Monday, February 15, 2010

U.S. still trying to create a "Little America" in Afghanistan

Article from the Morris Knudsen newsletter about the company's 1950s Afghanistan project

Just spent the last hour reading Jim White's post (and linked articles) at Firedoglake, “Little America” in Afghanistan: Is the US Repeating a Failed 1950’s Experiment in Social Engineering?

It tracks the U.S. development projects that were tried out in Afghanistan during the Cold War. With U.S. backing, the Morris Knudsen engineering firm was brought into Helmand Province in the 1950s to create a "Little America" for those wandering Pashtun tribesmen who have been such nuisances to invaders. The idea was to transform them from roving fighters to sedentary farmers. The village was Lashkar Gah and to visiting Brit writer Arnold Toynbee, it was like an American suburb has been dropped out of the sky and into the desert.

I'm amused that the title "Little America" was used to describe the project. Little America was the name of a series of outposts in Antarctica, the first one established by Robert Byrd in 1929. Many of those outposts have now been carried out to sea on the backs of melting icebergs.

Little America is also the name of an oasis in the Wyoming desert along I-80 between Rock Springs and Evanston. It's an actual Census Designated Place (CDP) with a population of 56, most of whom work at the Little America hotel and restaurant and gas stop. It's part of a bigger hotel chain, with hotels in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. It's also the title of a satiric novel of the same name by Rob Swigart which is set at the Little America in Wyoming's Sweetwater County.

Helmand, site of the now-decaying "Little America," is now the scene of the current U.S. offensive. Those wandering tribesmen never settled down. They fought the Russians, became Taliban and now fight the Coalition. All our technical and social engineering came to naught. Maybe it will succeed this time. Keep your fingers crossed.

One of the FDL links led to a 2009 BBC Online article "The Lost History of Helmand" written by documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. It tracks these Cold War projects in Afghanistan and includes lots of documentation. The most bizarre is a 1961 project led by a group of American woman who were the wives of executives running the Afghan airline. The project's goal was to teach Afghan tribal women how to make American fashions and wear them properly. It culminated in a fashion show. The Afghan government at the time was getting rid of the burqa and promulgating a new westernized dress code for women.

We all know how well that turned out.

All this is so bizarre that it must be true. One big problem -- where are the big satiric novels about this? Evelyn Waugh would have had a field day if dropped into Helmand's "Little America." He did such a fine job with the mess that was Ethiopia in the 1930s. I do not know if Republican Lounge Lizard P.J. O'Rourke is traipsing through war zones any more, but he could do the same job with Afghanistan and Iraq that he did with Nicaragua and Lebanon back in the day. I couldn't think of a better project than sending T.C. Boyle off to Afghanistan for his next scathing novel.

I was listening to "Catch-22" on CD during a long Wyoming drive last weekend. Such scathing commentary on "The Good War." And so wildly funny. This was Heller's war. Maybe we should be asking this question: "Where are the Catch-22's of the 21st century?" There is certainly plenty of material. And what about "Slaughterhouse Five" and Vonnegut's blast against the same technocrats that were Americanizing Afghanistan in "Cat's Cradle?"

Last week, the New York Times had a piece about books penned by veterans coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most are quite tame compared to books by the vet writers of the Vietnam War. The reviewer chalked that up to the all-volunteer military and the need by soldiers not to criticize their own while the wars continue to rage. Tim O'Brien noted that his Vietnam classic, "Going After Cacciato," didn't come out until 1978, three years after the evacuation of Saigon. "The Things They carried" came out even later. "Catch-22" was published in 1962, 17 years after V-J Day.

There is plenty of time, dear readers, for satire. Let's hope it arrives soon. Meanwhile, we continue to scan the web for posts like the one above in FDL.

1 comment:

bigfrank said...

How can you vote for a President that just upped the troop level there and you are so against this? (As should all Americans)
But it says it in your profile. You are a party man and only vote for a party not for a person that would do something for the good of the country. Instead we get shoved this two party system in our face and so that they can stay in power they keep the people fighting as they point to the other person for their mistakes.
Let’s get rid of all the finger pointers and party clowns.