Arguably, two critical assumptions responsible for the events in Iraq (and the pending disaster in Afghanistan) are (1) that men who wear ties and jackets and carry briefcases and Blackberries are “smarter” than men who wear funny clothes and ride camels, and (2) that, in the grand scheme of things, a technologically superior military force will always defeat a technologically inferior one.
As an ex-Peace Corps volunteer (India), I’m struck by how—despite the obvious lessons of Vietnam—the combination of naïve optimism, institutional arrogance, career advancement, and old-fashioned stubbornness can more or less constitute a foreign policy.
Back in those days, Peace Corps training required three months, ten hours a day, of studying the language (Hindi), customs, religion, history, and politics of India. This stuff had to be learned before we were allowed to represent the United States as volunteers. The program was rigorous. A large number of trainees were “de-selected,” the State Department’s euphemism for washed-out.
Our teachers were Indian and American academics. Every candidate in our group had a college education and every one of us was culturally empathetic and idealistic. That was the kind of person the Peace Corps attracted. As a means of weeding out any potential weirdoes or misfits, we were required to meet with a psychologist once every two weeks and a psychiatrist once a month.
Yet, for all this preparation, once in India, we committed social blunder after social blunder. Despite desperately wanting to make a good impression, we regularly embarrassed and disappointed our Indian hosts. We inadvertently insulted them, alienated them, confused, dismayed, and angered them; on occasion we made utter fools of ourselves. And we did this with some of the best training you could get.
Which brings us to Afghanistan. Apparently, the U.S. military—under the rubric of “counter-insurgency”—has been assigned the task of laying the groundwork for the nation building that’s expected to follow. While the notion that something as wildly ambitious as “nation building” (particularly in a country as recalcitrant as Afghanistan) can be successful is, by itself, mind-boggling, the belief that the foundation can be laid by Marines is close to preposterous.
Even though Peace Corps volunteers aren’t experts on political policy or international relations, they do know a thing or two about cross-cultural exchanges. If you were to ask any ex-volunteer who they think would be the worst possible choice for an emissary or ambassador to a foreign country—particularly one expected to mingle at the village level—they’d tell you it would be a soldier.
Villagers already know who Americans are. They know we have everything and they have nothing. They know we’re rich, powerful and aggressive, and they assume—rightly or wrongly—that Americans are going to consider their country an economic and cultural cesspool. If we pretend they’re not poor and backward, we’re patronizing; if we pretend it doesn’t matter, we’re condescending.
Although these people are, by our lights, “primitive,” it is a profound error to assume they’re stupid. Yet, that seems to be the prevailing assumption. Indeed, if we didn’t assume they were less intelligent—if we didn’t think they were too dumb to distinguish between ambassadors and combat soldiers—we wouldn’t be using 19-year old Marines as cultural liaisons.
Still, you hear Pentagon brass glibly defend this policy by assuring skeptics that these soldiers will be provided with all the necessary “sensitivity training” required for the job, including removing their robo-cop sunglasses when conversing with villagers, traveling on foot instead of in motorized convoys, and passing out chocolate bars and medical supplies.
This is startling. Either these officials are working off some mawkish World War II nostalgia, believing the Afghans will greet our soldiers the way French jubilantly greeted the U.S. army when it liberated Paris, or they’re deliberately deluding themselves, denying both the bitter lessons of history and the confounding empirical evidence before them.
In any case, they’re ignoring the fact that the men who are removing their sunglasses and passing out free goodies are armed invaders. Foreign invaders. And it’s simply unrealistic to believe that foreign invaders will win the hearts and minds of the citizens, no matter how “logical” the enterprise or how sincere the effort.
Because these men carry automatic weapons and, literally, have the power of life and death, they will be treated with detached respect; they will be listened to; they will be shown deference; they will be tolerated. Until they finally decide to go back home.
DAVID MACARAY is a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”). He can be reached at email@example.com