There’s a new bear in the woods and his name is Vladimir Putin. Remember that Reagan campaign ad from 1984 that showed a menacing, obviously Soviet, bear patrolling the woods, with ominous music in the background? Fast-forward thirty years and a bare-chested Putin is that new bear, marauding in the Crimea and threatening Ukraine.
Our mainstream media has entered a time warp and we’re back to 1984. No, not the 1984 of George Orwell and of constant monitoring by Big Brother – our media is not concerned by that. Instead, they’re concerned with a revived Soviet Union, a new Cold War, and the notion that America is unprepared and weak.
The big winner of this collective (and selective) exercise in time travel is obvious: the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex as well as Big Oil and Gas. We can’t make significant cuts to “defense” spending now that the Russian bear is on the loose again. Right? And the best way to neutralize the bear’s threats of cutting off gas shipments to Europe is by surging oil and gas drilling in the U.S., chiefly by hydro-fracturing or fracking. Right?
Never mind concerns about rising CO2 levels and global warming. It’s 1984 again, not 2014. We need to corral that Russian bear before he emasculates us. Deploy our military! Drill baby drill! Show the Russkies who’s boss! Before they go all “Red Dawn” on us.
And when was the cheesy “Red Dawn” originally released? You guessed it: 1984.
Eleven years after my freshman essay on the Vietnam War in 1982, I found myself at Oxford in a Strategic Studies Seminar. For that seminar, I wrote the following paper on People’s War and Vietnam. Based on deeper reading and more reflection than my freshman essay, I concluded that the Vietnam War had been unwinnable for the United States. Note that this paper was written soon after the apparently decisive victory of the U.S. military over Iraq in Desert Storm. This victory had supposedly cured the U.S. military of its Vietnam Syndrome, a claim which I doubted at that time. Again, I have decided not to edit what I wrote in early 1993 about Vietnam. This paper is what one young Air Force captain thought about the meaning and legacies of the Vietnam War in the early 1990s, with all the biases of a serving military officer intact.
Insurgencies and America’s Defeat in Vietnam (Written in January 1993)
A revolutionary war is a war within a state; the ultimate aim of the insurgents is political control of the state. Nowhere is Clausewitz’s dictum of war as a continuation of politics more true than in a revolutionary war. It typically takes the form of a protracted struggle, conducted patiently and inexorably, a variant of Chinese water torture. Educating or, more accurately, indoctrinating, the people – gaining their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance – is paramount. And all people have a role to play: men and women, young and old. After World War II, insurgencies have been guided by Mao Zedong’s concept of People’s War, and inspired by a complex combination of nationalism, anti-colonialism, and communism. They have bedeviled France, Great Britain, and the United States. This paper addresses the strategy of People’s War in terms of means, ends, and will, and details some of the reasons why the United States lost the Vietnam War.
The strategic end of People’s War is simple in its boldness: the overthrow of the existing government and its replacement with an insurgent-led government. The means are incredibly complex, encompassing social, economic, psychological, military, and political dimensions, but it must be remembered that all means are directed towards the political end. Strength of will usually favors the insurgents, partly because a major goal of People’s War is to mold the minds of its followers to convince them of the righteousness of their cause.
People’s War passes through three stages. At first the insurgents get to know the people as they spread propaganda and build a political infrastructure. Every insurgent is an ambassador for the cause. They create safe havens while intimidating opponents and neutrals, and they commit terrorist acts to undermine the legitimacy of the government. They build their safe havens on the periphery of the state, usually in rural or impoverished areas where they can feed on the misery of the people. The more difficult the terrain, the better, whether it be the mountains of Spain and Afghanistan or the jungles of Malaya and Vietnam. They extend their control over the countryside and into the urban areas during the second stage of People’s War. They use guerrilla tactics and terrorism to further undermine the political legitimacy of the government. The main target is not the government’s troops but the will of its leaders. As they extend their physical control over the countryside, they install their own political structure to control the people. With the government’s will fatally weakened, the insurgents move to the final stage: a conventional military offensive to overthrow the government.
