by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 9, 2009
NOBODY LISTENED, NOBODY LEARNED
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In 1892, Rudyard Kipling ended his poem "The Young British Soldier" with these immortal lines: "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains/And the women come out to cut up what remains/Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."
Who, in their right mind, would consider fighting a war in this wild land of intense tribal loyalty, powerful warlords and fierce fighters - this land known for centuries as "the graveyard of empires"?
Well, how about our likable new president, Barack Obama?
In the light of our current troop buildup there - which will include as many as 1,500 Vermonters - isn't it somewhat ironic that Robert S. McNamara, the "architect" of the Vietnam War, died this week at the advanced age of 93.
His death gave us an opportunity to think anew about cross-cultural understanding, foreign wars, nation-building, conventional wisdom, the arrogance of empire, suffering and futility.
McNamara was defense secretary from 1961 to 1968 for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
By the time Johnson forced him out of office, he had already come to the conclusion that the war was "terribly wrong." Then, for the better part of four decades, he was forced to carry on his conscience the names of 58,000 dead Americans, not to mention unnamed millions of Indochinese.
"At a going-away luncheon given by Secretary of State Dean Rusk," The New York Times wrote in his obituary, "Mr. McNamara wept as he spoke of the futility of the air war in Vietnam. Many of his colleagues were appalled as he condemned the bombing, aghast at the weight of his guilt... He had thought for a long time that the United States could not win the war. In retirement, he listed reasons: a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism."
Historically, Afghanistan is no place for virgins. Alexander the Great made it through the Khyber Pass in 327 B.C., ran into fierce resistance and, struck by an Afghan arrow, barely made it to the Indus River with his life. Genghis Khan's troops made it through, but only after "settling" with the Afghan warlords.
The British went to war in Afghanistan several times - they may have won some battles, but they lost the war and along the way lost the Empire. Their mistakes included occupying the territory of a fierce and independent people, creating an unpopular puppet ruler, treating the Afghan people cruelly, and not paying the local warlords enough money.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Part of the American plan is also to pay warlords to be our friends. You might call it institutionalized bribery. Of course, that's the way Washington already works, although there we call it "lobbying."
We've already had some success in Iraq with the idea of buying friends, but didn't we all learn in Kindergarten 101 that the strategy doesn't work in the long haul. First of all, it costs money we just don't have. Second, once we start, there's no end to it . Third, someone with a larger bag of money can buy our "friends" and turn them against us. Fourth, who wants those kinds of friends, anyway?
Of course, when the might-makes-right Russians tried to take over Afghanistan, they didn't consider bribery. They had the arrogance that comes with superior weaponry. We all know what happened next. America, blindly going on the theory that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," helped arm the insurgents (including a young Osama bin Laden). After a long, fierce struggle, the insurgents won. Some time later, they became the loathsome Taliban. The Taliban sheltered bin Laden and al Queda. After Sept. 11, 2001, instead of going in with a surgical strike and wiping out al Queda, we made a half-assed effort, turned away and started a doomed war with Iraq.
Now we're back in Afghanistan where, in a land ruled by tribes, we're trying to act as if there is an organized central government. And if there isn't one, damn it, we're going to force one into existence.
Already, drone American planes are killing civilians. Seven American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Tuesday. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border, usually one of the most dangerous places on earth, has recently been described as "unhinged."
And of course in Kipling's day, Pakistan didn't have nuclear weapons.
We're trying to fight this war as if we've never heard of Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, Kipling or Vietnam. As William Rivers Pitt said in his ruminations on McNamara in Truthout.org this week, "Nobody listened, nobody learned, except for the dead."
Doesn't it make you want to scream?
Joyce Marcel is a journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.