Goodbye To Afghanistan

by Alexander Cockburn, February 8, 2012

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 WWII 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 <>

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

Alex, 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 <>

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


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 <>

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 — 50 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.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

One Response to Goodbye To Afghanistan

  1. Chuck Becker Reply

    February 8, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    Re: 2013 withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan. When the announcement comes, informally, from the Secretary of Defense, chances are it’s one of two things. Either it’s a slip up, Panetta doing a stream of consciousness thing. Or it’s a trial balloon, providing the Commander in Chief with plausible deniability. It might happen, it might not, but I wouldn’t let Panetta’s “oooopsy” influence my estimate too much.

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