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Hopeless but Optimistic

“Hopeless but Optimistic: A Hoosier Reports on America’s Endless War in Afghanistan.” By Emily Stranger


Independent journalist and author Douglas Wissing had no plans to return to Afghanistan for a third time. He said he was in Mexico, of all places, when he read a newspaper article about a team of American soldiers from Indiana who were going to Afghanistan. Their goal was to bring sustainable agricultural methods to the war torn country. When Wissing returned to Indiana, he decided to pursue the story. He was invited to Camp Atterbury to interview the team, which consisted of colonels, majors, and captains. When he heard several of the troops speaking in Pashto, he was impressed.

“I asked them, how did you prepare?” Wissing said. “They told me they went to IU and took language classes offered by CEUS. They also received cultural training from Professor (Nazif) Shahrani, which helped train them and get them ready for what was to happen.” After speaking with the team, Wissing said he casually blurted out “Well, I’ll go with you.” Six weeks later, he found himself once again in Afghanistan.

On September 28, Wissing was invited by the University Club of Indiana University to talk about his latest book entitled “Hopeless But Optimistic: Journeying Through America's Endless War in Afghanistan. His talked focused on the ongoing war in Afghanistan and his experiences as a journalist embedded with American soldiers for the third time. Wissing told the audience that his most recent work is a follow-up to his book Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, which he described as “an exposé of the wildly dysfunctional American counterinsurgency.” He said his first book revealed how the deeply flawed counterinsurgency strategy was wasting billions of American tax payer dollars without accomplishing any military or diplomatic goals. Wissing claims his book was counter to the victory narrative being pushed by the Pentagon and the White House at the time and – as a result – had an impact on policy makers.

Why, then, did he write the second book? Wissing made it very clear why he felt compelled to visit Afghanistan with the Indiana team and put himself in harm’s way again. He said “I wanted to tell the American public what a failed war looked like, how people act in a failed war, and how do groups of humans who are together maintain cohesion when they know something has gone completely awry.” Wissing said his book is also a cautionary tale about war mongering politics. He told the audience that the same special interest groups that were part of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan want to take the same “wildly expensive but wholly ineffective strategy to other intractable battlefields in the Middle East and Africa.” He claims that these for-profit corporations see money, not dead soldiers or civilian casualties. He told the audience wryly: “They’re figuring it was great gig in Afghanistan, so why stop now?”

To further emphasize his points, Wissing read several passages from his book. The passages were mostly small glimpses of life as Wissing experienced it on several different military bases in Afghanistan. One selection he shared was about a dining hall at a giant airbase in Kandahar, which had a facility that he likened to a “cafeteria in suburban America.” Wissing said the wide selection of dining options – including a salad bar, taco bar, and desert bar – was surprising. “I didn’t, at that point, understand that a 21st century, corporatized war makes an awful lot of money running dining halls and feeding soldiers.” It was just one example, of many, that he said illustrates how Afghanistan has become mostly a war-for-profit cause.

Wissing concluded his talk by urging the audience to rally against more tax payer money being spent to fund the war, which he said has been a complete disaster. He gave many examples to support his poignant and sobering closing. “The U.S. has spent more on aid and development on Afghanistan, a country of about 25 or 30 million people, with a per capita income of about $400, then we spent on the Marshall Plan,” He said. “With 15 years in and with over $100 billion in U.S. development aid, the country remains at the bottom of every human development index and remains a basket-case, a disaster zone. We failed.”

The IAUNRC provided Wissing with assistance for two of his previous books, Pioneer in Tibet: The Life and Perils of Dr. Albert Shelton and his first book about the Afghanistan war, published in 2012, entitled Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.

University Club of Indiana University