Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lessons of War & The Dangers Of Believing Your Own PR

When not preoccupied with re-learning to ice skate gracefully in an automobile recently (what? you're not caring what happens in Seattle with our unaccustomed winter snowstorms of late --weren't you aware that we are the self-involved center of the universe here?), your Demon Princess has been paying attention to recent news. She just hasn't had a lot of time to do anything about it.

Some days ago, for instance, I was watching the televised questioning that proponents of the Bush admistration's pro-surge policy were receiving from Congress on C-Span or CNN when it occurred to me (not for the first time) that I wasn't but half-listening to the tepid, indeed flaccid "debate" ~ because I wasn't hearing anything I hadn't already heard before. No fresh ideas, either in substance or in the way we present them to selves & others.

Just the same old tired propaganda & PR, so I gave up & changed the channel, thereby accidentally stumbling upon a debate on the very same topic being held in Britain.

I was stunned by the contrast. There, sharp questions were being asked, & the speakers being grilled apparently knew nothing but a substantive answer would do. Or maybe it just sounded that way because the Brits are in the habit of articulating complex thoughts by speaking in complete sentences instead of rah-rah sloganeering & jingoism. (If their politicians attempt it, they get a sound drubbing; the Brits took a lot less time to catch on than the average American apparently did. And, by the way, in later news from abroad, the Brits have indeed decided not only to not participate in George's surge, they are scaling back their participation in Iraq, period.)

What especially interested me about the Brits' discussion was the fact that they were asking pointed & intelligent questions with reference to their historical experience with having tried, unsuccessfully, to colonize half the world & their ample experience with insurgencies & counterinsurgencies (including America). It was once a common saying that "The sun never sets on the British Empire," so vast were their holdings & so fiercely determined were they make foreign populations bend to their mores and values.

Wow! Would that Americans would accept the concept ~ heeding & learning from history.

Stumbling upon that broadcast also highlighted for me the fact that human critical thinking skills are indeed shaped by the tools of fluency, experience (& nuance) we are accustomed to having on hand. The question then becomes why present-day Americans have such a hard time doing that. The common answer to that in political science departments is that, as I was bitching the other day, Americans are the world's brash, arrogant kids, content to believe that not only has anything not like what's happening to them ever happened before, we are the exceptions to every rule even if it did. So we can make it up as we go along.

The idea that "nothing like what's happening now" has ever happened to us before is patently untrue. Wars have happened before & we have participated in them; wars in fact that make Iraq look like the tempest in a teapot that it really is, as I've said before ~ or was, before George's Neocons started applying their warped ideas of drastic warfare-as-foreign policy with complete abandon.

If our forbearers could see what Bush has done ~ well, let's just say that they're spinning in their graves as we speak.

Americans haven't always behaved this stupidly on the world stage. And the particular kind of stupidity we're hell-bent on reenacting has a very direct precedent in recent memory, but we have wilfully refused to learn from it.

The more I think about it, the more I think a big part of what's what's wrong with American politics is the extent to which we've been trained to view ourselves as passive consumer-critters & not much of anything else. We're so used to being sold a bill of goods, we don't even object or reject it when that marketing mentality is carried over into the realm of public policy. In fact, that's all we expect, & we don't seem at all surprised or concerned, or motivated to discern the difference between buying a consumer product & a political philosophy-the latter is just a background concern best left to others whose job it is to think deeply about such things. Besides, we have more entertaining things to do with ourselves--like go shopping.

(Besides the fact that Demon Princess may be in the distinct minority of Americans who don't define themselves by what they can buy), she also dares opine that our collective lazy consumer mentality is an unfortunate (for us) factor in our going along with the "Bush Doctrine" arrogant conception of foreign policy, the mess in Iraq, & the hideous attendant consequences. Now we're trapped.

Americans have slowly been trained to perceive themselves as passive consumers of politics as all else, rather than active, engaged citizen-participants. And so we accept : 1. That we really can't do anything anyway (something I heard, to my great surprise), in several analyses why, despite the fact that a majority of Americans oppose the surge in Iraq, Bush is going to do it anyway; and 2. we have relieved ourselves of any great burden to try by assigning others the task of doing our political thinking for us.

