Thursday, July 03, 2014

Two Millenia Later - Not learning from History and Unwinnable Wars

Bust of Alexander the Great
At the risk of beating a dead horse, the history major in me - my degree focused on British, Russian and Ancient History - is about ready to scream as worthless news outlets continue to give Dick "Emperor Palpatine" Cheney platforms from which to attack Barack Obama and spew utter drivel about how "Obama lost Iraq" and other putrid bullshit.  On virtually every issue, Cheney is wrong and one has to wonder why reputable journalists will even give the man the time of day.  Especially when virtually EVERY lesson of history tells us that America was on an unwinnable fools errand in Iraq.  A piece on Oxford Press Blog underscores why Bush/Cheney are little better than brain dead if they cannot grasp that America should never have gone to war in Iraq, throwing away the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (who done count in the minds of the "godly Christians" of the GOP.    Here are some excerpts:

Recent events in Iraq, as the militant group ISIS (or ISIL) strives to establish an Islamic state in the country that threatens to undo everything that western involvement achieved there after 9/11, illustrates well the volatility of the entire region and the interplay of religion and politics. Sunnis who felt cast aside to the periphery of political affairs by the Shiite government are rallying to ISIS. American-trained Iraqi forces (at a cost of several billions of dollars) have proved ineffectual, and who knows if the Iraqi government could fall, and what the country will look like — and be doing — in a year’s or even a matter of months’ time.

For well over a decade we have witnessed Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly to benefit the wellbeing of the native peoples and in the case of Iraq, to stamp out the exploitive and murderous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The result was going to be the introduction of democracy for an oppressed nation; the diverse factions and different religious faiths would unite, and ties with the West would thus enter a new (and grateful) phase. But the Iraqi war that Dick Cheney confidently asserted would take only six weeks and certainly not more than six months took far longer than that and cost an inexcusable number of lives. And the strategies to what might be called nation building failed miserably. The last few weeks are proving that. The campaign in Afghanistan likewise hasn’t met its objectives. Taliban influence remains strong and even growing, and as the death count for military and civilian personnel bloodily grew, people realized Afghanistan was the unwinnable war. So the question is inevitable: will Afghanistan go the way of Iraq as well?

There is a lot to be said for the phrase “history repeats itself,” and a lot of lessons to be learned from history. Although analogies have sometimes been made to the earlier and unsuccessful British and Russian involvement in Afghanistan, Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the former Persian Empire and Central Asia over two millennia ago need to be studied more. He was the first western conqueror in the east, and the problems he faced in dealing with a diverse subject population and the strategies he took to what might be called nation building shed light on contemporary events in culturally dissimilar regions of today’s world.

[A]s Alexander [the Great] discovered to his detriment, and as makers of modern strategy know all too well, defeated in battle doesn’t mean conquered. Moreover, he hadn’t anticipated how he was going to rule a large and culturally diverse subject population, whose religious beliefs and social customs weren’t always understood by the invaders and even disregarded. When the last Great King of Persia, Darius III, was murdered, Alexander faced a dilemma: how to rule? There had never been a Macedonian king who was also ruler of Persia before. Alexander had to learn what to do on his feet, without a rulebook or foreign policy experts.

He couldn’t proclaim himself Great King as that would create stiff opposition from his men, who wanted only a traditional Macedonian warrior king. So he opted for a new title, King of Asia, and even a new style of dress, a combination of Macedonian and Persian clothing. In doing so he pleased no one — his men thought he had gone too far and the Persians not enough. Alexander also didn’t grasp — or didn’t bother about — the personal connection between the Zoroastrian God of Light, Ahura Mazda, and the Great Kings, whose right to rule was anchored in that connection. The religious significance of the great Persian palace centers were disregarded by the westerners, who saw them only as seats of power and home to vast treasuries. Then in what is now Afghanistan, Alexander banned the Bactrians’ custom of putting out their elderly and infirm to be eaten alive by dogs kept for this purpose. A barbaric practice to us, for sure, but another instance of high-handedness and imposition of western morality in a foreign land.

It is little wonder that Alexander was always seen as the invader, that his attempts to integrate his various subject peoples into his army and administration failed, and that “conquered” areas such as India and Afghanistan revolted as soon as he left so they could go back to how things used to be. 

Unwinnable wars indeed, then and now. Alexander’s dilemma of West meeting East set a pattern for history. He unashamedly set out to rule a great empire by force, and failed. Today, the West might embroil itself elsewhere to help spread democracy, but those best intentions can fall apart without understanding the peoples with whom you’re dealing. The problems Alexander faced in dealing with a multi-cultural subject population arguably can inform makers of strategy in culturally different regions of today’s world. But at the end of the day politics and religion are so tightly interwoven and misunderstood, and animosity towards the invader, be it Alexander then or the West now, so great, that for anyone from the West to talk of imposing stability and a new order is hubris. Iraq now is proving that, no different from the Persian Empire to outside rule two millennia ago.

Alexander the Great was perhaps one of the greatest generals in all of history - deliciously, he was also gay and a male friend, Hephastion, was the great love of his life -  and compared to Chimperator Bush and Emperor Palpatine Cheney was the consummate diplomat (he married Roxanne and the daughter of the last Persian emperor for diplomatic reasons).   If Alexander could not tame the religious and social infighting and volatility of the region, no one could or can.  As the piece notes, America's delusion that it could do what no one before had done was total hubris - something that seems to plague America too much of the time.  

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