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What Poets Can Teach Us About the War in Afghanistan

The editor of a journal recently asked me to write an article addressing this question: “What will Afghanistan look like in 2020?” I declined, saying that my contribution would consist of two words: “Who knows?” I should have added: “Who cares?”

The answer, of course, in that everyone in Washington seems to care. Indeed, Washington obsesses about Afghanistan—hence, the never-ending stream of assessments and reassessments, study group reports and op-eds to which we are treated, each possessing a shelf life of approximately 15 minutes.

In reality, the national security establishment’s current preoccupation with Afghanistan testifies not to that country’s importance but to the impoverished state of strategic thought prevailing among people in and out of government who make their living dealing with matters of statecraft.

As in domestic politics so too in foreign policy: People recite clichés in order to camouflage their own confusion and ignorance.

To pontificate about the course of events in Afghanistan distracts attention from this larger reality: In Washington, strategy as such—meaning the principled application of power to advance vital U.S. national interests—has ceased to exist.

President Obama and his lieutenants wander the world issuing portentous pronouncements, which possess ever less bearing on reality. Commentators seize upon whatever happens to be the latest surprise or outrage in some distant land and offer their potted 750-word prescriptions on what the United States “needs” to do to make things right. Exertions—mostly by overworked U.S. troops—expend billions we don’t have in pursuit of grand purposes that somehow never come to fruition. For one thing only can we be grateful: Nearly a decade into the long war, voices promising that victory lies just around the corner, with freedom and democracy for all the consequence, have largely fallen silent.

To understand the predicament in which the United States finds itself today, a mere three decades after the end of the Cold War, Americans need to give up any expectations of Washington offering an answer. Rather than looking to politicians and pundits, they need to turn elsewhere for enlightenment—to poets, for example.

In her poem “Voices,” Wislawa Szymborska offers a more accurate and acute description of America’s trajectory than anything you will hear from the likes of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or General David Petraeus:

You scarcely move your foot when out of nowhere spring
the Aborigines, O Marcus Aemilius.

Your heel's mired in the very midst of Rutulians.
In Sabines, and Latins you're sinking up to your knees.
You're up to your waist, your neck, your nostrils
in Aequians and Volscians, O Lucius Fabius.

These small peoples are thick as flies, to the point of irritation,
satiation and nausea, O Quintus Decius.

One town, another, the hundred seventieth.
The stubbornness of Fidenates. The ill-will of the Faliscans.
The blindness of Ecetrans. The vacillation of the
The studied animosity of the Lavicanians, the Pelignians.
That's what drives us benevolent men to harshness
beyond each new hill, o Gaius Cloelius.

If only they weren't in our way, but they are,
the Auruncians, the Marsians, O Spurius Manlius.

The Tarquinians from here and there, the Etruscans from
The Volsinians besides. The Veientins to boot.
Beyond all reason the Aulercians. Ditto the Sapinians
beyond all human patience, O Sextus Oppius.

Small peoples have small understanding.
Stupidity surrounds us in an ever-widening circle.
Objectionable customs. Benighted laws.
Ineffectual gods, O Titus Vilius.

Mounds of Hernicians. Swarms of Marrucianians.
An insect-like multitude of Vestians, of Samnites.
The farther you go the more there are, O Servius Follius.

Deplorable are small peoples.
Their irresponsibility bears close watching
beyond each new river, O Aulus Junius.

I feel threatened by every new horizon.
That's how I see the problem, O Hostius Melius.

To that I, Hostius Melius, reply to you,
O Appius Pappius: Forward. Somewhere out there the world
must have an end.

If we fail to reach that end point in the Hindu Kush or Baluchistan, perhaps we’ll find it in Yemen. Or Iran. Or could it lie somewhere on the Horn of Africa? The opportunities appear endless. Onward! Somewhere out there surely the world must have an end.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.