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A surge of “more”

A surge of “more” December 31, 2006

In the movie Magnolia the narrator (Ricky Jay) says, "And the book says, 'We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.'"

Since I was quoting this in the previous post, I spent a little time surfing around, trying to find out if there was an earlier source than Paul Thomas Anderson's film. The quote sounded, to me, like an AA slogan, so I searched through a bunch of online collections of them, but didn't find it there. (If anybody knows of a pre-PTA provenance for this quote, I'd love to hear it.)

What I did find several times, searching for the word "past" in these lists of wise cliches, was many variations of this:

"Sanity: What we get when we quit hoping for a better past."

That, I think, pinpoints the insanity driving the current enthusiasm for a "surge" of additional U.S. troops in Iraq. Proponents of this surge are not hoping for a better future, but for a better past. They're not trying to win the war in Iraq but rather, somehow, to win the war in Vietnam.

The idea of a troop surge — it's never clear what these new troops would be doing — arises from the enduring myths about Why We Lost Vietnam. We coulda/shoulda won, the myth says, if we hadn't lost our nerve, or if we'd committed more troops, or more bombs, or moremoremore of, you know, that stuff we coulda won with if we'd only used more of it.

DagoPart of the reason this myth endures is that there were things that America could have done in Vietnam, and chose not to do. And many of those things have proven effective in the past. Look back a few decades earlier in American history to the enormously effective counter-insurgency our forces employed in the Philippines. Trouble with insurgents in a village? Kill all the adult males. Create gulags and ghettos for the pacified civilian population. Kill 50 civilians for every one of your own soldiers slain. It's not pretty, but it is effective. (See also Caesar's successful conquest of Gaul; the successful restoration of order in Tianenmen Square; or the very successful counter-insurgency carried out in Dujail, Iraq, in 1982 by the recently deceased former leader of that country.)

That is what "more" means when someone repeats the myth that we could have won in Vietnam if only we'd done more. More crimes against humanity. It's considered impolitic to state as much explicitly, however, so usually this is said through euphemisms such as "fighting with one arm tied behind our back." (The arm, apparently, which would otherwise be committing unforgivable, but admittedly effective, atrocities.) State what "more" means explicitly and the newspapers will make it look bad and then the public will turn against you — hence the kernel of truth at the heart of the other enduring myth about Vietnam, the public and the press "wouldn't allow" us to "do what needed to be done to win." (What needed to be done, exactly? "More.")

Apart from those on the rabid fringes — the warbloggers or Ann Coulter and other professional TV-shouters like him — the euphemistic masking of what "more" really means is necessary not only to hide its true meaning from the press and the public, but also to hide it, as much as possible, from the advocates of "more" themselves. Whether it's because St. Thomas and your mother were right about Natural Law, or simply because thinking the unthinkable is unpleasant, most advocates of "more" are unable to say what it is they really want out loud, even when they're alone. And so, as much as possible, they cling to the vaguest possible formulation, "We need to do more."

"More troops" has the word "more" in it, so they're for that. (Nevermind where these troops might come from, or how they might be effectively deployed.)

The main reason the myth of more endures, however, has little to do with the warbloggerish enthusiasm for atrocities and repraisals. This myth remains popular mainly because winning is better than losing, and we didn't win in Vietnam.

The call for a "troop surge" in Iraq is also the first step in the creation of our next myth — the one that explains why we lost this war. No matter how many additional troops are included in this "surge" it will be judged, by the mythmakers, as not more enough. And Congress, or the press, or the public, can later be blamed for not doing "more" — for not allowing us to do what needed to be done to win.

(for more on the photo above)


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41 responses to “A surge of “more””

  1. If you haven’t yet seen ‘Children of Men,’ you really ought.
    I also think the less-indoctrinated ‘more’ people might actually get something out of it — not so many ‘enemies’ to be fought as a lot more people just running for cover that doesn’t exist, cowering and crying and trying not to die.
    Trying to win a battle that can’t be won. Great post, as always.

