A friend, returning from Afghanistan, told of arriving at a village where, a few hours earlier, the Taliban had beheaded a school teacher in front of his class for the offense of teaching girls. The blood on the ground outside the school house was still coagulating.
I had asked him why he had chosen to work on a project in Afghanistan, when it clearly posed a threat to his life. He used that story as an answer: He was saying we must resist such evil.
He was into "nation building" which is to say, he was into the idea of changing a people's culture.
Republican candidates now speak of denying "safe havens" for terrorists in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq when, across the border in the sovereign nation of Pakistan, lived Osma Bin Laden in the best safe haven of all, and consider that the 9/11 conspirators lived in Berlin.
Bernie Sanders has called Syria and the whole Middle East, "a quagmire within a quagmire."
We lost in Viet Nam not because, as the gun toting Republicans will tell you, "Because the liberals wouldn't let us win," but because we were an alien culture there and we could never gain the support of the very people we said we were there to liberate. We tried to "lay a little American freedom and commerce on them," George Carlin said. They weren't ready for it, not for another 30 years.
Today, in the New York Times is a story about a woman beaten to death by a mob. I assumed she was just another woman who sought refuge in a shelter in Afghanistan because she had the audacity to run away with the man she loved, away from her family and the husband they had selected for her, another story about a father murdering his own daughter or a mob doing it for him. But no, this particular woman had the temerity to object to men defiling a shrine. There was likely some justification for the murder found in some sacred text. (Even the New Testament speaks of stoning a woman to death for sexual transgression--Jesus neatly side stepped the issue by saying he who has no sin should cast the first stone.)
Afghan police keep young boys boys chained to iron beds at their police compound so they can use them "for pleasure" at night. Unable to bear the screams of the children, an American captain tried to beat the hell out of the police chief, only to find himself drummed out of the Army, for the crime of having stuck his nose in where it didn't belong.
Of course, the issue is, where do any of our American noses belong in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Lybia or any of these cultures we do not understand?
Christopher Hitchens has argued that religion is the great poison which defiles life on earth. I cannot know, but I suspect it is culture, and religion is only the excuse or the organizing principle.
It is true that people need some rationalization to commit acts of extraordinary cruelty. Among any population are people who are sadists and psychopaths who live for the opportunity to stone someone to death. They are unemployed and have nothing better to do than run out and join a mob to stone a girl to death. The best entertainment in town--plus you get your virgins in heaven for participating,
So where does this leave us, here in America?
I would never claim we should forswear all foreign interventions. Going to war against Hitler was a good idea. It is true, you could have argued then, as I am arguing now, we should never have expected to reverse the culture of the Third Reich, which would send women to concentration camps for marrying a Jew. But Germany had a capital and flag and a defined set of borders and an army in uniform. That war was a huge undertaking, but doable.
What about the argument it's better to fight them in the streets of Baghdad than in the streets of New York? A catchy phrase, but empty and essentially stupid--fighting them in the streets of Baghdad does not mean you will not have to fight them in the streets of New York. If only. Wishful thinking. Oh, we'll bomb the whatever out of them. We'll make the sands of the desert glow.
How the dirtbags of ISIS must smile to hear that sort of talk. The bleating of the impotent. They know there is nothing for the Americans to bomb. Their power is in stealth, not munitions factories, in bank accounts, not massed columns of tanks.
From British officers in colonial America to Wehrmacht officers in Czechoslovakia, to the French in Algeria and Viet Nam, invading armies have complained about stealth attacks from native partisans who fade back into the local population. There is no successful strategy to defeat a determined local guerrilla force.
Listen to the Lyndon Johnson tapes as LBJ asks his most trusted adviser, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, what Johnson should do about Viet Nam. "Well," the senator tells him, "You really don't want to stay in Viet Nam, do you?"
"Hell, no," Johnson says.
"Well, them boys on the other side, they know that, too."
John McCain has thought this out. He says we should send an army to the Middle East, like the army of the Roman Empire, prepared to rule for 150 years, if necessary. That's what "winning" will look like.
I wish we could free women in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia from their bondage. But freeing the slaves in a well defined area of the continental United States took four years and cost more lives than the United States has lost in all other wars put together. And that war ended in something that looked like victory, only to continue for another 100 years in the hearts and minds and public schools and toilets and restaurants of the South.
A policeman in "The Wire" once observed the war on drugs is no proper war at all because wars end. Policing, however, continues forever. If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on Iraq on American intelligence and police, would we have detected the 19 "martyrs" of 9/11 before they got on the airplane? Possibly. The problem is, all the money in the world will not solve a problem if organization and intelligence is lacking. Here you have men who take flying lessons in Florida who are not interested in learning how to land the aircraft. That didn't catch the attention of the flying instructors? And if it had, would our FBI, or CIA or FAA been smart enough to act?
Could we have detected the shooters at San Bernadino? Can we predict a shooter at a Denver Planned Parenthood or at Sandy Hook?
If a group of men meet mysteriously in a motel or an apartment to plan the next attack with a dirty nuclear bomb or Saran gas, will the neighbors notice and if they do will they know to whom and how to report it? And if they call the Hampton police department, will the Hampton police know what to do with that information?
Well, Ted Cruz will tell us he has the answers. Clearly Donald F. Trump KNOWS he has the answers, as do all the rest of the Republican candidates. It's only Mr. Sanders and Ms. Clinton and Mr. O'Malley who are in the dark about what to do about "Radical Islam" or the next Planned Parenthood shooter, or the next Sandy Hook shooter, all of whom I place in the same category.
My friend, who had just got back from Afghanistan, so appalled by the beheading of the school teacher, went off to fight again against another evil empire--this one not Islamic. He wound up in a foreign prison for five years, although, ultimately, his life was spared.
The lesson I drew from that: Passion, outrage, even righteousness is not enough.
As Bernie Sanders said in the last debate, using his finger to point to his grizzled head: "First and foremost, we have to be smart."