The three stages are not rigidly sequential, however. For example, while conducting guerrilla operations against the government, the insurgents continue to build their infrastructure, conduct terrorist acts, and spread propaganda. Even during the last stage — the general offensive — the insurgents continue stages one and two. This aspect of People’s War was well expressed by John M. Gates in the Journal of Military History in July 1990:
American conventional war doctrine does not anticipate reliance upon population within the enemy’s territory for logistical and combat support. It does not rely upon guerrilla units to fix the enemy, establish clear lines of communication, and maintain security in the rear. And it certainly does not expect enemy morale to be undermined by political cadres within the very heart of the enemy’s territory, cadres who will assume positions of political power as the offensive progresses. Yet all of these things happened in South Vietnam in 1975….
Flexibility, judgement, and comprehensiveness of methods are the keys to success. If the insurgents overestimate the weakness of the government and lose large-scale battles, they slip back into the earlier two phases and continue to work towards weakening the government for the next general offensive.
It bears repeating the primary goal of insurgents is political control. Military actions are only one tool for obtaining this control. As Mao cautions, guerrilla operations are just “one aspect of the revolutionary struggle.” The insurgent appeals to the hearts and minds of the people. He is, after all, one of them. Too much can be made of Mao’s “fish and sea” analogy. The insurgent is not just a fish that swims in the sea of the people: his purpose is to convert the sea to his purpose. He employs any method to command the sea to his will. He would prefer ideological converts, true believers, but converts through terror are acceptable. Those who can’t be converted he ruthlessly kills. That his methods produce squeamishness among some in the West only accentuates their value to him.
As a strategy, People’s War is difficult but not impossible to counter. The United States defeated the Philippine insurrection in the first two decades of this century, and after World War II Great Britain put down a communist insurgency in Malaya. More famous, however, have been the stunning successes of People’s War: Mao’s victory over Japan and the Nationalists in the 1930s and ’40s, and Ho Chi Minh’s victories over France and the United States in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Perhaps most unsettling was America’s defeat in Vietnam. How could the world’s foremost superpower lose to, in the words of General Richard G. Stilwell in 1980, a “fourth-rate half-country?”
There are no simple answers to America’s defeat, although Hollywood tells us otherwise. A theory still believed by some in the US military is a variation of the German “stab-in-the-back” legend of the Great War. Our hands were tied by meddling civilians who didn’t let the military fight and win the war. One American soldier is the equal of hundreds of pajama-clad midgets, or so it appears in the Rambo flicks. A wretched, dishonorable government also abandoned our POWs to the godless communists, now rescued several times over by Stallone, Chuck Norris, and other martial arts experts. That such films make money is an affront to the genuine sacrifices of Americans represented so tragically by the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.
Perhaps such sentiments seem out of place in a paper devoted to a dispassionate strategic analysis of America’s role in Vietnam. Yet my feelings are perhaps typical of the emotionalism that still surrounds this topic among Americans. A dispassionate critique from an American, let alone an American service member, may still be impossible; nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.
The United States lost the war for several related reasons. First, we fought the wrong kind of war. As the Navy and especially the Air Force built up their nuclear forces, the army chaffed against its “New Look” and diminished role in the 1950s. Under Kennedy and Johnson, the Army had a new doctrine – Flexible Response – and an opportunity – the Vietnam War – to prove its worth. Vietnam was to be the proving ground for a revitalized Army.
