Burke’s Law XIII: To Surge, With Love?

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By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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In January 2010, my nephew, Joshua Maxwell Burke, will represent at least the sixth generation of Burke men to enter the military. My family has been calling the New World home for some 300 years; Josh is just the latest of a long, long line of soldiers. When my brother (Marines, now Lt. Colonel, Army National Guard) told me about my nephew, I had this totally strange feeling: pride!

I was raised with the knowledge that every male in my direct line has served in the military since the Civil War — probably the Revolutionary War, too. My brother spent his whole life wanting to be nothing but a soldier — even after his Iraq tour of duty. There’s the story, with accompanying picture, of how my grandfather (Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army surgeon) and his brothers (there were a lot of them: we’re Irish Catholic) made the Buffalo News when all came back alive from World War II. There’s the tale of how my randy, Navy Lieutenant dad met my beautiful British mother in a bar while on he was on leave in London (ah, romance). You can imagine how much military (and love of bars) is ingrained into my soul and skin.

Yes, I have also been railing against the Iraq war for the seven-and-a-half long years we’ve been stuck in its dusty, bloody maw. I watched my brother leave and safely return; now it’s his son’s turn. Actually, Josh (Air Force) will probably head for that beast of the Far East: Afghanistan, the ancient country that successfully kicked the asses of the British Empire, the mighty Soviets and now, the better-late-than-never Americans.

When we attacked and invaded Afghanistan eight years ago this month, I believed we were doing the right thing. This was the home of al Qaeda, those cowardly murderers. Then, the following spring, the Bush Administration fooled us all, taking our national eye off the ball and deciding that al Qaeda, not to mention weapons of mass destruction, were in Iraq. So, bye bye Afghanistan, hello Operation Freedom. We all know how well that turned out.

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Now, after river after river of needlessly shed blood, Iraq is white-knuckling its way into a faux-democracy and Afghanistan, frankly, is a disaster. It’s more dangerous than ever, with both the Taliban and al Qaeda supposedly bigger, stronger and more menacing (to the Afghans and to the West) as ever. It’s president is Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-based corrupt leader who, er, “won” the last “election” and whose brother is allegedly the largest heroin supplier in the land.

You did a heckuva job, Bushie!

All right, all right — we’re well past the point at which we can still blame Bush for the mess he made.

President Obama has been meeting with his military advisors to come up with a realistic plan to — well, I would have written “win,” but is “win” the right word? We can’t really “win” a war against opponents we can barely see, can we? My nephew Josh isn’t off to war against Afghanistan, really, but against psychopathic, religious fanatics. With no allegiance to any particular country, with thousands of years of knowledge of the caves and mountains separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a long history of patience, with innumerable pacts with warlords, my nephew Josh, I fear, is potentially about to fight an enemy we still don’t have enough experience fighting.

Back home, meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) still clings to the virtues of the seemingly successful Iraqi “surge”; he believes Iraq and Afghanistan are the same country topographically, politically and, if you pardon the phrase, terroristically. Sometimes I imagine trying to show him a map: I picture McCain shutting his eyes, shoving his fingers into his ears and muttering “Surge, Surge, Surge, Surge, Surge!” at the top of his lungs. The Republicans, of course, are demanding more troops. They cannot seem to understand that while this strategy arguably worked in Iraq, Afghanistan is not Iraq. But do the Republicans really have a great track record of looking at reality anyway? These are the same Mensa leaders who led the fight to abandon Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 so the U.S. could attack a country that didn’t attack us, a decision based on lies that were fed to us by a corrupt administration to finish the job left undone by the first President Bush. These men — these vile Cheney folk who, unlike the men in my family, never served in the military — really think they know best. Cowards, all.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has publicly stated/leaked that he needs 40,000 to 60,000 more troops in Afghanistan. To do what with them, well, no one is really sure. We are sure, however, that McChrystal’s little outburst has backfired on him, earning him a summons to Air Force One for a closed-door chat with President Obama in Copenhagen, and a mild admonishing by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The Republicans, as usual not thinking before they shout, demand the additional troops be deployed with “deliberate haste” or else face a GOP backlash. Sometimes I’m more scared of them than I am of the Taliban or al Qaeda.

To fully understand the GOP’s latest game pick-up political blackmail, read the message delivered by Rep Eric Cantor (R-VA), the minority whip, in this new Op Ed on Politico.com, which details what he and other Republican brethren told President Obama in a private meeting last week. There’s also this:

“Republicans reiterated to the president our belief that his initial strategy constitutes the best way to accomplish this goal. When the topic of political will for the mission was broached, I reassured the president that Republicans would offer him our support if he makes the right decision and accepts the recommendations of the commanders in the field. We also urged him to make a decision promptly so that any delay doesn’t signal a lack of commitment to Afghanistan and the region.”

To be fair, some Democrats support a troop increase. Of the most open-minded Democrats, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers urging the president to make a decision need to answer questions on how much money they’re willing to spend and how long they’d be committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan. “Until these questions are answered, I think it’d be irresponsible” to deploy more troops, Kerry said.

I’m no military mastermind — I’ll leave that to my relatives — but I think I’ll listen more carefully to someone actually shot at in a war than a political party whose leaders’ military training typically comes from watching old movies.

To surge or not to surge, that is the question. Again. As of Thurs., Oct. 8, 2009, 792 members of the U.S. military died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of our invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. Of those, the military reports 612 were killed by hostile action.

Behind the scenes, Vice President Joe Biden is the principal voice behind shifting to a more limited mission: hunting down al Qaeda terrorists, not trying to stabilize the shaky Afghan government. A showdown is coming.

As I think of my nephew Josh heading into this hot mess of a combat zone, I’m proud but I still want to know why. Why should an intelligent, peace-loving, cool kid enter the military? It’s a family thing, yes. But why should it be necessary? I asked him directly.

Josh’s answers were thoughtful. They were reflective of why many young men and women join the service. He wants a college education, a chance to see the world, an adventure, some kind of change in his life. He said if he was going to do it, he’d want to do it “whole hog” — spoken like a true Burke! He found his young life at a crossroads, felt it was time to leave his comfort zone, needed something to challenge him, to employ his intelligence. He hopes to be a linguist and attend a 64-month program to learn Arabic, Russian, and/or Chinese. He’s planning for his future in a smart, rational way. He also talked about the opportunity to help the Afghan people to rebuild their infrastructure, to be free of the threat of a Taliban takeover, to “fix what we broke.” He also didn’t support the war in Iraq but feels differently about Afghanistan. He gets that it’s not about our fight with the Afghan people but our fight with terrorists. He knows what horrors await Afghanistan if these people run amok. He knows what horrors await us, too. He knows that for me it’s also personal: My friend, Thor Helsa, was murdered in January 2008 when these terrorists, these bits of human excrement, blew up the Serena Hotel.

My nephew Josh follows a long, long line of Burke men who have risked their lives in service to America. I burst with pride, I shake with fear. Josh is braver than most Americans, including me. If there is a surge and he’s sent to Afghanistan, I will share every moment I can on the Clyde Fitch Report. If he isn’t sent, I will give a secret and selfish prayer of thanks that I will not share with you. For that’s a private battle, one that is mine and mine alone.

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.