What George Will Could Learn From 'Wild Bill' Corson

George Will has incurred the wrath of conservatives in the last few days advocating we pull out of Afghanistan.  Given that conservatives remember that he was initially enthusiastic about our operations in Iraq until he turned against them, they are justifiably impatient with his lack of perseverance. 

He does have a point though.  As Ralph  Peters among others has said, there are very few redeeming features about our involvement in Afghanistan.  It is a large inhospitable landlocked country very difficult to supply (professionals think of logistics).  One way in is through a dangerous, vulnerable-to-bandits road through our putative ally Pakistan's territory; the other leaves us at the mercy of our friends the Russians.  The country is primitive with no real organized society above the clan level, a culture of corruption, and internecine strife that defies change.  The only real crop is another source of instability, as drug lords work in concert with Taliban fighters to protect their valuable income, and farmers resist encroachments on their livelihood.  There's a reason Afghanistan has never been conquered: it was never worth it.  Now, absent the threat of Al Queda, it's difficult to justify ‘nation-building' by a country that can't do that effectively in Detroit or Washington D.C.

But Will leaves out the other side of the argument.  Every policy decision has positives and negatives and lots of unintended consequences.  Will never points to the negative consequences of his position. His failure to look at all sides reminds me of another man and another time.  The man was a cigar-chomping PhD-holding intellectual Marine named Bill Corson, who as a LtCol commanded a Tank Battalion in Vietnam in 1966-67. While there, he and others devised and implemented the Combined Action Program that made a huge difference in the lives and security of villagers in I Corps where the Marines fought.  I first read his angry, insightful book, The Betrayal in the hospital recovering from my own trip to Vietnam.  Along with it I read an account of how this program worked in a book called The Village by a young lieutenant named Bing West. 

What was distinctive about Corson's book was that he laid out the two courses of action we had available to us in Vietnam, explained the pros and cons of staying and leaving, and then laid out how we could manage whichever one we picked and mitigate the consequences, intended and unintended.  While angry at our failures, his approach was refreshingly dispassionate and analytical.  His policy on staying involved kicking out corrupt Vietnamese generals, getting their troops paid on time, and implementing a village security-based fighting model that sounds amazingly like what Gen. Petraeus implemented in the surge in Iraq.  New historiography has suggested that the team of Abrams, Bunker, and Colby implemented much of this in Vietnam and had the war all but won until we pulled out.

I wish George Will had adopted the approach that Bill Corson took.  Finding our way forward entails looking at our options dispassionately and carefully without blame or recrimination or trying to score points in the political arena.  I don't know which way forward is best but I don't think conservatives serve our country by being reflexively on one side or the other.  However, if we stay in Afghanistan, I'm heartened to see that Gen's Jones, Petraeus, and McCrystal show that they have read Bill Corson's book.