America's wars go on far too long. The pace is slow; the action drags. Sponsors fret that ratings are in the doldrums. Within the last year, clicks on war related stories in The Huffington Post are down 16 percent. That puts them on a par with Kim Kardashian's latest dress malfunction and a couple of points below Huckabee's perennial campaign announcement. In addition, sales increases of Star-Spangled-Banners have slowed to two percent per annum as demand declines steadily since its peak in 2002-2003. Anecdotal evidence supports the thesis that popular engagement with the country's misadventures abroad just isn't what it used to be. Observers note that salutes to uniformed servicemen in airports lack the enthusiasm they used to have in the heyday of the war on terror. Pep rallies for the troops now have to be scripted in formal ceremonies at sports events. And the percentage of middle school students who can identify Afghanistan on a map is in the high single digits when it was in the mid-teens just a generation ago.
Much of this fall-off in interest is attributed to the tedium generated by wars that move at a snail's pace and offer little in the way of graphic, innovative fighting. At times, it seems to be all strategy conferences, drawn-out discussions on command changes and sideline exchanges between the teams as to whether it would be better to call off the whole thing.
Still, the owners and team leaders insist that there is an enduring value to these wars that needs to be preserved. They are part of American life. It would be an insult to sacred tradition to drop the curtain on a pastime that for a generation has been woven into the fabric of our collective identity as a nation. Looking at DVD or YouTube videos of great wars of the past may be an entertaining nostalgia trip but just can't be compared to live streaming of real-time killing, maiming and destruction. The problem is that the technology has outstripped the available material. What's the net valuable of a drone strike app when actual missile launches now occur only every other week.
So, here are some suggestions on how to impart new energy to America's wars.
1. Nowadays, far too much time is spent in drawn-out deliberations over whether to change commanders. While no one wants to bring back the days when weary generals kept throwing troops into the maw until either victory or terminal tendonitis benched them, the current practice of switching commanders every offensive is time-consuming -- what with warm-up time, consultations back in the Pentagon, and each new commander's review of the players on the field and in the line-up. In Afghanistan, the United States has used 10 commanders without finding a true 'closer.' The bullpen got so depleted that they have to resort to calling up knuckleballers from minor league squads in Somalia, Yemen, Honduras, and Congo. Conclusion: stick with the mediocrity you have on the mound -- even if his 81 mph fastball has no movement -- for the sake of the integrity of the game.
2. Shift commentators' focus away from dry statistics and emphasize the human interest aspects of the war that the average Joe can make sense of and identify with. We've become enamored of numbers: how many bullets and shells expended in a given operation; the exit velocity of Hellfires; the hang-time of drones; the ratio of enemy KIA to collateral deaths; desertion rates of the National Army compared to 2005; and the exact amount of squandered and/or missing cash broken down on a warlord-by-warlord basis.
The way to grab and hold the attention of the casual war fan at home is to offer colorful vignettes of personalities -- the way they do in covering the Olympics. Like the Bangladeshi laundryman Ashraf Rahman working for a KRB subsidiary who has been doing the wash for the 10th Mountain Division, now on its 7th tour, for so long that he's soaping the clothes of soldiers who are the children of men whose underwear he first encountered in 2002. An added touch would be tear-jerking interviews with relatives back in Chittagong who haven't seen him since 2002 and fear that the passport KBR confiscated may no longer be valid.
Or, the minor warlord in Kunar province who has changed sides so many times over the past 30 years that he cannot separate one scrapbook of mementos from another. Having retired 5 times to tend his family's modest opium poppy farm, he still can't resist the entreaties from all sides to return to action and expand his multiple pension accounts -- which might come in handy were the world price for opium to plunge because Washington decided to occupy another poppy rich country. Besides, there is just so much "Desperate Housewives of Kandahar" a grizzled guerrilla veteran can bear. A T.V. special on this Rashid Gulbuddin might be titled: "My Four Decades On All Sides of the GWOT."