The opposite proved to be the case because the Army pursued the wrong strategy. From 1965-68, when we sent more than half a million troops to Vietnam, the US Army tried to fight a conventional war against the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). As LTG Harry Kinnard, commander of the Army’s elite 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), put it, “I wanted to make them fight our kind of war. I wanted to turn it into a conventional war – boundaries – and here we go, and what are you going to do to stop us?” Obeying Mao’s teachings, the VC and NVA wisely avoided stand up fights. The Army responded with search-and-destroy operations to find, fix and kill the enemy. The goal was attrition through decisive battles, reflected by high body counts. Nothing illustrates the bankruptcy of American strategy better than the idea of body counts. In theory, a high body count means you’re killing the fish in the sea, without hurting the sea. In practice, a high body count is a measure of the success of the insurgents: they’re recruiting many fish to their cause. And in killing the fish, Americans poisoned the sea with defoliants, bomb craters, unexploded artillery shells, the list goes on. Americans were stuck in Catch-22 dilemmas: they had to destroy villages to save them, they had to destroy villagers’ crops while pursuing guerrilla bands. Such an approach flies in the face of Mao’s “Three Rules and Eight Remarks,” which exhibit a profound respect for the people and their property.
After killing, or perhaps more often not killing, the guerrillas, the Army left, and the guerrillas regained control of the area. This did not disturb LTG Stanley Larson, who observed that if guerrillas returned, “we’ll go back in and kill more of the sons of bitches.” But the VC and NVA retained the initiative, had plenty of manpower, and time was on their side.
Why did the Army pursue such a faulty strategy? In part due to the legacy of World War II, particularly American experience in the Pacific. In island-hopping to Japan, Americans gained faith in massive firepower and lost interest in controlling land. The islands were a means to an end, not the end itself, and success could be measured in some sense by the number of Japanese casualties. Such was not the case in Vietnam, where control of the land was essential to winning the support of the people. Part of the Army’s problem was its lack of experience in counterinsurgency (or COIN) operations. Ronald Spector reports that in the 1950s, COIN operations were limited to four hours in most infantry training courses. What little was taught focused on preventing a conventional enemy from holding raids or infiltrating rear areas. But in the end, the Army fought the war it was trained to fight: a conventional war of maneuver and massive firepower. This worked well in Desert Storm, but failed in Vietnam.
In contrast to the Army, the Marines were far more aware of the nature of the war they were fighting, reports Andrew Krepinevich. They combined 15 marines and 34 Popular Force territorial troops (who lived in and provided security for a village or hamlet) into combat action platoons (CAPs). These CAPs sought to destroy insurgent infrastructure, protect the people and the government infrastructure, organize local intelligence networks, and train local paramilitary troops. In other words, they adopted traditional COIN tactics. But the Army ran the show in Vietnam, and its leaders rejected the Marines’ approach.
The Marines were not alone in their appreciation of the multidimensional aspects of COIN. Robert Komer’s Phoenix program also targeted the Viet Cong infrastructure, but the efforts of the CIA were not well coordinated with those of the military or the State Department, let alone the South Vietnamese. In fact Westmoreland refused to create a combined command to coordinate American actions with those of the South Vietnamese. The latter were an especially neglected resource.
Admittedly, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was corrupt and at times incompetent, but part of the problem was caused by American mistraining and the Army’s contempt. In the 1950s, American military advisors trained ARVN to repel a conventional invasion from the north, using North Korea as a model. From 1965-68, the US Army gave ARVN the static security mission, judged to be of low importance by the Army. US advisors assigned to help ARVN recognized their careers were endangered: they would advance far quicker if they had “true” combat assignments. After years of neglect, ARVN was built up with billions of US dollars during Nixon’s Vietnamization policy (and that’s exactly what it was – a policy, not a strategy), but by 1969 the rot had gone too far. ARVN lacked a unifying national spirit, VC agents had penetrated the ranks, and the officers were thoroughly politicized. Our ally always thought we’d be there if they ran into trouble, but they didn’t understand how American government worked. As Ambassador Bui Diem explained in 1990, “Our faith in America was total, and our ignorance was equally total.” South Vietnam paid the price in 1975.
