Belmont Club

A Bellyful of War

Nation building experts will struggle to explain how so much money could be spent stimulating economic activity in Afghanistan without result.  More has been poured into that country than the entire Marshall Plan expenditure on Europe. The blame will doubtless fall on yet another failed model of Western aid delivery.

American taxpayers have provided £61.5 billion since 2002 and Britain about £890 million, for hundreds of development projects. The military operation has cost America a further £296 billion and Britain £22 billion, the Times reported. … The Marshall Plan cost the equivalent of £61 billion at today’s prices, says the report, which was presented to the US Congress this week.

Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said: “The world will look back on Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of really poor thinking and planning.”

Michael O’Hanlon, writing in the Brookings Institute in 2001 thought in those heady days that while it might be too much to expect the Afghans to respond like post-WW2 Europeans, they might at least respond like Taiwanese or South Koreans.  Events proved him wrong.  After 15 years’ experience we can confidently say that Afghans in 2001 were not very similar to the Taiwanese in 1945 or the South Koreans in 1952.

But can economic models explain why one approach worked while the other failed?  The answer may lie in psychology.  One possible difference between the two groups of people is war-weariness.

William Tecumseh Sherman understood what many modern theorists have forgotten: war can be attractive to young men for as long as it remains a game.  War in small doses is supremely thrilling, even glamorous.  It is peace which can be routine and boring.

And so it goes until war stops being a game and the going gets really rough.  “Its glory is all moonshine,” said Sherman.  “It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”  To Sherman a “bellyful of war” was ironically the psychological foundation of generational peace.

While war remains something of a game there will be takers.  The Economist says militias are a drug on the market in MENA.  “Shia militias are proliferating in the Middle East.” Some are local, defending holy shrines or neighborhood territory.  The most prestigious outfits range far afield.

The BBC has even published a guide to Libyan militias for its readers.  They will need it.  There are 2,000 militias in a North African country that hasn’t got a single, unified government.  The proliferation of armed groups is not hard to explain.  What does a young man do in a place where accounting or computer programming has never been big.  For protection, money and status he joins a militia.  Ann Marlowe of the Hudson Foundation wrote a memorable piece in the Daily Beast recalling how one young Libyan contact followed the Pied Piper of militia life in the aftermath of the American intervention until he finally died.

Ahmed died fighting for what I regard as a terrible cause, on the side of “Fajr Libya,” the Islamist militias who seized Tripoli in August 2014. …

This young man’s death is part of a uniquely Libyan tragedy. If the Libyan government hadn’t spent 2012-13 funding every militia in sight to the tune of an estimated $2.6 billion, Ahmed would most likely have chosen a different way of life. But Libyan politicians did fund the militias, fearing that otherwise they’d turn against the government. Even when they did turn against the government, they still paid the fighters. …

After Kaddafi was killed, I introduced Ahmed to a general in the Libyan Army who told him that if he went back to finish high school he would help him get into the military academy. But Ahmed didn’t like school and he was making good money for not much work as a thuwar, or revolutionary. Life isn’t difficult in Libya: housing is cheap, food is cheap, gas is cheap. He was also just 19, high-spirited and ready to enjoy freedom for the first time in his short experience.

Marlowe writes, “Ahmed could have decided to go back to school and devote his life to designing systems to improve car safety.” He could have persuaded “Libyans to use seatbelts” instead of blowing his revolutionary bonus on a jet-ski and dying in some ditch.  Sure he could have done it, but he didn’t, and Frederick Forsyth in his book the Dogs of War memorably explained why:

The real problem was being able to stick it out, to sit in an office under the orders of a wee man in a dark gray suit and look out of the window and recall the bush country, the waving palms, the smell of sweat and cordite, the grunts of men hauling the jeeps over the river crossings, the copper-tasting fears just before the attack, and the wild cruel joy of being alive afterward. To remember, and then to go back to the ledgers and the commuter train, that was what was impossible.

The Greatest Generation knew the feeling.  Despite his relief at being safe, the hard part, as Fred Derry in the movie Best Years of Our Lives discovered, was going back to being a soda jerk in Cincinnati Ohio after being a B-17 bombardier in Europe. But in MENA you can’t even be a soda jerk. It is a place where war confers more money, status and excitement than holding down a stupid day job, as in some American inner city cultures. Under those circumstances you don’t expect people to willingly go into the seatbelt safety business unless they’ve first had Sherman’s proverbial “bellyful of war”.

