Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Apropos of nothing...

Excerpted from a Wall Street Journal editorial, 10 January 1963, entitled "War Without Will":
And perhaps we should all realize that there are certain things the U.S., for all its military power, cannot do. One is to reshape the nature of people of radically different traditions and values.
Quoted in David M. Toczek's 2001 book, The Battle of Ap Bac, Vietnam (p. 122 of the 2007 paperback edition).

8 comments:

  1. As fashionable as it is to repeat this mantra ad nauseam, it glosses over a painfully obvious point: wars have historically been one of the most important elements in process of cultural change. Arguably they are the symptom of disputed cultural change more than the cause, but either way wars have been critical to the process and tend to have a lasting influence over those cultures as well.

    Not arguing for a neocon crusade - just looking for a little nuance and perspective.

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  2. wars have historically been one of the most important elements in process of cultural change. Arguably they are the symptom of disputed cultural change more than the cause

    Yes, wars influence culture. Of course, it's also painfully obvious that the mechanism for this influence is typically conquest. And I'm not sure anyone's terrible interested in the U.S. getting into that game again.

    The context in which the editorial was written, though, was frustrations about the ineffectiveness of the U.S. advisory effort in dramatically improving ARVN combat performance or RVN governance writ large. Viewed in this light, your commentary has a ring of protesting too much.

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  3. it's also painfully obvious that the mechanism for this influence is typically conquest.

    Not sure that's accurate, but it would be a very long discussion better had over Scotch than a blog.

    As for the context - makes a huge difference to the meaning of the quote. I still think it's far too categorical. But equally problematic is the idea that our 'difference' per se that is the stumbling block. Aside from distinguishing between the the failures of our institutional responses versus the intrinsic feasibility of the task, the idea that the unbridgeable cultural divide between locals and outsiders was the critical stumbling block kind of ignores that the GVN apparently couldn't get the local politics right either despite being part of that culture. Same goes for any government facing an insurgency.

    My concern is this: not only does declaring cultural difference the root of the problem let us off the hook for our institutional failings, it excuses us from engaging with the complexity of regional and subnational politics outside the context of counterinsurgency. And since there's a long track record of our national security policy going awry by ignoring that complexity, I think dismissing it as beyond our understanding or influence is dangerous. That's not suggest there are no boundaries to the realm of the possible, but neither rational actor models nor cultural stereotypes have served us well. Figuring out what is possible at a cost we're willing to bear should be the challenge.

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  4. I agree, of course, that this is somewhat glib and oversimplifying. Again, though, I'd suggest that you might be slightly misunderstanding the point; I read this observation as "the U.S. is incapable of influencing its partner government to undertake necessary reforms and/or enact effective policies," not as "the U.S. can't understand Vietnamese people and thus can't get them to stop fighting."

    Cultural differences are significant, but even more significant (to me) is our general inability to recognize that the political incentives and decision calculus of other actors differ from our own. Culture can be one influence on this, but it's certainly not the only one.

    In any event, I don't have any huge disagreement with your last paragraph. I'd simply note that I think we've failed to adequately grapple with the additional complexity involved in working through proxies, particularly when we're given to emphasize other governance/conduct priorities that may compete with the suppression of insurgents and cessation of conflict.

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  5. I could not possibly agree with you more strongly on this point. A huge, systematic failing. Even worse, I've yet to see any evidence that we're serious about reshaping our own institutions to be better at it - we put institutional form ahead of strategic function (SCRATs, SOICs, and DISCC notwithstanding).

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  6. And speaking of substituting cliches for insight: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/opinion/a-widening-war-in-mali.html?hp&_r=0

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  7. Not to mention: they misspelled Mauritania.

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  8. The context of the quote (as it's given above) matters. But putting aside the context for a moment, can one imagine the Wall St. Journal saying this now, in any context? I rarely read the WSJ, but my guess would be no.

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