For some time now, American political discussion has seemed to revolve around little stock phrases, such as “defining moment” (at the time of the first Gulf War), “the end of history” (at the end of the cold war), “the economy, stupid” (in the early Clinton years), “shock and awe” (as the second Gulf War began). Sometimes there’s a revival of one or another. One of these is “winning hearts and minds.” It became popular during the Vietnam War and is enjoying a vogue in the context of the war in Iraq.
However, the phrase has undergone an interesting evolution. This is reflected in two recent columns, one by Jim Hoagland in the Washington Post, the other by Mark Bowden in the Los Angeles Times. You might suppose that any reflection on hearts and minds would revolve around the elections that are planned for January in Iraq. How, someone might ask, can the United States, now hugely disliked in Iraq, make itself so appealing that Iraqis would vote for a government cut to our specifications? Yet the principal occasion for the two writers’ reflections is instead the military campaign–specifically, the Marines’ assault on Falluja.
Back in the days of Vietnam, the phrase acquired a definite meaning: In a war of pacification, winning battles was not enough; you also had to win the population’s hearts and minds. If you did not, each victory in battle would only be the prelude to further battles, and at the end, when you left, all your work would be washed away by the contrary will of the local people, as happened in Vietnam. It was possible to rule by the sword, as empires have done through the ages, but then you had to be ready to occupy the country indefinitely. Winning hearts and minds, therefore, was not a frill of policy but its foundation, the sine qua non of victory.
In his discussion of the invasion of Falluja, Hoagland begins with a seeming acknowledgment of the Vietnam lesson. He recognizes that the measurements of success cannot merely be the “numbers of insurgents killed or captured, or bomb factories seized or obliterated.” For “as Americans learned to their grief in Vietnam,” such measurements are “elusive and illusory.” We expect to hear at this point that winning hearts and minds is necessary, and Hoagland does not disappoint. But he introduces a variant of the old phrase. Falluja, he says “is part of a battle for minds rather than ‘hearts and minds.'” (The title of the article is “Fighting for Minds in Fallujah.”) What can he mean? What happened to hearts? The answer is that the “immediate objective is to dissuade Sunni townspeople from joining, supporting or tolerating the insurrection,” and “the price they will pay for doing so is being illustrated graphically in the streets of Fallujah.” This isn’t a lesson for the heart–the organ of love, enthusiasm, positive approval. The reaction of the heart–whether Iraqi or American–could only be pity, disgust and indignation. Thus, only the “minds” of “the townspeople” could draw the necessary conclusions, as they survey the corpse-strewn wreckage of their city. In short, the people of Iraq will be stricken with fear, or, to use another word that’s very popular these days, terror. Then they’ll be ready to vote.