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"Groundhog Day" in Asia:
Unwinnable Wars

By Bernard Weiner

Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers


June 6, 2006

The hit Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day," you may remember, concerns a cynical, manipulative man who, to his horror, finds himself locked in a circular life-loop; only after he's able to open his heart can he finally begin to grow into a full human being, loved and loving. Bush&Co.'s Iraq war reminds me of that film, the same events unfolding day after day after day; the difference is that the architects of this war have their hearts and minds locked so tightly that no change appears possible.

In a sense, America itself seems caught up in a "Groundhog Day" loop in that region of the world, continually ignoring the same warning generals for decades have been giving us: Do not get involved militarily on the landmass of Asia.

Korea in the '50s, Vietnam in the '60s and '70s, currently in Iraq (and Afghanistan). Each time, the same ignorance and bravado seem to take hold. We'll whip these backward buggers into shape. How can we not fail? Look at all our high-tech weaponry and look at those peasants trying to stop us with their stones and punji sticks and homemade explosives and old-fashioned rifles.

But, time and time again, local patriotism and nationalist fervor trumps technology. It's the old David & Goliath story, with the more nimble and creative David driving the high-tech Goliath batty, because the Big Guy is too musclebound to do much about it except cause collateral-damage mayhem.


Why have so many war heroes continually warned against the U.S. becoming militarily engaged in Asia? Part of the reason had to do with the vastness of the geography and the historical tendency for massive local populations to "absorb" and repel invaders (Napoleon and Hitler learned these facts the hard way, as did the U.S. in Vietnam and Korea). Part has to do with the fact that Westerners stand out like sore thumbs, don't speak the indigenous languages, have very little concept of how to relate to the varied ethnic groups and religions, don't know the customs and traditions and geographical quirks and hiding places of those lands, aren't quite sure how to deal with guerrillas in their midst, etc. etc.

The U.S. military leaders were not issuing their warnings because they considered such wars in Asia to be immoral or illegal; it was mainly because they were unwinnable. Nothing much could be gained in these "stalemate" wars, and much would be lost, not the least of which was the moral high ground and reputation of the United States, along with tens of thousands of dead and maimed U.S. troops. In addition, unless the U.S. military gets in and out quickly (the 1991 invasion of Iraq, for example, which lasted 100 days), the public grows impatient and begins asking embarrassing questions about the necessity for such wars and the lack of carefully-considered exit plans.

Also, high-tech wars are horribly expensive, and tend to drain the coffers of the U.S. treasury. What this translates to back home, in addition to huge budget deficits, is lack of funds for infrastructure maintenance, popular social programs, educational improvements, innovative civilian research, etc. To make up this funding gap occasioned by ballooning war costs (a good deal of which is eaten up by corruption, cost overruns, "losing track" of billions of dollars), the middle class yet again tends to take the hit, both immediately and in the long term, with debilitating debt burdens placed on their children and grandchildren. Of course, the situation gets even worse for middle-class citizens if the government gives massive tax breaks and refunds to corporations and wealthy individuals, which is the case with the Bush Administration.

So, apparently learning nothing from the generals' warnings and from earlier experiences of American military forces in Asia (and those of earlier British and French colonialists, as well as that suffered by Napoleon and Hitler in Russia and by the Russians later in Afghanistan), the Bush Administration has taken the U.S. into two wars on the Asian mainland, in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Cheney and Rumsfeld, the prime movers in initiating those wars, are following the same self-destructive path as their predecessors from decades earlier. They barely understand those cultures, don't speak the languages (and have little use for those who do have that ability), have little real knowledge of the ethnic, religious and political tensions in those countries, and wind up alienating the native populations -- so much so that even the supposedly U.S.-friendly leaders installed during the occupations are incensed at the arrogant, aggressive behavior of the American military, which is killing, brutalizing and humiliating their citizens.

