Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Lessons of History Have Not Been Learned

Following the end of the Vietnam War, journalists and historians spent the next 25 years trying to explain why America had been drawn into a war "it couldn't win" and why it had been so reluctant to admit this unassailable realization. 

In the 1960's, when America first became involved in Indo-China, Americans still believed in the invincibility of their military might. America had prevailed against Japan and Germany only 20+ years before. In Korea, it was felt that we would have overcome North Korea if China hadn't intervened. We thought our superior firepower, and our "can do" military, would surely prevail against a small, vulnerable Communist satellite. We hadn't any experience fighting on the Asian mainland, and we'd never before had to deal with a thoroughly "embedded" guerrilla force, which made it difficult to know who was a friend and who was not. But as that war dragged on, and the atrocities piled up, we discovered that what had worked in Europe and the Pacific, didn't in Vietnam.

The lesson of Vietnam was that, short of employing "weapons of mass destruction" it was unlikely we could overcome an indigenous revolutionary army through the usual ground offensive tactics, especially in the tangled terrain of tropical Southeast Asia. America's failure there, and our open admission of that failure, left a festering scar on our national pride. We had made a big commitment to "liberate" a nation, to preserve its possible future as a model Western-style democracy, but we had utterly failed, in large part because we had ended up nearly destroying a country we were trying to "save." Our indiscriminate use of Agent Orange, "cleansing" the countryside village by village of embedded Viet Cong volunteers, our pragmatic support of a corrupt puppet regime, the killing of hundreds of thousands of blameless civilians--these were the consequences of our adventure in Indo-China.  

Today, 40 years and four wars later, we're trying again to establish "democracy" in Northwest Pakistan, whose proxy government military is attempting, with American support, to eradicate the "Taliban" rebels from mountain villages and towns where they've been hiding, since we subdued Afghanistan. The parallels between our efforts in Pakistan and Vietnam are striking. This morning, reports of villages being shelled and "liberated" are producing the familiar pattern: Thousands of refugees, piles of rubble, disillusioned populations. Once more, we're leveling the countryside in order to "save" it. 

After America left Vietnam (in disgrace), we eventually came to accept the "inevitability" of the unification of Vietnam under a Communist regime. Today, we have diplomatically friendly relations with that country, and our citizens actually travel there with few restrictions. We trade with them. 

The lesson of Vietnam was that you can't bludgeon a country into submission and expect it to cooperate with your agenda, to follow your example of Western style democratic government. There are many objectionable aspects to Islamic fundamentalism, it is diametrically opposed to the way of life we enjoy in parliamentary democracies dominated by capitalistic enterprise. It is perfectly possible to make compelling arguments about how, as a way of life and government, Islam is regressive and harmful. 

But Islam is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of many Asian cultures. It has been a part of their lives for generations. The notion that we can dissect out the "bad" aspects of Islam--to remove it or kill it or "persuade" it with force to back down--is naive. Indigenous peoples, with their own centuries-old culture, can't be expected to adopt our ways and follow our example overnight. Attempting to force them to do so is a recipe for disaster. 

9/11 happened because we ignored all the clues and warning-signs of impending danger. 9/11 couldn't, really, have been much easier for Al Quaeda operatives. Clearly, America has done exactly what Osama bin-Laden wanted, stomping around like an elephant in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, crushing fragile, suspicious populations with sophisticated weaponry and door-to-door street sweeps. 

Vietnam, Iraq I and Iraq II, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan, have all been wars of "choice". In each instance, we've told ourselves we could go in, clean out the bad guys, be welcomed as liberators, and leave the place better than we found it. Instead of Communism--the evil we sought to defeat in Vietnam--we now have "international terrorism" as the bad guys. We continue to think that military intervention can be used as a short-hand to bring about rapid, favorable changes in indigenous cultures. But history teaches us that you can't do that. 

Imagine how Americans would feel, for instance, if China--which promises to be the world's next great superpower in this century--were to try to impose itself militarily here. Would any amount of bombing, martial rule, house to house searches, hostage-taking or torture, be likely to blunt our patriotism, subdue our desire to resist, make us compliant hosts to an invading foreign power? 

