Strangers in a distant neighborhood ultimately lose their way. On November 1, 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower deployed American military advisors to Viet Nam. Six years later John F. Kennedy, confirmed our involvement by sending in 400 Special Forces to assist the South Vietnamese army. The war would end twenty only years later after a series of escalations by two more presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It cost 58,151 lives and became the first major war that America failed to conclude in victory.
Viet Nam had a profound, fair to say watershed, impact on the American psyche. Its high-cost-defeat undermined the self confidence with which we had emerged from World War II. It had a far greater impact than the Korean conflict, this despite a relatively higher body count there — 36,516 in just three years of fighting compared to Viet Nam’s twenty. Korea was also unpopular — the promise of ending it got Ike elected — but opposition may have evidenced a greater war-fatigue than anything else. Perhaps more important, we were principally focused at the time on the Soviet menace. It was after all the age of Joe McCarthy, of red bating and black lists. Beyond shaking our self-confidence, I would argue that to some degree at least, the polarizing divisions within America laid bare by Viet Nam helped sew the seeds of what has come to mark our public discourse today. It was then that the mantra of, are you with us or against us, was born. In that, George Bush’s post 9/11 rhetoric was only a copycat.
Memories of Viet Nam were brought to mind this week when both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and NATO made statements signally that our and their troops might be out of combat in Afghanistan by 2013 or 14. This news coincided and contrasted with a report that Taliban captives, far from feeling defeated, contended to interrogators that they were in fact winning the war — especially with regard to hearts and minds. History is on their side, not ours. If that weren’t enough of a reminder, every day brings escalating talk of military action against Iran, ginned up especiallyin this country by the Republican presidential candidates, but mostly by an unmistakable propaganda campaign being waged by the Israelis.
According to the Times, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, referring to Israel’s attack on the Iran Revolutionary Guard missile base, contended that the system they hit was getting ready to produce a missile with a range of 10,000 kilometers. Referring to Iran’s invoking the Great Satan, he contends that the planned missiles were actually, aimed at America, not at us (Israel). Yaalon’s point is that we have as much to be concerned about as do they, perhaps even more so. This follows the January 25 Magazine story (Will Israel Attack Iran?) in which its author Ronen Bergman was given full access to Ehud Barak and other of the country’s key leaders.
I don’t want to address either Iran’s threat, which may be real or Israel’s absolute and legitimate right to defend its national sovereignty. Nor am I suggesting that the magazine story was in any way instigated by Israel. What struck me, however, was the similarity between these recent reports and the run-up to our invasion of Iraq. Let’s all remember that whenever military force is used, and no matter by whom, there are bound to be unintended consequences. Those who use force, justified or not, will assure us that such consequences will be minimal — always worth the risk. Don’t believe it for one minute.
We were solemnly told about potentially falling dominoes, but Viet Nam was unwinnable from the get-go. And of course, the North’s win did not produce dominoes falling or any catastrophe, quite the opposite. So, too, was Iraq unwinnable and so is Afghanistan. I said history was on the side of the Taliban view because in end, strangers in a distant land must, of necessity, go home. Sometimes they go home out of sheer fatigue — Korea following closely on World War II — and sometimes because, well, it’s time to go home. Time is always on the side of the natives. Invaders may have some impact on their societies at the margin, but they will quickly revert to their own identity. That truth can even be seen in Germany and Japan who recaptured their national narrative after 1945 and we can already see it in Iraq. National pride is strong, as it should be, and foreigners and just that, foreigners. Incursions in the arc of history are but a fleeting moment of time. At some point invaders, even those who come with noble purpose can’t long sustain in a land not their own.
One of the reasons often given for the lack of success of conflicts in far off places is the cultural disconnect. We Americans live in such a different place that we simply can’t understand, let’s say the Vietnamese or the Afghans. That certainly is true, but hardly the whole story. Consider for example a decision to invade Canada. This is of course a far-fetched even preposterous notion, but I’d predict that national pride would still prevail. Canadians may speak an English that is no more distinctive than what we see within our country, say between North to South and Bronx to Chicago cadences. But in Ontario or Manitoba we would still be seen a foreigners and the local resistance would likely be no less fearless than we witnessed in Viet Nam or than we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the reasons that Ron Paul has been so captivating to many, especially younger, Americans is that he opposes our involvement in foreign wars. His rationale for doing so — and to be sure his overall libertarian views — may be different than ours, but this part of his message strikes a chord. It embodies a truth that many of us know. It is also a truth, perhaps one might call it a potentially fatal flaw, that our system seems geared to repeating these mistakes. Moreover, our leaders, despite what may be their best intentions seem locked into the same misbegotten cycle. Just look at how President Obama has not been able to quickly extricate ourselves from Bush’s two wars. Even after ending Iraq, we will still have a presence as do we more than half a century later in Korea, Japan and Europe. Eisenhower attributed that the Industrial Military Complex.
In the debate over guns, opponents of gun control often argue that guns don’t kill, people do. True, but having a gun — the means — in hand as an option, is a game changer. On a more benign level, given the option of using a screw driver or my electric drill, I will always plug in or battery up. Having the means at hand weighs heavily, and that has played a huge role in the choices we’ve made as a country. It certainly impacts upon what Israel may be considering in combatting Iran’s perceived or real threat. And we shouldn’t be totally and one-sidedly hard on ourselves. Many of our friends, not so armed as we, have induced us into fighting their battles. We went into Viet Nam (or claimed that to be the case) because the French couldn’t do (or we thought) finish the job.
Having the means is alluring and it’s deceptive. It often takes us down a path we should never have followed. Bush and Chaney made the absolutely wrong decision about Iraq, and did so with a lot of bi-partisan and pundit support (Hilary Clinton and Tom Friedman, for example). But I do think that they honestly thought it would be a cakewalk — remember shock and awe. We can say with certainly that the operation was poorly planned and understaffed, a product of Rumsfeld’s arrogance, but the Pandora’s box it opened was an unintended consequence. It represented a lesson of history not learned.
George Aiken, the moderate Republican (remember them) governor and then senator from Vermont during the Viet Nam years is credited with suggesting that we just declare victory and get out. He never really said that in so many words, but was nonetheless hailed as a wise old owl. It’s hard to be the biggest and toughest guy on the block and to admit defeat by the pipsqueak down the street. Claiming victory in the face of the unwinnable battle takes real guts — first in saying those words and then in moving on. Senator Aiken, where are you when we still need you most?