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News & Politics

Local Fighters Usually Win

Those who cannot remember the past are not necessarily condemned to repeat it.
This week's phrase is: ''those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''

I know the great Spanish philosopher George Santayana penned it in his Life of Reason, but I'm nominating it for Orwell's dust bin anyway.

Though it contains a nugget of truth, the phrase generates more heat than light, and is therefore not conducive to constructive conversation.

In fact, whenever you hear someone use the Santayana-line, your lie detector should go off like a smoke alarm over a stove of burning bacon.

What the phrase has come to mean is: those who don't agree with my narrow understanding of history are condemned.

I can't tell you how many Internet discussions I've read where a self-declared ''realist'' attempts to rationalize the U.S. invasion of Iraq, offering the canard about how ''appeasement'' doesn't work, Neville Chamberlain, yadda, yadda, yadda. And just to put a boy-are-you-historically-ignorant! cherry on top, histrionic hawks hit you with the ''those who forget the past'' insult.

Next time that happens, counter with something else Santayana wrote: ''History is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.''

Now consider the tragic irony of hawks who attempt to defend the Bush doctrine of eternal preventive warfare using military history.

Get yourself a copy of Gwynne Dyer's book ''Future: Tense, The Coming World Order,'' and you'll see what I mean. The former Royal Military Academy professor and now international columnist points out how misled many Americans are in thinking the Bush administration is engaged in a ''war on terror.''

A truth ''that has been largely forgotten in the post-9/11 frenzy is that terrorism is a technique, not an ideology or a country. It is a technique that any group can pick up and use, without distinction of ideology, creed, or cause, and the people wielding it could as easily be fanatical anti-government Americans, Troskyists Germans, (or) Islamist Arabs.''

What neo-con policy planners are actually doing is ''waging a struggle solely against the particular brand of Islamist terrorists who attack American targets,'' Dyer observes.

Think about a worse-case terrorist attack scenario - detonation of a nuclear device in America.

Dyer argues that such fear-mongering ''failed to impress people who remembered that we lived for 40 years before 1990 with the entirely credible threat of thousands of nuclear weapons exploding simultaneously over every city in the entire industrialized world.

''If terrorists were someday to get their hands on a nuclear device and explode it in some unfortunate city, it would be a disaster, certainly - but a disaster...magnitudes smaller than a real nuclear war.''

And don't be fooled by ''realists'' who claim to know the past and insist they've learned the ''lessons of Vietnam.''

We're fighting ''terrorists'' in Iraq, they say. No, we're fighting nationalists who use low-tech terror techniques because they're up against a vastly superior military.

And what about the history Dyer is referring to? ''In anti-colonial guerrilla wars, the locals always win. The Dutch learned that lesson in Indonesia, the French in Vietnam and Algeria, the British in Kenya and Cyprus, and the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique.

''The United States went through the same learning process in Vietnam, and the Russians in Afghanistan... The fighting may go on for years (and) the better equipped foreigners will win almost all the battles...but there is an endless supply of locals...the guerrillas are never going to quit and go home because they already are home. And it makes no difference how noble the foreigners think their motives are; only the opinion of the locals count.''

If historically-selective neo-cons steering the ship at present are right about being condemned by forgetfulness, we're all in trouble.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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