Could the United States have won the Vietnam War if we had followed a proper strategy? This question may be unanswerable and ultimately moot, but it’s worth discussing. First, one must admit the war may not have been worth winning. Hannah Arendt has stated the Vietnam War was a case of excess means applied for minor aims in a region of marginal interest. In retrospect this seems irrefutable, but in the climate of the Cold War and Containment Vietnam seemed a critical theater in which communist aggression had to be stopped. Second, one must admit the United States was not protecting a viable government in South Vietnam: we were trying to create one. But we were creating one in our image. We ignored the Vietnamese culture and destroyed their economy with our hard currency. Rear area troops with money to spend spread prostitution and drugs in the streets of Saigon. In short, we alienated the people instead of winning them over to our cause. The few people we did win over were terrorized and often killed by the Viet Cong. Even following a proper COIN strategy, victory would have taken 5-10 more years at least. With weak support from the American people, (the “Silent Majority” was silent due to its ignorance and ambivalence), which waned dramatically after Tet, we never had a chance in Vietnam.
The one strategy that would have succeeded for the United States, I believe, is Mao’s People’s War. We must not deceive ourselves: if free elections had been held as promised in 1956, Ho Chi Minh would have won and unified the country. His was the legitimate government; we were trying to overthrow that government and replace it with almost any non-communist regime. In that effort, we should have formed an alliance of military, state department, intelligence, and academic resources to educate Americans in Vietnamese language and culture. These experts, with a suitable, politically-indoctrinated military force to protect them, would win the hearts of the people. Our main weapons would be our ideas and the ideological fervor of our troops, whether civilian or military. Diplomacy and military strikes would be used to cut-off the flow of arms to the VC and NVA from the Soviet Union. The political infrastructure of the enemy would be targeted, including Ho Chi Minh himself.
But this is ridiculous. Our very arrogance blinded us to the war’s complexities. We attacked the symptoms of the disease – the guerrillas and NVA -without examining what caused the disease in the body politic. Our can-do attitude was reinforced by our military traditions and our pride in our nation as being more moral than the rest of the world. We became our own worst enemy as we tried to manage the war. The commitment was there (at least among the soldiers), the energy was there, the money was there, the technology was there -the strategy, intelligence, and leadership wasn’t. People’s War proved superior to search-and-destroy, the VC and NVA intelligence proved superior to ARVN and ignorant Americans, the brilliant Giap out-thought the dedicated but shortsighted Westmoreland. The Vietnam War was ultimately unwinnable.
In the aftermath of the American-led victory over Iraq in Desert Storm, many Americans predicted the stigma of our defeat in Vietnam had finally been exorcised from our minds. Such was not the case, nor is such a result even desirable. The “dreaded V-word,” as the London Times recently described it, is being whispered again in the endless corridors of the Pentagon. If this breeds an aversion to the use of military force, harm may result; but if it leads to more thought and a more subtle study of the efficacy of military force as applied under different conditions, the dreaded V-word will have served a useful purpose, and those names engraved on the Wall in Washington will not have died in vain.
Much like my father, I can be a pack rat. Going through old files, I found a “blue book” exam that I took as a college freshman in 1982. The essay question I had to answer was whether the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War. Recall that in 1975, South Vietnam had fallen to the communist North Vietnamese invaders, with U.S. diplomats ignominiously escaping by helicopter from the roof of our embassy in Saigon. In the 1980 Presidential Election, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter, with Reagan declaring that the unpopular Vietnam War had been “a noble cause.”
I have not edited my answer (except for a few additions, in brackets, for clarity), which follows below. This is what one U.S. college freshman thought about Vietnam and the U.S. involvement in that war seven years after the defeat in 1975. (You can’t even call it sophomoric, since I was only a freshman.) I think my answer reflects a certain naivete as well as can-do optimism: That we were fighting for the right reasons but in the wrong way, and if we had followed a better strategy, and bossed around the South Vietnamese more, we could have, in some sense, “won.”
