In the contest between humans and any obstacle, there is no substitute for the iron will to win. Movies are replete with ‘underdog’ stories about those with a small chance of victory that prevail against long odds. “Rocky” the story of simpleton Rocky Balboa and his quest to be somebody, comes to mind, but the theme is much older. Ancient literature, including the Bible, is full of these exact kinds of stories.
The oft-told tale of David and Goliath is a story about a boy, David, who was delivering food to his brothers at the battlefront where the Jews were in a stalemate with the massive army of the Philistines. As David arrived, he saw that King Saul was refusing the challenge made twice daily by a giant of the Philistine Army to engage in single combat, man to man, as a way to settle the war. David was outraged over the taunts made by Goliath and he accepted the challenge to face him. Fearful King Saul offered David his armor, but David refused, instead taking only his sling and a few smooth stones.
The Book of Samuel picks up the story:
David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”1 Samuel 17 45
Using his simple weapon, and using no protective measures, David knocked Goliath down and then chopped off his head. The Israeli army set upon the demoralized Philistines and chased them down, killing most of them in the retreat. David was animated with the iron will to win based on his faith that God was on his side. As myth, legend, and literature, it’s powerful stuff, but even in real life, a religious conviction or even a political will often drives real events.
The only time in American history did the Americans play the role of the underdog was in the American Revolution when the native-born colonists outfaced the British Army. It took eight years to win that war, there were very high casualties, and the Continental Army had a foreign powerful ally, the French, which deployed its navy against the Brits. Eventually, the Americans were able to face the British in open battle and they won, but the debt incurred by the French was a factor in their coming revolution which was a blood-drenched civil affair that cost the king and his wife, plus many others, their head. The American underdogs won, but the French allies collapsed. The colonists were animated with a strong will to win and took help wherever they could find it.
In the Vietnam War, the Americans played the part of Goliath. The Vietnamese had fought the French colonial forces and defeated them in 1954, and now they faced the mighty Americans who were militarily superior in every way. The Vietnamese noticed, however, that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies relied heavily on technology to win battles, and deprived of that technology, in a ground fight, the odds of victory were much greater. The American fighting forces arrive via helicopter and left on the same flying platform. It was apparent even to the sandal-wearing fighters on the ground that the Americans were fighting a war of ‘containment’ rather than fighting a war of annihilation with the plan to win and stay. They knew they had time and they knew that political forces in the United States would wear down the American will to keep up the fight. They must have also known that the South Vietnamese military was trained in the American way of fighting and that without continued American logistical support, the South Vietnamese would wither away. When Richard Nixon was forced to resign, the North Vietnamese knew that the day of victory had arrived and they were right.
And now, the Afghanistan conflict is coming to an end along the same lines. What the Taliban lack in technology and support, they have in religious commitment and willpower. They had no armor and only simple firearms, but they have what it takes to win nevertheless. We may mock their clothes and abhor their values, but they passionately believe in their cause and are willing to die, to the last fighting man, to prevail. They have, after 20 long years, mastered transferring their values to a new generation of fighters as well, while in United States, young people are being convinced that the United States has warped values and always have. The Afghan Army trained by the Americans now says they would have fought, but the Americans withdrew logistical support. Others have said there was no military solution. Well, the Taliban didn’t have much logistical support, they never had it, and they certainly found a military solution called ‘winning.’ They have the fanatical religious devotion to not be ruled by the Americans or the government chosen by the Americans and now, they have won. That’s how it goes.
The next question that is being answered is if Americans even have the will to rule themselves in their North American fortress which was won at such a high cost in blood and treasure. Afghanistan will fade from the American news in time, but who has the will to win in the United States? The generational losses are stacking up as the forces that pull at the foundational government of the US get stronger. After Goliath fell, the Philistine forces dispersed. The loss of their champion was too great to face. What, one may wonder, is the state of the US basic commitment and will to win in a contest over the plainly stated attributes of the American constitutional order? Holding these freedoms also takes a will to win over those that would gladly and quickly overthrow them.
We know for sure that we can’t transfer our values and governmental form onto other cultures, in most instances, less a complete and total victory carried forward with a permanent troop commitment, as we made in Japan. In Vietnam and Afghanistan, not to mention Iraq and other places, we’ve declined that level of commitment because we, or our elected leaders, lacked the will to win and perhaps don’t even believe in our own values. When you don’t win, you lose and so it’s a legitimate question regarding what else we are prepared to lose.