The Park Ranger's Parable

By Douglas A. Samuelson

The air was crisp and clear, the leaves were at the peak of turning colors, and the little group in the main cabin of the mountain resort had thoroughly enjoyed their lunch. Now, however, they found themselves drawn to the television, watching the telecast from Yankee Stadium honoring the rescue workers killed at the World Trade Center.

"That was really something," the OR/MS analyst murmured admiringly as the broadcast ended. "I don't know what we're supposed to learn from all this, but I hope we do."

One of the park rangers who had been sitting quietly in the corner responded, "How about 'Don't feed the bears'?"

"What do you mean?" the analyst asked.

"When you feed a bear," the ranger explained, "You start trouble. Bears don't understand when you run out of food or lose interest. Just a couple of weeks ago, someone left a bucket of grease and scraps out for them when he broke camp. The bears happily ate the grease and scraps, then tracked the guy for 40 miles when they got hungry again. He locked himself in his trailer, one of the bears tried to turn it over, we heard the racket and came running. I had to shoot the bear to save the guy's life. And that's why we have signs posted all over the place telling people not to feed the bears."

"Wow!" the analyst exclaimed. "I had no idea."

"Most people don't," the ranger said. "And most people who make foreign policy don't seem to have the idea, either."

The analyst stared at the ranger, waiting for him to go on.

"I was in the Army before I moved up here," the ranger recounted. "Served two tours in Vietnam, then did some 'country analyst' work, as they called it, at the Pentagon. And I saw, time after time, how we armed and trained people to fight our current enemy, then turned them loose when we were done.

"We rearmed and resupplied Iraq for seven years when they were fighting Iran. During the Gulf War, guys I knew used to joke that we should be able to destroy Saddam Hussein's command bunker, because we had built it for him! In 'Nam, the black market in the South was selling our arms and ammo straight off the docks to the Charlies — they got more than half their weapons that way. We decided not to squawk and embarrass our 'allies' who were letting it happen, probably taking a cut of the profits. We're the ones who set up Noriega in Panama, too. And don't forget we were allies with Stalin in World War II.

"In Afghanistan we recruited, armed and trained the resistance fighters against the Soviets. Bin Laden was one of them. Then we pulled out, left the Afghans and their neighbors to work things out themselves, and he and his guys are what we got. When they bombed our two embassies in '98, we shot up the camps where we thought they were with cruise missiles, and I hear we tried to get him a couple more times — but we didn't. You remember the book, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight?" Well, as Jimmy Breslin pointed out in there, 'It's not good when you shoot at a guy and miss. Sometimes he comes back and finds you in bed.' "

"And they did," the analyst nodded slowly, sadly. "It's starting to make some sense, and I can't say I like the sense it's making."

"Me either," the ranger agreed, "but facts are facts. It's a lot more real than blaming it on moral decay, or the ACLU, or gays, or liberals, or stuff like that."

"Don't even mention that," the analyst groaned, rolling his eyes. "Please."

The ranger chuckled. "I have to share the pain with somebody."

"There's enough to go around," the analyst commiserated. "Let's just hope we can turn some of these guys in the Middle East toward peace."

"It's not that simple," the ranger demurred. "Leaders can't stop feeding bears and stay healthy, either. Remember Sadat, in Egypt? He decided to make peace with Israel and got killed by guys in his own army who thought he was giving away too much. Rabin got killed at a peace rally by a Jewish Israeli who thought he was giving away too much. Gandhi got killed by a Hindu fanatic who thought he was giving away too much to the Moslems. We pressured the Shah to ease up on his opponents in Iran, and he wound up running for his life. You think there might be a pattern here?"

"Reagan nearly got killed by a crazy guy who was trying to impress Jodie Foster," the analyst's wife observed dryly.

"OK, one size doesn't fit all," the ranger conceded. "But you see the point." He was rewarded with grim smiles and nods around the room.

"So what do we do?" the analyst's wife asked.

"Well," the ranger replied, "let me put it this way: I hope we have the strength, persistence, patience and good judgment to wipe out our current enemies quickly, without creating any new ones."

Footnote: The finding that the Viet Cong were getting more than half their arms and ammunition from U. S. military shipments comes from a U. S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee subcommittee report released in October 1967. The rest of the ranger's statements are well documented in press reports and other freely available sources.

Douglas A. Samuelson is president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. He is also an adjunct professor at The George Washington University and at the University of Pennsylvania, and an external research professor at the Krasnow Institute, George Mason University.