How to Win Wars and Influence People

Roscoe Mathieu is back yet again, this time detailing a well established, but oft-ignored fact: wars are rarely won by the biggest bombs and fastest bullets. All the senseless bloodshed is, in fact, just a prelude to the real struggle – that of the fight between clashing ideologies, and the ignorance that fosters the friction.

I just finished this article ( on Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea, and his continuing work in Afghanistan and throughout central Asia. I saw the book in Borders not too long ago, but couldn’t afford it. I’m going to have to pick up a copy, and soon.

Because this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win a war. And, for some reason, nobody ever believes me when I say that wars are won with books, not bombs.

The Admiral’s choice of notebooks to pass out is particularly apt. Notebooks are blank, a future to be written and a future to be won. Doubtless some of the girls will fill theirs with comments on how good-looking the teacher is, little doodles with hearts in them, and other epherema. That’s good. The cheap availability of paper and the pencil are two unsung technologies that allowed the Renaissance to happen, because men like Leonardo could suddenly write down whatever they felt like. Da Vinci’s notebook pages are justifiably famous for all his ephemera, without which much that is beautiful and useful in the modern world would be unavailable.

And Americans are handing these little wonders to small girls who have never had that power, nor their mothers and grandmothers before them.

This is how you win a war!

In 1945, the Allies marched into Berlin. We liberated the concentration camps and brought the war criminals to trial. We brought down the Nazi Regime. That was good.

And then we, and by ‘we’ I mean just the Americans this time, did something we had never done before: we stuck around to clean up the mess. France was torn to shreds and Germany was little more than soil and blood. London lay in pieces on the ground. And let’s not forget what the USSR and its allies paid for victory with, or the three-fourths female demographic of survivors of that period. The Marshall Plan of 1947 gave Europe 13 billion dollars in U.S. aid, out of altruism, to any and all comers. How the money was to be spent was determined, not by Americans, but by a meeting of the European countries in question. Hell, we even offered help to the Soviets.

For America, that’s almost as big a moral victory as marching into Berlin. We came, we saw, we kicked its ass…and then we put stone on stone and helped everyone pick up after the party.

So in 1946, we did it again! With a copy of Ruth Benedict’s handy little book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, tucked under his arm, Douglas MacArthur marched into Tokyo to rebuild his erstwhile enemies into a prosperous ally. We fed a starving nation, kept the Emperor in place (as the anthropologist recommended), and funneled money and sweat into rebuilding the Japanese economy. Yes, there were Cold War pressures at work and yes, plenty of harm was done in the five years of official occupation. But Japan could easily have gotten much, much worse.

For instance, we could have just left them there.

In the 1960s, as we were entering the Vietnam war, the American intelligence community contacted the Hmong, a hill people of southeast Asia including parts of China, Laos, and Vietnam, to fight against the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao communists. They came to our side in a big way, somewhere around 60% of the Hmong men in Laos were actively fighting the communists. When we departed Vietnam and the Pathet Lao established control over Laos, the Hmong were systematically hunted down and killed for their involvement. We raised no finger to help. Thousands crossed the mighty Mekong into Thailand, and thousands more have emigrated to Western countries, where they’re usually separated and sent to far flung corners of alien lands, usually alone.

In the 1980s, Oliver North’s dumbass decisions aside, we publicly and covertly supported Our Man, Saddam Hussein in their war against Iran. We even shot down the plane that made the Ayatollah want to end the conflict. But once the ink was dry and the ceasefire settled, we went back to Kuwait, or back to America.

Also in the 1980s, of course, we helped the Afghanis to preserve their ancient culture and religious worship against the atheistic and oppressive Soviets. We’ve all seen Charlie Wilson’s War and know what happened after that. The scene where Charlie begs for a mere percentage of the money expended during the war to build schools for the children of Afghanistan (and the war left mostly children behind) is a powerful moment in cinema, and one we’ve desperately needed since 1950.

The Hmong diasporia, both Gulf Wars, and the Taliban’s structure and support of al-Qaeda, up to and including the events of September 11, 2001 are all at least partly the fault of the United States deciding to go home when the shooting stopped. In contrast, the recovery of Japan and Western Europe is at least partly the result of American humanitarian efforts most of which came after the shooting stopped.

In 2006, as we were driving through the California night, my father asked me for my opinion on the War on Terror. He’s wont to ask me about historical and cultural affairs, such as how the hell Napoleon could come to power, or why the South lost the Civil War. I told him this: “The only way to win the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq are to stop trying to bomb them back to the Stone Age and bomb them up to the Information Age. We need to know what we’re dealing with on the ground, and that means anthropologists. If the US government needed Ruth Benedict’s help in Japan to explain what the hell Japan is, we definitely need men and women like her on the ground to explain what the hell Iraq and Afghanistan are. We need to eliminate the poverty and tatters that terrorists and guerrillas spring from, without building an American-supplied welfare state like what’s sucked up the !Kung. We need to give the Iraqis and the Afghanis every last bit of rope they need to haul up an economy, a political structure, and a functional culture with, even if that means giving them enough rope to hang themselves. We need to stop telling them how they’re going to run things and let them run things for themselves. We need to stop killing half the guys who know how to run a government in the place, even if they were Baath or Taliban. I mean, hell, we didn’t even kill all the Nazis in Germany because too many of them were necessary for Germany to function. But most importantly, we need to build schools.”

Somebody seems to be listening. The Mongols had a saying: A country can be won, but not governed, on horseback. We, as Americans, need to step down from our high horses and walk with the paupers and find out what they need, and give them everything they need to put it together themselves.

That is how you win a war. And, who knows? In twenty years, my children may be studying abroad in the best schools of Baghdad the way kids my age study abroad in Tokyo. I may be working alongside some brilliant restorationist, now a little girl, to rebuild the Buddhas of Afghanistan.

The future’s a blank notebook. What do you want to write in it?


~ by Gonzo Mehum on July 31, 2009.

2 Responses to “How to Win Wars and Influence People”

  1. Wow, Roscoe, right on.

  2. Not only is that how to win a war, but that is the strategy consciously employed by the Islamic governments that lost so spectacularly to Israel in the 1960s. Many of the current generation of Arab firebrands learned their trade in madrassas founded specifically to equip them for a future confrontation with Zionism. History went in a different direction as it turned out, but rhetoric like that runs deep.

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