Nearly three centuries ago, British novelist Jonathan Swift issued his bitter essay, “A Modest Proposal”, that ostensibly suggested a government program to fatten up Irish orphans (and then send them to market), so as to simultaneously eliminate famine on the Emerald Isle – and also to provide a way to keep the country’s notorious population explosion in check. Is it time for a similar rethink about the barbaric reign of IS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria for something besides air strikes and the recruitment of tribal militias to fight the scourge of ISIS? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Anyone who has ever visited a major American city (and probably most major cities around the world nowadays) quickly becomes aware of the way communities of immigrants eventually become dominant in certain sectors of the small business world. For America, certainly, this process has deep roots, stretching back to when the great waves of immigrants began reaching American shores in the 19th century.
More recently, it seems, Somalis have largely taken over the day-to-day running of parking garages; Koreans run small dry cleaning shops and independent, neighbourhood grocery stores; South Asians have taken over independent motels in many smaller towns; Ethiopians sell excellent coffee from those ubiquitous portable coffee wagons stationed at busy intersections; Vietnamese operate nail salons; and Central Americans do the housekeeping in hotels and – increasingly – in private homes as well, in these days of working couples with little time for household chores.
Meanwhile, Afghans seem to have become increasingly predominant as taxi drivers in many cities – especially for those routes from airports to downtown hotels and suburban homes. Increasingly, they have been supplanting locals born in America, and even those West Africans who entered this same sector a generation or so earlier.
Of course all of this simply means that the human flotsam and jetsam of a troubled world has washed up yet again on the American mainland – finding occupational footholds where the work is hard, the hours are long, inconvenient and unremitting, and where the capital needed to start one of these lines of work is minimal. More often than not, start-up costs, if any, can be obtained through the network of fellow former countrymen and women who arrived a few years earlier.
What seems so unusual, however, is that rather than bringing the antagonisms of an old homeland forward, co-countrymen and women most often find a way to bond together as members of an in-group island, floating in a much larger sea of often unfeeling outsiders. The feuds and bitter internecine warfare of that other, previous world seem to have been shucked off en-route to taking up the challenges and urgencies of making a living and a new life in the strange new world they now inhabit. This rumination on the immigrant experience was been triggered – seemingly incongruously – by the obsession about how best to end ISIS’ swathe of death and destruction across the northern tier of the Middle East.
Nearly half a century ago, in the midst of the Vietnam War, the growing impact of that national tragedy for Americans (and many times greater one for the Vietnamese themselves, of course) was sinking in for more and more people. Increasingly, citizens were looking for a way – any way – to escape from the deepening quicksand as “victory” remained permanently elusive and illusory.
Striding into this national malaise came political satirist Art Buchwald. Buchwald was a key name in the Washington Post’s stable of columnists. At his peak he was a must-read – and his column was syndicated for publication in literally hundreds of newspapers across the country – and beyond. While he was not usually of the same mould as the writing or spoken words of darker, angrier social critics like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, as he usually enjoyed poking fun at official fumbling or duplicity, rather than taking someone apart in a no-holds-barred deconstruction in print. But, sometimes, when pushed, he could be like a smiling version of Jonathan Swift – with a rapier (or maybe a dirk) hidden away, right up to the final sentence of his column.
Back in 1967, Buchwald picked up on a figure released by the Pentagon of the Vietnam War’s cost. Comparing that figure to the numbers of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese army personnel who had been killed in battle by the US or South Vietnamese armies, Buchwald calculated it cost just a tad short of a third of a million in 1967 dollars (or approximately R3.72 million at the current rate of exchange) to kill each enemy combatant. Even for a notoriously spendthrift military (recall those $600 toilet seats for large bomber aircraft), that seemed to Buchwald to be quite a hefty sum.
Given that equation, Buchwald came up with the idea that the way to end the Vietnam War, on a cost-efficient basis, no less, was to propose simply buying out the guerrillas, rather than wasting all that money trying to kill them. First the air force would be assigned to drop pamphlets offering this largesse to all enemy soldiers and then, as Buchwald had written, instead of “spending an estimated $332,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam, it would be cheaper and more cost-effective to offer Viet Cong defectors a $25,000 home [possible at the time], a color TV, education for their children, and a country club membership” of their choice. (The obvious assumption was that defectors also received a visa to the US, an instantly issued green card, and plane tickets to the US for the would-be defectors and their families.) Sadly, this Buchwald option was never systematically pursued, although there actually were several low-scale efforts to buy over the loyalties of Viet Cong insurgents to the South Vietnamese regime with offers of amnesty and some start-up cash benefits.
Amazingly, there is one seriously bizarre footnote to Buchwald’s proposal. The writer’s acid-tipped-tongue-in-cheek column apparently got him placed on a US government watch list managed by the FBI – and some of his telephone calls were monitored to see what other, further nefarious plots he might hatch. Some people were obviously very unsettled by even the efforts of a political satirist to poke holes in the government’s efforts to pursue the Vietnam War, regardless of its terrifying cost.
