.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

First Person Personal

My personal views on a variety of matters ranging from popular culture to quantum physics to religion to politics to history to bushido to ... well, whatever I feel like, really. Warning: we all have agendas. Trust no one totally, myself most specifically included. Email me at wbrerwolf at gmail.com

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Vietnam and Iraq

"We are tired of fighting. We don't want to kill anymore. But the others are treacherous and cannot be trusted." - Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature

Some historians studying the Vietnam War have come to the conclusion that the entire war can be based on massive misunderstanding by both sides; each side had their idea of what the other side was like and what their goals were. Neither bothered to actually find out what the other side was like and what they wanted and what they would be willing to trade to get what they wanted. Thus, the Americans launched a massive bombing of North Vietnam (by my definition, an act of terrorism as its only purpose was to intimidate the North Vietnamese into surrender) while the Vietnamese engaged in an increasingly fierce "people's war" in the South (terrorism on the cheap). While both sides were increasingly desirous of a negotiated peace, neither side was able to present a peace proposal that the other side considered more than pure propaganda because, even after years of war, neither side understood the other. Millions died.

As has been pointed out, this current mess in Iraq shows every sign of becoming another Vietnam, except worse. And it is very likely because they do not know us and we do not know them.

James Mill, in "An Essay on Government" - first published as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 5th edition - argued that there are two basic methods for a government (or, in a broader interpretation, for any organization) to insure that the labor which the nation needs is provided. That is, there are two ways to get people to do what you want them to do: one is force, the other is allurement.

Force is the easiest to implement: do what I say when I say or I will beat you, kill you, imprison you, confiscate your possessions or harm your family and friends. Terrorism is an attempt to control by fear, by the threat of force. As James Mill recognized, under the rule of force, the citizens become slaves.

While in the short term this may be useful, in the long term it is disastrous: a slave does what he is told to do, when he is told to do it and provides the minimal effort he can get away with: after all, why should he break his back? What is in it for him as a reward? Another day of working for Master and singing happy songs in the field? Slave economies tend to be economic failures in the long term: see the Old South, the Soviet Union and Japan under the Shogunate. Likewise, political structures which rely on terror tend to only control what they can directly supervise and collapse when the number of people to be controlled grows to be too much greater than those who can be trusted to monitor them.

With allure, on the other hand, the organization provides something in exchange for the worker's labor, (usually money, in a capitalist system, but other rewards can be used such as increased prestige, promotion within the organization, a favored position in the afterlife, etc.). This makes the citizen a partner in the enterprise, allowing him a voice in changing things so that whatever work he is put to prospers and, from simple self interest, encouraging him to work harder and smarter to gain the rewards promised.

However, to use allure one must know what the other person wants. It is futile to try to bribe Eskimos with ice cubes or a rich man with a bright, shiny penny. We Americans are woefully ignorant of what other cultures value and we have a tendency to consider foreigners to either be just like us except in funny clothes or aliens with no point of contact with us.

We also tend to buy into the "Good guy/Bad guy" myth. We forget that there are good and bad people on both sides of every conflict, World War II included, and that in any extended conflict, the good guys become more and more like bad guys and that the bad guys get even worse. As far as diplomacy and war goes, "talk, talk", while less exciting, is certainly less costly than "fight, fight".

Let me discuss the American political scene for a bit: we are essentially a two party system. We have elections for president every four years with term limits on the office of, I believe, ten years. As a result, unless there is a strong belief on the part of the candidate or his party on a particular subject, a new president has two mutually exclusive default options: if the prior president was of the same party, the new president does the same as the old except more so. If, as was the case with our current President Bush, he takes over from the opposing party, the default is to do the exact opposite of what his predecessor did. Clinton was deeply worried about the Middle East, bin Laden, al Queda and various other radical groups and believed that carefully considered action was vital. Therefore, having no prior experience with the Middle East himself except with the various Saudi oil magnates, Bush decided to totally ignore the Middle East and anything to do with it. As most senior advisors are political appointees here, there was no one around to argue against this decision until September 11 rolled around.

