Will we ever learn the mistakes of empire?
Several years ago I was standing in front of the art deco Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, France and was admiring the block-long park across the street with lush palm trees and cascading water feature. It looked so serene, even peaceful. Then I walked over to the foot of the monument to read its significance. In French it read, which didn’t need translation, Le Square des Anciens Combattants d’Indochine. This was France’s memorial to the veterans of the French war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which they ignobly lost at the climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu before handing off the war to you already know it — U.S.A.
This park sans memorial signage didn’t even look like they lost the war.
Bacevich has been a persistent, vocal critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, calling the conflicts “catastrophic failures."
The French, like Americans, have an incurable ability to never admit defeat even when it’s too obvious to ignore and even worse to continue making the same mistake over and over again expecting a different outcome — the saying about this being a certain kind of insanity comes to mind. Twenty years of occupying a country after we invaded and conquered it in a matter of a few weeks then pretending we were going to elevate these people to our kind of Western democracy only exhibits the kind of hubris that we Americans are known for. People, we just can’t shove democracy down the throats of anyone who doesn’t wish to fight for it themselves and adopt it to their own culture.
We knew very little about either the culture nor history of Vietnam and we know even less about Afghanistan. This is evident in our perpetuating the very same kind of mistakes in both countries and using similar military tactics even in Iraq. In this we are not alone.
I was at a café while in Paris that year when a Lebanese expat engaged me in a rather accusatory tone about our wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. My French being deficient, but through the kind intervention of a sober interpreter, I informed my new friend that I neither supported nor voted for the American president who started these wars. And then reminded him of how Americans learned most of their mistakes from the French and the British. We parted, having a greater appreciation of each other.
Going back as far as Alexander the Great, who invaded what is today Afghanistan in 330 B.C. as part of war against Persia, he couldn’t hold it. In one account Alexander lost almost as many men in one bloody day as he had in the four years it took him to conquer all the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and eastern Iran.
Even the Russians who tried it before us couldn’t hold the country. One Soviet-era veteran, former sergeant Igor Grigorevich, 46, quoted in a 2008 article in the Canadian Globe and Mail, said, “It’s impossible to conquer the Afghans … Alexander the Great couldn’t do it, the British couldn’t do it, we couldn’t do it and the Americans won’t do it … no one can.”
One of the foremost American critics of our militarism is former U.S. Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a professor in history and author of many books on military history and foreign policy. He wrote back in 2019, “The central lesson for the U.S. in this long and futile conflict, compounded by our experience in the Iraq War, is plain: The proper mission of the U.S. military is to deter and to defend — a statement that ought to be inscribed over the main entrance to the Pentagon, if not added to the oath of office taken by the commander in chief.”
Bacevich has been a persistent, vocal critic of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, calling the conflicts “catastrophic failures.” In March 2007, he described George W. Bush’s endorsement of such “preventive wars” as “immoral, illicit, and imprudent.”
This is a lesson that shouldn’t have been repeated and yet for the generation that came of age after 9/11 and during this “longest war” there is a question that still needs to be asked again, “How did we the American people ever let this happen?” It’s the same question my generation keeps asking every time a president wraps himself in the flag and beats the drums of war. And then I think of that long black memorial wall in our nation’s capital and the dwindling number of Vietnam Veterans who come every year to salute and mourn.
Bacevich has perhaps the best final words on this, “Never again should it be the purpose of American forces to overthrow regimes in distant lands with vague expectations of being able to install a political order more to our liking. That way lies only more ‘endless wars.’”
When will we ever learn?
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