American Pacification

This is a study in principles of military history.  It’s here because it’s relevant to modern-day American life.  Follow along even if at first you can’t see why it’s relevant; I’ll explain.


Pacification:  the process of inducing peace on a population, often by forcibly suppressing or eliminating hostile elements

The United States has an excellent track record fighting wars, but historically we’ve had decidedly mixed results ending them, from Vietnam to the Wars On Drugs and Terror.  We’re not unique; enforcing peace on a hostile populace is not a task for which modern armies, particularly those of nations with modern sensibilites, are well suited.  In ancient times, it was the custom to brutally suppress the conquered with mass slaughter and slavery, but such methods tend to become front-page news today (and not in a good way).

Unfortunately, although this problem is well-recognized and has been thoroughly studied, it’s proven difficult to find reliable solutions.

Anyone that’s studied the American conflict in Vietnam will be familiar with the term “pacification”; most will read it and cringe.  But don’t turn away; this is worth examining, the more so because American efforts in that area were such a horrible failure.  We can learn a lot by studying our failures — and this is the best-documented military failure of modern times.

Curiously, it was the early attempts at pacification that defined the form the Viet Cong would eventually take.  The French “agroville” system planned distinct villages with access to modern medicine and infrastructure; after the Dien Bien Phu defeat, the Diem government continued those efforts.  In 1961, they started working on the Strategic Hamlet Program, which created defensible fortifications around each established community.  In hindsight, it’s apparent that all they achieved was to create entrenchments for their enemies, but going into it, the strategy was revolutionary — even brilliant.  However, their adversaries were a step ahead; rather than establishing landlords, they gave land directly to the people.  Turns out, the prospect of paying rent rarely inspires loyalty.

Later pacification programs were based on the theory of establishing zones of control; they proved ineffective because, by that time, the opposition was already embedded in the local population.  It took the massive personnel and the central control of the CORDS operation, with its intense reliance on local and regional militias, to finally drive out the guerilla fighters; following the massive Viet Cong losses of the 1968 Tet Offensive, reconstruction efforts began to show real gains establishing safe territory in the Mekong Delta.  Nevertheless, the instability of the South Vietnamese government, combined with the rising unpopularity of the war effort at home in the United States, rendered these moot — “too little, too late”.

From Puerto Rico to Nicaragua, Haiti to Panama, through both Iraq wars and Afghanistan, the United States has continued its lackluster performance at extricating itself from wars while leaving a stable nation behind.  Puerto Rico suffered decades of civil unrest and open revolt; the US-backed governments in Nicaragua and Panama collapsed; reconstruction in Haiti was so legendarily corrupt it served mainly to alienate the populace.  We well know the modern history in Iraq, and our notable lack of success in Afghanistan would be ludicrous were not the cost in human lives so horrific.

Why do we fail so consistently?  We have the most effective military in the world; our troops are well-disciplined; we spend trillions on reconstruction.  Yet somehow we never succeed.  It is seemingly beyond our ability to win, stabilize, set up a functioning government, and then withdraw.

Sociologists may point at the impracticability of killing thousands of a nation’s youth and then trying to become friends with the survivors; that’s realistic.  Most military scholars and historians will focus instead on the other side of that coin:  that soldiers who have engaged in battle with a people will have trouble seeing them as other than the enemy.  As well, one must acknowledge the unfitness of any combat force for reconstruction — an army is not designed to make friends but to kill enemies.  These are fundamental truths that we as a nation have been unable to learn.

We would do well to focus on them, and apply these lessons going forward.


After reading this, one might well ask:  Given our terrible record, why do we still insist on fighting wars?  Don’t get me wrong; this is an excellent question, and one well worth exploring.  On the other hand, I’ve long since accepted that wars are incurably evil even when they’re necessary.  What I find far more disturbing is this:  Since we’re so obviously unable to leave a working society behind after we’ve fought a war, why are we militarizing our police and declaring War On Drugs?

Consider these, right next to the fundamental truths enumerated above:  Community trust in law enforcement plummets after even a ‘righteous’ shooting, much less a bad one.  Increasingly, urban police forces are suffering from an internal “us versus them” attitude instead of considering themselves public servants.  Far more time and money is expended on S.W.A.T., anti-terrorism, and drug enforcement training than the piddling amounts spent on community relations or service programs.  It’s a perfect parallel of the problems faced by any army with a pacification mission, virtually identical — and we have proven equally incapable of grasping these lessons for policing as we have in war.

It seems reasonable to explore those models that have functioned elsewhere in the hope of extracting ideas and applying them to fit our present need.  For example, the CORDS program worked well because it relied on local people to police their own areas, giving them the ability to call on massive armed force when in need.  In fact, similar models have been employed in the favelas of Rio — with indifferent success, it’s true, but that’s arguably due to a lack of money for training — and by Maduro in Venezuela, who relies on well-funded semi-autonomous street gangs to enforce social order in extreme conditions.

If you think this approach seems… well, somehow un-American, consider this:  During the long reign of organized crime over America’s cities, very little street crime was ever actually handled by the police.  Instead, local mob bosses would have their idle enforcers out patrolling for undesirables and evicting them; robberies and muggings were violently discouraged.  (If you’ve read Damon Runyan, this was the unmentioned employment for his nattily dressed “Guys and Dolls”.)  The streets of New York — at least those streets south of Morningside — were safe to walk.  It was extremely effective, and in a way modern policing can’t possibly be because of the ruthless nature of what, back then, passed for justice.

Mind you, I’m not advocating a return to the days of the Five Families.  Anyone familiar with my work will know I’m strongly in favor of ending the War On Drugs and applying social solutions to our many problems rather than any amount of increased law enforcement.  Once our imprisoned population passed that of Soviet Russia in the worst days of Stalin, I figure that was a sign we’re trying to enforce too many things.

Because there’s a lot to be said for the days when a beat cop was someone who was respected, a person who knew everyone in the neighborhood and who was seen as a helper rather than the enemy.  We’ve lost that, and I think we need to get it back.  If community volunteer policing programs can help us with that — isolating the armed response from the casual patrol — we should probably strongly consider them.

Most of all, we need to end those things that set police against the populace.  We need to become comfortable working together again, and we can’t do that when law enforcement is used like an occupying military force.  ICE raids and riot troops, HRT showing up at a drug bust, and SWAT deploying at every opportunity — it may work one crime at a time, but the overall impact is precisely the opposite of what our society needs.

I don’t have easy answers for you; I wish I did.  What I can tell you for sure, though, is this:  Whatever it is we’re doing, it’s not working.

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