Iraq and Yemen: Watch how we label the enemy or we risk making the same mistakes in that we did in Vietnam.
Yemen, Iraq, and more infamously the Vietnam War all have seen U.S. foreign policy stumble badly because of faulty logic in the facile application of highly abstract labels to describe the participants. For example, in Vietnam, at the height of the Cold War, Ho Chi Minh and his followers were given the most highly charged label of that time period: “communists.”
It implied a threatening enemy of the United States, a tool of the Chinese Communists, and, to use an even more confusingly abstract term, the “free world.” All of the “free world” knew (or more precisely thought they knew), about the inevitable militant class conflict that Communist theoreticians Karl Marx and Vladimir Illyich Lenin predicted. War with the communists therefore was inevitable. From the right-wing came the book by Cleon Skouson, “The Naked Communist,” which posited that communists, like Aldous Huxley’s “Big-Brother” were in the process of creating “Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.” The communists were aided, he argued, by FDR created regulatory agencies. Another popular book from the right-wing was by Fred Schwarz, of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, “You Can Trust The Communists (to do exactly as they say).” During the days of the Comintern (an abbreviation for the Communist International), subversion was a tool, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey had experienced it first-hand: A communist attempt to infiltrate Minneapolis unions and subvert and seize control of his incipient Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party during his race for Mayor of Minneapolis. Later on as Vice-President he jumped from that “communist” action to assaying the “communist threat,” in Southeast Asia.
This loose use of abstract labels led to the ill-fated, and wildly erroneous “domino theory” in Vietnam. The domino theory posited that if we lost Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh and his communists, the rest of our allies in Asia would fall like dominos: Thailand, the Philippines, etc., until finally we would have to fight them at our shores.
To this day right-wingers like Sean Hannity believe we should never have pulled out of Vietnam. Well, we “lost” Vietnam, and it’s a matter of historical record that the dominos didn’t fall. Thailand didn’t become communist, the Philippines didn’t become communist and the only Vietnamese we had to fear “on our shores,” were Southern California’s Vietnamese gangs—whose heritage comes from our “friends” from South Vietnam, the anti-communists! Ironically, no sooner did we leave Vietnam then the “communist” leadership started some very capitalistic negotiations with “free world” oil companies to drill for off-shore oil. As for being pawns of the Chinese Communists, had anyone bothered to read Vietnamese history they’d have found out that Vietnam had suffered though several invasions by China, replete with the usual by-products of war, rape and plunder. Indeed, the national hero of most Vietnamese including Ho Chi Minh, was a man who defeated the Chinese at the Red River. But the knee-jerk reaction was to the incredibly abstract (and thus almost impossible to communicate about) term “communist.” Communism, like G-d and freedom and radical, mean very different things to different people. To Ho Chi Minh and his minions, communism apparently meant agrarian land-reform and government ownership of natural resources, which sounds amazingly similar to the social democracy of many of our allies, past and present. International communism, the balliwick of radical socialists, simply hasn’t proven to be a threat from the Vietnamese “Communists.”
Where did our logic fail in our Vietnam reactions to their sobriquet “communist”? And what does this have to do with Iraq and Yemen?
First of all, understand the logical fallacy of our reaction to “communism.” It is really quite simple. First posited well over two-thousand years ago by Aristotle, the syllogism goes like this:
“a” is either “a” or “not a”.
Sounds obvious. Now consider it a bit further. Let’s say that “a” is a “table.” According to Aristotle then, something is either a table or not a table. Right? Don’t jump to an answer, just yet. Let’s consider this with concrete examples. If I try to communicate to you by writing that, “I have just placed my cell phone on “a”, in this case a “table”, this conjures up an image that gives meaning to my words. Did you imagine a triangular corner computer table, as the one I actually set it on? Or perhaps something like the table you eat your meals at? Perhaps the low piece of furniture in front of your sofa? Do you see how difficult communication is even with such a low-level abstract term such as “table?” Now imagine a “ladder of abstraction,” where words or terms are rated in order of their abstraction, i.e., how many different meanings those terms conjure up when sent as a message. The least likely-to-conjure-up different images when communicated would be to just point at the object. For example, if you were able to see the table, and I sent you a message that I was putting my cell phone down on—and then pointed at my triangular corner computer table. Well, you probably would get the same or very similar message to what I sent.
A moment’s thought should reveal that we are more likely to communicate without loss of meaning if we use terms that would be on the lower rungs of our “ladder of abstraction.” Even then there will likely be a loss of some meaning in the communication. But if I say, I’m taking my tea from a “cup,” or I’m blowing my nose in a “handkerchief,” then you are much more likely to get the idea that I’m trying to communicate, than if, for example, I use a term much higher on the ladder of abstraction, such as grace, honesty, evil or communism.
Lest conservatives dismiss these ideas as “fuzzy-minded-liberal-gobbledygook”, they might want to take a look at, “Language in Thought and Action,” an introduction to the concepts of General Semantics, including the “ladder of abstraction” by their icon, the late Senator S.I. Hayakawa (written in his pre-narcoleptic Senate days). I owe much of my earlier training in General Semantics to him.
Now, in Yemen, we must be careful to not respond to terms like “Iranian proxy” when speaking of the Houthitis, overlooking long-standing local sectarian conflicts (that have been manifested in such charged ways as the Houthis fight against Al Queda), as well as power struggles between our current client, President Hadi, and his predecessor, our former client Saleh. Add to those efforts to maintain power in Saudi Arabia, by the House of Saud. In Iraq we talk of Iraqi National Forces when they are, in fact, dominated by Shia, poorly trained (or perhaps just poor learning) manpower, dubiously led by rather unsuccessful Shia “generals.” This by-passes the increasingly sectarian nature of the fighting, the more especially so with the refusal by the Shia-led government to share power, oil-revenue and U.S. supplied weaponry with the non-ISIS Sunni Tribal chieftains, who along with Kurdish forces appear to be the only ones capable of actually standing-up and fighting ISIS.
We’d best forget the catch-all abstract labels that over-simplify the “enemy” and start digging a little deeper into the real factors involved–or it risks becoming a Vietnam all over again.