Before we trot off to our respective corners to gird ourselves for the bruising 2012 election, can we all take a moment — regardless of our political views — and acknowledge the greatness of this book? It describes, in hilarious, crackling prose, Thompson’s gin-soaked, drug-addled misadventures as he manned the National Affairs Desk for Rolling Stone magazine. He wrote about the behind-the-scenes efforts that produced George McGovern’s improbable defeat of doomed front-runner Edmund Muskie and perennial candidate Hubert Humphrey in the race for the 1972 Democratic nomination, and then McGovern’s landslide loss to President Nixon. It includes Thompson’s report on his bizarre encounter with Nixon to discuss pro football, among countless other unforgettable vignettes.
If you’ve never read Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 I encourage you to get it and read it immediately. It is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and its story of a political campaign is timeless. After you’ve read this book, I can assure you that you’ll never look at a politician, or a reporter, with the same awe and reverence again.
I’ve seen several articles raising the concern that President Obama’s decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan is likely to result in “another Vietnam.” This article from George McGovern, the anti-war candidate who was the Democratic standard-bearer in 1972, is pretty representative of the arguments that you see in such articles. The points of comparison include propping up a corrupt local government, fighting an entrenched opposition that enjoys local support, and spending money on a war that would be better spent somewhere else.
I respect George McGovern, who served his country nobly and well in World War II and enjoyed a long career in the Senate, but I think his argument is fundamentally misplaced. The essential difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam is that no one attacked the United States from Vietnam, whereas al Qaeda did attack the United States, on September 11, 2001, from bases in Afghanistan. McGovern makes the point that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan but is in Pakistan. Even if that is so (and no one seems to know precisely where Osama bin Laden and his number 2 are at the moment) McGovern neglects to mention that the only reason that al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan is that the United States military drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and thereby eliminated al Qaeda’s safe haven in that country. I question whether the other points of comparison that are cited really are comparable — for example, I don’t know that everyday Afghan citizens view the repressive Taliban as favorably as Vietnamese viewed the populist Viet Cong — but those points of comparison really are irrelevant and ancillary. The main distinction is that our activities in Afghanistan are defensive, not the result of abstract Cold War geopolitical considerations.
I have no desire to see American soldiers fight and die on foreign soil, but we cannot quit until we capture or kill Osama bin Laden and render al Qaeda powerless to attack us again.