Yesterday's news brought immediately to my mind, the 1959 farce, The Mouse That Roared. Peter Sellers, as the Prime Minister of Grand Fenwick, observed, "There is no more profitable undertaking for any nation than to wage war against the United States -- and to lose." That movie was released as a comedy, and introduced audiences to Peter Sellers. Today it should be re-released as a prophetic tragedy, and made mandatory watching for every citizen. If you haven't seen it, check the clip out on YouTube.
While the United States contemplates the wisdom of withdrawal or continued presence in Afghanistan, we should consider the historical precedents from which we can learn. The South, as the only portion of the United States to experience both occupation and reconstruction, can testify to the nature of these experiences.
Growing up in Louisiana in the years following WWII, I thought that "Damnyankee" was one word. The old men spoke it with disdain, and frequently spat after its utterance, as though something foul needed to be removed from a mouth that uttered the word. These men were the grandsons of Confederate soldiers, but the stories they told, with barely repressed hatred, were not of that bitter conflict, but of the years of Reconstruction that followed (1865-1877). They accepted the consequences of the war, but bitterly resented the occupation and the associated corruption and disorder.
The hatred of Carpet Baggers and Scalawags was not limited to old white men; but was shared by Black men. Their stories were of Yankees who made promises to their fathers, and then cheated, stole, and finally abandoned them. Both those who were oppressed by and those who were the potential benefactors of reconstruction, deeply resented what was done in the aftermath of the Civil War. For one group, 12 years was too long; for the other it was not long enough. Both hated the corruption and profiteering that accompanied this so-called Reconstruction.
It is 66 years since WWII ended, and 63 years since the "official Allied" occupation of Germany ended; but U.S. military forces are still stationed in Germany. We have bases, air fields, hospitals, schools, and recreational facilities. We conduct military maneuvers on German soil. Germany is the only country in which I have had an opportunity to observe first-hand how our government goes about occupation. My observations suggest that corruption and profiteering and gross waste still characterize the actions of military and civilians in such situations.
When visiting Germany in the 1990's, I noticed a large land fill not far from a U.S. military facility. On a Saturday morning it was full of Germans working diligently with picks and shovels. They were extracting a variety of items from their excavations. As I watched, they lugged away tires, tools, unopened paint cans, and various building materials. Three men were working together to extract an entire jeep from their pit. I learned that this was a disposal site for the nearby base. The German scavengers explained that once a year the U.S. military would bring huge loads from the base, dig a deep pit, deposit their excess equipment, and bury it. While some it was used, many things, like the tires and paint were brand new. I later learned the rationale for this disposal project. The budget for the base was predicated on their using everything that had been purchased under the previous year's funding. If everything that was purchased was not used, the next years budget would be reduced. Our military preserved their budgets by disposing of "excess." The Germans thought we were wasteful and crazy, but they were perfectly willing to profit from the practice.
In Frankfort, I visited a large housing facility previously owned by the U.S. government. The ownership was being transferred to the German government. There was one problem in the transfer. The U.S. had given a contract to a German company to build another two story building on the site. The German government wanted to destroy the existing buildings and convert the valuable land to another use. The U.S. government paid the contractor the full value of the contract, even though the building was never built, and we were giving the facility to the Germans.
After 66 years, few of the Germans with whom we talked expressed resentment or hostility toward the U.S. military forces on their soil. Mostly, they laughed and shared stories of our proliferate policies and of the ways in which their friends profited. Farmers carefully track any movements of U.S. troops or vehicles. If even a small tree is injured or destroyed by U.S. military activities, the owner is compensated, not for the little tree, but for the full value of that tree if it had grown to maturity and been harvested. I left with the impression that the Germans were willing to tolerate our presence because of the economic benefits they derived. They are perfectly happy for us to pay them to provide them with security from outside attack.
The Japanese, who also benefit from our providing their security, want us out. They argue persuasively that 66 years is enough. But the U.S. remains in Japan in spite of the problems generated by our presence. The Korean conflict lasted three years, but we remain in that country (after 58 years), still "keeping the peace." By some estimates, Korea has the most vibrant economy in the world, while the U.S. is deeply in debt. We are there to protect prosperous, South Korea from the specter of war with the belligerent, poverty-stricken, starving North. South Korea doesn't have to waste its economic resources on maintaining a military capable of defending against aggression from the North because we are willing to bear this burden for them. The same politicians who recognize the debilitating effects of "welfare" provided to unwed mothers, fully support "welfare" provided to prosperous sovereign nations.
The cost of the brief war in Granada in 1986, was dwarfed by the monies spent to rehabilitate that island after our invasion. The people and the government of Granada are so grateful for our intervention and assistance that they have authorized a memorial to the Cuban soldiers killed in that action. The only country that we have invaded in my lifetime, that we are not still occupying, is Viet Nam -- the only war we lost. It is possible to argue that the American economy is suffering not from our military defeats, but from our victories.
The problem with the U.S. military and the U.S. government is not choosing which wars to fight; or even winning the wars we enter; it is getting out before multiple, never-ending occupations bankrupt us, while generating hatred and resentment around the world. I am curious about the exact point in history when the victor in a military conflict became responsible for the future and well-being of the defeated enemy? In the "good old days," the victor looted the vanquished and took wealth home. The U.S. wins wars and then loots our national treasury to finance occupation and nation building. Waging war is costly; but for us, winning wars is even more costly. Perpetual occupation and support for every country we defeat is morally wrong, and economically unsustainable.