From a 75-year-old novel, the slips and falls of nation-building boots abroad, when boots on the ground are needed at home.

From a 75-year-old novel, the slips and falls of nation-building boots abroad, when boots on the ground are needed at home.
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“We’ve either got to win or don’t fight it at all.”

- Donald J. Trump, 27 February 2017

“…. we must acknowledge the reality…. that nearly 16 years after the September 11 attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory…. I share the American people’s frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money – and most importantly, lives – trying to rebuild countries in our own image…. to prosecute this war [in Afghanistan], we will learn from history…. We are not nation-building again….”

- Donald J. Trump, 21 August 2017

Okay, okay, yes, let us learn from history, and maybe from literature as well.

A lesson from a lit class

For several years prior to those 2017 pronouncements, I provided Language Arts counseling for young men and women at a Veterans Oasis “stationed” at a community college. I didn’t ask about their combat tours; their fraught-with-danger patrols and precarious bivouacs. We focused on their battles with grammar and syntax.

Still, occasionally, my thoughts had me picture them, full-packed and girded, doing recon through unnervingly-quiet alleys, in rubbled sectors, where they might be blown up by an IED or taken out by a sniper.

I could envision them in not-sufficiently armored-personnel-carriers in lands not-sufficiently scouted (let alone understood) by interventionist nation-tampering hawks, who dispatch lives from their ultra-safe corridors.

I don’t want anyone of those temporarily “stationed” in a community college Veterans Oasis – make that any serviceman or servicewoman – to be redeployed without good reason; make that dispatched into harm’s way without ultra-exceedingly-good reason, forethought, insight, and preparation.

Certainly not for the ego-flexing of those whose ideological fixations are amplified at the expense of truth about the realities on the ground; truth which comes at the expense of the boots dispatched to that ground – where the footing is so very uncertain, and perilous.

Certainly not for those in Washington who ignored intelligence briefings, which did not comport with their machinations and schemes; their visions of U.S.-led transformations.

Certainly not for those who hear only what they want to hear and seek only opinions that square with and justify their pre-conceived ideas.

Here’s hoping that President Trump is open to changing his mind if boots on the ground tell him that intervention is a lost cause.

In retrospect

What could have been done to eliminate whatever threat Saddam Hussein posed to the U.S. and its security interests? What should (can?) be done, semi-safely, to negate the threats from the psycho in North Korea, the exterminator in Damascus, the fanatics in Iran, and….?

I was all for having every last one of Osama bin Laden’s “cell-mates” locked up in throw-away-the-key prison cells.

But I wonder if those who devised and administered “Operation Iraqi Freedom” or our interventions in Libya, or our insinuations in Syria, or who continued to funnel boots to the interminable war in Afghanistan read all that much history, let alone literature born of conflict. I wonder if they have read writings that warn of naïve appeasement which merely postpones intervention, as well as writings that chronicle misguided intervention.

Yes, let us learn from history, and the literature that draws on those histories; writing whose documented horrors school us about genocides that proceeded as a result of appeasement. On that same well-attended bookshelf there should be writings about invasions and occupations of the past; writings that assess the horrors born of hubris and jingoistic misunderstandings.

If history dense with fact is too taxing, there is literature:

Novels by John Hersey and John Steinbeck provide instruction about waging a battle for hearts and minds. They offer a mini-course that could be titled, “How to Deal with Invaded Lands, Captured Resources, and Conquered Populations.”

In The Moon Is Down (1942), John Steinbeck wrote of an invading army’s mission – to secure coal mines so that there’d be ample fuel for its trains and factories. The inhabitants of the invaded land find ways to keep the invaders from fueling their war machine. The colonel of the invading army has had some experience in trying to subdue a conquered nation; he admits that he and his soldiers have to anticipate resistance, revolt, reprisals, and revenge.

Steinbeck did not name the country invaded, or those who did the invading. His cautionary tale is applicable to any time, any place, any invader, any subdued population. Steinbeck wrote,

“The days and the weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on…. the coal did not come out of the ground easily. The good miners made mistakes. They were clumsy and slow. Machinery broke and took a long time to fix. The people of the conquered country settled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge…. there was death in the air, hovering and waiting....

“Accidents happened…. People were shot in reprisal and it made no difference…. The cold hatred grew with the winter, the silent sullen hatred, the waiting hatred….

“Now it was that the conqueror was surrounded…. gradually a little fear began to grow in the conquerors, a fear that it would never be over, that they could never relax or go home.... their sleep was restless and their days were nervous….”

Steinbeck had a lieutenant in the conquering army ruefully observe that even though the invaders had conquered, it was the conquerors who were surrounded.

Before still more sons and daughters are sent abroad to become targets, the “fathers” of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the pursuers of Afghan Operation Enduring Freedom should be schooled in the lessons offered by John Steinbeck and by John Hersey.