Presumably trivial in the face of such a millenarian political or religious movement, Buchwald’s list of potential benefits to each Viet Cong combatant actually seems carefully calculated to include key elements of “the American dream” such as a veritable cornucopia of material benefits, good housing and safety, security and progress for one’s children. And the idea behind this comedic turn was that most people, even the most politically committed, are really – in their hearts – simply seeking a way to better themselves and to make a life better than their own for their children in the future. Despite the apocalyptic religious tenor of ISIS, can we really doubt that most of ISIS’ adherents (as opposed to its very top leadership) want a better life than a future that consists of riding around in the desert for the rest of their lives in an increasingly dirty HumVee; risking getting shot by an increasingly well-armed Kurdish Pesh Merga patrol, an F-16, Tornado or Mirage fighter jet overhead – and endlessly waiting for that ever-receding moment of existential religious deliverance and those promised heavenly rewards?
And so, is it now time to resurrect the Buchwald option as one way to bring the war against ISIS to a natural and decisive end? Crucial, of course, would be to come up with the optimum mix of benefits that would entice ISIS fighters away from their military campaigns – and onto an passenger airplane instead, headed to the new Promised Land. What about that small house? No problem, following the subprime credit crash, there are still thousands of repossessed houses going for a song in neighbourhoods across the country from California to Detroit, Las Vegas, and Florida. Free education for all of those many children? Check, again. Universal, free public education – including bilingual language programs and catch-up enrichment efforts – is already virtually universal in the US. But about that colour television? Sorry, that’s too old style. Instead, how about a collection of a new iMac with the retinal display, the latest iPhone the newest X-Box console, an uncapped internet account, and a giant plasma screen – plus a lifetime subscription to one of those increasingly popular digital film delivery networks.
Of course some – such as Oklahoma’s Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, just to name one – will strenuously object to the taking in of several thousand cruel, bloodthirsty, jihadist revolutionaries into the United States. No doubt he will stand up on the Senate floor and charge the administration with perfidiously gifting these ISIS thugs with sophisticated electronic gear, almost certainly so that they can carry out their nefarious schemes deeply inside the homeland, rather than plotting against the Great Satan from some dusty desert hideaway, half a world away.
Certainly there will also be some legal issues involved, not least the figuring out of how to issue all these people and their families the necessary visas to enter the US, especially given the fact that there are already half of million people on the Department of Homeland Security’s no visa list – many of them with names that are suspiciously Middle Eastern in origin – and that ISIS is almost certainly on one or another terror group list. But even problems like that presumably can be gotten around by issuing them all visa pardons, just as certain ANC leaders received for entry into the US for some years, post 1994.
And as for that security problem with all those radical Islamic terrorists let loose on a defenceless America; well, answer this question. Which would you rather have happen: Would you prefer there be thousands of nameless, faceless IS fighters active in the Middle East spreading death and destruction; or that there be a roster of carefully recorded, digitally captured names and identities, with their current whereabouts thoroughly noted, as those former terrorists start out their new lives in an American city? And besides, wouldn’t it be easier for the NSA to keep track of all their electronic communications, if the feds already knew these new immigrants’ IP addresses and electronic signatures, rather than having to track them down in the wilds of northern Iraq, at a time when NSA didn’t even know their names?
Is offering such inducements, after all, all that different from the way conquerors from time immemorial have dealt with those troublesome nomadic tribes that disrupted the frontiers of empire? And, in fact, settled nations have also offered bribes – what else to call them, after all – to keep those tribes from ravaging the settled world, right back to the time when humans first divided themselves into nomadic warriors with their battle axes and spears and the settled farmers and townsfolk with the ploughs and pruning hooks. The only difference, perhaps, is the way such a problem has now become globalised, rather than limited to the struggles between an ancient Sumerian town and the hill folk with their uncivilized warrior-bandit ways.
But the final point is that the seductions of American life are such that by the time the children of this newest wave of immigrants grows up, they will probably want to be lawyers, IT consultants and performance artists, sitting in their hipster coffee bars over a grande skinny cappuccino, just like millions of other immigrants’ children. And when that happens, the desert dreams of their fathers will have become faded, sepia-tinted photographs and war memorabilia, all tucked away in a cardboard box in the back of the attic. Now, would that be so terrible? DM
Photo: A masked Sunni fighter carries a light machine gun as his group moves towards their position in Fallujah city, western Iraq, on 15 January 2014. EPA/MOHAMMED JALI
- $332,000….to Kill One Viet Cong, Art Buchwald’s column that ran in hundreds of newspapers in 1967, sourced via the Montreal Gazette
- A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift at the Gutenberg Project website
- Against all odds: Obama, the War President in Daily Maverick.