When Scott Horton first published Fool’s Errand, I immediate bought and read about three quarters of it. Then I stalled. My excitement for this wonderful book soared, and I remember reading it so enthusiastically that I brought it with me into the wilds of an Oregon national forest, during the 2017 solar eclipse. That enthusiasm didn’t last, and not because it’s a bad book. The problem with Fool’s Errand is that it’s too good.
The challenge Fool’s Errand presented to me has an analogue in how the book was received among my close friends and family, as I bought copies for, and recommended it to them. Most of my family members are baby boomer liberal democrats. They were happy to hear about a new book which really delved into the harm caused by Pentagon folly and the hubris of war-mongering politicians. They all enthusiastically took down information about the book, insisting their respective book clubs would be very interested. In the end, none of them ever read the book, not even the ones to whom I had sent physical copies. Almost a year later, I’m sure I know the reason for this.
Fool’s Errand quickly and effortlessly presents a picture of an incredibly destructive military behemoth. A violence machine operated by fools. A world order where there are no adults in charge. Yes, this impression comes on strong, but that’s not the problem.
The problem with Fool’s Errand is that it inadvertently reveals a truth, which is unspoken, which is: America, everything about you is wrong.
I would assert, and I believe many who read this website would agree, that the American national security state is founded on rotten premises. The whole edifice of it is built on a lie, and what it does in the world is cynical, harmful, and anything but necessary. “Serious” national security analyses usually exist to insert personal agendas into the machine’s to-do list. A book on Afghanistan which criticizes Bush and Obama, but then forgives Obama a little, and tears into Bush as Hitler reborn – this is they kind of book Americans want to read. Scott should have written his book as critique of Trump and drawn out a convoluted Russia conspiracy behind it all. Americans don’t read books that point out that their country is broken.
Looking back at WWII, we have to remember that by the 1930s, many questions about war, peace, and politics were new and unanswered. The behavior of great powers, western and eastern, suggested that age-old imperialism was still an acceptable policy. In the Orient there were American, British, Dutch, French, Russian, and Japanese colonies – places where the locals were subject to foreign rulers, their lives governed by the bayonet and machine gun. Meanwhile, countries were just beginning to apply modern techniques to the question of rule. A country like France, for example, had really never had a time in its history – from the monarchy to the late republican era – in which the government wasn’t a key player in decision making. Even the bourgeois entrepreneurs would wrangle charters and subsidies from local rulers. Modernism figured that brand new technology, such as electronic counting machines, could make absolute rule efficient and utopian. Mass production and mass media meant mass control.
In this environment, there had always been competition and war. Weapons grew more destructive, and terms more absolute. How would a world with high-altitude bombers, nuclear weapons, mass media, wiretapped phone lines, factory production of armored vehicles, complex economic structures with key resource requirements, and so forth actually work?
The effective answer, produced by history, to this question was: American hegemony. Most American stakeholders: bureaucrats, academics, etc. are loathe to admit what this is. America is an empire, a new kind of empire (at the time). It is a system of dominance through covert financial means, covert aggression, military supremacy, and a large façade built to redirect organs of “soft” power away from this truth. The United Nations, post-war order, is a way of framing power. The Atlantic Charter doesn’t talk about covert action, nor economic imperialism and banking policy. It talks about tanks and declarations of war and peace treaties and boots over border lines. Which is all inconsequential – most of the time – to American power.
In the case of Afghanistan, you have a leaking hole in the “new” system. A country in the heart of the World Island of Eurasia. They are religious fanatics, and proud localists. They aren’t budged by cultural imperialism. They don’t bank at Wells Fargo. They are a football that affects energy resources and the great game of the Gulf to the West, the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff to the East, and the soft underbelly of the Sino-Russian geostrategic axis to the North. Dare I mention that they are a keystone in that crucial, shadowy global criminal network which trades in opium, arms, and human beings. This is a place still needing that touch of the “old” system, which “controls” the chessboard though boots on the ground. That’s why they sent in NATO. If you define “mutual defense” and “global stability” as: outcomes which benefit Anglo-American hegemony, then here is a case where “multi-lateralism” serves hegemony by design. By playing a new game, the post-war order has rigged the old game such that it only ever works in its favor.
Preventing wars of aggression is not the point of the post-war order. There have been countless wars of aggression since 1945. We call them “actions” or “operations” or “activities” or “unrest” or whatever other euphemism.
The problem with American foreign policy is that US power is the queen (and the rooks, and the knights) of the post-war order. One of the key activities of US military power is self-maintenance and self-preservation. The military-industrial complex is a machine within a machine. It has its own needs and prerogatives which have to be fulfilled in order for it to then serve its purpose within the larger system. Perhaps this is why the military appears to be wasteful. If we consider that the purpose of the military isn’t to win wars – that’s not “the game” – but instead it is to frame the hard power of the old system so that the new system can chug along unperturbed, then that waste becomes a feature not a bug.