And maybe more prudence, wisdom and caution would be in play if our war-makers’ own sons and daughters were exposed and subject to the risks of being occupiers.

In A Bell for Adano (1944), John Hersey wrote that administering occupied territory is the “toughest of all jobs.” He noted that soldiers in an army of occupation are, at least initially, “tight in their muscles.” But Victor Joppolo, Major, United States Army, found ways to put the people of Adano at ease – found ways to earn their high regard, allegiance, and affection. In doing so, he made life much easier for his men.

Joppolo, or “Mister Major” as he was called by the townspeople, waged war on hunger and injustice. He made sure that the townspeople got food to eat and water to drink; that kids got “cara-mels.” He managed to obtain cloth from which desperately-needed clothing could be fashioned. He promoted good conduct among his men and found ways to discourage (and punish) misconduct.

Major Joppolo saw to it that the debris and detritus of war were cleaned up, that sanitation was attended to. He took care of dirty dealings, too: He didn’t turn a blind eye to corruption and black-market operations. Merchants who under-weighed and overcharged were fined; these levies were used to care for those who had the greatest needs. He settled disputes in a manner that preserved dignity and punished indignities, mindful of the town’s culture and mores. And, most significantly, he found out what was meaningful to the people of the town – what lifted their spirits and made them whole. He didn’t impose his notions or pre-dispositions.

Are there enough Victor Joppolo’s already in service to deal with the aftermath, say, of a surgical missile or drone strike that eliminates Kim Jong-un?

It can be hoped that the Trump-Pence-Mattis administration resists implorings and importunings (from McCain, Graham, and others) to depart from the president’s August 21 pledge: “we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image.”

A novel approach? Skin in the game?

The Moon Is Down and A Bell for Adano (and, surely, recent informed accounts and observations) provision our generals with insights about intervention. They provide counters to what has been imposed and might again be imposed – out of ignorance, obstinance, and arrogance, and, in president Trump’s own words, “micromanagement from Washington, D.C.”

Unlike the sometimes idyllic settings and encounters chronicled in James Michener’s experience-based 1947 novel Tales of the South Pacific, more recent military interventions and occupations have been antagonistic and contentious. Michener’s Tales inspired the Rogers and Hammerstein hit musical South Pacific. Hard to imagine “happy-talk” and “some enchanted evening” lyrics for recent wars.

Perhaps things would have gone differently in Iraq and Afghanistan if the sons and daughters of recent administrations had been dispatched to patrol Fallujah and Najaf, Helmand and Kandahar.

Titles and Argot

Perhaps things would have been different if in addition to coming up with nomenclature such as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Pentagon copywriters had funneled some library books to those who were funneling boots to operation ground.

It can be rightly assumed that those who came up with Operation Valiant Strike, Operation Valiant Resolve, Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Eagle Curtain, Operation Iron Hammer, Operation All American Tiger, Operation Sword, Operation Ivy Serpent, Operation Ivy Cyclone, Operation Trailblazer, Operation Matador, Operation Thunder/Lightning were well-intentioned and committed to inspiring those on the ground.

No doubt there were and are good organizational, tactical, and administrative reasons for such designations. But more focus on Operation Eye-in-the-Sky might have been as adept at spotting bad actors; pinpointing them for targeting, at a most opportune moment. Dated or otherwise misleading information can result in operational blunders and misfortune for the eyes and the boots on the ground.

The difficulties recounted in some novels (with hindsight, to be sure) are not wholly imaginary, and might well arm Pentagon planners and politicians with better insight, a different foresight.

Where boots-on-the-ground can be better grounded

I have great regard and admiration for the men and women I worked with in that community college Veterans Oasis. I harbor animus against those in power whose mind-sets jeopardized so many sons and daughters, when history, along with well-understood and well-applied surveillance technology – and aerial weaponry – can hone in on those clearly bent on doing obvious harm.

And from what I have learned about our covert and conspiratorial dealings in Kiev, in recent years, I fear that folly was again being courted, at Eastern European borders that could be explosive and incendiary. All has not been quiet on that Western Front.

So yes, President Trump, best make sure we know exactly what we’re fighting for and all the risks that could and might be courted. Hell, anticipate and plan for collateral damage and unintended consequences. And, YES, I would be very very pleased (and relieved) to have Kim Jong-un dispensed with – done and gone, permanently; the sooner, the better. But until we fully grasp and work to minimize unacceptable consequences, yes, please, let’s try to hold our firepower, unless and until it is most crucial to unleash it.

Deployments and Redeployments - Homeward

What nature unleashed on our own shores should redirect our thinking and deployments.

After Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, we’ve got more than enough nation-building – and rebuilding – to do on our own lands.

Let’s keep our soles and our good souls on our home ground where there is a most compelling need for a concerted ground game, and where we have “home-field advantage.”

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