01/29/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

War Strategies of the Blind

The New York Times has run two reviews on the front page of the Sunday Book section, purporting to explore the contradictions inherent in the U.S. military strategy. But both of the books reviewed, Fred Kaplan's The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War and Max Boot's Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present, back themselves into blinkered narrow cul-de-sacs, never even questioning the first causes or historical meaning of resistance to occupation.

While the critique of U.S. military strategy is searing, both authors manage to avoid the fundamental issue in American wars overseas -- the very wrongness of invasion and occupation. Kaplan well describes the elevation of the pseudo-genius Petraeus to the status of America's ace in the hole to get troops out of Iraq and hopefully to work the same magic in Afghanistan. He traces the new dogma that arose over his warmed-over strategies of what was called in Vietnam "winning hearts and minds." But there is nothing new in the Petraeus formula and very little offered in Kaplan's conclusion. And note that Hearts and Minds is still the best film that explains the horror of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam.

The question is not how to fight these wars but the why the U.S. gets into them in the first place. Hint: It's never about our warm feelings for the people or a love of democracy. It is always about geopolitical power and maintaining the top spot for the U.S. Max Boot's history at least puts guerrilla warfare and resistance into a historical context. Those who are invaded and outgunned never bother to field a standing army. Such a response would be ridiculous. They simply resist in small ways. It is what Robert Taber described as the War of the Flea -- the constant harassment of he enemy, the wearing down and demoralization of the occupier.

Strategies of counterinsurgency are not a brilliant invention of Petraeus. They were used by U.S. forces in Vietnam, British forces in Malaya, by the Germans in occupied France, and even by the Romans in Gaul. Indeed, the analogy to German occupation may be, while distasteful, most instructive about the problems of occupation. The Germans found themselves with a similar problem to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had the Vichy government. But support for General Petain was weak. They continually trained French forces but these forces did not seem to fight very well. They were constantly harassed by resistance forces. The question is not, should not be, how to make the Vichy regime work. It is why to get the hell out.

The patronizing language of our newspapers, the questioning of when the Afghan government might be able to "stand on its own feet," is creepily similar to German language about the Petain government. One U.S. adviser remarked, "The idea is to work as best we can to create little bubbles of civilization and see where it gets us." Son, you are in the cradle of civilization. The people of Afghanistan, the people of Iraq, have gone through a long history and have certainly set up governments, good ones and pretty awful ones. But the problems they are having today are not matters of underdeveloped governing skills; they are problems of legitimacy, of being a collaborationist or puppet government fronting for U.S. interests.

The problem is that the U.S. media has no voice critical of the overall enterprise. Even liberal outlets like National Public Radio and The New York Times are all united in the project of occupation. No one bothers to examine the history.

And that history would include the fact that the Middle East after World War II was bristling with anti-colonial agitation which was led by secular, radical, socialist-oriented national liberation struggles. The United States, through such formations as the World Anti-Communist League, set up and supported the anticommunist mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan, just as Israel supported the creation of Hamas as a counterforce to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization. As Arjun Appadurai has demonstrated, ethnic conflict and fundamentalism are not so much ancient tribal hatreds as they are the consequences of modernism.

The challenges the U.S. faces should not be described as the "burdens of power" as The New York Times review of Boot's book does. They are the problems of empire and the need to relinquish an addiction to oil and so much more -- an addiction to the exploitation of the labor and resources of other countries. America will live a more modest, but more safe and peaceful, existence when it learns to kick the habit of empire.