August 10, 2009
There were ten legal interns in the U.S. State Department in the summer of 1967. I was the one assigned to East Asian legal affairs. Each week we ten would have lunch with a senior State Department figure. When press secretary Robert McCloskey joined us, one of our number asked him how the department reconciled U.S. Vietnam policy with the seeming 40 percent or so of department employees disagreed with that policy.
The following week, on the Friday we were to have a picnic at the legal adviser’s place, we were first ushered up to the secretary’s private office at 5 pm. Secretary Rusk offered us drinks of our choice and had one himself. We were there, said Dean Rusk, because he wanted to know how to appeal to youth on Vietnam. I suggested that if the public knew how freely Vietnam policy was debated within the department, the public would have more respect for the policy that emerged. One way to do this would be to have employees respond to requests for response on their own authority, rather than endlessly clearing responses to go out in the name of the entire department. That idea was a nonstarterJ.
Mr. Rusk stated his case for escalating the war in Vietnam, by that time to 500,000 troops on the ground: We must never repeat the mistake that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin made with Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1938; he appeased Hitler by saying that the UK would take no military action is Hitler order German troops to occupy a German border region, the Sudetens, now a part of the Czech Republic. Just as we had infiltrated, then openly invaded Southeast Asia, as a commitment to “collective self defense” under article 57 of the UN Charter, it was now incumbent on us not to appease global Communism. If only the US government could stick it out:
“Vietnam will be the war to end all wars,” he concluded.
In 1975 when the US lost the first war in centuries of Anglo-American military expansion, and when a president resigned from office in disgrace, I hoped public recognition that war doesn’t pay anymore would rise up. Oh my, how wrong I was.
That was the first time I realized what a mistake it is to gloat over and build victory upon victory. When people are losing, as people across classes are now doing economically and politically, in a nation whose sense of security rests on raw power to kill on orders from some form of political father (as in Washington), losers have resentment. The generosity of the Marshall Plan in Europe and a General MacArthur’s patronage in Japan embraced losers as partners. That’s the last time, as far as I can see, that the US made more friends than enemies by fighting wars. Even Ho Chi=minh was our ally until Cold War hysteria overtook US covert as well as overt military politics in the mid-fifties.
In 1980 I was a guest of the Taiwanese government for a conference on law in Mainland China. This was a year after President Carter had recognized China in Beijing. The only reason I was invited was that I had US credentials and publications on Chinese law. Overwhelmingly, the rest were CIA, and Pentagon folks including a raft of private consultants from Tufts University. They hated Jimmy Carter, and were determined to get him out of office. They, along with sabotage of the economy by the Federal Reserve , and the stubbornness of a Naval commander turned president who could not simply apologize to Iranians for having launched a coup to drive the democratically elected prime minister, who was trying to nationalize BP oilfields on the Soviet border, out of office to be replaced with a king, a Shah, and have the CIA set him up with one brutal intelligence service…turned into landslide victory for Reaganomics and military/prison buildup and adventures.
The Soviets had set up their own client leader in Afghanistan and become heavily involved in an invasion and occupation in 1979 as well. Jimmy Carter had blocked the US team from going to the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 in retaliation.
And so I was curious amidst the CIA/Pentagon crowd in Taipei in 1980 as to what they thought Soviet prospects were in Afghanistan. I offered my own answer that Afghanistan was the Soviets’ Vietnam. Oh no, they insisted. Afghanistan was in danger of falling to Soviet military power, which for national security reasons meant the US must build up insurgent groups along the Pakistani border to wage guerrilla was. I later learned that what the CIA got off the ground and armed included the Taliban (literally “students” in Arabic who as because of physical disability could not fight themselves but could educate and organize), the Mujahideen to fight, and labs to distill opium out of poppies to fund buying weapons. (Ironically, that’s when the bulk of US opiates started coming from that region; then when the Taliban ruled out of Kabul, they on religious grounds for the first time cut poppy production by 30 percent, but c’a ete la guerre.
In 1967 while in the State Department, I had argued in policy sessions to which I was invited and in casual conversation that the Vietnamese had lived and died struggling for national autonomy for a thousand years, that the 17th parallel was artificially constructed running through the middle of one of three traditional provinces, and so, quite simply, the Vietnamese would outlast us, because they had to live with the consequences of our actions while we could choose not to do so with the consequences of theirs, so far from home. I think events have shown that I was right.
There will never again be such a thing as victory, let alone unconditional surrender, in US invasions and occupations abroad. The faster we get used to it, the fewer of us who get killed and maimed in war, the magnitudes fewer among those we invade and occupy will get killed and maimed, and the harder it will be to persuade people to join military adventures against this faraway nation. The more gracefully and generally we abandon US military presence abroad, the safer we become, among ourselves and among others.
