05/21/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

The Politics of Arrogance and Naked Ambition

The case can be made that the two assumptions most responsible for the political quagmire in Afghanistan are: (1) that clean-shaven men who wear ties and jackets and carry briefcases are "smarter" than scraggly bearded men who wear funny clothes and ride animals, and (2) that a technologically superior society will always dominate a technologically inferior one.

As an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who served in India in the 1960s, I'm stunned at how poorly America's "hearts and minds" campaign is being conducted in Afghanistan. Incredibly, it appears that the combination of can-do optimism, institutional arrogance, career advancement, and old-fashioned Yankee stubbornness has somehow coalesced into what passes for a "foreign policy."

Back in the early days, Peace Corps training consisted of three months of intensive study of the language, customs, religion, history and politics of the host country. You had no chance of being sent overseas unless you learned this stuff. The regimen was rigorous; 8-10 hours a day, six days a week, no exceptions. Nearly half of the trainees were "de-selected" (the State Department's happy euphemism for "rejected").

Our teachers were mainly Indian and American academics. Most of the candidates were college-educated, idealistic, peace-loving, nerdy men in their early twenties. Not only was that the type of person the PC attracted in those days, it was also the type the State Department preferred. To weed out potential misfits, we were all required to meet with a psychologist once every two weeks and a psychiatrist once a month. Arguably, we were the best "amateur ambassadors" the State Department had ever produced.

Yet, for all of our preparation and good intentions, once in India, we proceeded to commit blunder after social blunder. Despite desperately wanting to make a decent impression, we regularly embarrassed and disappointed our excellent Indian hosts. We inadvertently insulted, alienated, confused, dismayed, and angered these good people. On many occasions we made utter fools of ourselves.

Which brings us to Afghanistan. Apparently, the U.S. military -- under the rubric of "counter-insurgency" -- has been assigned the task of winning the hearts and minds of the people, and laying the groundwork for the nation building that is expected to follow. The very assumption that something as ambitious as "nation building" could succeed in a country as fiercely independent and recalcitrant as Afghanistan is, by itself, wildly optimistic. That it could be achieved by U.S. Marines is close to preposterous.

Although PC volunteers aren't experts on political policy or international relations, they do know a thing or two about cross-cultural exchanges. If you ask any ex-volunteer to name the worst possible choice as a hands-on ambassador to a rural, foreign country, they will tell you it would be a soldier. Any soldier. Any man in a uniform, carrying a gun

Villagers already know about America. They know that we have everything and that they have nothing. They know we're rich, powerful and confident, and they assume -- rightly or wrongly -- that we're going to see their country as an economic and cultural cesspool. If we pretend they're not poor and not "backward," we're patronizing; and if we pretend that such things don't matter, we're condescending. These are very shrewd, attentive people. They know what's going on.

Although it is a profound mistake to assume that the Afghans are stupid, that, unfortunately, seems to be the prevailing assumption. Indeed, if that were not the prevailing assumption -- if we didn't think that they were too dumb or unsophisticated to distinguish between ambassadors and combat soldiers -- we wouldn't be using heavily armed 19-year-old Marines as our cultural liaisons.

Still, you hear Pentagon brass defend this grandiose policy by assuring skeptics that these soldiers will be provided all the necessary "sensitivity training" required for the job. For example, they'll be instructed to remove their robo-cop sunglasses when conversing with villagers, to travel on foot instead of in motorized convoys, and to pass out chocolate bars and medical supplies freely.

This is disturbing. Either these officials are working off some mawkish World War II nostalgia model -- believing the Afghans will eventually greet our soldiers the way the French jubilantly greeted the U.S. army when it liberated Paris -- or they're deluding themselves by denying both the bitter lessons of history and the empirical evidence staring them in the face. These soldiers will forever be perceived as invaders. Armed invaders. Foreign invaders.

Of course, because they carry automatic weapons and, literally, have the power of life and death over the populace, they will be deferred to in ways that will make it appear that they're making progress. They will be shown respect; they will be listened to; they will be tolerated. Until they finally decide to pack up and return home. In truth, we've got no chance of winning this war, and no hope of dictating a lasting peace.

David Macaray is a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"). He can be reached at