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.

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