In recent weeks, the 2,000th American soldier died in Afghanistan.
And Michael Baumgartner used one expletive.
Which do you know more about? Which subject has gotten the state senator and quixotic candidate for U.S. Senate more attention? As the GOP holds its convention in Tampa, Fla., this week and the Democrats head toward their own shindig, should we brace ourselves for any discussion, any reckoning, from the politicians or the press, about the longest war in our country’s history, its human toll, its great cost, its apparent futility?
But Baumgartner’s rude dismissal of a reporter – now there’s something we can get our hands on. A curse word! An expletive! Unlike something serious and deadly like a war, the F-bomb was perfect for Gaffe Theater. In Gaffe Theater, we pounce lustily from one day’s stupid political quote to the next and pretend that’s a debate.
In Gaffe Theater, everything’s a war but the real one. We rail about metaphorical wars on women, on Christmas, on religion, on the American dream, apparently unembarrassed that actual young Americans are actually dying in an actual war – the average age of a U.S. casualty in Afghanistan is 26 – or becoming so traumatized they kill themselves.
We’re ultimately responsible for this, you know. You and me. The collective us. We voted for the people who chose to do it on false pretenses, and then we voted for people who continued doing it, and then we mostly ignored it as it dragged on, year after year, death after death, suicide after suicide, billion after billion.
“I’d call it a tri-partisan failure, with the Republicans, the Democrats and the media,” Baumgartner said last week.
I’d add a fourth party: the public. We all own this one.
Not that you need it, but here’s a quick recap of what Baumgartner did to get the most coverage of his campaign so far: In a back-and-forth with a Seattle reporter over Todd Akin’s dumb, despicable comments about “legitimate rape” – which Baumgartner described as idiotic, but which included fair questions about the parallel between Baumgartner’s beliefs and Akin’s – Baumgartner lost his cool and emailed the reporter a photo of himself with a soldier who recently died in Afghanistan. And then he told the reporter – as they say when they dub R-rated movies for TV – to forget himself.
Baumgartner said he was frustrated over his inability to get the press to write about Afghanistan. In this – despite the fact that Akin’s comment exposed his party’s legitimate underbelly of rape minimizers, despite the fact that Baumgartner opposes abortions in instances of rape, and despite Baumgartner’s self-interested political motivation to attract coverage for his campaign – he is absolutely correct.
The war in Afghanistan has swallowed up 2,000 young American lives. Thousands and thousands of civilians have died – perhaps 10,000 or more, depending on how you estimate it. The war has dragged on for 11 years; between Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve spent nearly $1.4 trillion. Mental health problems among veterans are through the roof, and the military is scrambling to develop strategies, treat soldiers and prevent suicide. We’re sending soldiers and Marines back again and again and again, literally hurling human lives against a wall, and the latest fruit of the effort is this: Afghan security forces that U.S. troops trained are now killing U.S. troops on a regular basis.
Baumgartner has served in various diplomatic and advisory roles in the Middle East, as an expert on economic development, counterinsurgency and narcotics trafficking. He still lectures regularly before troops headed into combat.
He argues that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were misbegotten and poorly planned from the start, and then compounded. The goal of cramming a democracy into Afghanistan – remote, factional and poorly educated – far exceeded what we needed and what’s possible, he said.
“We have a real credibility gap in that part of the world, because we over-promise and under-deliver,” he said. “We don’t need to have free and fair city council elections in Kandahar as a way to protect us in Spokane or anywhere else in the country.”
We ought to get out of there now, he says, and he wants to illuminate the fact that his opponent, Maria Cantwell, has voted in support of the current strategy, which aims for a slower exit. That’s fair. On this one, Cantwell and a lot of Democrats have spoken like doves and voted like hawks, hedging, blaming, rationalizing, weasling.
Baumgartner has been beating this drum for a while, and it’s gotten little traction in the media. Of course, candidates do not get to pick their questions or frame their coverage, and they shouldn’t. And just because Baumgartner hasn’t gotten a lot of attention on this subject doesn’t mean there hasn’t been coverage of the war. You can find excellent reporting if you seek it out.
There could be more, it could be better, it could be more prominent, but the media failure is a shared one: If there were a clamor for information about the war, a desire to engage and debate, it wouldn’t seem so shrouded in silence.
A lot of us want simply to look away. I feel this way myself. Baumgartner called me several weeks ago, and we met to talk about Afghanistan. He made a forceful, clear, factual case that we blew it, and that no one in politics or the media is holding anyone accountable for it, because everyone is accountable for it.
He was absolutely right. And I never wrote one word about it.
At least not until he dropped that one word.