We can't invade and destroy countries to save them from their own cultures, no matter how extreme or backward or heinous they may seem to us. We cannot succeed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Short of a full-scale indefinitely open-ended occupation, requiring 450,000 troops, there is no way we can insure our interests will be served there. Britain, and later the Soviet Union, learned that lesson the hard way. Do we really need to repeat the mistakes of history, again?        


Kirby Olson said...

Lebanon is now Democratic, and has turned toward America, as of this week.

Vietnam is a fascinating lesson. I think their General Giap was under-rated. He had a lot of patience, and understood us better than we understood them.

Drawing the army north to that surrounded outpost -- and then clobbering the cities, was brilliant on Giap's part. He never won a single battle, but he did win the war.

Extremely clever.

Now the Vietnamese make 324 dollars a year. It sealed their fate. Those who fought with us had to eat Agent Orange in front of their children.


And while we did liberate South Korea in the 1952-1954 campaign, we let North Korea go to the dogs.

And Japan and Germany are functioning very nicely.

Win some, lose some.

Your generation is too narrowly focused on Vietnam, and you interpret it too narrowly. You guys think through the communist lens.

You should stop doing that, and think instead through the Lockean lens. Life, liberty, health, and property.

Those are the four basic human rights which all communist countries vehemently deny. They grant only the right to shut up, and accept the voice of the People.

Which is the Dictator's.

We were winning in Vietnam, but too few wanted to go there and fight for the rights of others.

The same people wouldn't have wanted to go to the American south and fight against the Confederacy. So we'd still have slaves in the south.

The American Revolution isn't over yet. It's only beginning. McCain understood that.

Obama has no clue, but will do whatever he can to look good: his only concern.

Anonymous said...

well what we need are some more UN Resolutions to prevent
China from militarily invading us...with weapons made in Detroit

just like the UN helped Tibet they will help us...

meanwhile China already owns at least 60 % the USA via buying up our debt especially Big Auto and HUMMER so

they don't need to invade with weaponry
they is already here!

hey, I just went up to buy insides for my leaky toilet and NOT ONE of the three brands was made outside of China..

even American Standard toilets SEEM to be made in China

Curtis Faville said...

What a surprising post, Kirby!

It's almost as if you think the Taliban is the rough equivalent of Communism.

I can't think of any comparison less apt, or less true.

The United States LOST the Vietnam War. Could we have "won" by nuking Hanoi? Was that an option? China sat by while we ran into a ditch in South Vietnam; do you think they'd have sat by patiently if we'd have conquered North Vietnam? Not bloody likely.

Have you ever studied the Korean War? American military experts now concede that that was a war we couldn't have won, with China pouring in its armies against us. They had Russian MIG fighters. Unlimited (one million) ground troops.

The point's about diplomacy and self-interest.

What do we (Americans) really have to gain from stirring up the hornets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia?

We can't spawn democracy there, at least not militarily. Britain and Russia tried it. Didn't work.

You think it's just a matter of will power--all we need is the desire to conquer. Hitler had it. Alexander the Great had it. Napoleon had it. Dick Cheney has it.

But what's the ultimate consequence? If we spend 500,000,000,000 dollars of our tax money scumbling around the rocky mountains of Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan, what's the end-game? Six months after we leave, the guys with automatic weapons will filter back from their caves and reclaim their old territories. Nothing we can do right now will change that. Nothing.

Kirby Olson said...

Afghanistan has already been changed. Women are reading. That will change things forever. Already has.

Christ changed the entire Roman Empire with thirteen guys.

It took a few hundred years, but they did it.

Kirby Olson said...

You are drawing all of your lessons from Vietnam, Curtis. What say you about Japan, which is now our best friend in Asia, even though we blew Hirohito's army to ribbons? What about Hitler's Germany? They are now a decent European country. We destroyed them.

And the Bosnian Muslims? They are the only grateful Muslim country, perhaps, but I think it shows that we tried, and we can, occasionally, succeed.

We caved too early in Vietnam due to all the people your age and their songs. Country Joe's mean song about how the GIs were such dunderheads. What are we fighting for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn. That kind of thing was so sick and wrong. Of course the GIs knew that they were fighting for Lockean liberalism: the rights to life, liberty, health and property for all citizens of every country.

The Vietnamese don't have it. Yes, you say that people go there. Sure, mostly sex tourists.

Put Japan and Germany and Bosnia into your pipe, and smoke it. Don't put anything illegal in there with it. Remain factual, but remain responsive to ALL the facts.

