Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dusty Quagmire

Last week I watched Armadillo, a film that follows the actions of a Danish combat platoon in Afghanistan. I was surprised at how similar the Danes were to the American troops I’ve seen in similar documentaries - down to their buff, tattooed bodies and their rough teasing and jostling of each other.

Spoiler alert: The film concludes with the platoon leader telling his men that there should be no talk of their having shot and killed wounded and helpless enemies during their recent dust-up with the Taliban because "nothing like that actually happened." This little drama followed right after scenes of the engagement referred to, a fight in which the soldiers killed wounded and helpless Taliban. I wonder if some sort of Copenhagen court martial is in the offing.

This film brought home to me again just how bizarre America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is. We went there to get Al Qaeda, which no longer has a significant Afghanistan presence. Most of the local Afghans don’t like us, and many of those who do are simply enriching themselves by pocketing our financial aid. Afghanistan today is looking more and more like Vietnam in the 1960s.

But how many Americans understand Vietnam of the 1960s? Two of our recent presidents certainly didn’t. George W. Bush argued that we made a mistake, not for getting into the Vietnam War, but for getting out of it.

OK, you’re probably thinking I’m cheating by citing George Bush, one of the most bodaciously ignorant people ever to occupy the White House.

He was, however, president, and yes, there are millions of Americans who would vote for him next year if he ran against, say, Barack Obama. The same can be said of Ronald Reagan, only more so.

Reagan was at least as ignorant as Bush, and even more popular. Like Bush, Reagan seemed to enjoy unnecessary wars. His killing fields were not in the Middle East, but in Central America, where he justified his backing of terrorists and other right-wing factions by claiming that Nicaragua was a lot like Vietnam.

And what was Vietnam like? According to the history that flourished in Ronald Reagan’s head (but nowhere else in the cosmos) Vietnam’s Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, refused to allow elections in his country once it had gained independence from France.

But outside of Ronald Reagan's head, that is, in the real world, Ho Chi Minh actually supported an election while it was the United States that did not. In fact, according to a 1954 Geneva agreement, elections for the leadership of Vietnam were scheduled for 1956 and representatives from Canada (NATO), Poland (Pro-Soviet) and India (neutral) were supposed to observe the polling and make sure it was free and fair.

The U.S. blocked these elections because, as former President Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs, experts on Vietnam agreed that Ho Chi Minh would easily win any popular vote. He was, as Republican Senator Thruston Morton said, Vietnam’s George Washington. He had led the fight that freed Vietnam from French rule, and by doing so had made himself the hero of the Vietnamese people, both north and south.

So why did Ronald Reagan claim the Ho Chi Minh prevented the election? The short answer is that where history is concerned, Ronald Reagan was not exactly a genius. Actually, you could also say that about President Reagan’s understanding of economics. Or government budgets. Or race relations. Or environmentalism. Or education. Or…OK, Ronald Reagan was not very smart about almost everything, but he was a “Great Communicator,” and this made him popular. I guess the questions to ask here are, “If his thinking was so divorced from reality, what, exactly, was he communicating?” and “Will the American public buy any brand of idiocy, as long as it’s presented in an affable, folksy manner?”

Please don’t answer those questions. I’m depressed enough as it is.

Ketchup is a vegetable!

Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do!

Nicaragua is close enough to invade Texas!

- The wisdom of the Gipper

The real story of America’s war in Vietnam is this: Our government lied to us as it dragged us into a thoroughly pointless fight against a popular leader, and in doing so threw away lives, treasure and the trust of the American people – something that hasn’t been recovered yet, and for good reason. The war in Afghanistan, like the earlier one in Vietnam, is a pointless exercise whose only goal seems to be a demonstration of American strength.

But does it demonstrate strength to dribble away our resources, shed American and Afghan blood, and do so with no possibility of success? If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he might claim that it does, but I’ve got to say, for me, the answer is a big fat no.

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