Though my mother has been gone since November
2001, I still think of calling her whenever some major political
I'd have phoned her this week to make sure
she'd heard the welcome news that Osama bin Laden was dead. And
I'd have shared the information that we reverently prepared and
buried the body at sea within the 24 hours required by Islamic
I inherited or absorbed my mother's
indignation, her sometimes amused outrage at the absurd. I can
hear her now: "We what? After Americans he murdered were
scattered in the rubble?"
I'd have called back later with the
reassuring news that apparently bin Laden would have preferred
to be buried in the earth with his head facing Mecca. My
Catholic mother would have noted that, regardless of the burial
spot, his soul is in hell. Mother was more into justice than
mercy. In this case, I doubt my more easy-going father would
So, if we can believe anything our government
tells us, bin Laden had been hiding out comfortably in Pakistan,
not dying slowly of kidney disease in a musty cave near the
AfPak border as we'd once heard.
I use the word "AfPak" because that's what
the war arena is called in Bob Woodward's 2010 book, "Obama's
Wars," which I just finished. At one point, someone
suggested that the arena be renamed
PakAf, so it would be more clear that the real problem is in
Pakistan, where terrorists are actually hiding and being trained
as they were in Afghanistan before 9/11. This idea was rejected
because Pakistan didn't like it.
This is one main plot of the book — how to
wage war without upsetting Pakistan — which deals with the
period between the inauguration of President Obama and mid-2010,
when his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan was
finally made. It covers meetings between and among the military
command, various advisers, and the major players in the Obama
"Obama's Wars" should be out in paperback by
the July 2011 date by which they finally all agreed, sort of,
that withdrawal would begin. Yes, two months from now U.S.
troops are supposed to be replaced by the Afghan counterparts
Woodward's book is a must-read while you're
holding your breath.
A friend lent me the book, which I expected
to be tedious. Couldn't have been more wrong; it was hard to put
down. And every few pages I laughed out loud. Not because it was
funny, but because it was laughingly familiar to anyone who
spent time observing the military brass in action, as I did
during the Vietnam era as a Navy wife, or who rolled on the
floor watching the movie "M*A*S*H" in 1970.
The process of fighting an undeclared war was
traditionally called SNAFU. In Woodward's book, the operative
acronym, using the military alphabet, is Whisky Tango Foxtrot —
"the universal outburst of astonishment and anger."
He begins with a determination to get to know
the players, collect their ongoing thoughts through their notes
and recollections, and objectively show us how important
life-and-death decisions are made by the teams of military and
civilian experts. As you read, you note the subtle tone of
disbelief that enters the author's observations as the months go
by and the basic questions, asked of the military by the
civilians, are never answered.
I was gratified to learn that they are the
same questions I asked in my
June 2010 column about the resignation of Gen. Stanley
McChrystal, after he and his staff made public disparaging
comments about administration officials. I wrote: "What are we
doing in Afghanistan? Why are Americans dying there? What is the
It's one thing for us ordinary citizens to
ask these questions; and quite another for some of those
involved in making the decisions to ask, while others avoid
answering them, which happens throughout the entire book.
To his credit, it's primarily Vice President
Joe Biden who keeps asking.
During one meeting on the size of a new troop
commitment, they continue an ongoing discussion about corruption
in the Afghan government. Biden asks: "If the government's a
criminal syndicate a year from now, how will (more) troops make
Woodward writes: "No one recorded an answer
in their notes."
Biden tries again: "What's the best-guess
estimate for getting things headed in the right direction?"
Woodward records: "No answer."
One retired military adviser concludes that
with fighters pouring across the Pakistan border, "You can't
I recognize many of the officials being
quoted in this week's news reports. One of my favorites,
counterterrorism specialist John Brennen, is telling reporters
that bin Laden probably had some support in Pakistan.
In the book he argues against a large troop
increase in Afghanistan: "What are we trying to achieve? ...
using terminology like 'success,' like 'victory' and 'win,'
complicates our task." He prefers to just train the Afghan army
and police and focus our efforts on al-Qaida in Pakistan, Yemen
Well, the additional troops were sent anyhow,
but there was enough focus on Pakistan to achieve one major
goal. Happy Mother's Day in heaven, mother. You won't be seeing
Osama bin Laden there.