BLOGGER’S NOTE: One of the personal rewards of authoring this blog has been the opportunity to reminisce and draw on many past experiences which help clarify my understanding and influence my perspective of current events. Today is no exception. In February 1967, I was cast as Luisa’s father Huckebee in the first ever high school production of The Fantasticks. Fifty-four years later, this longest running off-Broadway musical in American history (over 17,500 performances and still counting) is more than an evening’s entertainment. Tom Jones’ (pictured) brilliant book and lyrics are perhaps the the best artistic metaphor for the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Yesterday on Morning Joe, president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass suggested there could be residual value from the U.S. military’s 20 years in Afghanistan if we take advantage of and heed the lessons learned from the experience. To his credit, substitute host Willie Geist pushed back, asking whether we should have already learned those lessons from previous incursions such as Vietnam and Iraq. Haass’ inability to see the obvious suggests we need to pull back the blinders taking a different tack, employing the power of metaphor.
In this case, the source of our analogy is the arts. A musical in two acts. The Fantasticks, in which two fathers become accomplices in a love story that begins in the shadows of the moon only to sour when exposed to bright sunlight. Sound familiar? The Pentagon Papers? Echoes of “mission accomplished” in Iraq? And now the Afghanistan Papers? Our guide in this journey from fantasy to reality is El Gallo (Jerry Orbach in the original 1960 cast pictured with Rita Gardner/Luisa).
At the conclusion of Act I, the lovers Matt and Luisa join their fathers in a song, “Happy Ending,” after which the actors freeze in place creating a tableau of the newly merged families. Only El Gallo anticipates what is to come.
I wonder if they can hold it.
They’ll try to, I suppose.
And yet it won’t be easy
To hold such a pretty pose.
Time and time again, military interventions in far away lands track the the lover’s fate, like a roller coaster, initially reaching highs, soon followed by accelerated plunges into valleys. All well intentioned. Bathed in hubris and unrealistic expectations. “Shock and awe.” “A slam dunk.” “We will be welcomed as liberators.” At the same time, ignoring time-tested axioms. “If you break it, you own it.” “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else (Yogi Berra).”
There is one more adage worth consideration, “We learn more from our failures than from our successes.” However, situations resulting in positive outcomes should not be overlooked. In the case of recent U.S. military interventions, that exception is Operation Desert Shield, the response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait for the purpose of seizing Kuwait’s oil production capacity. The United States, with support from 35 allied nations, launched an air and naval attack on January 17, 1991 followed by a ground assault on February 24. Three days later Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered a retreat from occupied areas of Kuwait.
Despite calls to pursue Iraqi troops all the way to Baghdad and remove Hussein from power, President George H. W. Bush, in consultation with then chairman of the joint chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, pulled back U.S. forces once Kuwait was liberated. They understood, the devil we knew was preferable to one which might arise from the aftermath of Hussein’s overthrow. How unfortunate junior and his vice-president did not follow suit.
The lesson? Military engagements should never be based on what happens in Act I. History tells us happy endings at intermission are not permanent. As does El Gallo.
So we would like to truly finish
What was foolishly begun.
For the story is not ended
And the play is never done
Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit
And burnished by – the sun!
Perhaps the time has come for The Fantasticks to take its place along side Sun Tzu, Josephus and Colin Gray as mandatory instruction for military leaders and national security policy officials.
For what it’s worth.