Tuesday, September 22, 2009

There's Always a Siren...Singing You to Shipwreck

Title lyrics from Radiohead's "There There."

That, in general, people are treating General MacChrystal's recently released/leaked report on the status of the conflict in Afghanistan as if it were an influx of new and much-needed information is curious. It is decidedly not.

Most everyone without a personal stake in governance and/or fellating those that do so have recognized for some time that US actions in Afghanistan are far from the drumline/fife cavalcade that many Americans still seem to picture when they imagine war. Battalions helpfully dressed in red wool, civilians avoiding the conflict, marching in straight lines. Sadly, those of us that have put down Cornwallis' theories on war and examined the world as it currently exists aren't typically asked for our input.

Only under these circumstances would the revelation that Afghanis might enjoy a mortar-free trip to the market, or a government that doesn't make the US Congress look as corrupt as a quilting circle, or the occasion spurt of electricity (preferably not using their groins as a conductor) seem anything of the sort. These are not revelations, these are common human traits. Only Americans seem to find surprising the reality that even Brown people like to see their sons and daughters grow up. Only their concerns are more centered on little Joey retaining four limbs than whether he's better at soccer than the son of the person in the next cubicle.

Even in those rare bursts of half-realization, such as MacChrystal's report, the pull of conventional wisdom (read: mental laziness) is still too great to expect any proliferation of such epiphanies. And that's discounting the inevitability of some celebrity dying, getting divorced or shopping for pants taking its place for the news lead.

In addition to finding such mundane human realities as the desire to live vexing, Americans love to whitewash even such trivialities in even more trite catch phrases and slogans. We consider "hearts-and-minds" a tremendously profound strategy, but see upon examination that it is nothing of the sort.

When we say we want to win the "hearts and minds," we mean not that we seek to learn their values and live up to them. We mean that we want to convince them that the values we're are attempting to impose upon them are accepted silently and graciously. This is not a small distinction, and it has confused the "best-and-brightest" since the early Sixties.

We consider the populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan so backward and uneducated that we truly believe that they will find relief--joy, even--when they pick up a leaflet extolling American virtues next to the burning rubble of their meager existence. For the US government/military, it is inconceivable that such people might consider the realities of their surroundings when deciding how much credence to give to America propaganda. To the US government, winning hearts and minds means making a flashier leaflet, not a cessation of explosion and death.

Unlike Americans, most foreign populations are aware of the state of their government. We get temporarily bent out of shape at minor infractions upon decorum ('You lie.'), but we never examine the edifice, itself. Afghanis, on the other hand, know exactly who their government is. And it's not Hamid Karzai. They're well aware that they are governed by a cadre of corrupt, often competing, warlords, many of which receive American support.

Temporary incursions into pseudo-logical thinking like MacChrystal's only serve to make the general lack of such that much more luminous.

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