Darwinian blowback

In the past fifty years, there have been enough national wars of liberation against a technologically superior occupier that we can see a distinct Darwinian pattern emerge. The resistance always consists of varied groups. The groups range, tactically, from the moderate to the extreme. The moderate group is characterized by a sensitivity to civilian casualties and a willingness to find other than military solutions to the occupation. The extreme group is relatively insensitive to civilian casualties and doubtful that any other than a military solution will end the occupation. It should be emphasized that these definitions are about tactics. Thus, the most conservative mujahadeen groups in the Afghanistan war count as the most extreme, and the most nationalist and rigid faction of the North Vietnamese communist party count as the most extreme.

Now, in any mass killing of living organisms, Darwinian laws of selection are going to apply. The case of the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan are exemplary insofar as these occupations (which involved, in both cases, puppet governments) were so long and so fiercely fought, with the occupying power using conventional weapons in an unrestrained manner. What was obvious by the end of both the Vietnam war and the war in Afghanistan is that the occupying power had essentially selected out the moderates. They are softer targets precisely because they are more afraid of civilian death and make themselves more open to compromise. That openness makes them easier, for instance, to spot – and if you mount a mass assassination movement, as the U.S. did in South Vietnam with the Phoenix program, you can count on this to achieve your objective. In the internal politics between, say, the NVA and the NLF in South Vietnam, there was disagreement about what policies the NLF embraced. In the beginning, Ho was serious about the peaceful struggle for unification, but Diem’s ability to repress the party and its allies in the South made that a dead end. But by the end of the war, the strongest surviving players were those most committed to a militarily achieved reunification – and they got it in 1975.

In Vietnam’s case, luckily, the dynamic was such that the most extreme players had to contend, in North Vietnam itself, with a spectrum of other views in the party. To put it in terms consistent with my Darwinian metaphor – the occupiers did not own the whole landscape. Part of the landscape was owned by the North Vietnamese, which put a counterpressure on the Darwinian selection to the most extreme resistors. Thus, the very tactics the U.S. used to pursue the war made the continuance of the strategy of armed reunification inevitable. The Americans, in effect, eliminated all those who might negotiate with them. The end of the war brought about a lot of hardship to those who had supported the South Vietnamese government, but the period of revenge was not especially brutal – less so, in many ways, than the American revolution, which of course concluded with the brief British plan of freeing the slaves collapsing, and the slave order once again re-established in the South.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, there was no safe and sovereign place from which the resistance to the Russians could operate. Where the resistance had refuge – in Pakistan – they were not sovereign. Here, Darwinian blowback was much fiercer. The Soviets, like the Americans, were hindered by few rules. Like the Americans, they attacked civilian and military alike. Like the Americans, the Soviets were particularly eager to pacify the villages by picking out the rebels. And like the Americans, the Soviets unconsciously acted as a force of selection, tilting the landscape to the most extreme resistors.

This is what is happening in Iraq at the moment. Those who, echoing Bush, tell us that withdrawal will lead to a bloodbath not only ignore the fact that the bloodbath is happening now – they ignore the fact that it is the occupation, operating with grim Darwinian efficiency, that is preparing the blood bath to come.