As for the former argument, it's backwards: Bush is only going "to do it anyway" because he stands to lose nothing ~ but the party he leaves behind stands to lose a lot. George never thought he was our employee, but there's still time for the rest of the GOP remaining in office to learn otherwise.

But right now all we seem to expect is that they throw us a few dumbed-down slogans to throw at our "political" enemies, such as "If you're not with Bush, you're for the terrorists," & that other really tragically stupid canard somebody tossed at me: "Better there than here." Oh really? It's okay to sacrifice countless Iraqis to a war they didn't start, & which had nothing, nada, zilch, to do with terrorism? (Oh, I forget--if they're Iraqis, they are by definition terrorists. Thanks for clearing that up for me).

If the 25% of Americans who actually prefer to let George Bush & the Neocons do their thinking for them really can't see through the arrogance & rank stupidity of those excessively shallow excuses I really fear for this country's long-term viability. Seriously.

All the above was floating in the mix when I came across this article in the Washington Post (title bar). The author calls himself "a gray-haired journalist" who covered the Vietnam war back in the day & draws some deft comparisons definitely worth reading. Why are we fighting this war again? We collectively need to ask ourselves why we're letting Bush pursue another war that it's highly unlikely we can win.

"For a gray-haired journalist whose career included 18 months covering the Vietnam War for The Washington Post, it is a source of amazement to realize that my country has done this again. We twice took a huge risk in the hope that we could predict and dominate events in a nation whose history we did not know, whose language few of us spoke, whose rivalries we didn't understand, whose expectations for life, politics and economics were all foreign to many Americans.

"Both times, we put our fate in the hands of local politicians who would not follow U.S. orders, who did not see their country's fate the way we did, and who could not muster the support of enough of their countrymen to produce the outcome Washington wanted. In Vietnam as in Iraq, U.S. military power alone proved unable to achieve the desired political objectives.

"How did this happen again? After all, we're Americans -- practical, common-sense people who know how to get things done. Or so we'd like to think. In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our own superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, religious, political and historical realities far different from our own. These failings -- more than any tactical or strategic errors -- help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Vietnam and Iraq.
"What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice -- and Vietnam and Iraq both qualify -- define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you really understand the society you propose to transform. And never gamble that the political solution to such an adventure will somehow materialize after the military operation has begun. Without a plausible political plan and strong local support at the outset, military operations alone are unlikely to produce success.

"Bush's latest initiatives -- like all his earlier ones -- will not produce the desired political result, because Americans cannot accomplish political objectives in Iraq. Americans are outsiders, occupiers, foreigners in every sense of the word. Only Iraqis have a chance of finding a political resolution for their divisions. So now we await the fate of this latest gamble like a high roller in Las Vegas watching a roulette ball in a spinning wheel. We have about as much control over the situation as the gambler has of that ball. The outcome is out of our hands, and it would be foolish to bet that we will like the way the conflict ends."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful and sometimes humorous commentary. We laugh til it hurts, but it still hurts after we stop laughing.


9:42 AM  
Blogger Demon Princess said...

Hey Paul! Welcome, nice to meet you. I like your blog, BTW, & especially enjoyed reading the article on "Bush psychology." Rang true to me, for the most part.

What scares me is that he's managed to elude the famed American bullshit detector (because we are a nation of opportunists & salesmen, maybe, most of us have a healthy skepticism of others behaving the same way), but for a substantial-enough portion of the population, he's apparently come to embody strength & decisiveness, & what he says goes.

The reasons he got as far as he did in his political career (despite himself) & the rest of the GOP throwing in with him, may be another thing entirely, but the scary thing to me is that, inept & inadequate as he's shown himself to be, a stubborn 25% still regard him as iconic.

Now THERE's one for the history books: how someone like George Bush almost succeeded in converting America into a personal despot-ocracy. If there's anything at all historically interesting about George Bush, it's that he was the beneficiary of a perfect storm of factors that swept in & almost completely blew America off course, while those of us cognizant of it were practically helpless to DO anything about it.

Malevolent winds, indeed. I just wish I wasn't here to have to live through it. I'd rather be reading about it from a far remove in the distant future & marvelling how very close we almost came to losing our country.

3:33 PM  

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