In 1942, during the darkest part of World War II, the novelist John Steinbeck wrote a slender book titled "The Moon is Down," about a coastal village in northern Europe overrun by the Nazis, who believe the natives should celebrate their arrival. They intend to clean up corruption, create efficient government and provide a good life for the people – while, of course, dragooning many of them into forced labor.
The outcome, in Steinbeck's hands, is inevitable. Eventually the situation spins out of control and the Nazis end up murdering townspeople by the score to intimidate the rest, unable to understand that they are hated simply because they are there.
Ironically, Steinbeck showed up in Vietnam near the end of his life, in 1966 or 1967, and was taken on a tour of the embattled country by some of the US Army's best generals. He gave a press conference at the Marine Press Center in Danang, in which he appeared to be bewildered at how the Vietnamese didn't understand or appreciate what the Americans were trying to do for them.
This comes up because of the firing yesterday by President Barack Obama of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan over an article," The Runaway General," that appears in the July 8-22, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. While the controversy over the article centers on McChrystal's spectacular disdain for many of his civilian bosses, the real meat of the piece, written by freelancer Michael Hastings, is the American belief, just like the Germans in that village, that the application of good government standards and the construction of modern infrastructure would cause the Afghans, who have been resisting outside rule for centuries, to fall into lockstep in the great GWOT – the global war on terror.
It was a misperception that caused 14 years of tragedy in Vietnam, starting in 1961 when the Americans set out to fundamentally reform Vietnam's economy and society as a way to fight communism. A couple of years later, of course, President John F. Kennedy acquiesced in the assassination of South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to get him out of the way so that the real fight against corruption and incompetence could begin. Robert "Blowtorch Bob" Komer, who was in charge of the failed pacification efforts for many of those years, thought the Vietnamese would be won over to democracy "village by village, hut by hut, by social and political means, with information and propaganda."
The "Land for the Tiller" agrarian reform program ultimately gave way to the grotesque Operation Phoenix, an assassination campaign run by the CIA and Special Forces units to kill village chiefs and anybody who looked like he might be a communist. Ultimately, according to a government review of the program, Phoenix "neutralized" 81,740 people, of whom 26,369 were killed. That might sound familiar to readers of Steinbeck's book.
Eventually, of course, the Americans were driven out along with their South Vietnamese military allies in 1975, leaving behind 57,000 dead US soldiers and perhaps a million dead Vietnamese. But President George W Bush and his neoconservative allies never heeded any of those lessons, indeed they prided themselves on banishing the specter of Vietnam in favor of renewed interventionist policies abroad.
In 2003, they invaded Iraq, hunted down and hanged Saddam Hussein and drove his Baathists from power. They thought that from the springboard of driving out a gruesome dictator, they could rebuild Iraq in the American image and transform the entire Arab world. The results of that mistake continue today, with a seemingly unending internecine war among the Iraqi factions and the Americans, their numbers dwindling, without any real grip on the country despite the deaths of at least 4,700 American soldiers and their allies and injuries to more than 30,000 – and untold numbers of dead Iraqis, far too many of them at the hands of trigger-happy US soldiers and the indiscriminate application of firepower. For an American to walk around almost anywhere in Iraq without weapons or escorts, is still to ask to get kidnapped or killed.
"Even in his new role as America's leading evangelist for counterinsurgency," Hastings wrote in Rolling Stone, "McChrystal retains the deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter. To put pressure on the Taliban, he has upped the number of Special Forces units in Afghanistan from four to 19. 'You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,' McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he'll add, 'I'm going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.' In fact, the general frequently finds himself apologizing for the disastrous consequences of counterinsurgency."
It was called WHAM in Vietnam – winning hearts and minds. There were precious few hearts or minds won, and presumably few in the sullen peace that has descended on Iraq – broken by daily reports of scores of people murdered by improvised explosive devices. It is unlikely that many will be won in Afghanistan either, where the Americans just passed a milestone – 1,000 dead soldiers.
A new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal's former boss, is on his way to try his hand at the WHAM business. The most important advice that Petraeus should be given is that, like Vietnam or Iraq and regardless of tactics – the latest buzzword is COIN, for Counterinsurgency — Afghanistan isn't his country. This is not just a lesson the Americans haven't learned. The Chinese haven't learned it in Tibet, or the Russians in Chechnya, or countless other invading powers in conflicts that go on seemingly without end. The Christians appear not to have learned it during the Crusades. That same advice should be given to Barack Obama, who seems caught in the coils of an unending war he didn't want and wasn't elected to fight.