Today, I don’t believe the Vietnam War was winnable, and I lament the enormous amount of destruction we visited on the Vietnamese and their country, which I’ve written about in other articles, here and here for example.
Update (8/27/2014): Having watched the recent HBO documentary Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words, it’s now glaringly obvious that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Indeed, that’s precisely what Nixon and Kissinger (secretly) concluded. As they talked publicly about “peace with honor,” Nixon and Kissinger were privately conceding that the war was lost. They were looking only to deflect blame from themselves, for “a decent interval” between when US troops withdrew and when South Vietnam collapsed, which is exactly what they got — roughly three years, by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace due to Watergate. Nixon and Kissinger also cast about for scapegoats; at the time, they planned to blame the inevitable defeat on the corruption of South Vietnamese leaders.
Why did the U.S. lose in Vietnam? A big reason, I think, is the dishonesty of our own government in consistently misleading the American people about the war and the region as well. This dishonesty started just after World War II and extended to LBJ and Nixon as revealed in “The Pentagon Papers.” In other words, Nixon’s “silent majority” wasn’t silent because it supported his policies. It was silent because it had been lied to by Nixon and his predecessors. If the U.S. government had had the guts to level with the American people, the worst of the war may have been averted. Even Watergate would have been averted, since you can draw a clear line from Daniel Ellsberg and “The Pentagon Papers” to attempts to “get” Ellsberg to the “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Campaign in 1972 that ended in his resignation. Lies begat crimes that begat more lies that begat more crimes…
[Winning the Vietnam War, as written in March of 1982]
The Vietnam War was a costly struggle involving over 500,000 U.S. troops [at peak deployment strength] and billions of dollars of equipment. The war was attacked both at home and abroad, and when the U.S. finally did pullout in 1972, the South Vietnamese government and the ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] collapsed in three years. The Vietnam War was a failure of U.S. foreign policy making, but if other alternatives had been pursued, the results would have been much better for the United States.
The U.S. became involved in Vietnam to contain communism, to prevent the takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, and to contain China. Unfortunately, the U.S. underestimated the strength of the North Vietnamese will, and turned a local civil war between two conflicting ideologies into a major conflict. The U.S. believed that South Vietnam was a vital area of American interest, but it really wasn’t.
The South Vietnamese government was politically inefficient and corrupt. Most of the natives did not support the government, which was why the Viet Cong were able to succeed the way they did. U.S. foreign policy concentrated on defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, not realizing that the reform of the South Vietnamese government and the pacification of the local villagers were of more importance.
What could we have done, then, to “save” South Vietnam from North Vietnam? The answers are not concrete or exact. Most people believe that if the U.S. Army had had fewer restrictions and more men, North Vietnam would have lost. This pedestrian view is wrong for two basic reasons. One is that the U.S. Army fought the wrong type of war. Instead of conducting counterguerrilla activities, the U.S. Army adopted tactics intended for conventional warfare in Europe. The U.S. tried to defeat North Vietnam by sheer firepower, but superior numbers and materiel lose their advantage against a determined guerrilla enemy. Employing hit-and-run tactics, the Viet Cong fought only when they wanted to fight, and on ground of their choosing. Cincinnatus [Cecil B. Currey], in his book Self-Destruction:[The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army during the Vietnam Era] stated that the U.S. Army could not have won the war because of the way they fought it.
The second reason is that each escalation of American troops in Vietnam could be easily matched by North Vietnam. Each year over 200,000 men [in North Vietnam] became eligible for the draft. When General Westmoreland asked for 200,000+ troops to launch a major counteroffensive after Tet [in early 1968], he was denied them on the grounds that more numbers would have had little or no effect in ending the war.
What can one conclude from this? A definite conclusion is that U.S. tactics were totally unsuited to the type of war fought in Vietnam. This suggests one change in our policy that would have improved the result. If we had pursued a policy of counterguerrilla warfare, and if we had protected the local villagers better, then we could have concentrated on the main problem—reforming the South Vietnamese government and creating an ARVN that didn’t lose every battle they fought.