It was relatively easy for the U.S. and its local allies to overthrow the repressive Taliban regime in Afghanistan, although Rumsfeld and his in-theater generals seemed disappointed that the country was so backward and undeveloped, providing very few targets worth bombing. The U.S. and its client leader, President Karzai, control sections of the capital Kabul but little else, as the ancient warlord system of geographic control is returning in full force. And the Taliban is regrouping and showing off its growing strength. In short, Asian War #1 is by no means over; indeed, it's threatening to flare up once again.

Since there was no oil or much of anything else of value in Afghanistan, the U.S. basically abandoned it precipitously. With its work unfinished -- it simply left Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants still at large and in charge of al-Qaida -- the Bush Administration ordered the bulk of its forces out of Afghanistan and into Iraq, the Bush Administration's real goal because of its abundance of oil reserves, a weakened military and its great geopolitical importance for further U.S. adventures in the Middle East region in general. Thus the building of massive permanent military bases in Iraq and the largest embassy anywhere in the world.

In short, all the signs seem to confirm that the Bush Administration has no intent of leaving Iraq for a long, long time, though it may be forced by domestic considerations at home -- namely the November 2006 election, and 2008 presidential vote after that -- to at least talk about drawing down a goodly number of troops. After the election, such conversation can be put on hold or withdrawn troops brought back in.


But it's conceivable that even that long-range plan may go awry. It is an axiom of warfare that an occupying army facing a guerrilla insurgency will commit acts of aggression on the civilian population, the effects of which will wind up losing the hearts and minds of the locals and, in many cases, drive them to join or at least tacitly support the insurgency. (Many guerrilla cadres join the police or local army, and report back to the insurgent leaders.) That was the case in Vietnam, it's certainly what's happening in Iraq right now.

The U.S. soldiers, more and more having to face the reality that attacks on them can come from anywhere, grow increasingly trigger-happy, firing first and asking questions later. Further, following their civilian leaders, they truly believe themselves to represent a superior culture and religion, which ipso facto makes the local Iraqis into some sort of lower species, who can be handled and mishandled at will when the anger and fear hormones are aroused.

In Vietnam, the symbol for this arrogant ruthlessness was My Lai, where several hundred innocent civilians were massacred. ("The only good gook is a dead gook.") Here, the flash-point symbols are Abu Ghraib and Haditha. Tortures and murders and brutalities are constant and widespread in Iraq, as they were in Vietnam, not "aberrations" by a few lowly soldiers who go "off the reservation," to use this most revealing military terminology.

The bloody result of such vicious, bullying behavior is that not only is the Bush Administration watching its approval ratings at home plummet, on both the war specifically and on other issues in general, but the local populations in Iraq, even those regarded as most friendly to U.S. interests, want the Americans out of there as soon as is practicable. The secular and religious Iraqi leaders may disapprove of the daily insurgent bombings but are absolutely incensed by the seemingly wanton and daily brutalization and slaughter of their citizens by the U.S. occupiers. Estimates range from 40,000 to more than 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S. began its Shock&Awe campaign more than three years ago; imagine how we would feel if an equivalent number of Americans, about 1,000,000, were killed and wounded during an Occupation by a foreign power.

At each stage of the Occupation, Rumsfeld and his incompetent war-planners have been many months, or usually years, behind where they should be. Currently, for example, nearly four years late, the troops in Iraq are being given lessons in battlefield "ethics"; i.e., how to relate to the local population in such a way as to minimize civilian deaths. The irony of chief-torturer Rumsfeld and his cohorts lecturing anyone on ethics and battlefield niceties is grotesque, but there we are.

In Vietnam, there were so-called "free-fire" zones, where anybody spotted by U.S. troops was regarded as probable enemies, so blanket permission was given to fire at will. We're fast approaching that gruesome, counterproductive situation in Iraq; the Iraqis have lived that reality for years, the citizenry back home in the States is quickly coming to realize what kind of war is really being fought there in their name. No wonder the U.S. under Bush is regarded as a reprehensible pariah state around much of the globe, and why so many Americans are ashamed of their government's behavior.