I knew some of the details of the horrifically bad decision making in Afghanistan before reading Fool’s Errand, but Scott really beats the horse dead and then some. It’s unbelievable how obsessively dedicated, brilliant military leaders could have so enthusiastically supported such bad policies. The night raids, “insurgent math”, the kill lists and so forth were all a disaster. Yet, to cover their own butts, you had people like David Petraeus, Michael Flynn, and Stanley McChrystal actually doubling down on policies they knew were bad.
It’s hard to know exactly, but one thing is clear: there’s no “win” condition in Afghanistan. Fool’s Errand excels at breaking down the different factions, and the deep history between them. It’s hard to conceive of an Afghanistan where Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Taliban, the warlords, and whoever else all get along. It is clear that every American intervention has only served to make things worse in the long run. This is because military power is violence, and making a play on the chessboard means shedding blood. Afghanistan is a sponge which has soaked up the blood of multiple generations. It’s a sponge which the US has deliberately used time and again to “sweep up” in the region as they “let loose” their pawns in a part of the world to which few people pay attention.
Afghanistan is called the Graveyard of Empires. With the American Empire, we are seeing the premises of the national security state stretched to their limit. The war is, incredibly, the longest in US history. As Scott sometimes mentions, the babies born after the war began are now old enough to go fight in it. The Afghanistan war is a pretense which has failed. There’s no way to look at it and not ask, “What does national security even mean anyway?”
That’s why the media doesn’t ask.
When I was in the Air Force, some colleagues had worked with the Afghan national government. The mission there, it seems, is self-aware to a certain extent. The Pentagon brass – raised by the Vietnam die-hards – firmly blames the media and the voting public for the loss in that war. They understand that what happens in Afghanistan from now on must happen on the down-low.
In Afghanistan, the true nature of American power is revealed.
There’s no refugee crisis to pretend to solve, no big important ally in need of a meaningful back-scratch, no ideological mission of any substance. No, Afghanistan is a square on the chess board and dammit, the Americans are gonna keep their bishop there.
I think this is why my family won’t read Fool’s Errand, and why it took me half a year to get back to it and finish the last quarter. Scott Horton peels back all the layers of BS quickly, and clearly. He breaks down the whole history and doesn’t leave stones unturned. His review of cause and effect is relentless. Scott doesn’t pander to our idealism, or to an agenda. He doesn’t confirm biases, or present a clean path forward for US victory.
When you read Fool’s Errand, you almost immediately realize that the whole thing is a sham. The whole concept of national security, and American “national interest” as defended by foreign expeditionary wars. People like me who are sympathetic, in my case especially, grow weary and depressed. People like my family who still believe in what they say on CNN can’t fathom the meaning of the facts. They are not able to go to the place Scott leads them.
This is the challenge facing Fool’s Errand. It’s too thorough a rebuttal, because reality itself is too ugly to be believed.
Of course, this is not at all Scott’s fault. If anything, this is why we needed Fool’s Errand. There’s something to be said for saying the thing on everyone’s mind, and saying it relentlessly. When I was in the military, Scott’s radio program helped me realize I needed to quit. His uncovering of the dark underbelly of the war state gave content to my imagination that wasn’t there before.
The idea that America is a force for good in the world is a narrative. The idea that American power is an evil empire is also a narrative. I can articulate either narrative, as a story, but that doesn’t mean I buy in to one version or the other as real. In order to buy into a story, I need that story to overwhelm my ability to make sense of it. When my imagination is bigger than a set of facts, then the story those facts present is just a tale in my mind. When the facts grow into something bigger than imagination, they become something that’s real, that my soul has to contend with, and submit to.
Fool’s Errand performs the task of the mythic hero, battling and thoroughly devastating our inner naivete.
I don’t know really who the book is for, though. I don’t know how the American mind will ever really change. But we don’t see the change until after it has occurred.
I hope Scott goes down in history for pushing the snowball past its rut, and the thing rolls downhill and becomes an avalanche of change. If only life was as convenient as Hollywood storytelling.
The final page of Fool’s Errand hits the nail on the head concerning the best path forward. Americans won’t necessarily change their minds about the national mythology, but they might come to realize something in particular. The Afghanistan war is just darn stupid.
America’s self-awareness doesn’t have to change fundamentally for the public to realize what a waste this war is. If anything, Scott is helping contribute to that general sense that the Afghanistan war “stinks”. That’s all we need people to know.
Despite how difficult the material is, the truth presented by Scott, the challenge which is Fool’s Errand seems to at least get people to admit as much. Just by existing, this book makes people admit to themselves that this war does, indeed, stink. Even if they won’t read it, tell people about it. Buy it, and send it to them. The title on the cover alone makes the point, and plants the necessary seed.
TGIF: The Knowledge that Only Free Markets Disclose
As a follow-up to my recent article about F. A. Hayek's classic article "The Use of Knowledge in Society" (1945), I thought it worth extending Hayek's exploration of this area of social theory. In 1968 the Nobel laureate-economist delivered a lecture in German known...