  2. I always thought that Ricky Jay was paraphrasing Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

  3. Apart from those on the rabid fringes — the warbloggers or Ann Coulter and other professional TV-shouters like him —
    Please tell me that was an honest typo, and you’re not insulting a woman by calling her a man (thus insulting all other women by imposing your definition of what a woman “should” be). Please.

  4. Brad Hicks has had something interesting things to say about Iraq and the desire to send more troops, much of it having to do with the fact we simply don’t have enough troops to accomplish what’s necessary to truly pacify Iraq. He actually put forward a more constructive idea than I’ve seen elsewhere although it’s not original with him in this post: How to win in Iraq
    I just got a look at the PDF that Brad references. It’s very simple, and I think it makes more sense than continued military operations.
    Oh yes, more Left Behind!

  5. We can always continue to fight the past in the future but I think that in doing so, we’ll never ever really be secure with our “Present”. “More or Less!”

  6. hence the kernel of truth at the heart of the other enduring myth about Vietnam, the public and the press “wouldn’t allow” us to “do what needed to be done to win.”
    I always thought that was specifically a euphemism for dropping a nuclear bomb on Vietnam. Because once people die of radiation sickness, they’re no longer Communists!

  7. Ann Coulter and other professional TV-shouters like him
    I guffawed. I admit to some of the same discomfort mentioned by the above comments, especially since recently God has seen fit to bring some transgender friends into my life and I am beginning to learn that gender and gender-stereotyping aren’t *necessarily* a laughing matter. Still, I confess I found this hilarious.
    This is my absolute favorite blog. I wish you a wonderful 2007.

  8. “Please tell me that was an honest typo, and you’re not insulting a woman by calling her a man (thus insulting all other women by imposing your definition of what a woman “should” be)”
    What if he’s merely insulting Coulter by pointing out that she is the worst of what men often tend to be: Complete and utter jackasses.
    Don’t you agree that women would be best not to adopt the very worst qualities of men?

  9. For more on the Philippine comparison, you might want to look at my guest post on Obsidian Wings in November. In it I tackle the proposition of “Tacitus” (echoed here in far less objectionable form) that we could win in Iraq – or, presumably, could have won in Vietnam – just by doing what we did over a hundred years ago in the Philippines.
    Not that your point isn’t valid, i.e., you (unlike Tacitus) imply that it’s not acceptable to do such things nowadays.

  10. Mahan Atma (what, like magnanima?) the point is that calling a male-to-female transsexual a man is incredibly rude.
    Happy Gregory Day!

  11. While I love your blog, I think that you might be a little off in your comments about the Vietnam War and the whole “fighting with the hands tied behind the back” idea.
    The reason why people say that isn’t because they weren’t allowed to come down really hard on the guerrillas; it was because North Vietnam was off limits to invasion, due to its proximity. The common suggestion for a better tactic was “link hands and march north”, and the overall impression is that they were just plinking away at the symptom while not addressing the cause.
    I think that committing atrocities on the population is an example of what _not_ to do in an insurgency; mass executions, gulags and such just alienate the population. The US ran a brilliant anti-guerrilla campaign in the Phillipines in the 1950’s by offering the populace redress for their complaints – you could send a complaint about your local boss for a few centavos, and it would be looked into – offering amnesty for guerrillas and cracking down hard on those that didn’t. (A Bright Shining Lie has some good details.)
    You’re right in that more troops wouldn’t do anything, but I think that you’re missing the genuine frustration that occurred in the Vietnam War over the lack of aggression against North Vietnam. It’s possible that they’ll rewrite this as “they didn’t give us enough troops” in years to come, but given the Bush administration’s already horrible track record with the truth – and given that it was a war of choice, rather than one started by North Vietnam – I’m not optimistic on the chances of that happening.
    -Darren MacLennan

  12. Don’t you agree that women would be best not to adopt the very worst qualities of men?
    See, for me, this gets into a whole thing about what the lists of ‘women’s qualities’ and ‘men’s qualities’ are, whether I’m allowed to question, or even examine these lists, and if my not fitting exactly onto my designated list means I’m “adopting the…qualities of men.”
    I do think there’s some behavior that’s generally wrong, and no one should copy bad habits off of anyone else. But sticking gender in there just seems needlessly confusing.

