The Change that Never Comes

If there is one salient factor which is ever-present in the cycle of mankind’s quests and deeds throughout the aeons of time, it is that history repeats itself. That factor alone is the only constant throughout centuries of relentless social, political, military and economic upheaval which underlines the progress – or not – of humankind.

Throughout the millennia, the world has witnessed numerous instances when leaders and politicians, sometimes avant-gardist, enlightened ones, utterly forgot the maxim that history repeats itself. The harrowing photos and video footage being broadcast, as we speak, of the goings-on in Afghanistan is yet another proof of this saying. The fate of the people of this country is now in total jeopardy, with the Taliban securing the whole country and imposing its politics based on fundamentalist religion on the whole population. What was really shocking was the speed and efficiency with which the Taliban took control of the nation, literally hours and days after the American military pulled out.

One of my British based long-time friends is indeed a decorated army officer. I knew that he had been stationed in Afghanistan a few years back and I got hold of him just to see if he was alright. Even though he has not been in Afghanistan for a number of years, I could feel his raw emotion in his voice over the phone. All the sacrifices that he and his fellow soldiers had done there had been for nought. He had physically witnessed his closest buddies being shot at and losing their limbs there. He was mentally in a very bad shape and I felt a lot for him. I promised him that I would visit him soon when I would be in Chester, where he lives with his family. It was not the best telephone conversation I participated in.

He had physically witnessed his closest buddies being shot at and losing their limbs there.

But history had already shown us that what the American coalition was trying to achieve in Afghanistan was never going to actually be realised. The British had tried to tame Afghanistan to no avail. The Soviets had utterly failed there as well. It was a forlorn conclusion that an American, westernised mongrel form of democracy could not be imposed on the population, however lofty the idea was and however repugnant the alternative is. Whilst everyone was basking with self-praise and feeling satisfied at the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who, for the last twenty years – whilst being led by a US imported Afghan exile who was more American than Afghan – indulged in the neo-westernised customs and mores which were available in the major cities, nobody gave a damn of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans, most of them residing outside the major cities, who looked at these foreign and devilish values as alien and haram.

I am not here defending fundamentalist Islam. Of course not. But societal change is won through the hearts and not by troopers and imposition. If one goes back in time, Alexander the Great was looked upon as a beacon of benevolent change which swept throughout the known world. Tutored by the great Aristotle up to the age of 16, by the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires in history, stretching from Greece to north-western India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered to be one of history’s most successful military commanders. Alexander’s legacy includes the cultural diffusion and syncretism which his conquests engendered. However, his lofty empire crumbled mere years after his death.

Societal change is won through the hearts and not by troopers and imposition.

This phenomenon can be seen time and time again throughout history. Napoleon also was an avant-gardist who wanted to impose progress throughout Europe and beyond. He was the de facto leader of the French Republic as First Consul from 1799 to 1804. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814 and again in 1815. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. One of the greatest commanders in history, his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. He remains one of the most celebrated political figures in human history. Europe, however, did not embrace his vision and he died in exile.

Ever since World War Two, the Americans have increasingly taken on the role of world policemen. They have many a time tried to impose western democracy without success and with humiliating consequences for them. The Vietnam War surely underlines this failure. Recently, the toppling of Libya’s Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein created years of instability, civil wars, national and international turmoil and the strengthening of extreme religious fundamentalists – armed to the teeth – in these artificially created societal vortexes. Yet still their politicians persist to make the same mistakes. Time and time again.

No matter how righteous one’s beliefs and wishes are, they cannot be imposed. Not even with God on your side. The Crusaders of medieval history realised this the hard way in the middle ages when their Deus Vult (God Wills It) battle cry was stifled and silenced in less than a century from the time the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established as a secular state under the rule of Godfrey of Bouillon in 1099 up to the fall of Jerusalem in the third crusade in 1187.

No matter how righteous one’s beliefs and wishes are, they cannot be imposed.

Winning hearts and minds is a concept occasionally expressed in the resolution of war, insurgency, and other conflicts, in which one side seeks to prevail not by the use of superior force, but by making emotional or intellectual appeals to sway supporters of the other side. The use of the term “hearts and minds” to reference a method of bringing a subjugated population on side, was first used by Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (a French general and colonial administrator) as part of his strategy to counter the Black Flags rebellion along the Indochina-Chinese border in 1895.

Unfortunately, American politicians have debased the term simply because their methodology did not rope in lessons learnt from the past. The first American reference of the phrase is most likely based on a quote of John Adams, the American Revolutionary War patriot and second president of the United States, who wrote in a letter dated 13 February 1818: “The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in the religious sentiments of their duties and obligations…. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution”.

During the 1960s, the United States engaged in a “Hearts and Minds” campaign in Vietnam. The program was inspired by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He used some version of the phrase “hearts and minds” a total of 28 times. In ten of these instances, Johnson inverted the words and used the phrase “minds and hearts.” The first time he used the phrase in his presidency was on 16 January 1964, and the last time was 19 August 1968. Also, Johnson referred to the “hearts and minds” of disparate groups, including specific audiences and even humanity as a whole. His use of the phrase is most commonly taken from the speech “Remarks at a Dinner Meeting of the Texas Electric Cooperatives, Inc.” on 4 May 1965. On that evening he said, “So we must be ready to fight in Viet-Nam, but the ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there. By helping to bring them hope and electricity you are also striking a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world.” A similar “Hearts and Minds” campaign in Iraq was carried out during the 2003 invasion and occupation of that country.

The phrase “winning hearts and minds” has now come to be used, often in a derisory sense, to refer to any endeavour by the United States to influence public opinion in foreign countries.

It is indeed a pity that politicians of whatever nation have a limited grasp of history. Such a grasp would have saved untold lives. Such a grasp would have created a better world for us all to live in.

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