Home Highlights Can’t Repeat the Past? The Pentagon’s Bet Is Gatsby’s

Can’t Repeat the Past? The Pentagon’s Bet Is Gatsby’s

tropic_thunder_1244114cMarquel, TPV’s New York Times military intelligence corespondent, was in the process of reading U.S. Trains African Commandos to Fight Terrorism in today’s paper, when he realized something was wrong. He needed a camouflage vest on, to really understand the news: United States Special Operations troops are forming elite counterterrorism units in four countries in North and West Africa that American officials say are pivotal in the widening war against Al Qaeda’s affiliates and associates on the continent, even as they acknowledge the difficulties of working with weak allies.

Marquel read this with a funny feeling. Hadn’t he read this before? Is this political deja vu? He couldn’t figure out what the problem was, and he knew deja vu is very tricky, unless you’re on the dance floor. After practicing a few moves, he returned to his typewriter. He had nothing to write. First, talk.

He called the Pentagon and got an appointment, then he called Mufi, his contact downtown and asked whether he could pull some strings so that he met with the head of this counter-insurgency unit. It was possible, he said. A quick Acela trip down to Union Station turned into four hours when the engineer had to be replaced with someone sober, but eventually there he was in the Pentagon.

A Major greeted him. That was satisfyingly high up for Marquel, especially compared to the temp secretary who usually gave him all his information.

 “So what’s all this about?” asked the Major.

“This counter-insurgency program. I understand you’ve had a lot of problems with it, but for some reason I have this sense of deja vu.” I said.

 His eyes brightened and he almost leapt out of his seat. “You too?”

“Absolutely. What’s that all about?” I asked.

 “Well, we have had a few setbacks.” He said.

“Could you tell me some of them.” I asked.

“Well, sure, but you have to understand that they are not military setbacks. I’m a soldier and I can say we haven’t lost any battles, and surely any wars. But this one has had problems getting started. It’s logistics, not strategies.”

“Those are a lot of fancy words. Can you be specific?” I asked.

 “It’s a long list.” said the Major.

“I’m a big boy. And I’ve got all day. Shoot.” He trembled and turned scarlet, and I realized I’d used the wrong word. “I mean, let’s get started. His flesh looked more human.

 “The first four hundred advisers were all linguistically trained, so we thought everything would go right, but nobody on either side could understand the other.” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

 “Well, we had four hundred French speaking soldiers and they had several thousand whose only language was Ubuntu.” he said.

“Not a good start,” I said. “So what’d you do?”

 “Well, we had several platoons stateside, but they were trained in French as well.” he said. “All that training went to waste. We had to fly everyone back and train them and the others in Ubuntu.

“I assume that eventually got straightened out.” I said.

 “Yes, but then the initial training sessions went bad.” he said.

“How?”

 “Again a long list.” he said, with a hang dog expression. “We brought them stickers for their uniforms, and flags, and we wore US flags and their flags. They looked at us like it was Halloween, and when they put the stickers on they all laughed at each other and did some sort of tribal dance or something, laughing the whole time, and getting dead drunk. When they woke up and saw each other, they started laughing again and the whole cycle started again.”

“That’s so strange,” I said.

 “No, we had the wrong country symbols, flags, and everything.” he said. “So we had to order more and that took two months.”

“Solved?” I asked.

 “Not quite. We figured, okay, take off all the emblems, stow the flags, give them the training talks, the indoctrination discussions, all of that ideological foundation, you know?”

“How’d that work out?” I asked.

 “Again, the wrong country. We gave them the history of their country, the history of colonialism, the story of the rebels and how they wanted to spread communism, and they just stared at us and started laughing. By that point we knew that laughing was a bad sign of things going downhill.”

“Communism?” I asked. “I thought this was about Al Qaeda.” I said.

 “Sure, but the training talks, the flags, the emblems, the strategies…” he told me, “weren’t designed for Al Qaeda.”

“What strategies?” I asked.

“Well, like going single file through rice paddies.” He said. I don’t know much about military strategy, but if I were going through a rice paddie, a single file sounded reasonable.

“That’s not a good strategy for Al Qaeda?” I asked.

 “No, it’s not that, it’s just that there aren’t any rice paddies in Northern Africa.”

“How’d all this go wrong?” I asked.

 “I think it was the initial request and announcement of anti-insurgency training of foreign armies. Logistics apparently looked it up and found literally everything we’d need in the index, starting with the French lessons.”

The deja vu all over again returned. Only much more forcefully. I could almost reach out and touch it.

“Tell me,” I said. “In your first indoctrination session, what did you generally say?”

 “We talked about the French and Dienbienphu.” He said. “And of course the Viet Cong and communism.”

“But that’s Vietnam.” I said. Deja vu solved.

 “Basically,” he said. “They laughed at the Vietnamese flag, of course, and the Vietnamese emblems. When we spoke about rice paddies, they were in hysterics. We even served crepes one day to celebrate and they used them as frisbees. Some pretty talented soldiers there.”

“And the rest?” I asked.

 “They didn’t know about Dienbienphu. And they couldn’t speak French. Even in Ubuntu, Dienbienphu stumped them, but when we told them to always walk single file in rice paddies, they were understandably confused. One soldier left for two days looking for rice paddies and came back empty handed, except for an elephant tail.”

We were quiet for a while. “You get it don’t you?” I asked “The deja vu?”

He nodded.

“This is Vietnam all over again. If you’re old enough to have lived through it, or old enough to read, you know that it started with five years of “training.” There was no war. We were just training the Vietnamese to fight their own battle and avoid getting involved in a long land war.”

 “Yes,” he sighed, “I was a young lieutenant. It became a long land war. Training was just a euphemism for running a war.”

“You think that’s what is happening here?” I asked.

 “Does history repeat itself?” he asked.

I thought for a moment and said, “Only if you ignore it.”

***

7 COMMENTS

  1. Tropic Thunder?!

    Got me thinking, Vietnam’s got Vietnamese, Africa has Ethiopian, Germany wasn’t our idea…

    I guess we’ve got ribs, but that’s not even the whole country and from what I’ve heard, Brazil and Argentina are beating us on the meat front, even Bologna sandwiches sound suspiciously foreign. What we’ve got is Peanut Butter and Jelly, American Cheese on White bread…, no wonder we keep wanting to get into everyone else’s war.

  2. Perfect Marquel:
    “Could you tell me some of them.” I asked.

    “Well, sure, but you have to understand that they are not military setbacks. I’m a soldier and I can say we haven’t lost any battles, and surely any wars. But this one has had problems getting started. It’s logistics, not strategies.”

    “Those are a lot of fancy words. Can you be specific?” I asked.

    “It’s a long list.” said the Major.

    “I’m a big boy. And I’ve got all day. Shoot.” He trembled and turned scarlet, and I realized I’d used the wrong word. “I mean, let’s get started. His flesh looked more human.

  3. ..and this one:
    “The first four hundred advisers were all linguistically trained, so we thought everything would go right, but nobody on either side could understand the other.” he said.

    “Why not?” I asked.

    “Well, we had four hundred French speaking soldiers and they had several thousand whose only language was Ubuntu.” he said.

  4. Marquel: you outdid yourself, and that is pretty darn difficult. You are perfect! PERFECT. I love you!

Comments are closed.