John Voight, playing an escaped convict in the 1985 movie Runaway Train, explains to a younger convict the price you pay to go straight.  You start by realizing that you’re only really good at the useless skill of breaking heads and bad at almost everything else.  If you want to make it in the normal world, you change.

Younger escaped convict: “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been dreaming about. A really good score, you know what I mean? And I’m gonna party. I’m gonna go to Mardi Gras. I’m gonna go to Vegas, and I’m gonna go with enough money in my hip pocket… You know, I’ve spent almost every night of my life… dreaming about this kind of shit.”

Jon Voight character: “Dreaming. That’s bullshit. You’re not gonna do nothing like that. I’ll tell you what you’re gonna do! You’re gonna get a job. That’s what you’re gonna do.

You’re gonna get a little job– some job a convict can get… Like scraping off trays at a cafeteria or cleaning out toilets. And you’re gonna hold on to that job like gold… because it is gold! You listening to me?

And when that man walks in at the end of the day… and he comes to see how you done… you ain’t gonna look in his eyes. You’re gonna look at the floor… because you don’t wanna see that fear in his eyes… when you jump up and grab his face and slam him to the floor… and make him scream and cry for his life.

So you look right at the floor, Jack. Pay attention to this, motherfucker.

And then he’s gonna look around the room– see how you done. And he’s gonna say, “Oh, you missed a little spot over there. Jeez, you didn’t get this one here. What about this little bitty spot?” And you’re gonna suck all that pain inside you… and you’re gonna clean that spot. And you’re gonna clean that spot… until you get that shining clean.

And on Friday, you’ll pick up your paycheck. And if you could do that… you could be president of Chase Manhattan– corporations.

If you could do that.”

Younger escaped convict: Could you do that kind of shit?

Jon Voight character: I wish I could.

Could the Taliban do that sh**? The international development experts must have thought so.  Perhaps the most appropriate book-end to the story of failed Afghan reconstruction is the Los Angeles Times story describing how some refugees were buying one-way tickets home after realizing what it took to get by in Germany.

“They thought they’d be warmly welcomed in Germany,” he said. “Some thought they’d get a lot of money, that the state would give them big houses to live in…. It’s only after they get here that they see how poor their prospects to earn a living are.”

Hassan said that he tries to tell Iraqis to stay home in the first place, that life in Germany isn’t as easy as they think. “But no one believes me,” he said. “They have to see it themselves to believe how difficult it is here.”

The theorists of international development need a model which understands that the migrant journey of thousands of miles was the easy part.  It is destruction of fellowship, the loss of  status among peers and the degradation of all their formerly cherished arcane skills that proved too much for some Syrians to trade away for the privilege of shining up some itty bitty spot on a German cafeteria tray. Maybe Ahmed could have gone into the seatbelt business at 39. But he wouldn’t have been the Ahmed Ann Marlowe fondly remembers; only just another guy doing a day job.

JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, understood that acquiring the habits of peace were a kind of growing up. He understood the loss involved yet knew one could not be in both worlds at the same time.

The rock was very small now; soon it would be submerged. Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.

Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremour ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

But Sherman knew more.  He understood that some people would never get a chance to grow up unless they first had a bellyful of war, either at first hand or through cultural tradition.  Peter Pan has to be ready to live before he’ll want to. Peace isn’t so bad.  It’s just that some never get the chance to find out.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter

Recently purchased by readers:

Vietnam to Western Airlines, This oral history of the air war in Vietnam includes the stories of more than thirty pilots who all were hired as pilots by Western Airlines after returning from Southeast Asia and separating from the service. The stories span a 9-year period, 1964 – 1973, and cover every aspect of the air war in Southeast Asia.
The Grabbing Hand: Government Pathologies and Their Cures, This collection of essays describe many of the predatory policies of a grabbing hand government, and examine their consequences for growth.
Peter the Great: His Life and World, Author Robert K. Massie chronicles the pivotal events that shaped a boy, crowned co-tsar at 10, into a legend, including his “incognito” travels in Europe, his unquenchable curiosity about Western ways, his obsession with the sea and establishment of the stupendous Russian navy, his transformation of Russia, and his relationships with those he loved most: Catherine, his wife and successor; and Menshikov, the charming, bold, unscrupulous prince who rose to wealth and power through Peter’s friendship.


The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, Author Philip Bobbitt sets out to reinterpret the history of the twentieth century as a long war in which conditions of outright military confrontation or of frantic “cold” competition lasted from the outbreak of the first world war until the collapse of the Soviet Union and that this long experience of war has brought about a fundamental change in the constitutional basis of states. He explores this idea through the notion of the “market state”.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
Tip Jar or Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the Belmont Club