The Vishnu Strategy

“The Supreme Lord said: I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy.” According to the great Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita, Vishnu delivered that speech to Prince Arjuna before a great battle almost eight millennia ago. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer paraphrased it in 1945 to describe the explosion of the atomic bomb. The latest channeling of the Hindu god can be found in an Israeli commander’s evaluation of last summer’s war with Lebanon: “What we did was insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”

The commander was decrying the way Israel, the United States, and Great Britain wage war these days, which has increasingly become an exercise in mass destruction. In the last five years, Vishnu has visited Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. The result has been death and ruin on a biblical—or more aptly, a Bhagavad-Gita—scale.

In Lebanon

During the recent 34-day war, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired some four million cluster munitions at southern Lebanon. According to UN Relief Coordinator David Shearer, “Nearly all of these munitions were fired in the last three or four days of the war.” At least one million of these unexploded bombs are still waiting in ambush for unwary farmers and children.

According to the UN, the IDF destroyed airports, harbors, water and sewage plants, electrical generators, 80 bridges, 94 roads, over 900 businesses, and 30,000 homes. Retreating Israeli soldiers systematically destroyed the infrastructure of villages and deliberately polluted water tanks and wells. According to the Lebanese government, some 1,189 Lebanese were killed, 4,399 wounded, and one-quarter of Lebanon’s population—approximately one million in all—were turned into refugees.

Lebanon is hardly unique.

Since 1991, according to Handicap International, the United States and Britain have dropped over 13 million cluster munitions on Iraq and strewn the countryside with more than 500 tons of toxic depleted uranium ammunition. A Johns Hopkins University study found that anywhere from 426,369 to 793,663 Iraqis have been killed since the March 2003 invasion. The war has also driven 1.8 million Iraqis out of their country and created 1.6 million internal refugees.

Since last January, almost 4,000 people have died in Afghanistan, over 1,000 of them civilians. The United States has dropped more than three times the number of bombs on that country over the past six months than it did in its first three-year campaign against the Taliban. B-1 bombers are routinely unloading 19,000 pounds of explosives during bombing runs while AC-130 Spectre gunships spitting 155mm howitzer shells and tens of thousands of 40mm cannon shells, prowl the skies. In September, an AC-130 killed 31 shepherds.

Three of the most powerful armies in the world attacked countries that are only marginally in the same century as Israel, the United States, and Britain. Yet in spite of overwhelming firepower, Israel was fought to a standstill in Lebanon, the Americans in Iraq are in increasingly desperate straits, and British forces in Afghanistan, according its former chief of staff, Field Marshall Peter Inge, face the possibility of outright defeat.

Has the Vishnu strategy met its match?

Sources of Resistance

There was a time when a thin red line of British regulars ruled the Indian subcontinent, when a few brigades of U.S. Marines could keep Central America safe for the United Fruit Company, and when the IDF smashed far larger armies in a week of fighting. But the thin red line faced mostly tribal warriors, and the Marines were up against unarmed peasants. The Arab armies were big, but poorly led and technologically inferior.

All empires—whether they are based on colonies or economic domination—depend on uneven development. There was a time when industrial capitalism was all-powerful, and when the people it conquered often did not even think of themselves as “nations.” When the people in those conquered countries did think of themselves as a nation, the maintenance of empire became a rockier affair. Tiny Ireland tied down more British regulars in the 19th century than did India.

Eventually the emergence of nationalism made it impossible for the colonial powers to retain direct sovereignty over Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, though many of those former colonies are still economic and political vassals. The thin red line withdrew because it suddenly faced hundreds of millions of people who were united in wanting it out, and if push came to shove, would fight to make it so.

The great powers retreated, but they always believed that their superior military power and their willingness to use the Vishnu strategy gave them a final vote in matters concerning their interests. For many, that illusion of superiority held even when reality demonstrated the opposite. Hence, revisionists like Vice President Dick Cheney currently argue that the United States lost the Vietnam War not because of the impossibility of defeating an entire nation but because the U.S. political and military leadership lacked sufficient resolve.

The Bipartisan Vishnu

Unfortunately, the hallucination that war is still a relevant strategy is not confined to the neoconservatives and a few right-wing Republicans. Many Democrats share it as well, even if they happen to disagree with the current White House about the tactics of employing military power.

The Democrats have voted overwhelmingly to support the almost $600 billion yearly military budget, including the unneeded $65 billion F-22 program and the $256.6 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane that no one seems to want. Lockheed Martin, which makes both the F-22 and the F-35, has contributed generously to the campaign of Ike Skelton (D-Mo), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee and a chief supporter of expanding the military. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently endorsed President George W. Bush’s proposal to enlarge the military. “I have been calling for such an expansion for several years,” he told the press.

In a recent editorial, the New York Times called such an expansion essential for the kind of “extended clashes” the United States will face in the future from “ground-based insurgents.” But “extended clashes” are exactly the kinds of wars that make military superiority irrelevant. The Bush administration’s “surge” of troops into Iraq will make not an iota of difference, any more than the Vietnam escalations did a generation ago.

The cost, however, is extraordinary. The Department of Defense will spend $2.3 trillion over the next five years—actually more if you count nuclear weapons, veterans’ benefits, and the cost of the wars themselves. The price tag for Iraq alone is $450 billion and climbing.

All this massive (and expensive) firepower does achieve something: unprecedented death and destruction. The Israelis bombed Lebanon back to the Stone Age, and three-decade old cluster weapons are still blowing up Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. Iraq may find it harder to recover from its “liberation” than it did from the Mongol invasions. We cannot “win,” but like the Romans of old, we can sow the earth with salt. What we reap will not be acquiescence or compliance, however.

Commenting on the recent Lebanon War, Augustus Richard Norton, a former army officer who served in Southern Lebanon and currently teaches at Boston University, pointed out that previous Israeli invasions and occupations created the conditions for the recent war. “Hezbollah had 20 years to hone their skills and hatred against Israel,” he said. “That hatred was created by Israel; it wasn’t there in the beginning.”

Substitute the United States or Britain for Israel. Shift the locale to Iraq or Afghanistan. And that’s where the Vishnu Strategy gets you in the end.

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