Those Who Forget History… – March 2009

Those Who Forget History…

By Fred Mittag


afghanistan_womanWith some arrogance, we ignored the lesson from history that the French experience in Vietnam should have taught us. The French tried to warn us and we laughed at them because—well, they’re French. The result of our disdain was well over a million Vietnamese deaths, 58,000 American deaths, and finally, a retreat with our tails between our legs. Then, at the urging of American business leaders, we recognized a united Vietnam and today maintain strong trade relations with them.

And the feared “domino theory?” Well, today you cannot go to a department store and buy something that is not made in China. Amazing. The sacrifice of the long war (1959 – 1975) only served to kill a lot of people and to delay strong commercial trading ties between the U.S. and China and Vietnam.

History offers an even stronger lesson for Afghanistan, dating back centuries. I hope President Obama studies the cartoon below with great care and attention. The most recent reinforcement of this lesson came from the Russians. The mighty Soviet Union, with tanks, planes, nuclear bombs, missiles, a big army, etc., was driven out – also with their tails between their legs. Compare this with the various unsuccessful attempts of satellite nations to throw off the Soviet yoke. Only the Afghans succeeded in their resistance to the U.S.S.R.

Paradigms can be traps for defeat. In the American Revolution, the British complained that the Americans were not “gentlemen,” because they hid behind trees and fired at British soldiers. The British thought soldiers should be in the open, lined up in rows, with the front row kneeling and reloading while the row behind them did the firing. This formality lost out to the sneaky style used by the Americans.

We have made a big mistake by calling our current efforts a “war on terror.” This characterization misleads us legally by creating “enemy combatants” that we keep in Guantánamo without access to legal counsel—or even habeas corpus. We have sent out armies to conquer Iraq when what was really needed was police work at home and court trials for criminals, not “enemy combatants.”

Our real challenge is not from specific nations, but rather from ideologies that are diffuse over many places. None of the criminals who brought down the Twin Towers were from Iraq or from Afghanistan. They were mostly from Saudi Arabia.

Japanese and German armies were defeated and there were formal surrender ceremonies and that was more or less the end of it. That paradigm doesn’t work for our current problems. Iraq has become a breeding ground for terrorists where they didn’t exist before. Killing terrorists only creates martyrs and inspires more terrorists. Guerilla tactics can defeat a much stronger organized military force.

We have become the equivalent of the formal British trying to fight snipers hiding behind the trees. We are not fighting armies. We are in a battle of values and ideas, and we are sometimes on the wrong side.

Another lesson in weighing the balance: The Arabs have a glorious history and for a long time were culturally far more advanced than Europe in art, medicine, mathematics, literature, and yes—in tolerance. The things we suffer today are often a reaction of our own making, for example, Arab subjugation by European colonialism.

The U.S. is not free from this offense, either, because we shore up governments in the Arab world that are hated by their own populations, particularly in Saudi Arabia. One of the most egregious injuries making rogue elephants from otherwise reasonable Arabs is our totally unbalanced policy toward Israel. Some of the 9/11 hijackers were bright students in German universities who would otherwise have pursued careers in, say, architecture. Their discussions were about New York being a center for Zionist crimes, and that’s what drove them to the Twin Towers.

And now our suffering continues and our treasure empties in the entanglements of Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes the most effective tool is not a mighty army, but simple values of justice and fairness. This is embodied in the ancient concept of ideas being superior to the sword.

The Greek poet Euripides, who died in 406 B.C., said, “The tongue is mightier than the blade.”  My hero Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Thomas Paine in 1796 in which he wrote: “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.” These quotes, too, are lessons from history. Alas, history is not everybody’s favorite subject, but I hope President Obama learns from it.

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