Curtis Faville said...

We didn't invade Japan. Our war with Japan wasn't a war of choice. No one ever said "we're going to Japan to bring about regime change, and spread democracy."

Germany is an immensely complicated case. The country was split down the middle, with the Soviet Union occupying the Eastern half. Again, World War II wasn't a war of choice, and trying to compare Western Nations (or Japan) with Asian cultures is not useful.

Political unrest during the Vietnam era had little effect on our foreign policy. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations were committed to winning the war, until Nixon finally admitted that the war was being lost, not because we hadn't poured men and weaponry into the cause, but because we weren't "winning over the indigenous" population.

Trying to insist that "winning" in Indo-China would have resulted in a Western style democracy goes against all the historical analysis that has been done over the last 35-40 years. It wasn't a lack of will, it was misguided foreign policy.

I can't think of a single reason--good or bad--that would keep us in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. It's good money after bad, and more dead.

For nothing.

Curtis Faville said...

Maybe one:

We should just go into Pakistan, dismantle and remove their nukes. No questions asked.

Any reason not to do that, Kirb?

Kirby Olson said...

It's very hard to do that kind of thing. I'm travelling. Do you know how many FRENCH deaths took place during the Allied Invasion after Normandy? Conservative estimate: 60,000.

It's never cheap or easy to establish democracy. IT requires massive bloodshed because you have to get the parasites off the back of the people.

Bush was willing to pay the price. Iraq has gone from a completely not free place to a partially free. OF course you need the will of the locals on your side.

This is finally perhaps happening in Lebanon.

Islam itself is going through a change of heart. I've been reading a Journal of Democracy I found at Princeton's Labyrinth Books. April 2009 issue has a great essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain.

She argues that Islam can go into the Democratic column.

Another article in the same issue lists the free, partially free and the not free countries. Vietnam is not free. Japan and Germany: free.

In China your wife can be picked up by the police because someone in the party saw her and wants to harvest her organs. You never see her again. If you make inquiries, you die.

There are lots of countries like those.

About half the world lives in those conditions. Christianity is the great hope of the world becaue it posits human dignity. The blacks in the south went for it. All over Asia they are going for it.

The regimes don't want this.

Will they be able to stop it?

Was Rome able to stop it?

I pray that they will not.

jh said...

kirby it would seem to me that you are simply willing to accept the enraged heart of that animal that cannot help but fight wars of righteousness...war is such a part of the soul of man that to try to do anything to counteract the tendency to war and kill is little more than counterproductive academics...or dope charged peace movements

i'd like to try some of the ideology of pete seeger...lets get some of these generals and political leaders together to sing some songs

i mean we go over the same selfrighteous tape of our dire necessity to make the world free for freeedoms sake...but you seem to indicate that it can only happen if the right righteous ones those with the best bill of goods those with the right social philosophy those with the poetry to back it up those with happiness and freedom in the culture...these are to be the righteous ones for the rest of the world???

i'm all for girls reading the persians have a long tradition of girls reading so it's not like the idea is completely foreign to the people of the mideast...but i side with curtis on this one...the big stick diplomacy has never proven very does if you basically demolish the people (thats the lesson of the shock doctrine boys)...i personally don't think we need to impose much of our culture upon the people of the mideast...they could learn more medicine...they could learn some of our art...i'm more inclined to just leave 'em be....shock the hell out of them...just say...hey we are out of here you folks war it out here's our number give us a call if you need something anything and we'll be there...but you just do it now the way you do it

i guess the other problem is you have all these high strung highly trained soldiers with nothing to do then so you have to get some war stuff goin on

there's a sort of democracy that has always existed before it became a political doctrine people in village life have ways of surviving and getting their needs met and their grievances heard...where hardship is equal for everyone there is equal consideration in all matters

i do think we have not been good at assessing the fervent education of revenge that was reignited in the iraq engagement...i'll be interested to see if that quiets down to civilized disagreement

i think those taliban cats are different than anyone we've ever fought...they will not relinquish their love for the mountains...nor the blessings that come from them
in one way shape or form the taliban are here to stay

maybe we need to learn how to be a bit more welcoming and appreciative of their zeal and style of warfare

war what is it good for absolutely nothin lets say it again war what is it good for absolutely nothin lets say it again war what is it good for...