Friday, December 11, 2009

What I'd like to see is a massive national information project with regard to Afghanistan. That old, complex country is on the fast track to becoming our next Vietnam, and we, as a nation, tend to know almost nothing about the place. Which is folly.

Many things crippled our involvement in Vietnam, but chief among these was our general ignorance of the country and its people. A great example of what we were up against might have been drawn from the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The French thought that their isolated base could not be defeated because the only way the North Vietnamese could transport food and arms so far from Hanoi was by foot on mountain paths.

However, a soldier wheeling a bicycle over mountain paths can carry three times as much as one without a bike. The French failed to note an increase in the production of bikes, and the shortage of bikes in Hanoi, and so the North Vietnamese evicted the French from Dien Bien Phu. It was, as Bernard Fall put it, "Hell in a Small Place" for the French.

We, in our turn, failed to note this. We also failed to note that Japan had lost in Vietnam before the French. We failed to note that only a minority of the country favored Catholicism when we installed our Catholic puppet Diem. Most telling, however, was that we failed to note that Ho Chi Minh had tried to enlist our help after WWII, and been rebuffed. He was, if nothing else, a real pragmatist, and a Vietnamese patriot with whom we could have worked, had we had the foresight to do so. And then of course we failed to note Tet.

There is now a wealth of good books on the subject. Among the best is Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, which enumerates so many of the mistakes we made in our efforts in Vietnam.

My fear is that we, in our national ignorance of Afghanistan, are headed for the same kind of mistake there.

And so what I call for is a national mobilization of understanding. Whatever we do in Afghanistan, let's know the county as well as we can. Let's study it hard, in every classroom, every boardroom, every lunchroom. Let's not send any more of our boys and girls over there without a very sound and deep national understanding of the place and its culture.
I haven't written here for some time. Much has occurred in the interim. Why there is a statement that couldn't possibly be more understated.

For instance, Obama has decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Global warming is, according to the kooks, just an invention of a few bad apple science guys at the University of East Anglia. H1N1 has swept the globe and may again before it vanishes. Martha Coakley has won the Democratic primary for Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts. And we have had another kid.

What has struck me most about the situation I find myself in presently, with two children under three years of age, is that I am often at one playground or another, thrown together with other parents of young children, and we manage, without coaxing or uneasiness, to converse and share our experiences.

This is an odd feeling for me, because as a writer I spend so much of my time alone, isolated from other adults. Yes, I am with my children and family, but often I am not in meaningful conversation with other adults for days at a time. But playgrounds, and having kids, changes all of that. The fears and reserve that I feel in many other situations fall away at the playground.

Oh, look at that guy, I think. He's probably a grouch and a kook. But wait. He's pushing his kid on the swing, and look, his kid seems to like him all right. And kids know what they're doing when it comes to character judgement. So I think I'll say hello. And, by George, a conversation ensues about the efficacy of pychological treatment of war traumatized veterans.

Why doesn't that happen more? What is the problem with adults generally and our society, generally, that we are so shut down to dialogue and shooting the breeze? What are our fears - that others will judge us, or that others don't like us, might resent us, etc.? I am not sure. But I am sure that if we all took our kids over to Afghanistan to meet the Afghani kids on the Afghani playgrounds, there would be no problem figuring out how to converse, and without violence.

Maybe that's a crackpot notion, but I will stand by it. Think of our world from the perspective of our children, what they like, what's good for them, how we would like others to approach them, and the world we would like to build for them, and many of the complications that we adults place on the world fall away. Things get clear. Conversations become easy to have.

So, I say head to the playground immediately and don't leave until it's really time to go.