I am going to try to explain a very complex subject in a very short amount of space. While I was out this weekend I was reading about the Vietnam War. I believe what I’m about to say has currency now with our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Really though it has to do with a lot of the wars we have been involved in, especially going back to the Indian Wars of the 1800’s. We basically don’t take the time to understand a culture, we project our own politics onto it often based on what is in the best interest of big money, and then we make a mess out of shit.
A great deal of daily life in leading up to the Vietnam War was based on village culture. People lived on their ancestral homeland in small villages and lived off the land. What goods they couldn’t produce they would trade for rice and other goods that they got farming. The people that they traded with were largely Chinese merchants. Because of the Communist ties of the Chinese, the Diem government, which we backed, kicked the Chinese out of Vietnam. Suddenly peaceful villagers’ rice was left to rot as they had no one to trade it with. Many of the Vietnamese traded for water, as the brackish water that they used for farming was undrinkable. They did collect water from rain, but this was not a solution to everyday needs. After awhile these villagers, many of which were in South Vietnam and had no relation to the North Vietnamese, again this was a village society where politics and justice was local, resorted to banditry to get what they needed.
On top of this you had the French leaving after they were defeated and a large part of the law and order of the country left with it. This didn’t matter so much in and of itself it had not been combined with the expulsion of the Chinese merchants.
To make it all more complicated Diem was a Catholic. Millions of Catholics from the North were coerced into coming down into the South of Vietnam, some would say through government propaganda and fear tactics that we supported. Some estimate that 1,500,000 refugees came to South Vietnam during this time. Many of these people were also from a village society and had never lived anywhere other than their ancestral land. Many of these people had nowhere to go to earn a living. Some were put in power by the Diem government because they were Catholics, and were now in positions of power over those that were non-Catholic.
So basically lawlessness erupted that had nothing to do with communism. It had to do with economic reasons, a breakdown in law and order, and a mixing of different cultures. That’s not to say that there weren’t problems derived form the communist North. However, because we didn’t understand the culture and we viewed everything through a communist vs. capitalist lens at the time, this led to the early escalation of the war. Often we ended up killing or supporting people that killed peasants that only wanted to live in peace and have some kind of economic stability. One of the biggest problems of Vietnam was trying to figure out who the enemy was. Even calling Vietnam a civil war is a bit simplistic. There were all kinds of different factions fighting for different reasons, especially in the beginning.
You can see in more recent times that we didn’t fully understand the Sunni Shiite dynamic or the tribal culture of Afghanistan. We also didn’t realize, at least I hope we didn’t, that we were empowering our future enemy when we helped the Mujaheddin, aka the Taliban, fight against the Soviets.
During the Indian Wars we couldn’t separate the peaceful Indians from the ones that waged war, so we often just killed everyone. Even when we did try to make treaties, even on the small occasion that we were acting in good faith, we often didn’t have interpreters that were good to deal with the Indians. Often our government agents would walk away from a treaty with a very different interpretation from what the Indians had signed off on.
I guess if you are going to go to war you should at least try to understand the dynamics of the country you are invading. Otherwise you end up in a war without end, fighting people that are no threat to you or your country. Shame on our leaders and pity on those poor bastards sent to fight.
Where does big money come into all of this? Everyone with half a brain knows that our country has plenty of companies that benefit economically from warfare. They were once called war profiteers and looked on poorly, now they are called job creators. One can read a lot of right wing literature and know that people wanted to go into Iraq long before 911. 911 was just an excuse to go in and do what some members of our society always wanted to do. Often we killed Indians just because they lived over gold. When you combine ignorance of culture with economic interests to go to war, there is a good chance that there is a giant shit storm brewing up ahead, just around that next bend in the road.