Nation-Building Is an Oxymoron

By Mason, M. Chris | Parameters, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Nation-Building Is an Oxymoron


Mason, M. Chris, Parameters


ABSTRACT: Nations are not built. They form almost imperceptibly from within over long spans of historical time. Since the end of World War II, no country that was not a nation has ever won a counterinsurgency or suppressed a civil war. Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency is wrong because it is premised on the false assumption that support for an existing government can be increased during a civil war/ insurgency as a result of the counterinsurgents' actions. There is no historical evidence to support this assumption.

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Four times since 1963, in Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has been sent to do what was literally impossible. A total of 64,969 American military personnel have died so far in these Quixotic misadventures. Adding to the tragedy of these failures is the sense of futility that the fundamental lesson has not been learned. Arguments continue about tactics in these wars, and debates go on about how success was possible if we had done this or that; if we had just sent in more troops, for example, or kept them there longer, or local corruption had been reduced, or there had been less restrictive rules of engagement (ROE). But the United States did not lose these wars because the tactics were wrong, though they were, but because in each case, the United States was attempting to do something impossible: build a nation. To make an analogy, US political and military engagement in these conflicts was like polishing the hubcaps on an old junk car with a broken frame and no engine rotting into the ground at a scrapyard, and thinking the result would be reliable transportation if one just added some mud flaps (i.e., 50,000 more troops) or a chrome tailpipe (i.e., different rules of engagement). In fact, the dead hulk was never going to run, and which polish was used or which accessories were bolted on would not have changed the laws of physics. This essay is an effort to lay out those basic laws of political science before this kind of magical thinking is attempted again.

A nation is a country or a territory in which the great majority of the inhabitants center their personal identities at a national level. (1) For example, "I am German," or "I am Kurdish." This sense of personal identity as a member of a homogenous group in a defined area may be derived in a number of ways. For example, it may be derived ethnically or linguistically, or both. In some cases historically it has derived from religious or sectarian origins. The Sikh empire of South Asia in the 18th and 19th centuries is one example of a nation derived from a religion in the modern era. France and Germany are examples of nations whose inhabitants are genetically similar but whose national identity is primarily derived linguistically and culturally. One group of people says "I am French," and the other says "I am German," yet the people of both nations are primarily of Celtic, Germanic, Frank and Gallo-Roman origins. On the other hand, a nation may also be derived ethnically in spite of a common language and a common religion. The languages Uzbek and Turkmen are about 90 percent mutually-intelligible, about the same degree of mutual understanding that typical men from Maine and Georgia had in the United States in 1860, but the Uzbek and Turkmen peoples consider themselves to be separate and distinct nations based on ethnic differences. (2) The key point is this: Without historical exception, however this sense of nationhood is derived, a nation is formed by a slow, evolutionary social process in which a group of people coalesce around a shared national identity within defined geographical borders over a period of centuries.

"Nation-building" is, therefore, an oxymoron. No nation has ever been "built" in recorded history in the sense of this social evolution being accelerated by a political process, much less created at gunpoint by an occupying power, as was attempted, for example, at the end of the 20th century in Vietnam and Somalia, and at beginning of this century in Iraq and Afghanistan. …

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