Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again

The soil of my life time has been saturated with the blood of wars. Following an American and allied victory in World War II (just two years after my birth) the United States has fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan…and deadly skirmishes in Africa, Iran, Central America, the Balkans and elsewhere.

We were roundly defeated in Vietnam; booted out of Iran; more than half of Korea remains in enemy hands; and America is retreating in Afghanistan. But the USA is in good company. The French were also defeated by the Viet Cong in Vietnam and Russia also retreated from Afghanistan as a loser.

“Insanity is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again, but Expecting Different Results.”

This prescient quotation (usually attributed to Albert Einstein) aptly describes America’s Afghan debacle. When our core task changed from rooting out 9/11 terrorists and became a full-bore war, the US began engaging in insanity.  And I wonder––to paraphrase Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1962 lyrics––Oh, when will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?  

 Here is what I have learned: nation building and seeking to impose our democracy and our way of life on other nations cannot be accomplished through the force of arms. Mort Rosenblum, a former college classmate of mine, wrote in his Mort Report, “Societies react badly to uninvited foreign saviors. However noble your intentions, you can’t deliver democracy at gunpoint. Most Americans…want to do the right thing and come home. But few know what the right thing is. Generals loath to admit defeat by a ragtag rabble see lights at the end of tunnels. One president passes stalemate on to the next. And people keep dying…America’s long failed record of attempting to right other people’s wrongs by force has left deep, lasting scars.”

Oh, when will we ever learn?

Mort continues, “Americans repeat the same questions: Why after trillions of dollars and years of training can’t the Afghan army defend itself? How were we caught so off-guard? There is no army or country to defend. America moved into a fractured nation, broke it some more, tried to stick it together with duct tape and dollars. A corrupt and hollow structure collapsed overnight. Soldiers shed their uniforms and hurried back to their families.”

Oh, when will we ever learn?

According to Mort, by 2009 then Vice President Joe Biden had, in fact, learned something. “He counseled resisting the generals (and negotiating) a way to disengage from an unwinnable war. He was probably right. The goal was to deny potential terrorists a staging ground, but the conflict created yet more implacable foes.” Biden lost the argument, a new surge of fighters was sent to Afghanistan, and blood continued to flow.

Oh, when will we ever learn?

Looking Back to the Beginning

In October, a month after the 9/11 tragedy, a public radio commentator reflected that “something ended on September 11, and a new, indefinable era has begun.” The following week, my colleague Bennett Sims and I published our thoughts in the Turning Point newsletter:

“We believe that America’s responsibility as the world’s strongest nation is to forsake vengeance and usher in this dawning era by boldly seeking peace. And we must remember, it isn’t just about the United States of America and our friends and enemies. It is about how we will live together peacefully in an ever-shrinking, interconnected and complex world. It is about devoting the same energy, resources and commitment to peacemaking that we have previously devoted to waging war.

“On the road to peace we must first learn that no matter how righteous we believe we are when we invade another nation, in the hearts and minds of many people in that nation––most of them innocent people, just like the innocent people in the New York Towers––we are an enemy bent on destroying their way of life. And, since they do not have the capacity as a people or as a nation to conventionally fight against America’s overwhelming force, they resort to terror.

“We can strike back by killing individual terrorists and demolishing countries that harbor them. But we cannot win a war against terrorism with terrorism. We can inflict pain and damage; we can cause death and destruction. But we cannot bring peace. Responding to terrorists with terror only increases hatred and spawns a never-ending escalation.

“It takes a super power with the willingness to be vulnerable to stand amidst a surging tide of vengeance and to call for peace. We wonder if America has the national strength of character to embrace such deep vulnerability, but we share a conviction that it is the only road to peace.” Two weeks after the newsletter went into the mail, the first US troops moved into Afghanistan.

Oh, when will we ever learn?

 

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