THE BLOG

Why Doesn't Reconstruction Work?

11/04/2011 04:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

Armed Humanitarians by Nathan Hodge is a popular history of the U.S.' efforts at nation building, the hearts and minds territory that my own book We Meant Well plumbs. There are a lot of euphemisms for these efforts -- armed social work, soft power, relief workers with guns, social work on steroids, armed humanitarians and so forth. The idea in its most basic form is more of a belief: that following military action to kill bad guys (Taliban, al Qaeda, Baathists), expanded access to jobs and the construction of local governments that provide basic services will cause the people to renounce insurgency and instead cooperate with the United States.

Nice idea, but why, after $63 billion and eight years in Iraq, and $70 billion and ten years in Afghanistan, have the U.S.' efforts at rebuilding those places failed? Will it work in Libya, Somalia or wherever the U.S. next tries it? What about in northern Virginia, USA?

The Chinese Army roared through my small town in northern Virginia, Operation Red Dawn 2011. The initial troops were tough veterans of the fighting, and a lot of people were killed by early shelling and mortar attacks. A tank battle near the hospital destroyed much of the building and intelligence that weapons were being stored inside the elementary school lead to the horrific air attack that killed 50 children with a "smart bomb." Met by stone-throwing teens, the Chinese troops tore through local businesses. A gang rape of a young woman was never reported on the Chinese news even though it was common knowledge among us residents.



The second wave of Chinese troops were better behaved. They sought out the few locals who spoke some Mandarin and hired them as translators. Of course language skills were quite rudimentary, and a lot of bad, dumb things happened due to miscommunication. Though the Chinese troops maintained that they were now occupying the town to make things better, for residents the current men with guns looked and sounded a lot like the previous men with guns. The Chinese tried: following local custom, they met Americans at the Starbucks for multiple cups of coffee, forgoing the green tea the Chinese would have preferred to sip on their own back at their bases. The officers had read that Americans loved coffee and were simplistic enough that their allegiance could be swayed just by choking down a few cups of the black gunk together. A popular book back home was called "Three Cups of Starbucks."



The American translators helped steer some quick "feel good" projects the Chinese wanted to do toward their friends, quickly figuring out that the Chinese spoke no English and, to be truthful, really did not care to spend enough time researching the place to figure out who they should have been seeking to influence. The Chinese seemed happy enough just to report the "success" of each project back to Beijing. Beijing, interested in domestic harmony because of the unpopular war, welcomed only good news. Officers seeking promotion quickly learned which way the wind blew.



Back in Virginia, the big Chinese banquet held for the town on the local July 4 holiday did not go well, as only a few complacent locals were invited, leading to accusations that they had sold out early. Those same complacent locals ended up receiving a fair amount of money from the Chinese to open a factory making plastic goods; the idea was to create jobs to distract the Americans from a forming insurgency while still keeping Walmart stocked. The first problems started when Chinese contractors took most of the development money for themselves, and no factory was ever built that round. Later the Chinese tried again, this time creating a few manual labor jobs that paid little and offered no sense of pride. The factory produced junk, and could only sell its goods back to the Chinese Army, who purposefully overpaid for them so that the factory could be labeled a success.



The Chinese decided to turn their attention to the schools, hoping to move opinion by influencing the local kids. The teachers were all fired of course, because they had taught the old "U.S." way, and were replaced by know-nothings who did know which way the political wind blew. Chinese textbooks, translated into bad English, were brought in. Parents who could no longer afford to feed their kids watched as the only full meal of the day was handed out as charity at school, and Chinese food to boot. The worst was when moms and dads had to watch their kids beg for candy from the passing Chinese soldiers who somehow still occupied the city. The more the Chinese propaganda screeched that their purpose in invading America was to free the country from its lazy, fiscally insolvent previous government, the more the presence of the troops irked. Most residents felt the same way -- keep your development money and just send your troops home.



Some Chinese soldiers "got it," and made some small differences, but they rotated home as quickly as the bad soldiers. No one was around long enough to really figure the Americans, with their odd customs, out. Good intentions were a good start, but without action they ultimately meant nothing. Simply meaning well was not enough.



Accidents happened; that's inevitable when you place military gear in close contact with regular people. A child was run over one night by an armored vehicle. A man was shot poking through the Chinese Army camp's garbage. Local women were offered large sums of money to act as Chinese "girlfriends" for the troops. About the only way Americans could make any money was by selling knock-off X-Box games to the soldiers, though the Chinese were also grand consumers of porn that featured blonde American girls like the ones they made remarks to on the streets.



The Chinese, isolated in their encampment for their own protection, failed to notice the impact that failing municipal services were having on the locals. The Chinese had their own generators and water purifiers, and missed the impact that corruption had on siphoning off the money they provided for water and sewer repairs. A group named after the former high school sports team formed, intent on killing as many Chinese as possible...

When a relationship begins with a war and an invasion, and all the acts of violence that go along with that, you start deep in a hole. As corruption, mistakes, accidents and half-hearted efforts plague reconstruction, that hole only gets deeper. It may just be that reconstruction does not work no matter how many cups of tea one drinks.