  13. 1.) You’re right in that more troops wouldn’t do anything, but I think that you’re missing the genuine frustration that occurred in the Vietnam War over the lack of aggression against North Vietnam.
    You’re an idiot Darren. We bombed the shit out of the North. It did then about what “coercive interrogation” tactics are doing now. First word Jack, second word Shit.
    2.) Hey Fred, you should’ve posted this entry along with your “Good Grief” one from a few days back. If you had, then I could have tied them together like so: “It is AXIOMATIC that the people calling for “More” [Atrocities] will be the ones who entertain masturbatory fantasies of pacifying all Iraq through the good news of Jesus Christ.”
    HNNNNK-ptooey . . . on your religion. All of you.

  14. Ako took the words out of my mouth.
    Using gender as an insult has deeper implications than simply to insult an individual person. Just like it’s not appropriate to call Ann Coulter “retarded” or “gay”. Those insults have deeper implications for sexual minorities and persons afflicted with emotional or mental disorders. Making gender into an insult communicates a very rigid definition of what men and women should be, which hurts both genders, but historically, has been used far more often to abuse women than men.
    I have no good will toward Ann Coulter, and have no problem with people insulting her. But the kind of insult used does matter. Just as an example, she is very loud about her beliefs. Calling her a man demonizes the quality of her loudness, her assertiveness, her boldness. It says she is “unfeminine.” It doesn’t, unfortuantely, even touch on the real issue, which is the content of those opinions. So, the person using that insult has managed to insult all women who are (or wish they could be more) bold about their beliefs, while utterly failing at effectively communicating anything of substance about the real problem.

  15. All people who start wars have this as part of their uspoken plan – that when it starts to go badly for them, they have someone to blame, usually “the people,” ie, us. They didn’t lose the war, WE lost it. It doesn’t matter how unwinnable the war was from the beginning, the loss of it is always the fault of the people who don’t make any of the decisions. So of course it pisses off the architects of war and the people who support them when some of us decline to take responsibility for something we had nothing whatsoever to do with starting.
    So aside from agreeing with Fred that what people really mean when they say “more” are the kinds of things we aren’t supposed to do as a “civilized” country, it wouldn’t matter if we did do those things, we’d still lose and it would still be OUR faults. Not Bush’s or Rumsfeld’s, but OURS. It’s like when an abuser beats his wife or kids and they blame themselves for making him mad. Bush and Rumsfeld and their supporters are the abusive dad and nothing the rest of us do will ever be good enough. For them, it isn’t simply that failure is not an option, it isn’t even a possibility. They don’t fail. Period. Must be nice.

  16. It doesn’t matter how unwinnable the war was from the beginning, the loss of it is always the fault of the people who don’t make any of the decisions.
    I just thought that bore repeating.
    One of the problems I have had with the Iraq war from the beginning is that nobody who supports it can explain to me what it is for. When Bush says we will “win” he never bothers to define winning. And people who support the war never call him on it. It’s part of a collective fantasy that can’t possibly be translated to actual strategy or policy.
    Re: Ann Coulter, it’s hard to insult her through metaphor, because there is nothing worse than she is. You know, “rabid snake” just insults snakes and rabies sufferers, “pustulent boil” denies that pus has a purpose in ridding the body of toxins.
    Although, as repellent as she is, as far as I know she’s never killed anyone.

