Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gwynne Dyer's "The Mess They Made"

I'm a big fan of Gwynne Dyer. His books are fun, but for me the real pleasure is the "whole package" of multimedia. Seeing Dyer talk is a delight. He is a mussed-up, shoot-straight-from-the-hip, no-nonsense guy with a military background who comments on world affairs. I've seen enough video to have "embedded" the dry understated delivery style of Dyer so that as I read his book I hear his voice. That adds a zest to the text that I don't get from most of the material I read. I love a personality that pokes its head up out of the text and lets me feel the person.

His latest book is one of a series that tears apart the Bush justifications for war in Iraq and analyzes the real situation. It is, from what I can tell, an honest appraisal of the region, the roles the actors are playing, and especially the US agenda behind its actions. Here's a sample from the chapter on terrorism:
To the man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The United States has very large conventional armed forces that are continually looking for ways to make themselves useful, and relatively few people skilled in the subtle, terrorist threat, so the temptation to turn a "war on terror" into a conventional military operation is overwhelming. That is why President Bush got away for so long with his constantly repeated assertion that "the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad." It is patent nonsense, of course, but it sounds a lot more sensible to the average American than "the safety of America depends on foreign policies that do not inspire rage and hatred in very large numbers of people elsewhere, and relentless, detailed intelligence gathering to thwart those who plan terrorist attacks against us." The conventional thinking in the United States tends not only to militarize any conflict in which the United States is involved, it actually tries to force every conflict into the mould of the last great war in which the United States won a decisive military victory: the Second World War. There is always a global plan by evil people to take over the world, and the way to defeat it is always with American military power.

That is what happened with Vietnam forty years ago. In the 1960s, the United States talked itself into believing that the Communist insurgents in Vietnam were not local anti-colonial revolutionaries but the spearhead of an international Communist conspiracy to take over the world, with the Chinese Communists backing them and the Soviet Union behind China. If Vietnam fell to the Commies, then like dominoes Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Phillipines would follow. If we didn't stop them now in Vietnam, we would soon be fighting them on the beaches of California. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared that Americans were "watchmen on the walls of world freedom" and sent more than half a million young Americans to fight in the hills and paddies of South Vietnam. More than 2.5 million American soldiers served in Vietnam between 1963 and 1973, and figty-eight thousand of them were killed there during those years, together with about 3 million Vietnamese, but in the end the local Communists won, reunited the country -- and stopped fighting.

Cambodia fell to local Communists too, but only because Henry Kissinger, then Richard Nixon's secretary of state, had destabilized it by backing a military coup aginst the Cambodian king who had successfully kept his country out of the fighting in the former French Indochina for many years. Thailand didn't fall, Malaysia didn't fall, the Philippines didn't fall, and the Communists never reached California. It should already have been clear to Washington that the Soviet Union and China saw each other as enemies, but shomehow that got overlooked. It should have been clear that China and Vietnam weren't the best of friends either -- within a few more years they were at war with each other -- that that was overlooked, too. There was no world conspiracy, and the Vietnam War was a post-colonial, nationalist war that had little significance even for the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, but the paradigm overwhelmed the reality. All the deaths were wasted.

Now the relatively minor threat of Islamist terrorism is being forced into the same mould. It is the "Global War on Terror" or "The Long War," and it is going to be fought all over the world, with armies and air forces, for years and years. ...

It is a faithfully reproduced working model of the Vietnam era's "domino theory": if "the militants" win in Iraq, then eventually they'll conquer the world. Except that while Lyndon Johnson clearly believed in the domino theory right down to his boot soles, it's not clear that President Bush really believes what he says in the same guileless way.
If you like the guy, try his website:

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