Madness and War

In the 5th century BC, the Greek tragic playwright Euripides coined a phrase that still captures the particular toxic combination of hubris and illusion that seizes many of those in power: “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

What other line could better describe British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent address to his nation’s troops hunkered down at Camp Bastion, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province? “Here,” Blair said. “In this extraordinary piece of desert is where the fate of world security in the early 21st century is going to be decided.”

While Blair was turning Afghanistan’s arid south into the Armageddon of terrorism, the rest of the country was coming apart at the seams. Attacks by insurgents have reached 600 a month, more than double the number in March, and almost five times the number in November of last year.

“We do have a serious problem in the south,” one diplomat told Rachel Morarjee of the Financial Times on November 22, “but the north is a ticking time bomb.”

Suicide bombers have struck Kunduz in the north, where former U.S. protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami organization are hammering away at the old Northern Alliance. The latter, frozen out of the current government following the 2001 Bonn Conference, is busy stockpiling arms and forming alliances with drug warlords. According to the Associated Press, opium poppy production is up 59%.

While Blair was bucking up the troops, their officers were growing increasingly desperate. Major Jon Swift, a company commander in the Royal Fusiliers told the Guardian that casualties were “very significant and showing no signs of reducing,” and Field Marshall Peter Inge, former chief of the British military, warned that the army in Afghanistan “could risk operational failure,” military speak for “defeat.”

The Brits don’t have a monopoly on madness, however.

Speaking in Riga, Latvia on the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting, President George Bush said, “I am not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete. We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren.”

In the meantime, the Iraq War that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said would cost $50 billion at the most, was burning up more than twice that each year. The Pentagon just requested $160 billion in supplemental funds for the Iraq and Afghan wars for the remainder of fiscal 2007. Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz says the final costs may exceed $2 trillion.

Ghosts of Vietnam

It is sometimes hard to fathom the source of the Blair’s madness, but there is no mistaking the origins of President Bush’s brand of insanity: the American experience in Vietnam.

During his recent trip to that country President Bush said he thought the lesson of the Vietnam War was that “we’ll succeed unless we quit.” In short, the United States lost the war in Vietnam because it “cut and ran,” a victim of a backstabbing press and a loss of will.

This particular myth is at the core of the administration’s ideology. When things began going badly in Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz immediately targeted the press. Wolfowitz mocked reporters for being afraid to go outside the Green Zone, while Cheney and Rumsfeld attacked the media for sabotaging the U.S. effort, just like it had in Vietnam.

The mythology that we “won” the Vietnam War on the battlefield but lost it at home is at the core of Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney’s book, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics. Johnson is a fellow at Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, Tierney is a professor at Swarthmore, and both are strong advocates for not withdrawing from Iraq.

The two men argue that the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet offensive was a military victory for the United States, but because the American press portrayed it as a defeat, the United States was eventually forced to withdraw.

But Tet was less a military battle than a political counterstroke aimed at American claims that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” Bush is indeed correct in thinking that the Vietnam War is relevant for what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan; he just hasn’t absorbed the lesson: people don’t like foreign occupying armies and will fight to get them out.

“In the long run,” says military historian Jack Radey, “there will be more natives of the country ready to die for it than foreigners.” While armies can fight armies, they can’t fight a whole people and they fall apart when they occupy a country that doesn’t want them there. To overcome this problem, the U.S. military recently issued a blueprint for how to conduct a “friendly” occupation.

But occupation, says Radey, is what creates the problem. “If you go out to make the other side love you by lowering your guard, taking off your helmets, not pointing guns at everyone, and not running around in tanks, the other side gets a lot of easy shots at your guys. So you button up and shoot everything that moves, which means a lot of civilians die. Anyway you look at this you lose.”

War is Their Answer

To the Bush administration the solution to everything is more force. Some Democrats echo this argument when they call for more “boots on the ground” to finish the job.

From August 1964 to January 1973, the United States threw 8.7 million military personnel into Vietnam, pounded the country with more bombs than were dropped on World War II Europe, and killed at least three million Southeast Asians. “Frankly, we’re going to just snow the place under with bombs,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in 1966. “And I am doing it purposely to make them cry ‘stop.’”

They never did, and in the end the United States had no choice but to withdraw. Eventually we will have to do so from Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The only question will be how many more Iraqis and Afghans we kill and maim, and how many more young Americans will we bring home in caskets or wounded in body and mind? It’s a Greek tragedy in the making.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) columnist.