Then, of course, our government reacted most strongly indeed. Our assault on Afghanistan was arguably a legitimate counter attack against a threat to our country.

But then we invaded Iraq.

I have no idea why we did so.

The Bushies, as we call them, feebly point to the Weapons of Mass Destruction which they claim as the pretext for this invasion and, somewhat more forcefully, argue that Saddam Hussein was a Very, Very Bad Man. Before the war, I agreed with both points: i.e. that it was very likely that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he was (and is) a Very, Very Bad Man indeed. And I still considered the invasion of Iraq to be an incredibly bad idea. A lot of people have WMD, a lot of governments are ruled by very, very bad people, and, barring a strong link between Iraq and any attack on America, there was no better reason to invade Iraq than to invade North Korea. You will notice that we have not invaded North Korea and, barring them (or us) doing something incredibly stupid, we are very unlikely to do so. In fact, at least while we remain in Iraq, we may be incapable of invading them. Our commitment in Iraq prevents us from using our military in other, perhaps more vital, areas.

Some people claim that this was armed robbery writ large, that this was a direct attempt to control the Iraqi oil supplies indefinitely. I disagree with this because I see no evidence of profit being garnered by anyone from the captured oil, nor that there was any reasonable expectation of profit. On the other hand, one can argue that Bush and his advisors are not reasonable people . . .

(7/15/05-Later note regarding the profit motive for invading Iraq: It recently occured to me that it is not necessary for the profits to come from oil, or even from Iraq itself. War profiteering may be quite attractive to organizations supplying our military in Iraq, and the money would actually come from the United States instead of Iraq.)

I tend to lean towards the "family feud" theory, that our current President Bush looked upon this whole Iraqi War mess as a chance to settle scores with Saddam Hussein as his father had not been able to do. There is evidence that Bush was planning this war long before September 11 gave him the excuse to actually execute it (See the Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's allegations at CNN - INSIDE POLITICS - O'Neill: Bush planned Iraq invasion before 9/11 or the book based on his statements: The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill by Ron Suskind ).

No serious military mind on the planet doubted before the invasion that the American military would crush the Iraqi military with minimal American casualties, and, in fact, the war phase was extremely successful.

But there was absolutely no plan for after the war had been won.

In an amazing display of naiveté, our government apparently expected peace to break out immediately and for the Iraqi populace to compete in throwing rose petals onto our advancing troops and to rubber stamp anything the Great Army of Liberation did. We completely neglected the fact that only Saddam Hussein and his political allies made it possible for Iraq to exist as a single state rather than three or more feuding ethnic groups. We are now faced with three unpleasant alternatives:
1.) Creating a new Saddam Hussein, who is very probably going to be worse than his predecessor, in order to maintain the nation of Iraq as a counterbalance to Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria.
2.) Staying in Iraq until the sun goes out to keep Iran and Syria from dividing it up between them.
3.) Allowing Iraq to fragment more or less gracefully into several smaller nations and discretely withdrawing, in the hope that Iran and Syria will not immediately devour the smaller states and become even more powerful and more scary to us than was the case before all of this mess came down.

A great weakness of our (American) culture is that we seem to pay no attention to history, acting as if our desires and intent are all that are needed to accomplish any goal. We do not concern ourselves with earlier attempts that succeeded, much less with earlier attempts that failed. Thus, often things become worse rather than better when we act unilaterally as we did in Iraq. We need our allies, not just for their resources, but for the fact that they often have a better grasp on what is doable and what is not than we do.

As it is, we seem to be running out of feet to shoot ourselves in.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

An Introduction:

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword," Matthew 10:34

As the title suggests, these columns consist entirely of my opinions, some of which are actually grounded in careful thought, some are the result of research and reading, some are simply gut feelings and some are totally unreasoned prejudices.

You might find this amusing, boring, fascinating, annoying or horrifying.

Me, too.

As human beings, we each carry around our fair share of baggage, or, as the saying goes: "Wherever you go, there you are". I have no choice except to relate to the world as myself. No matter how much we try for "objectivity", we never find it (if, indeed, it exists). An honest writer should admit to bias, not obscure his agenda. I will try for honesty with you and with myself.