  17. I rather suspect it was a typo. That kind of insult doesn’t seem like Fred’s bag. He does quite well attacking her (and her fellow travelers’) utter lack of sane ideas and basic human decency to be forced to stoop to a veiled reference to an as-yet-unverified sex change operation.

  18. It’s like when an abuser beats his wife or kids and they blame themselves for making him mad.
    Actually, it’s more like when an abuser beats his wife or kids and excuses it because ‘they made me mad’.

  19. Calling Ann Coulter a man is an insult, but it sure ain’t to women.
    I find there to be a creeping malice about her appearance that does not suggest transsexual nearly so much as lich.

  20. No no, she’s definitely not a transsexual. I don’t care what she possibly may have previously looked like; if need be, we disown her retroactively.
    (We can do that, you know, we get special powers. Shh, don’t tell.)

  21. –You’re an idiot Darren. We bombed the shit out of the North. It did then about what “coercive interrogation” tactics are doing now. First word Jack, second word Shit.–
    We didn’t bomb North Vietnam until 1971, with Linebacker I; until then, they were off limits. It was entirely a defensive war up until that point, because the United States didn’t want to put US troops near the Chinese border, in order to prevent a repeat of the Korean War. Our attempts were to keep the Communists out of South Vietnam, not to invade North Vietnam.
    Furthermore, “bombing” doesn’t do shit; boots on the ground do. We never attacked North Vietnam with conventional troops, which is what I meant by “aggression”; even the bombing didn’t come until near the end of the war.
    I realize that being painfully ignorant can be a burden, but try not to take it out on those around you.
    -Darren MacLennan

  22. Well, I suppose that my having taught courses on the Vietnam War off and on for over 30 years may not relieve me from the charge of “being painfully ignorant” from some contributors here, but let me try to make a few points.
    – The US started bombing NVN in 1965, not 1971. We stopped later, and picked it up again toward the end of the war, but the assumption that the DRV was untouched by bombing until 1971 displays an astounding lack of basic historical awareness.
    – No one is denying (I think; certainly I’m not) that many Americans, both in Vietnam and stateside, felt that we were fighting under great constraints, in spite of the “aggression” we were certainly showing toward the North, as others have pointed out.
    That feeling, however, does not constitute evidence for the proposition that earlier bombing, or even armed invasion of the North, would have somehow “won” the war for us. Nor does the Nixon-Kissinger thesis that the “Christmas bombing” of 1972 “forced” the DRV to sign the Paris Peace Agreements in 1973 – since the bulk of the evidence is that these agreements were almost exactly what they had already agreed to sign, before the bombings.
    In fact most historians of Vietnam (as opposed to some historians of US policy) tend to believe that there is nothing we could have done to “win” the war there. (I refer here to the period from the 1960s onward, when we had troops there; some historians believe that in the 1940s or 1950s we could have taken action that would have forestalled the later war.)
    We could certainly have killed many more Vietnamese (besides the millions who died). We could certainly have prolonged the war. In fact, if we had the political will (!) we could probably still be occupying the country – just as we could probably still occupy Iraq 40 years from now.
    But is that victory?

  23. I (dr ngo) posted the screed above. I had thought I was already fully signed in. Apparently not. Sorry.

  24. A Surge of “More”

    Fred Clark’s blog post A Surge of ‘More’ is, to my mind, a brilliant insight into the mind of people who still support President Bush and his actions with regard to Iraq. Go read it….

  25. Hm. From my provincial corner I thought that the attraction of the “surge” option (at least from the point of view of the semi-detached lay observer) was more from exrapolating critiques of the beginning of the war. It’s received wisdom now that we (here I am talking like an american) didn’t have enough troops on the ground to maintain peace and order when we won the initial overthrow part, so it sorta kinda makes sense to send more soldiers in now to get the job done properly like we didn’t before.
    This ignores that the situation has changed a lot since then, and that there’s a huge distinction between establishing authority in a chaotic situation vs. struggling to bat down every new pretender once authority has been firmly lost… but to my eyes at least, if people saw it through those otpics, that might explain why they found the idea attractive (not that bush himself necessarily is thinking along these lines – I wouldn’t pretend to know what inanity lives at that address).

