Pain and misery build discipline!

Summary:  The War on Terror is often compared to Vietnam, with good reason.  But the War on Terror is remarkably similar to another movement in our nation’s past, a dark chapter in American history that most Americans don’t like to think about.  Slavery.  An article by the newest contributor to the FM website.

The 2006 FM post The Myth of Grand Strategy predicted failure for America’s grand strategy in the War on Terror.  It argued that while modern Americans conduct strategic affairs on a purely rational basis, our enemies possess “primal strategies” — a ideologically driven mass movement towards a common cultural, religious, or racial goal (i.e., 19th century America’s “manifest destiny”, or Hitler’s superior race).  Excerpt:

We can envy these primal strategies, but find it difficult to emulate them.  History shows that mature states often try, vain attempts to recapture a lost element from its past.  Several factors make it difficult for us to adopt primal strategies.

  1. The people of a developed western state seldom have a widely agreed goal and the willingness to sacrifice for its achievement.
  2. Developed states have wealth, income, and security — leading to risk-adverse thinking.
  3. They have complex societies, whose elements have a wide range of goals and viewpoints.
  4. Their leaders and people have a large degree of cynicism.

It stated that Americans are incapable of a primal strategy. With 20/20 hindsight, that belief turned out to be incorrect. To quote a prestigious retired Army general:

There are few, I believe… who will not acknowledge [Operation Enduring Freedom] is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the [American people] than to the [Population of Afghanistan]. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The [Afghans] are immeasurably better off [now], morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a [democratic nation], and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.

This well summarizes our goals in the Middle East. We only want to educate and train these people in the ways of a modern republic. We are willing to fight, spend our resources, and even die on their behalf. There is no economic benefit to us for doing this. Despite liberal nay-sayers’ skepticism, we did not steal the Iraqis’ oil.

In Afghanistan there are no notable natural resources, except of course the poppy industry, which we are going to great lengths to eliminate. In turn, we teach the Afghan people how to raise more legitimate crops, and give them the grain with which to do it. Members of both major political parties have continued to express support for the war up to this day.  The Tea Party has risen up, but the majority of American leaders who have joined it maintain their pro-war values.  The rise of Right-wing parties in Europe has almost invariably brought with them policies of near-isolationism; but the Tea Party has the opposite view:  America must continue to bring democracy to the world – with bombs and guns, not foreign aid (see A poll shows the source of America’s problems).  This seems to be a textbook case of a primal strategy.

However, just one problem; this quote is not something recent, about the war on Afghanistan.  This is Robert E. Lee writing about slavery, in a letter dated 27 December 1856.  But what do the Institution of slavery and the War on Terror have in common?

(1)  Like slavery, the War on Terror does not benefit the common people of America. However, it is a huge financial boon for our elites. Every base that is constructed, every plane, every tank, every bullet, every can of beans sent to the war zone brings an endless stream of profit to the dozens of corporations contracted to the DoD. Maintaining the war effort requires tens of thousands of employees and massive quantities of equipment and facilities. What would become of this massive corporate infrastructure if the war were to end tomorrow? The idea of ending the war would likely be just as unwelcome to the leadership of Haliburton as abolition would be to the plantation owners of the South.

(2)  Those who benefit from America’s wars stubbornly resist the notion of ending them quickly. Instead, they say we should “gradually” draw down our forces over a long period of time (General Petreaus says 2020), giving our puppet governments time to “stabilize” (see this sad statement by Iraq’s most senior military officer).  They insist that a speedy withdrawal would cause chaos and more suffering for the locals.  Another quote from General Lee’s letter:

How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. The doctrines and miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years to convert but a small portion of the human race, and even among Christian nations what gross errors still exist! While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.

Although the abolitionist must know this, must know that he has neither the right not the power of operating, except by moral means; that to benefit the slave he must not excite angry feelings in the master; that, although he may not approve the mode by which Providence accomplishes its purpose, the results will be the same; and that the reason he gives for interference in matters he has no concern with, holds good for every kind of interference with our neighbor, -still, I fear he will persevere in his evil course. . . . Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?

In other words, slavery could not simply be abolished, but allowed to burn out and “die a natural death”. The abolitionists of the North who wanted otherwise were condemned, accused (ironically) of not caring about the welfare of the black race. This contradictory circular reasoning lives on to this very day, it seems.

(3)  Like southern slave owners, the proponents of the War on Terror make no effort to bring prosperity to the Afghan people. Just one American base in Afghanistan could potentially employ hundreds, in some cases even thousands of local Afghan people. Instead, foreign workers — Third Country Nationals (TCN’s) — are flown in from the far corners of the earth  to work the civilian jobs on American bases. One obvious rationale of this is that employing local Afghanis could result in Taliban infiltration and pose a serious security threat. For the same reason black slaves were denied education and freedom of religion, out of fear of  rebellion.

(4)  Violence and chaos in our colonies are deemed to be the fault of the subjugated inhabitants, and can only be dealt with by the application of brutal force. Whenever an American GI steps on a landmine or gets smeared across a mud wall, citizens and politicians across the political spectrum protest the “senseless” and “suicidal” Rules of Engagement (ROE) endangering our troops. If only American soldiers and Marines could use unrestricted deadly force on civilians, then everything would be fine. 