More than two-thirds of polled Americans believe the Iraq War to be a mistake, and probably unwinnable. The main thing tamping down <i>active<-i> anti-war resistance, a la the Vietnam era, is the lack of a military draft. We now have an all-"volunteer" army -- in effect, covert mercenaries, many from poor and minority communities in the U.S. -- plus thousands of overt mercenaries hired by private companies under contract to the Pentagon. (How these private soldiers are supervised, if at all, by the U.S. military is a good question; how often do these guns-for-hire operate as rogue elements who can violate the rules of engagement and cut ethical corners while in the field, thus angering the locals even more?)

Eventually, the patriotic middle-class home folk back in the States turned on the Vietnam War and on those officials who were responsible for its conduct. Those officials, finally seeing the light, eventually negotiated their way out -- too late for the more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers who died there, along with several million Vietnamese. One suspects that today's current Bush&Co. leaders also know that the Iraq War is unwinnable, that the best that can be hoped for is ongoing stalemate, death by a thousand cuts over an endless period of years. However, rather than face the facts and do the realistic action of cutting their losses and exiting, the Bush Administration is preparing to attack yet another country in the region, Iran, which -- well, imagine that! -- happens to sit on top of huge oil reserves.

The Bushevik run-up to war with Iran is unnervingly similar to that which preceded the U.S. attack on Iraq. The leadership of Iran is demonized, with hyped-up stories of how they endanger America because of their alleged WMD and their fledgling nuclear program and their supposed support of "terrorists." Of course, even the Bush Administration's own experts say that Iran is five to ten years away from having operational nuclear missiles, which surely provides time enough to try solutions other than military. (Also, dastardly stories are invented about the "enemy." In Iraq, prior to the 1991 invasion, it was Kuwaiti babies being ripped from incubators by Saddam's forces; here it was a widely-reported tale of Christians and Jews being forced to wear yellow badges in Iran. Both stories were phony, probably engineered in the Pentagon, but used to generate citizen hatred and desire for revenge against the "enemy.")

But Rice and Bolton and Cheney and the other Bush war-hawks are issuing daily threatening ultimatums to Iran and are not about to aim for a diplomatic solution to the Iran situation, other than to get some kind of an ambiguously threatening resolution from the United Nations Security Council that can be twisted into use by the Bush Administration in order to launch its war. The Bush&Co. ideology and schedule are taking them inexorably down the road to an attack, probably an air assault on Iran's weapons laboratories and nuclear-research buildings. (The timetable? My guess is either within six weeks, or postponed until after the November elections.) The aim is to cripple Iran's nuclear capacities for a decade or more, and to foment an uprising against the hardline mullahs who run that country.


Remember Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and others telling us how the Iraqis would greet the advancing American troops as "liberators" with flowers and kisses -- the B.S. "cakewalk" theory of Occupation? Believe it or not, the Busheviks have created much the same scenario with regard to Iran. The theory goes that when the Iranian population (especially the more liberal young people) see their leaders humiliated after the research facilities are bombed to smithereens, they will rise up and overthrow the current hardline regime. Yeah, sure. The more likely result will be a patriotic population rallying around their leaders -- in short, exactly how we would respond if attacked by outside forces.

No, Cheney and Rumsfeld, representing the ideologues in control of American foreign and military policy, will have their war. Unless we stop them.

After four-and-a-half years, America has checked and once again has seen its shadow, which predicts several more years of moral winter -- unless we act to prevent them. In this revised "Groundhog Day" scenario, that means defeating the BushCheneyRumsfeldRove forces in November (acting aggressively to demand honest balloting and vote-counting), impeaching and removing them from office, and thereby providing the opportunity for our country to open its heart and grow once again into the larger, decent America we all love.


Copyright 2006 by Bernard Weiner


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in Washington and California, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). Send comments to >> crisispapers@comcast.net <<.


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances