Goodbye to Afghanistan

The day after the Florida primary, when all eyes were fixed in astonishment on the victorious Gov. Romney expressing his indifference to the sufferings of the poor, the Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, gave a speech in Brussels. He said that as early as mid-2013 American forces in Afghanistan will step back from a combat role.

This statement of defeat and imminent flight comes in an election year. Panetta’s speech was the first time any senior American official has publicly put the Afghan government and the Taliban, not to mention We the People and Gov. Romney, on notice that Uncle Sam will be packing his bags well ahead of the all-troops-out deadline of the end of 2014.

Big story? Initially, not  everyone seemed to think so.  The New York Times ran a dispatch on Feb 2 from Elisabeth Bumiller in Brussels, but not in the top headline deck of its electronic edition.  A bigger NYT headline the same day went to a story by Rod Nordland and Alissa Rubin, datelined Kabul, reporting that Taliban prisoners were telling their  US interrogators  that they – the Taliban – were winning the war.

Finally Romney tottered from Donald Trump’s embrace to grasp at the issue of the Obama administration  providing further proof that the president  is a traitor to the flag. ”  There are now hints from the White House that Panetta spoke out of turn. Before nailing himself to the colors, Romney should remember that his father lost a strong chance of winning the Republican nomination in 1968 after saying that he’d been “brainwashed” by the Pentagon during a visit to Vietnam.

Footnote: “Civilian deaths due to drones are not many, Obama says.” So that’s okay then. This was a headline in the New York Times for January 31, accurately reflecting Obama’s expressed views.  It was back in the mid-1920s that my father Claud, then working as a night editor at the London Times, won a prize for writing the dullest headline actually printed in the Times for the following day. Headline: “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many dead.”

Tumbril Time!

A  tumbril (n.)  a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotineiduring the French Revolution. 

Quitting time in Afghanistan brings us back to “in harm’s way” – a phrase usually occurring in the same paragraph as “blood and treasure” which went to the guillotine last week amid particularly delighted cackles from the tricoteuses knitting in the Place de la Révolution.

Among those pressing Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to haul “in harm’s way” into the dock was my brother Patrick, who was also trying to shove “go-to person” into the tumbrils. I use this phrase from time to time and felt a twinge. Fortunately, Patrick changed his mind, writing to me, “I have rather changed my mind on ‘Go-to person’. ‘Sejanus, becoming known as the go-to person in the court of Tiberius’ – Easy to mock, but is there a word or phrase conveying same idea? I am not sure there is and uncertain Fouquier-Tinville would have been wholly satisfied that it was a case for the tumbril.”

Denny Chericone advises that  “For a good time if you haven’t seen it before – In Harm’s Way with The Duke, The Kirk, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neal, Franchot Tone, Franchot Tone!? All brought together by Otto Preminger. Worth a view because I’ve never seen a WW ll movie shot in a bathtub before. Then you’ll really be looking for that tumbril. “

There can be no debate about “if you will”, a particular favorite of the CNN crowd, and recommended to me  for the fatal blade by Leslie Cockburn. The phrase serves the function of a pre-emptive apology every time the reporter or commentator makes something approaching a substantive statement. The late Christopher Hitchens used it a lot, archly.  Off it goes to the tumbrils.

I’ve learned once more that it is always dangerous – if you will – to make any statement regarding sports history. Last week I cited CounterPuncher Jeremy Pikser on the source for  “it’s not over till the fat lady sings.” Pikser wrote to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978.” James Blum promptly wrote that “your source on the Fat Lady was wrong in a detail, the NBA champion Bullets of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were in Washington in 1978.” (Blum, thirsty for blood,  added, “May I nominate for the tumbrils the pomo-prog ‘excavate’ and ‘unpack?’”

And then:

From: Richard Stack <rstack1@cogeco.ca>

Date: January 29, 2012 2:56:25 AM PST 


Just a note on the actual origin of ‘It’s not over till the fat lady sings’. It is a line in an old 1930/40 movie with Wallace Beery and Jackie Coogan. The two of them are improbably at an opera. The kid says “When can we leave?” Beery says ” Not till it’s over” The kid says “When will be over?” Beery says “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”, Regards R Stack.

It’s time too for clôture on “closure”, beloved of American families mustered in front of prisons on execution day. It’s an odious word, fragrant with fake feeling, with the cold breath of an undertaker lowering the coffin lid. Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville is mustering the necessary documentation and witnesses with his usual scrupulous attention to the rights of the accused.

From: Sandra Marr <marrsandra@gmail.com>

Date: January 28, 2012 2:52:06 PM PST

To: alexandercockburn@asis.com

Subject: For the tumbril

Hello Alex, Greetings from Guilford!  Am I too late to propose ‘defending our freedom’; which seems to be the only way most media can talk about the activities of brutal US troops conducting appalling aggressions around the world? All the best, Sandra.

Finally, from this just in from Okinawa:

From: Douglas Lummis <ideaspeddler@gmail.com>

Alex, The bottom line is, to the tumbril with ‘the bottom line.’  I think it was about 15 or 20 years ago, suddenly everybody was talking about ‘the bottom line.’  I asked around, The bottom line to what?  Nobody seemed to know.  On the bottom line of a letter is the signature.  On the bottom line of an invoice is how much you owe.  In fishing, I suppose a bottom line will be good for catching bottom fish.  In the language of seduction, presumably the bottom line will be something obscene. In comedy, it would be the punch line.  But in politics there is no bottom line, because there’s always the next page. Doug Lummis

The Port Huron Statement – Fifty Years On 

Fifty years ago  a group of students in the American midwest issued a document rather portentously titled “The Port Huron Statement.” It was the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic  Society (SDS), and became one of the most famous documents of that momentous and creative decade.

Read any history of the upsurges in the United States in the 1960s written over the past three decades and you’ll at once encounter tributes to SDS as on the cutting edge of radical organizing – in the battles against racial discrimination, particularly in the South; in the protests against the Vietnam War; and more largely in the aim of young people in the 1960s to break the shackles of the  cold-war consensus that had paralysed independent thought and spread fear of McCarthyite purges through the whole of what remained of the organized left in America, in the labor movement, the churches and in the universities.

SDS was founded in 1960 and in the summer of 1962  held its first convention just outside the Michigan town of Port Huron, on the US-Canadian border an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Presented to this gathering was a manifesto  initially drafted by a former student at the University of Michigan – Tom Hayden – and  revised by committee and finally delivered to the world as the Port Huron statement.

We are people of this generation,” it began, “ bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. …As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss…”

I’m going to leave you hanging there, because the remainder of this essay on the Port Huron statement is to be found in our latest newsletter, being released to subscribers over this weekend.

Also in this wonderful newsletter: “Why Mormon men can’t be trusted — A ex-Mormon woman looks back at the Church.” PLUS Two ounces of oil + a fishing boat + Homeland Security Incident #995038 = the onward march of totalitarianism in America. Read Captain Pete Knutson’s chilling story.


Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

More articles by:

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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