Friday, December 17, 2004

Winning Hearts and Minds

Winning wars is something we have been pretty good at as Americans. We have learned how to apply military might, backed by the most important component of operations, logistics, just about every where on the planet. We have shown ourselves to be a different kind of "tool of diplomacy," as we haven't been used for a long time as an instrument of colonization or empire building. There certainly are those who would argue, even today, but the evidence just won't let their belief hold water. Some would think that we "lost" the Vietnam War. Politically, yes, we did. We declared victory and di-died out of the area, only to see the South overrun by a conventional military force. The concept of "winning hearts and minds" became a oft used line from that "conflict" (which is the more correct term, as Congress lacked the fortitude to stand up to their Constitutionally mandated responsibility). In a wierd sort of way, we thought we could convince those in the Viet Cong, to rally to the side of their loyal to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) government. There were Civil Aid Programs and there are many discussions on the topic, some of which is covered in "The Bright Shining Lie" by Niel Sheehan. In another book, I found some interesting reporting of some successful "hearts and minds" work in Vietnam. The book, "Our Own Worst Enemy" by William Lederer, is a must read for anyone who thinks they have a good idea of what happened over there. The speculations Lederer made in this book (published in 1968), were remarkably close to reality. The validation of William's writing is contained in "A Viet Cong Memoir" by Troung Nhu Tang, who was the VC Minister of Justice in South Vietnam and involved directly from 1954 with the resistance to the French and later, the Americans. Published in 1986, after he fled to Franch because of the persecution at the hands of the North Vietnamese, it's a detailed first person account of how the war was perceived on the "other side." On to my topic, with that important background in place. In "Our Own Worst Enemy," William Lederer described a Marine unit who exercised a Civil Action Program by going and living with the villagers they were assigned to protect. The commander of the unit, who I recall was a Colonel, met with the villiage elders and learned to play the Vietnamese version of Go. He didn't show up and demand his culture be adopted by the Vietnamese, he went and learned theirs. His men did the same. Note this was a Marine unit. This "tactic" was developed by General Chesty Puller, USMC, who wrote "The Small Wars Manual" based on experiences in Central America and the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th Century. The Marines began working with the Vietnamese villagers, showing them some better ways to farm, and to raise livestock. Eventually, this effort resulted in the people having some excess food to sell, which generated extra capital. The Marines arranged to buy and import chickens and hogs. The villagers, using their money to invest in their work, in faith that the farm boys in camoflage uniforms could help better their lives, ended up with even greater supluses, giving them leverage at the local markets. When the "dry season" came, the Marines "acquired" and Army pump, so water from the river, low at this time of year, could be pumped up to the rice paddies, so they grew rice year round. When some of the men, who had snuck off to join the VC would come back to the village, they found their families and neighbors now had those very things they were "fighting" for. Better economics, more food, more spare money for "investment." This effort, which yielded a deep relationship between the Marines and the villagers. After a while, the local people would come and tell the Marines when the attacks were coming. Freindships had been formed because some Americans shared what they had with people half a world from where they grew up. This all brings me to a very recent report from a Marine Gunnery Sargent about an incident in Iraq. It harkens back to Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Vietnam. It's a story of how a single stuffed animal toy, sent from the Satates, changed a heart and a mind in the Middle East, and how a child showed real courage in the midst of a bunch of armed and dangerous Marines on patrol. If you don't think school supplies, building materials, shoes, books and toys can't be vital tools in changing the world, think again. They're even better when backed by the strategic weapon known as American Compassion.

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