The event of a new U.S. military success in world affairs may be close at hand. If the right actions are taken, people from all sections of the political spectrum in countries around the world will celebrate our triumph. This dramatic success in foreign policy will not come from deploying a new weapon, but from a subtle change in our approach to combating terrorism. The strategy was implemented for the first time in a small village in Vietnam during 1967, but unfortunately its success was overlooked at the time and it was not adopted as a large-scale military tactic. The United States’s best method of permanently eradicating terrorism isn’t a weapon. It’s the simple good deed of providing the supplies children need to read and write.
At a recent Landon Lecture presented by Admiral Mike Mullen, I was delighted to hear firsthand about how U.S. military action is increasingly centered around a “hearts and minds” approach, viewing the good will and loyalty of Afghani and Iraqi citizens as the ultimate prize of our efforts. No eradicated stronghold, captured leader, decimated training camp or other military victory can have the long-term peace-building effect achieved by attaining the good will of the common men and women. For those of us who are wary of military spending, wars and the military-industrial complex in general, there are few feelings of relief comparable to hearing a top military official display such intelligence, prudence and thoughtful consideration.
The thoughts and actions of leaders like Mullen create strategies that successfully build nations and long-term peace while reducing our enemies’ ability to associate us with destruction and oppression. The ranks of our enemies dwindle along with the strength of their rhetoric against us. The only effective long-term strategy to deal with modern terrorism is to turn swords into plowshares and convert hatred and fear into appreciation and respect.
While the people of Afghanistan and Iraq appreciate every positive thing we do to help them, nothing has a more profound impact than helping them educate their children. Retired Army Col. Gary LaGrange has created Help Us Learn Give Us Hope, a non-profit organization that utilizes our soldiers as a distribution network to ensure the school supplies we provide make it into the hands of eager youths. By delivering those office supplies and helping children work toward a hopeful future, we build a level of trust that cannot be achieved in any other way.
As a result, villagers that were previously silent about the locations and actions of enemy fighters open up and provide the information we need to keep our troops safe. Roadside bombings and attacks decrease, and dialogues with local officials become more open and productive. There is no weapon or combat tactic that can achieve this level of success. Beyond winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, the education of children helps ensure those countries will have the literate population necessary to sustain democracy for generations to come. When the people can read for themselves and come to their own conclusions about the world and the role America plays, it is much more difficult for radical political movements to sweep them up and use them to commit violence.
Literate democracies with marginalized radical political groups create the long-term stability necessary to ensure we won’t have to send our children or grandchildren to fight these wars all over again. It’s time we embrace LaGrange’s educational program as a fundamental tactic in our strategy of winning the hearts and minds of world citizens, and provide the funding necessary to expand the operation to its full capacity.