To understand how unreliable earnest statements of good intentions can be, consider this. Speaking on Veterans Day, November 11, 2014, at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said honoring the nation's troops includes questioning the policies that send them to war:
"The wall reminds us to be honest in our telling of history. There is nothing to be gained by glossing over the darker portions of a war, the Vietnam War, that bitterly divided America. We must openly acknowledge past mistakes, and we must learn from past mistakes, because that is how we avoid repeating past mistakes. The wall reminds us that we must never take the security of our country for granted, ever. And we must always question our policies that send our citizens to war, because our nation's policies must always be worthy, worthy of the sacrifices we ask of the men and women who defend our country."
Hagel's words came as the number of US troops in Iraq was rising and the stated function of these troops morphed from "training" to "advising and assisting." The day after Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, spoke, our highest ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chief's of Staff Martin Dempsey, said that he was "considering" recommending that "combat" troops be deployed to fight ISIS. Ah, how the language of deception masquerades as information.
Statements such as Hagel's are not only untrustworthy, they are deceptive and misleading. They provide cover as we repeat the very military action the words ostensibly seek to avoid. This is delusion-in-action.
Some think this is a purposeful if hidden strategy. In one view, leaders patently manipulate our basic human need for safety and prey on our fears of insecurity and damage. Lawrence Wilkerson, Vietnam veteran, retired US Army Colonel, and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, thinks war has nothing to do with truth, justice and the "American Way." Rather war resists change by reliably aggrandizing the coffers and power of a select few who exert partial control of the governance of our country. From this perspective, leaders seen and unseen manipulate the people by summoning old or new threats and deploying grand ideological themes to provide cover and fuel the fires of war fever for their own benefit and with disregard for their people, the enemy, and, of course, generations of service members, veterans, and their families.
The following story portrays a complementary narrative: General Dan Bolger commanded and trained US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his new book, Why We Lost, Bolger says our efforts to militarily change the hearts and minds of people whose regimes we toppled, to nation-build, and "remake them in our image" was responsible for the failure. There are grave dangers when, as the educator John Holt warned, "The Helping Hand Strikes Again."
When asked by on The Takeaway if he believed that our counterinsurgency military efforts to win "hearts and minds" and nation-build were wrong, Gen Bolger replied " I came to believe [it]." He went on, "I now have sympathy for the British generals on the western front in WWI. I used to say 'How stupid can they be?' Now I see they were well-meaning men, doing what they were trained to do, and it took time for them to figure out 'this isn't working.'" Bolger, to his credit, owns it, "The same thing happened for me and many of my colleagues in the military. We realized, as the months built up, 'it wasn't working.'" Bolger says we got it wrong from the outset. If we were going to counter an insurgency, we couldn't, as an outside force, go in there and do that, it had to be local forces that led the way.
And here's where it becomes especially interesting: "We did learn that in Vietnam. I studied Vietnam, and, as I think about it, I'm appalled that I repeated [the same error] twice, once in Iraq and once in Afghanistan." Bolger says he owes it to the troops he fought alongside to say, "What can we learn from this?"
Here is the ineluctable tendency to obscure history, get caught up in the spell of trauma, and react badly, concluding mistakenly that war is the answer and that the next war will be better than the last. We dissociate what we know. We deceive ourselves and others. Would that we would all be appalled and wake up to how insidiously this perennial dynamic operates. Whether purposeful or delusionally outside of consciousness, the devastating impacts are alike.