World War II was the last time global battle lines were drawn. Once the Allies took Berlin, and once MacArthur brought the Japanese emperor to sign articles of surrender, WWII was over, just as the US Civil War had ended when Lee surrendered to Grant in 1865. Those days are gone. To begin with, Russia has not collapsed in the wake of the collapse of the US WWII adversary no. 1.
Iraqis and Afghanis and their neighbors will work out their own destinies long after Euro-American troops have finally come home. Occupiers cannot make the occupied behave as they will, especially when they occupy faraway lands. All we have to contribute to peace ourselves is swiftly to conduct—ideally total—military withdrawals (and I’m not just talking about troops the US government chooses to label “combat” forces).
I finished out secondary school in Trondheim, Norway, in 1961-62. My parents were on fellowships to study there with social psychologists. My parents’ peers of course included those who had lived in Norway during the WWII German occupation. I remember particularly a genre of story in which a German would show up in a shop or at a hotel and say that he had been in Norway during WWII and wanted to return to such a lovely country. And I remember friends showing us pictures of them holed up in the mountains to conduct guerrilla sabotage of the German war effort. Shortly before his death, partisan Einar Thorsrud took Jill and me to Oslo’s museum to war resistance. Einar and others taught me what it means to be occupied.
On reflection, I also learned from Norwegian encounters with Germans what it means to be an occupying soldier. The Germans expected to be embraced by fellow Aryans to help construct the new world order. In my classes among other places I have met many returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan point out how much they are appreciated. Appreciation depends on whether occupiers are winners or losers. When the US gives up trying to win anything in both places, I think it will come about in part because all of recognize what it means to be an occupier giving out candy to local children.
I think prevailing thinking in media and in politics still believe that winning this or that war can end all wars. This appears to be President Obama’s belief about Afghanistan. To me and I’m sure to others, personal including social security is paramount. Sadly, I conclude that infusion of more forces into Afghanistan only endangers us in two ways: traumatizing, maiming and killing our own forces, and terrorizing local people and driving more among them to arm and fight themselves in defense of lives and honor. Pretty simple stuff.
Fire bombing in Dresden and nuclear bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki hastened German and Japanese surrender and arguably saved lives by shortening the war. Several million Norwegians were pissed off enough to sentence 50 collaborators with the Nazis, including premier Vidkund Quisling, to be hanged. Even they stopped at hanging 25. The war in northwestern Europe was over. I fear that a logic still prevails in US political/military circles that those with the biggest bombs win.
There are no front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan. Bombs and missiles are convenient weapons because they minimize risk to our troops while killing those we identify as enemies. So for instance our troops rolled into Baghdad at the culmination of Operation Shock and Awe, in which on live tv we saw one-ton missiles and 500-pound bombs rain down on Baghdad one March night in 2003, without warning.
Whether it’s bombs or missiles as from drones shooting at houses and such on command, our explosives are more powerful and more plentiful than theirs. Hence, the “collateral damage” to innocent civilians is more and more powerfully pinpointed and contained…It all adds up to this in the millions of Vietnamese who died as some 58,000 US forces were also killed: By use of airpower the US military intentionally kills and maims far more innocent civilians, in our case expressed in formal military terms of engagement and its mistakes, than do those the Euro-/American label terrorists. And if your own friends and relatives and selves are hiding from occupying fire, as bodies appear in your local morgue and in your street and in your family, aren’t you obliged to take up arms and even make the ultimate sacrifice for your people? Not long after the US military cluster-bombed the Afghanis in blind rage after 9/11, I read a tribal leader along the Pakistani border saying of his approach to al Qaeda, “If I kill one terrorist, I create ten.”
In law school I was taught that you throw a piano out a tenth-story window onto a crowded street, whether you legally “intend” to kill or hurt anyone doesn’t depend on whether your purpose is to threaten death and destruction, or simply to get rid of the piano. That stuck with me. The more we assert military superiority in anyone else’s home, the more intend to end up killing more innocent civilians than they do. No less than calculated suicide bombing, to those upon whom violence is visited, this constitutes some terrorist’s act of war.
I haven’t taken a poll, but I’ll bet this ranks us globally as the leading terrorist in action. Personally, I try to take opportunities to apologize to others in the world for our continuing terrorism, let alone for our habit of publicly preaching to others how to take care of their problems.
When things people heavily depend on, with drugs as with national identity, threaten to be taken away, withdrawal can get ugly. I am disappointed to have another president, whom I happen to admire, get sucked once again into Dean Rusk’s logic, in this case that the war in Afghanistan is too big to fail. I’m not afraid of opium when as in Switzerland addiction is managed as a public heath problem. I am afraid of unrelenting US addiction to establishing that our weapons are bigger than theirs. Military violence doesn’t pay, if indeed it ever did. Love and peace--Hal