The Vietnamization policy [under Nixon] was a step in the right direction, but it was implemented haphazardly and inefficiently. U.S. foreign policy should have recognized that the support of the government by the people was of paramount importance, but needed reforms [in South Vietnam] were not carried out and the people became disillusioned and bitter. If the government cannot protect us, the people thought, what good was it? The U.S. should have forced the various South Vietnamese governments to implement reforms, and it also should have pursued a more vigorous pacification program.
The handling of ARVN was also a mistake. ARVN came to rely upon the U.S. Army to great extent, and when the U.S. Army withdrew, the ARVN desertion rate reached an all-time high. The U.S. should have realized that giving the South Vietnamese billions of dollars in equipment and, among other things, the fourth largest air force in the world, was not enough. It did not cure the disease that afflicted ARVN, which was corruption and the lack of experienced officers.
What conclusions can be reached? U.S. foreign policy was definitely flawed, but we could have attained better results if other policies were implemented. A more effective pacification program, combined with counterguerrilla activities and increased defense of local villages, would have eroded the support of the Viet Cong, since a guerrilla war needs the support of the populace to succeed. The most basic flaw in U.S. policy, however, was ignoring the faults and corruption of the South Vietnamese government. Needed reforms of the overbearing totalitarian government would have gained the support of the South Vietnamese people, and this more than any other factor might have changed the results of 1975 and “won” the war for the United States.
What will West Point graduates do without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Don’t worry! There are a lot more threats listed on the classroom chalkboard.
The New York Times this morning has an interesting article on this year’s West Point graduates. With the end of the war in Iraq (at least for us) and the winding down of the Afghan conflict (again, at least for us), West Point graduates face the prospect of not being immediately deployed to a shooting war. The article paints this as grim times, at least for the graduates, many of whom are seeking opportunities in the Special Forces for a better chance at earning “coveted” combat badges and patches.
And this is precisely the problem with a professional military that is self-defined as “warriors.” Its members desire war: a chance, so they think, to test themselves in the crucible of combat. They want to be where the action is, even if that action is ill-advised or even illegal under international law.
Two centuries ago, the model for West Point was a citizen-soldier engineering school, a band of brothers who would help tame our continent more through engineering skill than fighting prowess. Our army, of course, has never been reluctant to fight when the cause was just (or when they were told by various leaders the cause was just), but the emphasis was on civilian needs first, notably the development of our nation’s infrastructure.
Contrast that with today. The article in the New York Times includes a photo of a chalkboard used in a West Point class to explain today’s security environment. The threats listed on the board include terrorism, cyber, Egypt, Syria, China, Iran, and North Korea (NK). The Army’s priorities appear to be defense of the homeland (the HL), something about preserving order, and something about promoting our economic interests and values overseas. Notably absent (as far as I can tell from the photo) was any explicit mention of the citizen-soldier ideal of supporting and defending our Constitution.
I wouldn’t want to make too much of a few words scribbled on a chalkboard. But it appears from that list of “threats” that our West Point graduates will have plenty of opportunities in their military careers to march to the sound of gunfire. And probably more than a few opportunities to add some “coveted” combat badges and patches to their uniforms.
They’ll be no lack, in short, of red badges of courage. More’s the pity for ourselves and for our nation.
Did Jesus have a wife? Or, if not a wife, did his mention of “wife” symbolize a greater role for women as disciples? I’ve always wondered about the proudly patriarchal Catholic church and its marginalization of women. WWJD? Would would Jesus do about a church that is so male-dominated? So proud of its prejudices and biases vis-a-vis women and their reputed weaknesses? I’m thinking Jesus would not have approved of official church teachings on women.
