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"Groundhog Day" In Asia: Unwinnable Wars

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The hit Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," you may remember, concerns a cynical, manipulative man who, to his horror, finds himself locked in a circular life-loop; only after he's able to open his heart can he finally begin to grow into a full human being, loved and loving. Bush&Co.'s Iraq war reminds me of that film, the same events unfolding day after day after day; the difference is that the architects of this war have their hearts and minds locked so tightly that no change appears possible.

In a sense, America itself seems caught up in a "Groundhog Day" loop in that region of the world, continually ignoring the same warning generals for decades have been giving us: Do not get involved militarily on the landmass of Asia.

Korea in the '50s, Vietnam in the '60s and '70s, currently in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Each time, the same ignorance and bravado seem to take hold. We'll whip these backward buggers into shape. How can we not fail? Look at all our high-tech weaponry and look at those peasants trying to stop us with their stones and punji sticks and homemade explosives and old-fashioned rifles.

But, time and time again, local patriotism and nationalist fervor trumps technology. It's the old David & Goliath story, with the more nimble and creative David driving the high-tech Goliath batty, because the Big Guy is too musclebound to do much about it except cause collateral-damage mayhem.


Why have so many war heroes continually warned against the U.S. becoming militarily engaged in Asia? Part of the reason had to do with the vastness of the geography and the historical tendency for massive local populations to "absorb" and repel invaders (Napoleon and Hitler learned these facts the hard way, as did the U.S. in Vietnam and Korea). Part has to do with the fact that Westerners stand out like sore thumbs, don't speak the indigenous languages, have very little concept of how to relate to the varied ethnic groups and religions, don't know the customs and traditions and geographical quirks and hiding places of those lands, aren't quite sure how to deal with guerrillas in their midst, etc. etc.

The U.S. military leaders were not issuing their warnings because they considered such wars in Asia to be immoral or illegal; it was mainly because they were unwinnable. Nothing much could be gained in these "stalemate" wars, and much would be lost, not the least of which was the moral high ground and reputation of the United States, along with tens of thousands of dead and maimed U.S. troops. In addition, unless the U.S. military gets in and out quickly (the 1991 invasion of Iraq, for example, which lasted 100 days), the public grows impatient and begins asking embarrassing questions about the necessity for such wars and the lack of carefully-considered exit plans.

Also, high-tech wars are horribly expensive, and tend to drain the coffers of the U.S. treasury. What this translates to back home, in addition to huge budget deficits, is lack of funds for infrastructure maintenance, popular social programs, educational improvements, innovative civilian research, etc. To make up this funding gap occasioned by ballooning war costs (a good deal of which is eaten up by corruption, cost overruns, "losing track" of billions of dollars), the middle class yet again tends to take the hit, both immediately and in the long term, with debilitating debt burdens placed on their children and grandchildren. Of course, the situation gets even worse for middle-class citizens if the government gives massive tax breaks and refunds to corporations and wealthy individuals, which is the case with the Bush Administration.
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So, apparently learning nothing from the generals' warnings and from earlier experiences of American military forces in Asia (and those of earlier British and French colonialists, as well as that suffered by Napoleon and Hitler in Russia and by the Russians later in Afghanistan), the Bush Administration has taken the U.S. into two wars on the Asian mainland, in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Cheney and Rumsfeld, the prime movers in initiating those wars, are following the same self-destructive path as their predecessors from decades earlier. They barely understand those cultures, don't speak the languages (and have little use for those who do have that ability), have little real knowlege of the ethnic, religious and political tensions in those countries, and wind up alienating the native populations -- so much so that even the supposedly U.S.-friendly leaders installed during the occupations are incensed at the arrogant, aggressive behavior of the American military, which is killing, brutalizing and humiliating their citizens.

It was relatively easy for the U.S. and its local allies to overthrow the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, although Rumsfeld and his in-theater generals seemed disappointed that the country was so backward and undeveloped, providing very few targets worth bombing. The U.S. and its client leader, President Karzai, control sections of the capital Kabul but little else, as the ancient warlord system of geographic control is returning in full force. And the Taliban is regrouping and showing off its growing strength. In short, Asian War #1 is by no means over; indeed, it's threatening to flare up once again.

Since there was no oil or much of anything else of value in Afghanistan, the U.S. basically abandoned it precipitously. With its work unfinished -- it simply left Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants still at large and in charge of al-Qaida -- the Bush Administration ordered the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan and into Iraq, the Bush Administration's real goal because of its abundance of oil reserves, a weakened military and its great geopolitical importance for further U.S. adventures in the Middle East region in general. Thus the building of massive permanent military bases in Iraq and the largest embassy anywhere in the world.
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In short, all the signs seem to confirm that the Bush Administration has no intent of leaving Iraq for a long, long time, though it may be forced by domestic considerations at home -- namely the November 2006 election, and 2008 presidential vote after that -- to at least talk about drawing down a goodly number of troops. After the election, such conversation can be put on hold or withdrawn troops brought back in.


But it's conceivable that even that long-range plan may go awry. It is an axiom of warfare that an occupying army facing a guerrilla insurgency will commit acts of aggression on the civilian population, the effects of which will wind up losing the hearts and minds of the locals and, in many cases, drive them to join or at least tacitly support the insurgency. (Many guerrilla cadres join the police or local army, and report back to the insurgent leaders.) That was the case in Vietnam, it's certainly what's happening in Iraq right now.

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Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer-editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (more...)

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