A similar argument was made against the black slaves. In 1831 a black preacher named Nat Turner started a violent slave revolt against the local white population, murdering several dozen white men, women, and children. Turner was a deranged cult leader claiming to have visions from God, and only commanded an “army” of about 75 men armed with knives and axes. The white authorities responded by sending  over 3,000 troops with artillery support to suppress the “uprising”. Despite the small scale of the rebellion, the entire southern white population was thrown into total hysteria, hundreds of black people (slave and freemen alike) were slaughtered, and legislation was hastily passed to put the entire southern black population under an even more oppressive regime.  Meet violence with even more violence, doing God’s work.

(5)  As mentioned earlier, few people benefit from the War on Terror.  But to make things even stranger, the masses who fervently support also bear the brunt of the cost. The senator’s son and the CEO’s daughter are not the ones dying or being disfigured in the war. It’s the sons and daughters of the middle classes.  Ironically, the most fervent supporters of the War on Terror are the white conservatives of the South, descendants of the same demographic that supported slavery a century and a half ago. Yet despite the pain being inflicted on the lower classes of America, they march on without protest. They don’t mind seeing their loved ones come back home in pieces, there are more important issues to be upset about, like “ObamaCare”.

What conceivable benefit is there for them to support the war on terror? One could ask the same question about slavery. Less than 10% of the white population in the pre-Civil War South owned slaves. All they had was the promise that some day, they could all own plantations and slaves.

But even with that dream shattered after the civil war, the white racists organized to make every effort to suppress their black neighbors and hinder the reconstruction process, even when there was absolutely no economic benefit in return. They were motivated by pure ideology. This was not just prejudiced hillbillies spitting tobacco juice over a beer and complaining about the “negroes”, this was an orchestrated conspiracy in every level of southern society and government.

… the opponents of civil rights activists had the ability and will to unleash violence on a massive scale. Segregationist governments had overwhelming firepower at their disposal in the form of law enforcement agencies and the National Guard (when under state control). Further, these armed defenders of segregation often allowed white mobs to attack civil rights demonstrators. During the civil rights era (typically defined as the years between 1954 and 1968), hundreds of civil rights workers were assaulted. At least 40 were killed in shootings, bombings, or beatings.

White Citizens’ Councils, eventually with some 250,000 members, sprang up in many Southern towns. Often composed of a community’s leading citizens, the councils intimidated civil rights supporters and orchestrated economic reprisals against them. Although it could seldom be proven conclusively, many of the councils appeared to have ties to the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary organization estimated to have 50,000 members. And Southern law enforcement agencies collaborated with the Klan on numerous occasions.

Southern law enforcement agencies could also pervert justice and incarcerate civil rights activists on the flimsiest of pretexts. During Freedom Summer in 1964, for example, 25-year-old Frank Cieciorka pinned an 8-by-10-inch piece of paper to his shirt to identify himself as a voter registration worker. He was arrested and jailed for five days. His crime? Carrying a “placard” without a permit.

— “Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency“, Mark Grimsley, HistoryNet

This is about structural similarities between the two episodes in history, not a recurrence.  That the pattern repeats does not imply that anyone today advocates racism, let alone slavery.


Primal strategy, like Grand strategy, has both ideological and economic goals.  America can have a primal strategy based upon the individual needs of its citizens, although it might fail us as a nation.

For many no religious or moral belief is worth devoting one’s life to without some sort of physical return on it in this world.  Many Christians knows that spilling heathen blood on foreign soil in a good cause pleases God, but for most the promise of heavenly reward is not good enough. The rice bowl has to be filled, and what better way than with another race’s blood and tears?  Particularly one too weak and poor to retaliate.  The military offers the only opportunity for pay and education available to many Americans.

At the higher strata of our society, only the most cold-hearted capitalist is purely motivated by greed.  And what better cannon fodder is there for the crusade to bring democracy to the world and make a buck doing it than the poorly educated and easily manipulated working class of America?  It was the American Way in 1830.  It’s the American Way today.

Our wars, now fought on a global battlefield, will shape America’s future.  If it brings us pain and misery, we can hope that Lee was right — that it brings us discipline and prepares us for better things.

The author

On active duty in the US Marine Corps, this young man has completed one tour in Afghanistan and will deploy there again in 2011.

In the 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, Joe Bonham was a young soldier serving in World War I, who awoke in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and face, but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body, and embarks on a struggle to communicate, and to retain his own sanity.

Contact him at joebonham2010 at yahoo dot com. (note spam-protected spelling).

Posts about the Tea Party Movement

  1. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  2. Our ruling elites scamper and play while our world burns, 11 March 2009
  3. The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009
  4. More examples of Americans waking up – should we rejoice?, 10 October 2009
  5. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”?, 27 January 2010
  6. Listen to the crowds cheering Sarah Palin, hear the hammerblows of another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 8 February 2010
  7. The Tea Party movement develops a platform. It’s the Underpants Gnomes Business Plan!, 8 March 2010
  8. About the Tea Party Movement: who they are and what they believe, 19 March 2010
  9. The Tea Party Movement disproves my recommendation for the path to reforming America, 20 April 2010
  10. At last we see a Tea Party political platform, 13 May 2010
  11. Kinsley – “My Country, Tis of Me – There’s nothing patriotic about the Tea Party Patriots”, 15 May 2010
  12. Why has wild man Mark Williams become a top leader of the Tea Party movement?, 13 June 2010
  13. More people participating in politics: is this good for America?, 20 June 2010

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