In keeping with this, I am a white Southerner, raised in Western Civilization, a follower of dead (mostly) white guys. I don't apologize for my nation's history nor do I brag of it. I believe in logic, rationality and science. I also believe in irrational things such as love, loyalty and the existence of God.

Secondly, I have a very peculiar sense of humor. It doesn't bother me a bit to screw up in front of a room full of total strangers, to play the clown or the fool. I intend to goof gloriously in the great tradition of Western Civilization, to screw up in ways undreamed of by the courts and by the scholars of our culture. If you don't make mistakes, you're not trying hard enough. If you don't make mistakes, you never encounter something you didn't expect - and God never intended the Universe to fit inside of any human head (mine most particularly).

Thirdly, I come at a lot of this from a Christian direction. Try not to let it throw you. This is part of me, part of where I come from. I also will throw in the occasional Taoist or Buddhist or Sufi thought on a subject. A lot of the time I will approach a problem from a scientific or "techie" point of view, but sometimes I will approach it from a poet's point of view. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Fourthly, I am not a "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" sort of Christian. I am not a pacifist and do not believe that He was either. I do believe that violence is the first resort of the incompetent and the last of the person who actually knows what he's doing. The reason why Jesus so seldom resorted to violence was because He knew what He was doing, and thus was able to find considerably more effective ways of getting things done than by killing people who didn't like Him.

Fifthly, I am not at all like you in some ways. I am very much like you in other ways. If I was identical to you, I couldn't say anything that you don't already know. If we had nothing in common, communication would be impossible. I hope to be both educational and comprehensible.

Lastly, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Meditation XVII - John Donne But some of us are not from the heartland of the continent, some of us are peninsulas connected only partially to the rest of humanity. Science teaches us that extreme cases can teach us things that more normal circumstances would obscure or omit from our attention. I hope that my admitedly odd and extreme existence will at least provide a cautionary example to you, my readers.

All this being said, let me tell you a story.

Saint Francis of Assisi was staying in the town of Gubbio and heard that a wolf was terrorizing the town, killing and devouring not only animals but people as well, leaving the surviving citizens afraid to venture outside of the city walls. Francis decided to go out and confront the wolf himself. After much futile pleading with the saint, a friar and a few of the local citizenry accompanied him outside the town. Suddenly, the wolf appeared, jaws open, fangs glistening and rushed the crowd. Doubtless, without the saint, everyone would have scattered to be attacked individually at the wolf's pleasure.

Francis did not run. He made the Sign of the Cross towards the wolf. The wolf, naturally confused, slowed down to examine the new situation. Then Francis started to preach to the wolf.

“Come to me, Brother Wolf. In the name of Christ, I order you not to hurt anyone.” The wolf stopped, then lay down at Francis's feet as he explained to the wolf that it had been doing wrong, killing not only domestic animals but people as well. “Brother Wolf,” said Francis, “I want to make peace between you and the people of Gubbio. They will harm you no more and you must no longer harm them. All past crimes are to be forgiven.”

The wolf nodded its head in agreement. Then Francis asked the wolf to make a pledge that if the townsfolk would feed the wolf, the wolf would no longer harm them or their livestock. St. Francis extended his hand and the wolf placed its front paw into the saint’s hand. Then Francis commanded the wolf to follow him into town to make a peace pact with the townspeople. The wolf followed the saint into town where the deal was sealed after a rousing sermon by Saint Francis.

For two years the wolf lived amongst the townsfolk, going from door to door for its meals, harming no one and no thing and being harmed by no one. Finally, it died of old age and its passing was mourned by all of the village of Gubbio.

There can be little doubt that the wolf accepted Francis' (and thus Christ's) teachings in so far as it was able - but a wolf's understanding is not a human understanding. Nor is it the viewpoint of a Lamb. Nor is my viewpoint a standard Christian viewpoint. Nor do I claim it to be Christ's viewpoint.

Think of these columns as my testimony, my statement of the truth as I, limited as I am, understand it.

Think of this as the Gospel According to Brother Wolf.