Then, for those with a taste for exotic politics, there is the distant relative of Ahmed Karzai who studied Political Science at USC, specializing in electoral behavior. He is the man who proposed the legislation that stipulated 'stuttering" to be a disqualifying condition for Afghan voters -- thereby, eliminating all ballots cast for Abdullah Abdullah. This mystery figure would be identified only as a current resident of Washington, D.C. whose flourishing consulting firm is headquartered in Dupont Circle -- and includes among its clients the states of Texas, Georgia and Alabama.
3. Imaginative ways to exploit these wars' longevity should be sought. Afghanistan is closing in on the record held by Vietnam for the longest lasting American War. The latter went on for 15 years; Afghanistan is in its 14th year now. The drama is building. It might be a good idea to encourage office pools as to the exact date that it ends. Admittedly, there may be disputes over the criteria for determining the precise concluding date -- when the last uniformed American soldier leaves? When the last mercenaries from Blackwater leave? When the last adviser leaves? When the last drone strike occurs? when the last Bangladeshi packs his laundry detergent and heads back to Dakkha? In fact, President Obama held a formal ceremony to punctuate the war's end (and success) some months ago at the White House. But that was only a photo-op that had none of the drama or authenticity of Japan's signing its surrender on the deck of the Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Obama's act, though, could provide some grist for the Sunday morning talkfests as the usual loudmouths argue whether the President will make known his own lottery pick as he does his March Madness predictions or instead discretely stays on the golf course.
4. More inter-war exchanges might also boost interest. After all, baseball has gotten a lift from seeing American and National League teams mix it up during the regular season. So, how about having the American trained/advised Iraqi National Army take on the Taliban for one fighting season while the American trained/advised Afghan National Army takes on ISIL. Next year, it could be the insurrectionists that shift locations. Picking leaders could also add some excitement: would it be Petraeus (with or without Broadwell as his batting coach) or McChrystal at the helm? Would it be al-Zakawi or al-Baghdadi leading the Iraqi jihadis? Think of the hot-stove league passions that could generate.
5. An annual All-Star game between fighters from the two wars is a natural follow-on. To whet fans' appetite, and to add to the thrills, pre-game contests modelled on the NBA's dunk competition and MLB's home-run competition should be introduced. Sniper shooting, already a great favorite, is an obvious candidate. Renown marksmen would participate in knocking off enemies at 500, 1000, and 1500 yards. Whether to use live targets would depend on initial fan response. Then think of the touching flashbacks that could seduce audiences: Bronko Klesko as a small boy shooting fish in a barrel with his doting father at his side offering guidance; and Bronko whacking pigeons from his SOHO rooftop with his first girlfriend serving as spotter while his yoga trainer strewed bread crumbs.
Another skill contest that is guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser would pit drone remote controllers in Florida and California. The objective would be to eliminate a suspect groom at a Pashtun wedding party within an Afghan compound while leaving the bride more or less intact. Collateral damage among the guests would add or deduct points from the total score. The logistics might be challenging, but the patriotic citizens of Bastrop, Texas already have volunteered themselves and their town to the cause of freedom -- provided the exercise is monitored by the Texas State Guard under the command of Governor Abbott.
6. Nobody likes ties; it's like kissing your sister as some football coach once said. A tie-breaker is what's called for. Maybe, after each three years of inconclusive combat, each of the two sides should select an elite team to contest control of a small village using both weaponry and political guile over a month's time. For the sake of verisimilitude, "natives" could be recruited to play the role of residents with the promise of prosperity, sharia law, or the pursuit of happiness -- as they choose. Ratings would soar.
7. Since the challenge is to sustain citizen/fan engagement in an impatient era when attention spans are fixed by the intervals between shifts in Hillary's political rhetoric, methods should be found for direct participation for the war couch potatoes. Sandlot and Little League counter-insurgency leagues, search-and-destroy summer camps for youngsters, vocational high school programs in needed skills like interrogation techniques, algorithm driven data searches, and information massaging would prepare many underprivileged teen-agers for tomorrow's job market while keeping these young citizens' attention fixed on the Military Channel. A side benefit is that such training could reduce the odds on their becoming financial traders or consultants.
War may be becoming tiresome. However, we owe it to our heroes of the past, and to the next generation of heroes, to do all in our power to infuse this hallowed tradition with renewed vigor.