Sunday, September 12, 2010
It's Beginning to Feel So Much Like the Closing Days of Vietnam
It all started so well, too well. The Prophets of Shock and Awe rejoiced in the warm glow of utter hubris. No one could withstand their force of arms, their technological invincibility. Once their supremacy was demonstrated, the issue was decided. The Taliban were routed. It was time to turn the page and begin a new chapter. Greater glory lay to the east in Iraq, the Cradle of Civilization.
These Americans forgot what had been learned by their fathers in Vietnam, that winning all of the battles does not guarantee you will win the war. If the battles you fight and win are less than decisive they're mere footprints along an uncertain path that leads to the final battles that will decide the issue, battles you may not even be around to fight.
During WWII the Japanese admirals and generals obsessed about trying to lure the Americans into fighting the decisive battle, the cataclysm that would end the war in their favour. Time and again the Americans refused or were lucky enough to avoid the Japanese traps and, instead, used mass-production and attrition to force the Japanese armies and navy back to their home islands.
Wars like Afghanistan are won or lost in the vineyards and villages of the Afghans and on Main Street at home. Petraeus knows that time is his greatest enemy. He has pledged to speed up the clock in Afghanistan in hope that will slow the clock of impatience at home in the United States. Yet what Petraeus promises may be beyond his grasp. War fatigue is setting in. Nine years have lapsed and the road ahead has become much steeper and potholed. At this point no one remotely credible could even define success, much less actual victory except in the most childish parlance.
Afghanistan has become too much to take in all at once. You cannot make sense of it - the country, the war, the treachery, the warlords, the government, the poverty, the corruption, the narco-economy. We cannot deal with it all so we deal with segments of it as though these can be addressed in isolation from all the others. We assess the war as though it can be fought without regard to the rotting corpse of a central government the war itself is intended to prop up. What madness is that? It's like mending a broken leg for a patient with advanced terminal cancer.
It's a feeling, a perception of something sinking. It is an unsettling sense that something irreversible has occured that we're not yet able to discern or, perhaps, simply unwilling to acknowledge. It is a feeling I have known before from the late 60's and the early 70's. It is a begrudging acceptance of failure and loss and waste; of swaggering arrogance and blundering stupidity. It is a long, drawn out feeling that persisted through the final four or five years before South Vietnam was consumed by the North.
It's the realization that, even after we have fought our last battle in Afghanistan, we will continue to battle at home as we wage a war to fix blame. This is the insult visited upon the losers. Those who failed to successfully prosecute the war reveal how precious little courage they ever truly had.
The supporting cast - the Canadians, the Dutch, the Germans and the French will probably emerge relatively unscarred. Our national identities have not been anchored in delusions of exceptionalism and invincibility. The Americans, however, well that is a much different story. They have a "musical chairs" approach to failure where the blame will fall on the last man out even though failure was crafted by the one who first sent them in. Then again it's hard to feel too sorry for Obama because he chose not to stand up to his military rivals. He chose to prolong this war to avoid being seen as weak on terrorism. He had a choice.