What's said about sausage and journalism must also be true of foreign policy: that if you knew how it was produced, you wouldn't want to consume it. I'm certainly disgusted and alarmed to learn from WikiLeaks via Dawn.com that the US special operations forces deployed secretly on joint operations with Pakistani troops as early as 2009, but I'm not surprised. Are you?
You shouldn't be. We don't have the right to be surprised, given what we should have learned from history about how states operate. It was a similar evasion of the truth – the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution – that launched the tragic decade-long US military involvement in Vietnam. The stumper, morally speaking, is that we can't simply wash our hands of the doings of the state, whether the American state, the Pakistani state, or any other. We are the state, and the state is us. It's true, as I acknowledged in my last blog, that states negligently and even willfully fail to represent the views and interests of citizens. But something an older American friend of mine said bitterly twenty years after the Vietnam War ended is also true: "The blood of the war got on everyone's hands, and we couldn't wash it off. It's still all over the place."
The Vietnam War is, alas, endlessly instructive. "If you hear something a hundred times, you're inclined to believe it," another mentor, Clyde Edwin Pettit, told me. "If you hear it a thousand times you begin to wonder: Am I mad, or is the rest of the world crazy?" Ed was referring to the cant he had heard endlessly, circa 1965, about how US victory in Vietnam was inevitable because – well, for no particular reason anyone could offer that respected his intellect or experience on the ground in Saigon, but rather as an article of faith.
Ed's refusal to get with the program led him to write a shockingly candid letter to the influential US Senator J William Fulbright – with historic consequences – and later to compile a remarkable book called The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China. Its alternate subtitle is even more to the point: The Book That Proves There Are None. The book is nothing but 439 pages of direct quotations from mostly American politicians, professors and press pundits, all purporting to understand or to know what was happening or about to happen in Vietnam. Its strict chronological arrangement, mostly covering the period 1959-1975, is tantamount to a devastating narrative of mounting horror and increasingly tortuous self-delusion. "I bragged for years on radio and television that there were about thirty Top Secret papers [in the book] that I stole or borrowed from senators and Xeroxed," Ed told me. "I wanted to be arrested or interrogated, and I never could be. You can't ever be busted in the US when you want to be."
Ed Pettit was a WikiLeaker of his day, and what he found was what we're finding again today, in new but drearily similar circumstances: that you can blow all the whistles and expose all the secrets you want, and a few talk-show hosts will give you a polite hearing, but the powers that be will go right on brazenly claiming that they're in the right because – well, because they're the powers that be. That doesn't make any sense to you or me or Ed Pettit, but one thing they know that we don't is that the wider public is too apathetic and/or distracted and/or frightened to want to know the truth. The phrase that says it all is the title of a book by the great Senator Fulbright: The Arrogance of Power.
So no, I'm not surprised at all to learn that US Special Forces were deployed inside Pakistan two years ago. The question is whether knowing such a thing – as opposed to merely feeling sure but not actually knowing – makes a difference. I think the difference in this case might be in how widely and quickly awareness and understanding spread, thanks to the Internet. The Experts is a fascinating document of American folly during the Vietnam War, but its usefulness was retrospective and, at best, cautionary; when it was published in 1975, the war was already over. The usefulness now of the WikiLeaks revelations is all potential: Are we aware enough of history that we can avoid repeating it?
I fear not. Ed Pettit put it well in his foreword to The Experts: "The Vietnam War is a textbook example of history's lessons: that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern." The book, he wrote, is about "our own credulity and the inexplicable tendency in all of us to believe what we are told and to follow those whose ambitions are to lead. It is about the forgetfulness of the history of our species – the record that there is no morality among nations and the only law is the law of the jungle."
What makes us human is that we are aware that we don't have to – and shouldn't – live by the law of the jungle. We also know that war is not the answer to any of our real problems, including those that cause terrorism. We have no excuse to be unaware that our lies always trap and expose us, sooner or later, and never without consequence. The antidote to the absence of morality among nations is the deliberate cultivation of morality among individuals, and within and between societies.
Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.