May 11, 2011

Ankle Deep in the Big Muddy

Lest we forget, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture Osama bin Laden and to neutralize the safe haven from which Al Qaeda might operate.  It is now ten years later.  Osama bin Laden is dead.  Al Qaeda’s always small presence in Afghanistan remains small, largely unaffected by a war that has cost 1.2 trillion dollars and the lives of more than 4,600 U.S. troops—with casualties on the rise.  And so we might assume that the presidential promise of a substantial troop drawdown in the summer of 2011 would be impending.  But apparently not.

The U.S. currently has 94,000 troops in Afghanistan.  The WSJ reports that the Pentagon is about to propose bringing 5,000 troops home in July and possibly another 5,000 troops by the end of the year.  That would make for a 10.5% reduction in troops, hardly what one might imagine as a significant withdrawal.  But it gets better, with other reports indicating that the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is expected to peak at about 98,000 later in the year as the surge of 30,000 troops promised in January are deployed.  So a 10.5% reduction actually turns out to be a 1% increase.

In this context, the photograph above reminded me of Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”  The song, often taken as a parable for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, tells the story of a platoon Captain in 1941 who marched his men into a Louisiana river which continues to get deeper and deeper until the entire patrol is up to its neck in water.  Despite warnings from the Sergeant that the men will not be able to swim, the Captain responds by noting “All we need is a little determination.”  And the refrain intones, “And the big fool said to push on.”  Eventually the Captain drowns after getting mired in quicksand.  And the narrator concludes:

Now I’m not going to point to any moral—
I’ll leave that for yourself.
Maybe you’re still walking, you’re still talking
You’d like to keep your health.
But every time I read the papers, that old feeling comes on,
We’re waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.

In the photograph above the soldier walking through a combat outpost in the Kandahar Province is only ankle deep in the flood waters.  And so one would like to think that there is still hope for him—and the 94,000 troops he currently represents.  But then there is this photograph that appeared in the same slideshow and what it shows surely must give us pause to wonder.

It is a group portrait of the 234th Infantry Division being deployed from Fort Riley, Kansas to Afghanistan on April 15th.  And apparently there will be more before year’s end.

“And the big fool said to push on ….”

— John Lucaites

cross posted from

Photo 2: Vyaceslav Oseledko/AFT/Getty Images

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John Lucaites
See other posts by John here.

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