Seven Days in May


I’ve been on a recreational reading blitz over the last month or so…mainly to daily purge the professional reading I have been reviewing…sort of getting a literary life, I guess…

I started with old favourites from Steven Coonts (The Intruders, America), Clive Cussler (Raise the Titanic, Night Probe) and Dale Brown (Wings of Fire and Fatal Terrain). I overnighted at Carmen’s flat in Otorohanga a couple of weekends ago and, having forgotten to bring a book with me, grabbed Michael Connelly’s Echo Park for my pre-lights out read. This was followed by my two wins from Get Frank, Jonathan Kellerman’s Deception and Stephen Leather’s Nightfall.

Two nights ago, I felt the need to reread another favourite and grabbed Larry Bond’s Cauldron but while walking down the hallway, found I had picked out his Days of Wrath instead which was not really what I was in the mood for. As I was replacing it on the shelf in the study, I noticed Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May beside it. I’d only ever read this as a teenager in the Reader’s Digest Condensed version and so opted to read it next.

What a great read!! Published in 1962, before Cuba, Dallas and Vietnam, it is set in the early 70s after a Cold War conflict that leaves Iran divided into Communist North and democratic South – logical for the time considering the Koreas, Vietnam and Germanys. A nuclear disarmament treat has been signed with the Soviet Union but elements of the US military have littler faith in either the Treaty or the President that signed it…to find out what happens you need to read the book (recommended) or see the movie (on my to-do list but it has Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster so I have high expectations).

In addition to being a damn fine read, delivering a gripping  storyline without needing the prop of a high body count as perhaps a contemporary equivalent would, Seven Days in May has a couple of lines that I felt are relevant to our contemporary environment…

Cleaning up the “sad debris of surrender”, as Todd called it, took time

The sad debris of surrender – a good phrase…someone said to me earlier this week that the US is not good at nation-building and I had to bite back quite sharply…this is one of those myths that has appeared since the end of the OIF warfighting phase in 2003, a result of moral high-horsing from the UN and sniping from the UK when post-war Iraq didn’t snap nicely into a nice shining example of Middle Eastern democracy (now there’s an oxymoron for you)…my response included three names…Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George C. Marshall…three generals who, between them, rebuilt Europe and Japan from the ashes of WW2. If there was any failure of nation-building in post-war Iraq, it was down to three factors:

The failure of the UN to get over itself and not step to the plate to take the lead in rebuilding Iraq. Regardless of the nature of the disaster that struck Iraq in 2003, the sad human debris of its surrender was left to suffer and endure after the UN’s half-hearted attempt at a presence in Iraq. The few casualties suffered by the UN in Iraq are but a drop in the bucket compared to the casualties suffered by the people of Iraq and those nations that did step forward…

The decision by the US to allow the bulk of development and reconstruction work to be let to US-based mega-corps that only had an eye out for the quick big bucks instead of perhaps applying a fraction of those billions to developing those construction capabilities in Iraq itself, thus contributing to the development and stability of the Iraqi economy. This was a point made by COL Dransfield in his presentation at Massey yesterday on his recent experience in  Afghanistan: he admitted some confusion as to how these contracts could cost so much when the daily rate for labour is about US$5 and all the raw materials like sand and gravel are there for the taking. He was surprised to learn that his PRT was one of the few forces in-theatre that purchased a lot of its support e.g. fresh food, minor mechanical repairs, etc from local resources.

The UK perception that it was on top of both conventional state versus state conflict AND low-level conflict and that it had nothing to learn from the US. The corollarative effect of this was that it also contributed little back into the Iraqi nation-building process at either the national level (after all, the UK was the other primary collaborator in the WMD ‘justification for the war in Iraq) or within it’s own AO which ultimately had to be ‘pacified’ by a US force as the UK was packing its bags to go home, it’s job not done…

At the Australian Army COIN Seminar in 2008, the comment was made that no one ordered Dwight Eisenhower to conduct reconstruction and nation-building tasks as he advanced across France and into Germany – they didn’t have to because it was such a logical and common sense method of pacificying the region. Similarly, Douglas MacArthur was expected to inflict draconian Versaille-like measures against the Japanese after Japan surrendered in August 1945 and many would have believed that he had a major axe to grind with Japan over the way it had treated his beloved Philippines. No doubt he did but, again, this senior US general determined that this would be counter-productive in the bigger picture. As a result, Germany and Japan sixty years on are still two economic powerhouses and one has to wonder what the Army of that day got right in training its senior officers.

Or possibly, as I’m not sure that the US has too much wrong with how it develops its generals today, what was so different sixty years ago that the governments and civil staff trusted those officers to just get on and do the job…?

“…the trouble is that democracy works only when a good majority of citizens are willing to give thoughts and time and effort to their government…”

And that remains the single biggest issue with the current campaign in Afghanistan: at the tribal and provincial levels the majority of citizens may be willing to contribute to government and leadership, there is simply no interest in a strong central government regardless of its composition or ethical philosophies. No matter how much you flog a dead horse it still isn’t going to get up and haul the cart any further…The McCrystal ‘Cursed Earth’ plan essentially abandons the centre of Afghanistan to whoever wants and only maintain a Maginot-like ring around the outer edges of the country – which might be useful if Afghanistan faced any credible conventional external threat. But it doesn’t, and ISAF’s failure to adopt a provincial/tribal based campaign along the lines of that proposed by Jim Gant that might, over time, allow the  ink blots of success to spread and merge only means that more lives and money will be wasted in ineffective and pointless kinetic operations.

MacArthur in particular achieved his success in reconstructing Japan not, by through kinetics or arbitrarily inflicting Western culture on the Japanese but by working within their own culture, evolving an his approach for that situation and no relying on templates from previous successes…what it it so hard to learn…?

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