The papyrus in which Jesus mentions a wife is suggestive but not conclusive. Nevertheless, it should spur the church to reexamine its teachings on the proper roles for women within the church.
Women should not be segregated in separate and unequal communities. They should be incorporated in the church as disciples every bit as equal and whole as male disciples. They should be able to become priests and to administer the sacraments. No more Adam’s rib and weaker vessel nonsense, Catholics.
It seems a radical concept to a church burdened with two thousand years of woman-marginalizing tradition. But Jesus came to forge a new covenant, a new world order. It’s time for the church, at least partially, to fulfill His vision.
Open your hearts, Catholics, to the equality of women within the church. By doing so, you’ll be following Jesus more nearly. Or so I believe.
When Hannah Arendt, the famous German-American political philosopher, criticized American involvement in the Vietnam War, she said that our foreign policy “experts” fell prey to using excessive means to achieve minor aims in a region of marginal interest to the United States. You could say the same of most of America’s foreign interventions since 1945. We are a superpower with a boundless propensity for meddling in world affairs. We waste enormous amounts of money and resources intervening in areas that are of marginal importance to our national security.
There are many reasons for these wasteful interventions, of course. The military-industrial-Congressional complex plays its role. Presidents love to intervene as a sign of “strength.” Natural resources, especially oil, are usually in play. The usual motives, in short: profit, power, greed.
But perhaps the root cause of our mistakes can be traced to hubris, our prideful belief that we can remake other societies and peoples in our image. Our hubris leads us to undervalue legitimate cultural differences, and to underestimate the difficulties involved in bridging those distances. Because we underestimate the difficulties, we rush in with money and troops, only to find that the problems we encounter — and often exacerbate — are not amenable to being solved with money and troops. Nevertheless, once we’ve committed our prestige, we believe that we can’t withdraw without losing face. So we commit even more money and troops and prestige, until our folly can no longer be denied, even to ourselves. After which, sadly, we usually search for scapegoats.
Rarely do we stop to think that some problems simply can’t be solved with massive infusions of money and troops. Indeed, infusions of the same often exacerbate the very problems we claim we’re trying to solve.
The way out, to paraphrase Arendt, is to commit only those means necessary to secure our major aims in regions of vital interest to the U.S.
Such an approach requires humility as well as moderation. Our foreign policy types will need to stop strutting the world stage as if they own it. Our leaders will need to stop vamping like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, declaiming “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (If only they had her style.)
“Look at them in the front offices. The masterminds!” Yes, Gloria Swanson had it right. Our foreign policy “masterminds” need to learn some humility. Either that, or America will be among the smashed idols of history.
Truthout has a powerful story on the GM ignition switch design flaw, the one that killed at least thirteen people, and possibly as many as 29 (or more). If many are so eager to support capital punishment for mass murderers, why not the death penalty for GM? GM knew about the problem with their switch, but apparently decided it was more cost effective not to engage in a recall that would cost the company roughly $1.5 million, or 57 cents per car.
As Truthout suggests, the big problem is no one is held responsible for corporate murder. Some money washes hands in various lawsuits, perhaps a big fine will be levied by the government, but no one goes to jail, no specific person is punished.
This sad and tragic fact put me to mind (once again) of Don Henley’s song, “If Dirt Were Dollars,” in which he sings:
“These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”
If corporations are people, as the U.S. Supreme Court decided, and as Mitt Romney reminded us while he campaigned for president, can’t we punish them as people?
The death penalty is popular in many places in America — it allegedly deters the worst crimes, its supporters claim. Isn’t it time for an ignition kill switch to be activated against GM? That would certainly deter future companies from valuing their bottom lines more than the lives of their customers.
But I’m dreaming, of course. Corporations are citizens, my friends, except they are much more equal as citizens than you and me. How can we measure their value? Look again to their financial bottom lines, and how much “free” speech that allows them to exercise in the halls of power.
And so it goes in the land that equates speech and honor with money and power.