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Are We the Martians of the Twenty-First Century?

War of the worlds hits Kabul.

| Thu Oct. 8, 2009 11:52 AM EDT

Crushing the Rabbits

The first Martian invasion of this planet—they landed near the town of Woking in England and, before they were done, laid waste to London—took place in 1898, thanks to the Tasmanians, and if you don't think that's worth considering more than a century later, think again. In fact, General McChrystal, President Obama, Proconsul Holbrooke, as you're doing your reassessments of the Afghan War, do I have a book for you.

I was perhaps 12 years old when I first read it—under the covers by flashlight long after I was supposed to be asleep—and it scared the hell out of me. Even now, when alien invasion plots are a dime a dozen, I have a hunch that it could do the same for you. I'm talking, of course, about H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. If you remember, that other Wells, Orson, successfully redid it in a 1938 radio version in which the fictional Martians landed in New Jersey, and many perfectly real New Yorkers were reportedly unnerved. (The 2005 Steven Spielberg movie version, the second film made from Wells's classic, had all the expectable modern pyrotechnics, but none of the punch of the book.)

Back in the era when Wells wrote his book, invasion novels were already commonplace in England, with the part of the implacable, inhuman invader normally played by the Germans. Wells, on the other hand, almost single-handedly created the alien invader genre, arming his brainy monsters from the dying planet Mars with poison gas and a laser-like heat ray, and then supplying them with giant walking tripods (think elevated tanks without treads)—all prefiguring the weaponry of the world wars to come (and even of wars beyond our own).

However, nothing in the book—not the weaponry, not even the destruction—is more terrifying than the attitude of the Martians ("intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic"), for this is one of the great role-reversal novels of all time. They are implacable exactly because they see the English as we would see rabbits, or as English colonists in Australia did indeed see the Tasmanians, a people they all but exterminated with hardly a twinge of regret. In fact, that's where The War of the Worlds evidently began. It seems that Wells's brother Frank brought up the extermination of the Tasmanians one day and so launched the idea for a book still in print 111 years later. Evidently, the question that came to Wells's mind was this: What if someone arrived in England with the same view of the superior English that the English had had of the Tasmanians, and the sort of advanced weaponry and technology capable of turning that attitude into a grim reality?

As his unnamed central character comments in the first pages of the novel: "The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

The Martians (actually transmogrified Englishmen) advance through the English countryside and into London, frying everything in sight in a version of what, in the next century, would come to be known as total war—that is, war visited not just on the warriors, but on the civilian population. At the same time, they harvest humans and feed off their blood. In the coming century, there would indeed be Martians aplenty on this planet, more than ready to feed off the blood of its inhabitants.

General McChrystal, President Obama, Proconsul Holbrooke, The War of the Worlds, old as it is, offers a rare example of how to imagine us from the point of view of them. I urge you to study it with the intensity you now apply to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies. After all, in our own way, we could be considered the Martians of the twenty-first century and (how typical!) we don't even know it.

Unlike Wells's Martians, who arrived on this planet without a propaganda department or a care in the world about English "hearts and minds," we landed in Afghanistan talking a people-friendly game, and we've never stopped, even if much of the palaver has been for home consumption. And yet during the first eight years of our Afghan War, as General McChrystal recently admitted in his 66-page report to the secretary of defense, we could hardly have exhibited a more profound ignorance of the Afghan world, or a more Martian lack of interest in finding out about it, even as we were blowing Afghans away.

Now, the Pentagon is attempting to correct that by setting up a new intelligence unit "to provide military and civilian officials in Afghanistan with detailed analysis of the country's tribal, political and religious dynamics." As Robert Dreyfuss of the Nation's Dreyfuss Report, points out, however, this unit will be based at a center in Tampa, Florida; we will, that is, now study the Afghans as anthropologists might once have studied the Trobriand Islanders. Then we will process that information thousands of miles away, just as our "pilots" do.

Perhaps it's time to study ourselves instead. What if, from an Afghan point of view, we really are Wells's Martians? Then, it's not a matter of counterinsurgency versus counterterror, or more American troops versus more American-trained Afghan ones, or even nation-building versus stabilization. What if—and this is an un-American thought—there is no American solution to Afghanistan? What if no alternative, or combination of alternatives, will work? What if the only thing Martians can effectively do is destroy—or leave? (Remember, even Wells's aliens finally and involuntary chose to abandon their occupation of England. They died, thanks to bacteria to which they had no immunity.)

What if the Afghans will never see those Predators—our equivalent of the Martian "tripods" and death rays combined—as their protectors? After all, our drones represent the technologically advanced, the alien, and the death-dealing along with, as Toronto Sun columnist Eric Margolis wrote recently, the whole panoply of our "B-1 heavy bombers, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, Apache and AC-130 gunships, heavy artillery, tanks, radars, killer drones, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, rockets, and space surveillance." Even our propaganda, dropped from the air (as if from another universe), can kill. Recently, an Afghan girl died after being hit by a box of propaganda leaflets, released from a British plane, that "failed to come apart." Her heart and mind may be stilled, but rest assured, those of her parents, her relatives, and others who knew her, undoubtedly aren't.

Here's a little exchange, as reported at a New York Times blog from an alien "encounter" in another land. A U.S. Army major, Guy Parmeter, had it near Samara in Iraq's Salahuddin province in 2004 ("[I]t made me think: how are we perceived, who are we to them?"):

Maj. Guy Parmeter: "Seen any foreign fighters?"

Iraqi farmer: "Yes, you."

Sometimes it takes 66 pages to report on a war. Sometimes a century old novel can do the trick. Sometimes you can write tomes about the "mistakes" made in, and the "tragedy" of, an American counterinsurgency war in a distant land. Sometimes a simple "yes, you" will do.

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