Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Politics of Will

I have learned something from Marilyn Young's book, Vietnam Wars, that has puzzled me for some decades now. That is, why, even knowing how fruitless our war in Vietnam was, why did presidents continue to pursue that war, and at great expense both in terms of human beings killed and maimed and in terms of money?

As Young explains it, this behavior stems from the idea that the war was a battle of wills, that is, our will versus the will of the Vietnamese. Note well: This perspective empties the situation of such phenomenon as history or even geography. That is, this perspective abstracts from what common sense would call reality. If we, the United States, just show the Vietnamese that we are willful, that we have the will to continue the war, upping the ante as we go, then they, the Vietnamese, will give up the battle. Our will will defeat their will, bend their will to our desires. This is a way of thinking that is devoid of such considerations as Vietnamese history and, which is the same thing, the Vietnamese people. As one Vietnamese historian said after the war was over and we were meeting with some Vietnamese to try to figure out what went wrong, what mistakes were made: "For the Americans to think that the Vietnamese were playing some Chinese game in the war, was not a mistake. Anyone with almost any knowledge of Vietnamese history would know that the Vietnamese don't play games for the Chinese and have not for centuries. It was as if the Americans had lost their minds."

When politics is reduced to "will", a contest of wills, as opposed say to a contest of "peoples" who have histories and who reside in certain places and who believe certain stories, then it is all too easy for those who are trying to show their will power and that their will power is stronger than "the other's" will power to engage in what can only be called inhuman actions, in bloody and gruesome actions, actions that inflict great harm not only the other but even on oneself. When one tries to prove how tough or strong one is, s/he invariably ends up proving how stupid or delusional s/he is.

Those presidents had to continue their pursuit of what they knew was, at best, a long shot because they had to prove, over and over, that they and we had will power. Because if you don't have will power, you have nothing. And if you don't assert your will power, over and over, chaos will be the result. And of course even or especially if you inflict great harm on the other and even or especially your own then you are proving you have will power. "We have so much will power that even sacrificing large numbers of our own in a cause most likely lost does not deter us."

It is madness as near as I can tell, utter and sheer madness.

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