War to get rid of villain seldom ends problem


So Charles Taylor sings his version of "Don't Cry for Me, Monrovia," waving goodbye to Liberia and flying off into the Nigerian sunset. All is supposed to be fine now. The people greet peacekeepers enthusiastically. The rebels reopen the port. The villain is gone and the heroes can take over.

That scenario sells movies, books and foreign policies. Get the bad guy. There always seems to be one handy. Saddam Hussein currently fills that role. Osama bin Laden can be trotted out whenever necessary. In Africa, before Taylor, there was Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe waits in the wings. There was Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and, of course, the variety of communist leaders who wore the red-tinted black hat during the Cold War. Fidel Castro is the only one left from that cornucopia of villains. And before Stalin, there was, of course, Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo.

Most of these people live up to their billing. Taylor certainly did - a thug who recruited a gang of kids, armed them to the teeth and sent them off to wreak havoc on the homeland he wanted to rule. Hussein's many atrocities have been amply documented. And even if he had done nothing else with his twisted religious fervor, Sept. 11 would assure bin Laden's place in this pantheon of evil.

There is almost a law of narrative physics that demands the presence of a hero whenever a villain appears. And there is no role a U.S. president - of either political party - would rather play than hero. Which is one reason villains are so popular.

The problem is that reality rarely follows the script. Getting rid of the bad guys is certainly a necessary part of the solution. But it is rarely, if ever, the whole solution. Mobutu has been gone from Zaire for years, but the place is still a mess. Expect the same in Liberia. Taylor may have gone, but left behind are armed gangs of young toughs - some are rebels, some are government troops - who have ruled the place with rape, pillage and murder for the 14 years since Taylor unleashed the rebellion that put him in charge. Unless a professional force stands up to these thugs and restores order, Liberia will remain mired in tragic turmoil.

Look at Afghanistan. In 1980, the villains were the Russian communists whose invasion was said to be a blatant attempt to oppress the will of the Afghan people. Jimmy Carter stood up to that and boycotted the Moscow Olympics. The heroes were the mujahedeen, faithful Islamists who fought godless communism in the name of Allah. Then those heroes took over the country and, showing that they were really bloodthirsty warlords, destroyed it with their well-armed lust for power. For a few weeks, the heroes became a group of the genuinely faithful who came to restore order. They were called the Taliban. Soon enough, it was clear they were not heroes. Sheltering bin Laden - a residue of the mujahedeen - eventually assured their villain status. The surviving mujahedeen warlords - now known as the Northern Alliance - again became heroes, routing the Taliban with U.S. help. Now those same warlords are regaining their villain status as they battle the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai - who may be the genuine thing, a real hero.

The point is this: Plotlines are simple, reality is complex.

One problem with the hero-villain mode of thinking is that it often leads to warfare. What better way to deal with villains than with violence? And what better way to entrench a leader's heroic stature than with a military victory? But, as the popular peacenik poster says, "War is not the answer." That is not to say that it is never called for. Indeed, it might be part of the answer. But it is not the final answer. When the war is sold with a get-rid-of-the-villain plotline, many lose interest once the bad guy is defeated. But that's when the real struggle for the answer begins.

Warfare is rarely the romantic adventure once promoted by revolutionaries of the left and freedom fighters on the right in their quest to slay the world's villains. What was seen in the first few weeks of the recent war in Iraq - disciplined armies overrunning enemy positions on the way to victory in Baghdad - is the exception to the rule of contemporary warfare. Much more often, war is what we see now in that country, nasty, up-close encounters that offer few opportunities for heroic poses. Look at the fighting in Liberia - kids with huge guns shooting wildly at each other, lobbing mortar rounds at civilians, destroying things simply because they can.

Wars started for whatever reason - good or bad - often leave a country with the message that violence is a suitable solution to problems. Once the social fabric is ripped apart by that idea, it is very difficult to stitch it back together. The globe is full of examples. Liberia and Iraq might well be the latest.

Maybe we can learn something from one of the world's few genuine heroes - Nelson Mandela. Though he is often marketed as a peaceful protester against South Africa's apartheid system of racial injustice, he was not. He decided an armed struggle was necessary. That's why he was sent to jail. Even in prison, he was titular head of the armed wing of the African National Congress. But Mandela also saw that there were better ways to achieve his ends than through violence. And he realized there was much to be gained by removing the villain status from those who had once supported apartheid but now were willing to change.

Mandela's lesson is one many of the world's leaders could stand to learn - getting out of the villain business might help you become a hero.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad