Column: Dispatches From the Edge: Madness and Insanity: Deciphering Words in the Desert

By Conn Hallinan
Friday December 08, 2006

Somewhere between 465 and 406 BC, the Greek tragic poet and playwright Euripides coined a phrase which still captures the particular toxic combination of hubris and illusion that seizes many of those in power: “Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad.” 

What other line best describes British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s address to his nation’s troops hunkered down at Camp Bastion, in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province? “Here,” Blair said. “In this extraordinary piece of desert, is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out.” (New York Times, Nov. 21.) 

The speech would certainly have amused Percy Shelley, who would have found in it a reflection of “Ozymandias,” his poem mocking the arrogance of power that he drew from the ruins of a statue to Ramses the Great at Memnon: 

“And on the pedestal these words appear:  

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, / Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing besides remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” 

While Blair was turning Afghanistan’s arid south into the Armageddon of terrorism, the rest of the country was coming apart at the seams. Attacks by insurgents have reached 600 a month, more than double the number in March, and almost five times the number in November of last year. (Associated Press, Nov. 13.) 

“We do have a serious problem in the south,” one diplomat told Rachel Morajee of the Financial Times, “but the north is a ticking time bomb.” (Financial Times, Nov. 22.) 

Suicide bombers have struck Kunduz in the north, where former U.S. protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami organization are hammering away at the old Northern Alliance. The latter, frozen out of the current government following the 2001 Bonn Conference, is busy stockpiling arms and forming alliances with drug warlords. According to the Associated Press, opium poppy production is up 59 percent. 

While Blair was bucking up the troops, their officers were growing increasingly desperate. Major Jon Swift, a company commander in the Royal Fusiliers told the Guardian (9/23/06) that casualties were “very significant and showing no signs of reducing,” and Field Marshall Peter Inge, former chief of the British military, warned that the army in Afghanistan “could risk operational failure,” military-speak for “defeat.” (Observer, Oct. 22.) 

The Brits don’t have a monopoly on madness, however.  

Speaking in Riga, Latvia, on the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting, President George Bush said, “I am not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete. We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren.” (Associated Press, Nov. 28.) 

In the meantime, a war that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said would cost $50 billion at the most was burning up more than twice that each year. The Pentagon just requested $160 billion in supplemental funds for the Iraq and Afghan wars for the remainder of fiscal 2007 (Forbes, Nov. 9). Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz says the final costs may exceed $2 trillion. (New York Times, Oct. 24—Krugman column) 

It is sometime hard to fathom the source of the Blair’s madness, but there is no mistaking the origins of President Bush’s brand of insanity: the American experience in Vietnam. 

During his recent trip to that country President Bush said he thought the lessons of the Vietnam War were, “We’ll succeed unless we quit.” In short, the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam because it “cut and ran,” a victim of a backstabbing press and a loss of will. 

This particular myth is at the core of the Administration’s ideology, and when things began going badly in Iraq, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz immediately targeted the press. Wolfowitz mocked reporters for being afraid to go outside the Green Zone, while Cheney and Rumsfeld attacked the media for sabotaging the U.S. effort, just like it had in Vietnam. 

The mythology that we “won” the Vietnam War on the battlefield but lost it at home is at the core of Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney’s book, Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics. Johnson is a fellow at Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and Tierney is a professor at Swarthmore, and both are strong advocates for not withdrawing from Iraq. 

The two men argue that the Vietnamese’s 1968 Tet offensive was a military victory for the U.S., but because the American press portrayed it as a defeat, the U.S. was eventually forced to withdraw. (New York Times, Nov. 28.) 

But Tet was less a military battle than a political counterstroke aimed at American claims that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” Bush is indeed correct in thinking that the Vietnam War is relevant for what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan; he just hasn’t absorbed the lesson.  

That lesson was spelled out by Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of Vietnam’s war against the French and the Americans, shortly after the Bush administration invaded Iraq: people don’t like foreign occupying armies and will fight to get them out.  

“In the long run,” says military historian Jack Radey, “there will be more natives of the country ready to die for it than foreigners,” adding, “Giap was always considerate enough to explain how this was going to work to the other guys, but they weren’t much interested in listening.” (Interview; 

While armies can fight armies, they can’t fight a whole people and they fall apart when they occupy a country that doesn’t want them there. In an attempt to overcome this problem, the U.S. military recently issued a blueprint for how to conduct a “friendly” occupation. (New York Times, Oct. 5). 

But occupation, says Radey, is what creates the problem. “If you go out to make the other side love you by lowering your guard, taking off your helmets, not pointing guns at everyone and not running around in tanks, the other side gets a lot of easy shots at your guys. So you button up and shoot everything that moves, which means a lot of civilians die. Anyway you look at this you lose.” 

The inability to “win” a war in a place like Afghanistan was recently summed up by NATO General David Richards who commented, “You know at the end of 2001, the Taliban were defeated … and it all looked pretty hunky dory. We thought it was all done.” (UPI, Oct. 18.) 

To the Bush administration the solution to everything is more force, an argument that sometimes gets echoed in the ranks of those Democrats who argue that more “boots on the ground” would do the job.  

From August 1964 to January 1973, the U.S. threw 8.7 million military personnel into Vietnam, pounded the country with more bombs than were dropped on World War II Europe, and killed at least three million Southeast Asians. “Frankly, we’re going to snow the place with bombs,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said in 1966. “And I am doing it purposely to make them cry “stop!’” (New York Times, Nov. 18.) 

They never did, and in the end the United States had no choice but to withdraw. Eventually we will have to do so from Iraq and Afghanistan as well.  

The only question will be how many more Iraqis and Afghans we kill and maim, and how many more young Americans will we bring home in caskets or maimed in body and mind?