  26. –Well, I suppose that my having taught courses on the Vietnam War off and on for over 30 years may not relieve me from the charge of “being painfully ignorant” from some contributors here, but let me try to make a few points.–
    I was rather nonplussed to find myself being called an idiot for explaining why I felt that Slacktivist may have been off base. There was also that shot about coercive interrogation, setting me up as the whipping boy for a practice that I have nothing to do with.
    — The US started bombing NVN in 1965, not 1971. We stopped later, and picked it up again toward the end of the war, but the assumption that the DRV was untouched by bombing until 1971 displays an astounding lack of basic historical awareness.–
    You are correct, and I was wrong. I was under the impression that North Vietnam was off limits to bombing until Linebacker I.
    -Darren MacLennan

  27. Somwhat offtopic:
    Ricky Jay was wonderful in The Spanish Prisoner. I’ve been meaning to replace my VHS copy (which seems to be lost) with a DVD copy…and it seems I waited too long. Its out of print and $50+ used online.

  28. The quote you reference in the first paragraph is from Bergen Evans’ “Natural History of Nonsense”:
    We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. Ideas of the Stone Age exist side by side with the latest scientific thought. Only a fraction of mankind has emerged from the Dark Ages, and in the most lucid brains, as Logan Pearsall Smith has said, we come upon “nests of woolly caterpillars.” Seemingly sane men entrust their wealth to stargazers and their health to witch doctors. Giant planes throb through the stratosphere, but half their passengers are wearing magic amulets and are protected from harm by voodoo incantations. Hotels boast of express elevators and a telephone in every room, but omit thirteen from all floor and room numbers lest their guests be ill at ease.

  29. Furthermore, “bombing” doesn’t do shit; boots on the ground do.
    All evidence to the contrary.
    We never attacked North Vietnam with conventional troops, which is what I meant by “aggression”…
    Of course. All we needed to do to win was to give it a surge of “more.”

  30. –All evidence to the contrary.–
    World War II wasn’t won by bombers; it was won by actual soldiers invading. In fact, the bombers didn’t do much until they got around to bombing the oil plants; and _that_ I can back up with a citation to “Armageddon”, by Max Hastings. Bombing the cities didn’t do all that much. The only fight that’s been won in recent memory by air power alone was our bombing of Serbia by the Clinton administration, and that was widely regarded as likely to fail by a lot of people until the Serbian government gave up.
    –Of course. All we needed to do to win was to give it a surge of “more.”–
    We could have destroyed North Vietnam any time we wanted to; we knew, North Vietnam knew it. Winning would have involved invading the North, which would have put the United States up against the Chinese borders, and the Chinese would have hated that. (And yeah, those war crimes that Slacktivist mentions? There would have been a lot of those too.)
    The war was fought by attrition, not by strategy; the idea was to wear down North Vietnam until they ran out of people. We didn’t realize that they didn’t have a limit on how many people they were willing to sacrifice. We were propping up a corrupt and evil regime, we fought by attacking rather than defending, we made no effort to improve the lives of the peasants or undercut NVA/VC support, we used artillery too much and too indiscriminately, we told ourselves pretty lies rather than accepting the truth. That’s how we lost that fight.
    -Darren MacLennan

  31. The “surge” is nothing more than a political ploy by Republicans to make Democrats appear as if they are opposing an effort to “win” in Iraq.
    Politics as usual with these thugs.

  32. Tonight’s Presidential Address

    here we go, talking about A Surge of “More”, and what happened in Vietnam vs what the U.S. did in, say, the Phillippines.
    Trouble with insurgents in a village? Kill all the adult males. Create gulags and ghettos for the pacified civilian population. K…