More on 'Destroy the Town'

Two days ago I mentioned the similarity between a powerful Washington Post article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the introduction of heavy tanks to Afghanistan, and the "destroy the town to save it" tragedies of Vietnam. Reader Nils Gilman noticed another resonance, from his time as a PhD student at UC Berkeley:

>>Reading your reference to the Washington Post article about the US deploying M-1 tanks in Afghanistan brought back uncanny memories from my dissertation days.

I wonder whether the anonymous senior officer who Chandrasekaran quotes -- claiming that "blowing up so many [Afghan] fields and homes, [and thus] making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, [has the benefit of] connecting the government to the people" -- is aware that he is making exactly the same argument that Samuel Huntington made in his infamous Foreign Affairs piece ("The Bases of Accommodation," July 1968) in which he defended the carpet-bombing of the South Vietnamese countryside on the grounds that this would drive the peasants into the cities, where they would be less tempted by Communism and more loyal to the government.

At the time, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars quoted one of Huntington's colleagues as saying, "Sam has simply lost the capacity to distinguish between urbanization and genocide." That may have been a bit harsh, but it quite rightly underscores the political folly of applying mass firepower in a campaign to win hearts and minds.<<

I was not really of age to notice the cautionary stories out of Vietnam in the mid-1960s. I have often wondered how people gauged -- and for a while decided to ignore -- the darker and darker stories about the regimes the U.S. was backing and the difficulties of winning hearts and minds with firepower.

Well, we're re-running that experiment in real time now, with the darker and darker reports from Afghanistan -- about the Karzai regime, about civilian casualties and resulting embitterment, about the need to "heavy up" with M1 tanks. Americans who today are "not really of age" to assess these stories will, later on, wonder why they did not get more attention right now.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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