F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightening, the Littoral Combat Ship, the Army Future Combat System and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. All either truncated, delayed or cancelled. Billions of dollars spent and little to show for the expenditure of the nation’s treasure.

I think that national leaders of both parties need to be held responsible. I think that American citizens and political leaders who lamely put bumper stickers on their cars saying “I support the troops” should put up or shut up.

If we are going to keep fighting wars without end let’s at least do it together. Let’s re-start the draft and levee special taxes. Let’s sell war bonds, let’s plant Victory Gardens and donate our scrap metal, plastics and electronics to be recycled to build weapons like we did in World War II. Let’s find new energy sources to better power our weapons systems since no one cares about renewable energy for anything else.

But then let’s not inconvenience anyone, after all the troops all volunteered for this.

I hate to sound cynical but when the military has been at war for going on 11 years and it the lowest priority of voters and politicians then something is terrible askew.

Don’t you think? Or am I just pissing in the wind?

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under iraq,afghanistan, Military, national security, Political Commentary