It was only a matter of time before the American military doctrine of counter-insurgency would be applied to the conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Based on retired Army Gen. David Petraeus’ doctoral dissertation at Princeton, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” the doctrine became more than a theoretical work when Petraeus extended and applied it to the war in Iraq.
Petraeus argued that counter-insurgency is not won by military victories alone but by winning the hearts and minds of the people. Vietnam, for him, failed to win hearts and minds.
Iraq required not just military victories but winning support for the allied host government through economic development, citizen political participation, and the restoration of hope.
The function of the American military was to assist the Iraqi government in nation building.
All of this makes for the kind of abstract, liberal, conceptual thinking that impresses a dissertation committee, but it is too far a departure from the realities of ordinary life, whether in Vietnam or Iraq. Worse, it is the imposition of the Western idea of the nation-state on a non-Western culture.
Even in the West, the idea of a nation-state with a centralized authority and political allegiance transcending family, tribe, or region is relatively new. Spain did not become a nation-state until the end of the 15th century and Germany and Italy until late in the 19th century.
The latter part of the 20th century, in contrast, saw the devolution of the nation-state. Once a transcendent ideology like communism dissolved, people demanded a return to more homogeneous national entities. The devolution of Yugoslavia represents a phenomenon seen throughout the world.
In Vietnam, loyalty was to the village, not to the state. The government in Saigon was simply a coercive entity that unjustly taxed the peasants and provided them with no services.
Villages purposely divided themselves, with half supporting the Viet Cong and the other half supporting the Saigon government. The idea being that whoever won the war, one half of the village would protect the other half. The village was important. The external combatants were only significant in as much as they constituted a threat to the village.
The idea of a third party building a nation-state out of this kind of culture has proven to be a pursuit of the absurd. To use the military to do it, as Petraeus suggests, is a farce.
As any grunt serving in Vietnam knew, the most important thing to Vietnamese peasants was their water buffalo. The water buffalo was the difference between producing enough food to survive and starving. Bored, 20-something draftees flying around in helicopters looking for Viet Cong couldn’t resist “hunting” water buffalo.
No program could capture the hearts and minds of peasants who lost water buffalo to the whims of soldiers with too much ammunition and too little sense.
Of course, there was the inherent illegitimacy of the Saigon government because it was supported by foreigners. Vietnam is one of the world’s most homogeneous societies and like nearly all such societies it is inherently xenophobic. Unlike the West, it makes no apologies for it or does it aspire to some mythical ideal of multiculturalism.
The outcome in Vietnam was doomed from inception, not because we would lose the war militarily; we did not. Because we never had hope of creating a government that would be perceived as legitimate. That lesson should have been learned in the establishment of the Weimar Republic, whose legitimacy was questioned because Germans viewed it as the imposition of the hated Treaty of Versailles.
The single most important variable in nation building is legitimacy, and not only was it absent in Vietnam; it was even more absent in Iraq. For all of Petraeus’ insight honed in his dissertation and in its offspring, the army field manual on counterinsurgency, he does not grapple with the idea that a foreign power helping the host government creating a better society inherently undermines that government’s legitimacy.
It appears, moreover, that almost no government can overcome corruption and nepotism when it is an intrinsic part of its political culture. All we did in Vietnam was to replace one bad government with several others that were equally bad, if not worse. All we did in Iraq was to replace a Sunni dictatorship with a Shia dictatorship.
Arguments that the solution to the Arab/Israel conflict is for Israel to build the Palestinian nation are decades old. I heard them espoused by moderate Arab intellectuals both in America and on the West Bank more than 30 years ago. In their idealism and sincerity, they are compelling. But they are based on wishful thinking about both the culture and the conflict.
The idea that Israel should treat Gaza as a counterinsurgency and help its people create a prosperous nation-state is ludicrous. What insurgency really has been crushed by victory in the battle for hearts and minds? As much as the people of Gaza live under the crushing oppression of Hamas, they would never choose a regime that Jews built.
Despite our affinity for trying to find sophisticated humanitarian solutions to the problems of insurgency, there are times when the military solution is still the most viable. This was true of the victories over insurgency in the Philippines, Malaya, and Peru. In each, the counter insurgency, regrettably, used an unconscionable degree of brutality and in the Philippines and Malaya, the government forcibly transferred population.
When Mao Tse-Tung said the guerrilla swims in the sea of the people, he meant more than the government must get through the people to get the guerrilla. He meant that the guerrilla becomes an indistinguishable part of the people: peasant villager by day and fighter by night.
The convenient fiction in the current conflict between Israel and Hamas is the absence of the people of Gaza, as if they are a third party sitting on the sidelines of the conflict. Hamas is of these people, and they are Hamas. It is this fiction that leads to the absurdity that Israel can fashion for the people of Gaza a quality of life that would make them repudiate the Islamists.
Hamas is not leading an insurgency; it is conducting war as a state; a weak, rump state with competing loyalties, but one where everyone knows Islam is the friend; the Jew is the enemy.
To defeat Hamas, one must think not of counterinsurgency, low intensity conflict, or small wars, as the term most commonly used, but of a nation-state that is imbued with a messianic eschatology that will not exchange its messianic quest for tangible gain. To defeat that kind of enemy, one must think of how the Romans dealt with the same phenomenon. They made the cost of war far greater than the probability of victory, and only incurred temporary defeats when they underestimated the strength of their enemies.
Can modern nation-states operate that way? That is an entirely different question.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati. He also served on the faculty of the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois, Urbana.
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