When I was in college, many moons ago, my then boyfriend (now husband) knew another student, Pong, who was from Thailand. We would hang out with him, and he would cook amazing Thai food and we would share a six-pack of beer and a few joints. One night my boyfriend was talking about his time in Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer and the rampant corruption of the government ministers. Money meant for building new schools and roads routinely ended up in ministers’ pockets. The “dash” was the only way to get anything done in almost every case when working with any government entity there.
Pong then described the many problems facing countries in southeast Asia, the depth and breath of these. Then he said something that always stuck with me: “Ten thousand years, Charlie, ten thousand years.” He was talking about how long it would take to get a government and working systems in some of these countries, based on the embedded and intractable problems that never seemed to improve, despite foreign aid and government programs.
As I think about some of America’s conundrums about staying or leaving conflicts that we’re involved in around the world, Pong’s words always come back to me. Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the chaos following the assassination of Haiti’s president. Many Americans naturally want to “fix” these countries when we see and hear of the suffering of the peoples there. I join others in being very worried about women in Afghanistan, for example, as American military personnel leave and the Taliban killers take over again.
Yet, I also worry even more about our own women and men who are in Afghanistan, putting their lives at risk every day, every hour, for almost 20 years now, since 9-11 occurred. Then when they return stateside, some suffer from life-changing injuries, such as brain trauma, missing limbs, and PTSD, sometimes ending in their own suicide at worst, and broken relationships at best. This is an extremely heavy price to pay for attempting to solve another country’s tightly wound miasma of complex problems with similar tactics used in other conflicts we’ve decided we should join. We’re still paying a heavy price for another country we thought we could “fix”, Viet Nam.
At a certain point, after giving the Afghan government money, tools and infrastructure for two decades, they still can’t leave behind the graft and corruption and, honestly, plain disregard for their own people, to be the majority partner in “fixing” their own country. The Afghan dementors, in the form of the Taliban and other rigid religious fanatics, are slithering back in, with estimates of six months until they take back over, once America leaves.
Having worked in international education and development in Africa for six years, I know that American’s desire to bring democracy and religious freedom to oppressed countries is very strong. But I’m also a realist: this is very difficult to near impossible if not led by the citizens of the country who have real ambitions for a democratically governed state. Oh, and by the way, with our own democracy at risk by MAGAs and Republicans who want to roll back voting rights to the 1800s, we have our own damn problems that are now running so deep that we would be wise to focus our resources on those to a greater extent. Fear is at the center of the MAGAs racism and white supremacy endorsement. Scared animals lash out with teeth bared and claws ripping at whatever they can attack. Houston, we’ve got [a big fucking] problem right here in the homeland.
And now with our latest conflict, when we see Haiti blow up and further deteriorate with the assassination of its president, Americans want to “fix it” too. People are suffering in ways that make us sick to our stomachs: hunger, cholera, severe poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and lawlessness. Damn-it, we need to “fix it!”
But we can’t.
Countries have to fix themselves, whether we like it or not. Self-determination, historically and culturally, is the only thing that leads to real change in any country where corrupt governments maintain a steady history of fucking over their people, regardless of whether a new leader arrives based on a vote of the people — often one tainted by election fraud — or by a bloody coup. Rarely in undemocratic societies does the transfer of power bring any real change for the vast majority of these countries citizens: their poverty and plight continues year after year, a hopelessness that has burned into their psyches so deep that hope has taken a holiday, permanently. The most desperate citizens take their chances by using everything they have to pay for a space on a rickety boat that has as much chance of killing them as it does landing them on a safer shore somewhere.
I also hate to think there is no hope for these countries. I’m an optimist, a glass at least half full person. I have the greatest respect for the people of the country where I lived in Africa. They taught me so much, including being a better person, and being a realist when I needed to, for my own safety and mental health.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t help countries such as Afghanistan and Haiti move towards self-determination and their version of democracy. Numerous NGOs and foreign aid efforts could certainly help, if the help ever actually reaches the people it is meant for. But we keep doing the same failed course over and over and over again, applying the same theories and programs and military actions, and nothing fucking changes. How about we reconsider our approach?
Yeah, it hurts, people. But just because you sleep better at night when we have a presence in Afghanistan or Haiti, it doesn’t mean that any amount of money or military might will actually bring a better result. And is the human cost of American lives, whether the ultimate sacrifice of paying with one’s life, or with one’s limbs or mind, worth it?
Would you personally go to one of these countries and put your life on the line for a lost cause? What about one or more of your children, a spouse? If you are willing to put your own life on the line to try and change Afghanistan or Haiti, then go forth and enlist in the military or get a job with an aid agency and go live among the poor.
But don’t advocate for our men and women to risk their lives for a failed cause in a country we really know nothing about, if you aren’t the first one on the flight to Afghanistan or Haiti with a machine gun or a volunteer’s ruck sack or medical bag at your side.
Misdirected idealism is a serial killer of Americans and foreign citizens. It’s not about you. If you want it to be, then go do your part, on the ground, and “fix” this shit yourself. Maybe you’ll sleep better at night listening to the bombs bursting in air, giving proof to the night that you’re doing your part. Decisions about putting one’s life on the line for the sake of fixing foreign countries should not be one that our own broken Congress or truly uninformed Americans should be making for its fellow citizens. They aren’t fucking qualified.
It’s not about you. It’s not about you.
From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast.
For more of Lady Proverbs’ writing at WTF Happened: A Blog for Well-seasoned Women, go to PulayanaPress.com.