Monday, April 3, 2006

Gov't 101: War is NOT Policy

Monday with McKenna brings us an acutely topical discussion of war and the displacement of peoples (one of the most profound and far-flung consequences of war, because it not only causes suffering and death to innocents, but also changes entire nations, regions, and cultures, always for the worse). This is painfully topical because, just yesterday, the Times ran a story on the displacement of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in regions of mixed Shiite and Sunni populations. Can anyone else see a slight resemblance to Darfur or Uganda here? But no, there's no civil war in Iraq, we are assured.

While Cheney and Rumsfeld keep dreaming, and Condi continues her world decompensation tour, let's take a dose of reality from Terry McKenna.

It is impossible not to react to reportage of Condoleezza Rice’s sad visit to England. On Saturday, Brian exposed the surrealism and tragedy. I thought I’d take a shot at Condi’s defense of the war itself.

No matter what they say now, most Republicans and many Democrats still believe that the invasion was the right idea - executed badly. That was Condi Rice’s point when she defended the war: “I believe strongly it was the right strategic decision," … "I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them, I'm sure," … "But when you look back in history what will be judged is" whether the "right strategic decision" was made.

Of course the first question is how will her beloved George Bush react when he finds out that Condi owned up to thousands of mistakes. It has taken 5 years to get him to admit to just one.

But the more important question is, can we use war in place of policy? And in thinking about what war can do, let’s stop acting like the ancients, who speculated about the nature of the world without taking the important step of trying to learn the facts. (Thus they produced admirable mathematics and philosophy, but little useful science.) Let’s look at the evidence—or lack thereof—for war’s utility.

What follows, then, is a brief but realistic review of five historically recent wars: the American Civil War; the Spanish American war; the First and Second World Wars and the Vietnam War. In all of these, whether the American government was on the winning or losing side, the end result was an environment completely changed from what the provocateurs wanted.

Thus although “we” won the civil war, the South retained its black population as virtual slaves for another 100 years. Similarly, the US won the Spanish American war, but we never really conquered the Philippines (the archipelago remains troubled now, even without our military presence). It was the Philippines that drew Japanese fire when WW2 started. The war also created an aggressive US presence in Central America - useful during the era of European colonialism, but not so useful since WW2.

The US entered WW1 in the third act; in doing so, it helped turn the tide for the its western European allies. Coming in late and fighting on foreign shores, the US was not harmed like the other participants, but for the Europeans, their pre-war social order was wrecked; and Russia, the Austrian Empire and the German Empire disappeared in the war’s aftermath.

The Second World War was a little different in that – at least for Europe – the war presented a genuine moral dilemma, Hitler. But regardless of the war’s apparent necessity, Europe completely destroyed itself a second time. The holocaust tempts us to believe that pre-emptive war would have been preferable to what happened. (The cold war proceeded from the desire to vicariously re-fight the prelude to the Second World War.) Now that we’ve seen how unmanageable conquests really are, we should be more humble about what can be achieved by pre-emption. Thus, my firm belief is that had we attacked Hitler when he marched into the Rhineland (and had we defeated Germans defending their home soil – not an easy assumption) the defeated Germans would have been almost as hard to handle as the current day Iraqis. My guess is that only the unimaginable destruction of WW2 itself purged Germans of the desire to defend their nationalism.

So.. on to Vietnam. Vietnam was really a colonial war, but we sold it to ourselves as necessary to stop the falling dominoes. We mixed tactical errors with our complete ignorance of local corruption (the pro-US government in South Vietnam was led by corrupt Catholics who fought local Buddhists as vigorously as they fought the communists). Of course, the Vietnamese were willing to die for their country in much larger numbers than we were willing to die to conquer. After we became tired of dying, we declared "Peace with Honor" and fled home chastened.

After that brief gloss, it should be clear that war is more like an uncontrolled reaction than the sort of tool we need when we want to do anything other than completely ruin some other nation or people. Thus embarking on war is foolish. Of course, it only makes it worse that we went to war with way-too-few troops and with too few dollars allocated.*

Failure was inevitable.

*in contrast to the Second Gulf War, the first Gulf War “Operation Desert Storm” started with 690,000 troops, and pledges of $53 billion in cash.

—T. McKenna

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