In Aztec cosmology, Venus was associated with the god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Nahuatl for “Lord of the Dawn”). In the mythic tale Legend of the Suns, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli attempted to shoot the sun with an arrow, but he missed and shot himself instead. The Aztecs had a sophisticated science of astronomy that focused on the movements of Venus and were among the first in the world to calculate that Earth’s nearest neighbor orbited the Sun thirteen times every eight years.
Thirteen Venus cycles ago, then-President Bush shot his own arrow in the form of his Afghanistan invasion and it has now become clear that, just like the Aztec deity, we are the ones who will end up getting hit. Eight years ago this week, while the nation was still in shock over the attacks of September 11th, 2001, “Operation Infinite Justice” was declared. However, the plan was quickly renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom” once it was learned that Muslims view “infinite justice” as something only Allah can provide. This was the first of many misguided moves in a war that still has no end in sight.
While US politicians and the public at large were nearly unanimous in their approval for the invasion, there were important voices that offered a warning (albeit one that went largely unheeded). For example, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA 9th) voted against the resolution to grant Presidential war powers and became the lone voice of dissent in both houses of Congress. As she explained to her constituents in the San Francisco Chronicle:
It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long- term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.
While few sources in the mainstream media offered any coverage of those who opposed this plan, across the pond in Britain such views had some limited consideration. A powerful example was that of Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy’s essay “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” that appeared in The Guardian newspaper (one of England’s major dailies):
Here’s the rub: America is at war against people it doesn’t know, because they don’t appear much on TV. Before it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the US government has, in a rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an “international coalition against terror”, mobilized its army, its air force, its navy and its media, and committed them to battle.
The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one. If it doesn’t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one. Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we’ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.
However, while a few quiet voices could be heard, they were almost entirely drowned out by the war drums. It became the internet and the rising format of social media that was the most prominent platform for alternative views on the invasion. Along with the two essays just cited, one of the most widely circulated pieces came from Jacob Levich writing for the online magazine Common Dreams in his essay “Bush’s Orwellian Address: Happy New Year. It’s 1984.”
Seventeen years later than expected, 1984 has arrived. In his address to Congress Thursday, George Bush effectively declared permanent war — war without temporal or geographic limits; war without clear goals; war against a vaguely defined and constantly shifting enemy. Today it’s Al-Qaida; tomorrow it may be Afghanistan; next year, it could be Iraq…
The fact that such a prescient statement fell on deaf ears says a great deal about American media culture. It has now been eight years, thirteen orbits of Venus, and the gods continue to fire wayward arrows into the sun without any memory of what came before.
Afghanistan has long been the imperialist’s worst nightmare. Many would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the British Empire to the Soviet Union have tried and failed. The fact that the Bush (and now Obama) administration thought otherwise demonstrates what a bloated and clumsy military giant our nation has become.
As 22-year veteran of the CIA Michael Scheuer wrote in his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (p. 31) we are going to have to learn our lessons the hard way:
[D]etailed studies of the Soviets’ disastrous Afghan experience are readily available at local libraries and the nearest Borders…[One] study details what the Soviet armed forces did in Afghanistan–save for atrocities–and assesses which political and military policies and actions succeeded or failed. Generally, the study depicts the frustrations of an arrogant superpower trying to cope with a people and a country it did not understand, as well as an enemy all but invulnerable to conventional military operations and more than able to deal with special forces (Spetsnaz). The study’s conclusions were condensed by a senior Russian official when he met senior CIA officials in mid-September 2001. “With regret,” the Russian said, “I have to say that you are going to get the hell kicked out of you.” One of the Americans responded in words that will someday be found in a U.S. military study of its failed Afghan war. “We’re going to kill them,” the U.S. official asserted. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” The occasional substitution of bravado for thought is truly an eternal attribute of senior intelligence and military officers.
After eight years there’s still no recognition that the arrow we’ve shot is coming right back at us. Eight years is a long time. At average foot speeds a person could walk to the Moon, if you’re assuming the impossible or possess a childlike imagination. But then, assuming the impossible is what got us into this mess in the first place. Did you know that in eight years time a child’s brain has undergone the majority of its plasticity and has established its long-term neural connections? To a large extent, their personality and behavior are fully formed. The window closes down substantially after that and such childlike imaginings, like walking to the Moon, start making more contact with reality. Perhaps the same is true for our war policy in Afghanistan.
I fear that, after eight years, we’ve already established our behavior towards the region, our options for change are limited, and that our inertia will carry us off a cliff. We’ll face the reality after it’s already too late. Like Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, we’ll discover that our hubris has been the seed of our own destruction. As the story goes, once the god was hit he became transformed into Itzlacoliuhqui-Ixquimilli, the god of cold, stone and castigation. Like past Empires whose over-sized ambition made a collision course with reality, a similar fate may befall us as well. Only time will tell if the Obama administration is able to dodge the arrow Bush shot out eight years ago. But the way things are going, the cycle of imperial hubris seems to be following the same pattern it always has.