Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama, Afghanistan and An Ancient Conversation

If any of the respected visitors to MeanMesa consider the voice heard here to be a spring chicken, thanks so very, very much for hosting such a kind image of me! However, the facts in the case just rush forward as inexorably as time itself. The voice of MeanMesa, considered generously with some polite term such as "mature," is, in fact, inescapably nothing other than a geriatric curmudgeon, more succinctly, a geezer.

For that very reason, the following tale is presented without apology.

Years ago, in the throes of the Viet Nam War, all of us found ourselves perplexed by issues arising from the "big picture." Of course, we were literally inundated by media presentations which not even the most credulous still believed. There were tales of stupendous "body counts" and other military advances in every day's post. (It was newspapers and Walter Cronkite in those days...)

Surrounded by young Americans who were subject to conscription, it seemed that every waking moment was filled with more debate about the merit and validity of the war. This impassioned discourse filled every waking conversation to a breaking point. Only very short term comments about girls, drugs and rock and roll broke the continuum of these often heated political and ideological discussions.

Not being men who claimed the qualities of intelligence and perception often ascribed to the "Zarathustras" of political leadership of the day such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, we were perplexed. A series of familiar questions fueled our pondering about our own ideals, our vision for the nation and the justification of operating the incredible meat grinder which the Southeast Asian War had ingloriously become.

We all knew that among the faces we might have recognized at the coffee shops and beer halls, young men were simply disappearing. When inquiries were made, perhaps to some acquaintance of the missing fellow, a hushed explanation was offered up, devoid of details, but encompassing everything. "Oh, he got drafted."

Sometimes these draftees came home after a while, in other cases, they never returned to the hang outs and the company of their pre-war pasts. Many of those who did return were permanently changed. Their eyes were hollow. They were subject to spats of solitary melancholy even while sitting comfortably in a raucous tavern. It was clear, at those moments, that the beer they sloshed down their throats was to supposed to wash away something perpetually unpleasant for them.

However, all these meanderings only set the stage for the actual substance of this MeanMesa post. It was a certain conversation which was attended during those dark days which prompts this painful recollection.

Living in Alaska at the time, foreigners were something of an unusual occurrence. As it happened, an acquaintance of mine, an Australian fellow, was visited there by his old grandmother, a British woman with, it turned out, a remarkable depth of understanding with respect to international affairs such as our dilemma in Viet Nam.

A tea was scheduled where some of the young fellow's Alaskan friends might meet his grandmother. An essentially pubescent, 20-something MeanMesa was included in those invited. In a manner consistent with our usual socialization, there was not only some questionable tea and cookies (crumpets?) involved at this overly -- for us -- formal gathering, but also a good sized jug of fairly respectable Port.

The niceties whipped by quickly, and the Alaskan boys who had made their appearance just as quickly made their good byes. The affair was akin to an underwater gathering for them where all breathing had been delayed until later. However, this left yours truly and the British grandmother more or less alone, making what common conversation we could manage. Was it mentioned that, although this tea occurred midmorning on a bright spring Alaskan day, that there was, ahem, drinking involved?

The conversation drifted to Viet Nam and our war there. The British grandmother was politely asked for her opinion as an outsider. Her polite response has echoed right and left through this ancient head since that day.

She said, "Your country has missed the parts of history which have the very greatest relevance to what is unfolding in Asia. Of course, with your nation's beginning as a colony of the Crown, it is not surprising that the general concept of colonialism is one which evokes hidden emotions for you. Being English, I have also had perhaps too much experience with colonial ideas and their consequences in the general history of the participating states."

"However, as you Americans review the rather torrid history of the English colonies, you might notice the 'big picture' of what resulted from that unfortunate policy. In the case of America, there was a Revolutionary War, which the British lost to the surprise of everyone else who was watching."

"As a consequence of that conflict, your American history is filled with one opinion after another, to a letter, all demonizing the very most fundamental aspects of the idea of colonization. I suppose that this is understandable, at least for some time after that battle took place. But now, as America finds herself embroiled in the Asian War, perhaps a clearer look at that idea of colonialism might be a clarifying benefit to your perspective of what goals your nation has set for itself in the effort."

A note to MeanMesa visitors: "Does any of this 'ring true' to our current questions about Afghanistan?"

The British grandmother continued, "America is clearly attempting to redefine Viet Nam into a modern democracy, an undertaking which seems to have every positive aim. However, instead of tangible progress toward such a goal, that unfortunate country is now violently divided and its people have been suffering horribly for all the years that the conflict has continued."

"My point is that you Americans, while admittedly holding very idealistic goals, have utterly bungled the transformative process you envisioned initially. The step from what Viet Nam was before you arrived to what you would like for Viet Nam to become as you leave is simply too big a step for the place and its people to take all at once."

"The British Empire encountered the same situation in many of its colonial adventures, but those old Colonial Royalists knew a thing or two. They knew that if a new colony, such as for example, India, were ever to become a prosperous and successful colony of the Crown, it would have to make changes much more sweeping and fundamental that merely a few adjustments dealing with business and politics."

"In fact, if India failed to make such modernizing and liberalizing changes, it would never be a particularly valuable colony to the British Empire because its necessary commerce, along with all sorts of other traits, would never amount to a value commensurate with the expense of conquering it. The same holds with the case of the Americans in Viet Nam. Your country should have gone ahead and colonized Viet Nam in some only mildly inconvenient manner, and directed its transformation into a modern state with educated people, a prosperous commerce and a reasonable security."

"Had America taken that approach, that is, accepted the necessity of colonization as a necessary step in your nation building process, all this violence and treasure you've committed to that war would begin to be returned in much better outcomes. If you Americans had the ambition of establishing the place as a modern democracy at some point down the road, you could have kept that ambition to yourselves until the locals rose up in an acceptable way to gain their independence. At that point, your country might feign a moment of 'What are we doing here?' and simply leave."

That was essentially the conversation with the British grandmother about the Viet Nam War all those years ago.

Her matronly view of things seemed to make sense for the Southeast Asian War, and its relevance seems to have a creepy longevity when we consider the questions of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time of this writing, our President is preparing to tell us Americans precisely how he intends to make sense of what we have done to ourselves in Afghanistan. MeanMesa is certain that his idea will be a thoughtful, balanced one. The unfortunate facts, however, remain like a bored, circling vulture over a dead rhino on a hot afternoon. Waiting won't really help much.

The easiest combinations are simple logical paradoxes. We probably shouldn't stay, and we probably shouldn't leave. It's too late to discuss whether or not we should have begun in the first place. Carefully totaling up the advantages and disadvantages of either staying or leaving doesn't seem to provide much guidance or enlightenment, now.

The colonization idea seems to be growing legs. Do we Americans have the gumption to embrace the awkward? Even worse, the question, "What's it worth?"

MeanMesa's compliments to the President.

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