Peace and Freedom
January 19, 2007
As we near the completion of the National Football League season, what is the most common question one hears other than, "Where will you watch the Super Bowl?"
The question Americans ask MOST is: "Who do you think will win?"
Americans tend to see the world in terms of "winning" and "losing." In every sport, during every week, of eavery season, nearly every newspaper publishes the "won-lost" records.
The fact that one side must be the winner and the other the loser is, in fact, a cultural thread in the west.
In the opening scene of the 1970 movie "Patton," Academy Award winning actor George C. Scott tells the troops: "Every American wants to be a winner. America loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser."
I was reminded of this film yesterday when I received a call from a long forgotten friend who taught "Military Science and Philosophy of War" at an Asian war college years ago.
Her name is Hai-lan. I knew her in the 1970s when I was a young U.S. Naval officer.
Impressive then, Hai-lan is now in her 80s, sharp as a tack, experienced, wise and bearing a lifelong knowledge of studying war and the Chinese master practitioner: Sun Tzu.
She asked me in that mystical Asian way of hers, "So, Mister John, in what war did America embrace the losers? Korea? Vietnam? At the marine barracks in Lebanon? When a few helicopters and their crews were lost in Somalia? Or is it now, Mister John, in Iraq?"
"Or do Americans just make excuses that military never lose. Some elected ones rob us of victory?" Hai-lan asked, petulantly.
Hai-lan reminded me that Jeffery Record wrote in 2005, "The continuing insurgency in Iraq underscores the capacity of the weak to impose considerable military and political pain on the strong."
Jeffery is a professor of strategy at the U.S. Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, and the author of six books.
Actually, I have read the exact line of reasoning about Vietnam, that the U.S. military never lost an engagement many, many times.
International defense consultants and journalists like me don't often see in their brains a flashing neon sign reading "BUSTED."
We Americans want our events limited in scope and time, my ancient Asian friend reminded me. In America there are always rules and standard periods of performance. Football games are 60 minutes unless there is "overtime." And if the ball is thrown ten yards "out of bounds" no circus catch will convince the game official to give you credit: it is outside the boundaries and outside the rules.
"Many other peoples in the world do not see the world though our American looking-glass of prism," said a disgusted Hai-lan. "They see totally different field: and maybe no rules at all."
All I could think of was Jack Nicholson playing the crusty American Marine Corps Colonel Nathan R. Jessep in "A Few good Men" hollering at the seemingly teen age U.S. Navy lawyer, "You can't handle the truth!"
To many Asians, nobody has to be the winner and nobody has to be the loser. If we do a deal, maybe we can both gain. In Asia, the American philosophy of "I win, so you lose" is seen as a sometimes crippling mindset.
And time limits on the length of the game, national undertaking or other endeavors make so sense at all, in many instances, to centuries old civilizations.
Thus it is in war.
After writing my last few essays on war, something stirred in the old teacher Hai-lan, an avid reader, and she decided she better provide some Confucian advice to her one-time American student: Mister John.
In about 500 B.C., Sun-tzu, wrote "The Art of War." This text is still studied, in fact revered at many war colleges around the globe. Even in the United States, it is safe to say that every military officer that completes a war college curriculum is familiar with the teachings of Sun Tzu.
The name Sun Tzu ("Master Sun"), said Hai-lan, is an honorific title bestowed upon Sun Wu (meaning "martial art" in Chinese).
We Americans live in the land of absolute equality among men: so honorifics are rare indeed. A policeman might be called "officer" and a leader of the Navy might be called Admiral. And we have nicknames, especially in the military, like "Spike," and "Killer," and "Fox." But in most of America "honorifics," as defined by the Asians, are relatively rare. In many cases they are completely unknown.
I am married into a Vietnamese family. Every member of the family has an honorific or two of some kind that identifies his or her place and order in the family and the society. Like braves in a Native American tribe, we all know where we stand. In the current U.S. society there is no real equivalent: the military rank structure being the nearest thing.
I think Hai-lan phoned me mostly to discuss the concept of time and war. Like the Wise One who calls her Pupil "Grasshopper," Hai-lan has always called me using the honorific "Mister John."
She asked: "So, Mister John, what rule book do Americans consult that tells them they have spent enough time and effort in Iraq?"
My mind was racing. What rule book indeed? And who is deciding? And where will this lead?
But Hai-lan didn't give me time to think."What tea leaves say the game is lost and now it certain must come end? Who has the power to steer the course of future world so recklessly and without reasonable man? What make the Feng Shui in Iraq no longer lucky?"
Feng Shui is also called "spatial geomancy" or "alignment to nature of man" I remembered. I must have missed the lecture where Hai-lan explained that this applied in war and foreign policy. I wonder if Ted Kennedy knows about how important this is....
"Why is the U.S. Congress in such a rush to create a situation so detrimental to the United States?" she asked me.
"The Senator named John Kerry think this is so, Mister John? Why American suddenly think he smart? Who say this?"
Why, indeed. And who? Golly!
I told her in my most rational self: "There is a belief that we need to save lives of Americans now. That too many have died in Iraq and Afghanistan already needlessly. It is now a civil war we cannot fix."
"America build Panama Canal. Destroy insect with malaria. But that long time ago when America is tough and proud," Hai-lan said. She now is insulting me to make me think.
I lose face.
"So they have determined a time limit beyond which they will not continue; a schedule they believe they must keep to.... They have set a price and America has already paid too much price. So now you will go and everyone who helped America will die."
She went on, relentlessly. "Your enemy has ancient wisdom. They learn from Korea, and Vietnam with the French and then you; now they apply all the lessons. The price of defeat for Americans goes down each time. Maybe next time Iran or China buy victory from America wholesale and on the cheap."
"Or have they have set the price they are willing to pay? Is that it?" asked a perplexed Hailan.
"So they lower the American tolerance, the American price; with ugly little battles and wars. The Embassies. USS Cole. The World Trade Center. Pentagon. Now Iraq....Americans remember not the progress but the fragments of bombs and casualties in flag covered death boxes."
Even as a proud adult male American, I whimpered meekly, "I guess so, Hai-lan."
I could see the clarity of her points of argument from Virginia: even though she phoned from Asia.
"Why do not Americans craft an outcome that is good, and responsible and filled with joy and reason and honorable? And then create the conditions to be happy? Why does the most important nation in the world limit itself in time and cost and effort: even when the other side: vastly weaker by definition, has little in the way of sacrifice worth offering?"
Then Hai-lan cut to the quick: "How can crazy Arab terrorists muster the strength of all Islam, while George Bush has behind him maybe a handful of states? Where are the holy hordes of angry Americans? Just in shopping malls and in Paris in summer, I suppose?"
"You allow your wars and your future to rest upon a handful of 19 year baby ages. The Arab world unites everyone against you and you shopping still. Where is 'arsenal of freedom?'"
This was one of those one-way conversations I could not recover from. I had to escape; to think. The Zen Master had me cornered and cowering. I told Hai-lan I would think her words over.
I'll call her back after we see who wins the Super Bowl.
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Writer's Note: My Vietnamese born wife, now proudly an American citizen, read this essay and said, "America sees itself as great victor all the time. Need to take stock of what others see and think. Handle the truth."
For more about names and culture see:
For our last essay on War see:
"Where Wars Can Lead"