Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Aren't "They" Grateful?

What is new about the following: A powerful nation invades and occupies a weaker nation, imposes some form of western-style law and order, western-style governance, all at the point of a gun. Then when the occupied people act in a manner that suggests that they are not grateful for "everything we are doing for them", the people of the occupying nation respond with surprise. How can they not appreciate our lifting them out of their ignorance, constructing roads, giving them the opportunity to live lives more like ours?

But the fact is, even if this is correct, people don't like to be subject to foreign military occupation. The fact is that living under military occupation does not feel like living under enlightened governance - it feels like, you know, foreign military occupation. It may seem obvious to us that our intentions are good, that capitulation is the best option for the occupied people and their fastest path out of occupation, and that we are making an enormous sacrifice for the good of the occupied nation, but that's not how occupied people view occupation. Nor is it how our nation would view an occupation even if the occupying power credibly promised to end poverty, balance the budget, fix the roads, and put every American into a productive, well-paying job while cutting taxes for the rich. Because, you know, foreign, military, occupation. And if they said, "Trust us - as soon as we're done which, if you capitulate, shouldn't be more than a few years, we'll leave you with an indigenous, democratic government under a new and improved Constitution," what are the odds we would believe it?

Without arguing that the comparison is entirely fair, this essay reminded me of this poem.
The United States and its allies have given the Afghan people every chance they could possibly have wished for to step up and be part of the modern world. If [internecine] tribal warfare is more important to them than forming a nation, who are we to tell them it isn’t? If they prefer feudalism and local warlords to democratically elected leaders and the rule of law, who are we to tell them they have to act like us? If they would rather have their hoary superstitions and magic books instead of running water and [penicillin], who are we to force them to enter the modern world, kicking and screaming?
Take up the White Man's burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.
Certainly it's not fair to suggest that the essay shares the same colonial mindset in which Kipling was immersed, or Kipling's projection of race onto a clash of cultures. But it's a similar reaction - why aren't they grateful? Why can't they see and appreciate everything we're trying to do for them? Why don't they realize that the violence of occupation is their collective doing, not ours, and that they will benefit from capitulation? But truly, would we act differently? One of those wacky aspects of human nature is that we seem to prefer, collectively, to suffer under domestic repression than to be "liberated" by a foreign occupying power. Once liberated, people want the liberator to leave. Although an occupation may be necessary to effect the liberator's goals, and may in some cases be objectively better than what came before or is likely to come after, occupation breeds bitter enemies.
When Israeli troops first invaded southern Lebanon in 1978 to drive out the PLO and create a "buffer zone" to prevent attacks on northern Israel, Shiites welcomed Israeli soldiers with rice and flowers. But that honeymoon did not last long, and Shiites were soon fighting the Israeli occupation. The Shiites turned out to be more formidable enemies of Israel than the PLO.
When we criticize or find incomprehensible the mores of an occupied nation, how far removed are we from similar conduct? How much different were the men of fifty years ago who saw it as a social good to lynch civil rights leaders, or boys who didn't show proper respect for white women? How much different are we from the German people, before or after the Nazi era, even if we fervently believe that something akin to happened in that dark period could never happen here? How long did it take us in the "global war on terror" to turn our collective backs on the concept that we are an enlightened society that adheres to the rule of law, that we treat our prisoners with respect, that we offer Due Process, that we disdain torture.... Why is it easy to believe that riots in response to the accidental burning of a holy book is evidence of depravity of an occupied nation, but so difficult to accept the possibility that the collective impact of occupation and the imposition of a corrupt, incompetent government, no matter how well-intentioned, have created a simmering resentment in which the burning of the holy book is more accurately seen as a proverbial "last straw"? Why is it that when occupation forces commit atrocities we can easily dismiss them as aberrational, while the actions of individuals within the occupied nation are often perceived as evidence of their collective depravity?

The idea of transforming Afghanistan - a tribal culture, proud of its long history of repelling and defeating invaders, with a population that is largely impoverished and poorly educated, with ethnic divisions that would make it difficult to form a universally accepted government in the best of times - should never have been perceived as something that would be either easy. As much as we might try local outreach, to try to explain our beneficence and good motives,
We came to install a democratic government and present the Afghan people with an opportunity to reconstruct civilization and re-enter the community of nations after decades of brutal internal conflict, Soviet invasion, and xenophobic theocracy.
To the Afghan man on the street, how different does the U.S. occupation look as compared to the Soviet occupation? How different does the Karzai government look as compared to the Najibullah government? To us the differences may be vast and obvious. To them? I'm thinking, not so much.

When we get into the realm of the transformation of culture - education that includes girls, allowing women to work, allowing women the choice of having their faces, even their hair, uncovered, hospitals that treat women alongside men, perhaps even allowing women to treat male patients.... It's easy for us to say that resistance to such progress is parochial and backward, but such clashes of culture can be the most obvious signs of foreign occupation and can overshadow less obvious signs, let alone the stuff that's simply not visible to the man on the street or simply not comprehensible to a village elder with a third grade education and strong religious beliefs that he feels are under active attack. Many of the things we have attempted in Afghanistan in the name of enlightened, progressive western thought are the same things that the Soviets attempted in the name of "godless communism".

Nation-building, to the extent that it has been tried, is largely oversold. If the occupied nation had the fundamental building blocks of a modern society prior to the occupation, some form of parliament, courts and a professional judiciary, a professional civil service, it stands a chance of emerging from occupation as a modern society. But the west's track record of transforming a society without that foundation into a functioning capitalist democracy through military occupation is abysmal. When you want to implement changes that require a generational shift in thinking, you should expect that your occupation will last for at least a couple of generations.

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