This Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war, and in marking it one cannot help but note the parallels with the present intervention. Naturally, there are many differences: the nature of the enemy, the terrain, and the origins of the current conflict. There are, however, many similarities, and what is striking is that these are not mainly concerned with events on the ground in Iraq, but with the national debate here on the home front.
To begin with, many of the same people are leading the charge, figuratively if not literally. Back in the Vietnam era, it was the neoconservatives then identified as Scoop Jackson Democrats who were the most visible chieftains of the War Party. Norman Podhoretz, his wife Midge Decter, Elliot Abrams, Irving Kristol, and their comrades in the old “Committee on the Present Danger” all were warning of the dangers of “appeasement” and railing that we needed to militarily confront the Soviet Union and its allies, even as the Red Empire was rotting from within (in part because of overspending on the military). They defected from the Democratic Party, which had formerly served as a viable host for their dreams of social democracy at home and a policy of relentless pushiness abroad, and took themselves into the GOP, effectively hijacking the conservative movement from the traditionalists and libertarians who had formerly held sway on the Right.
Yet the ideology of the neocons didn’t change all that much: oh sure, they adapted to their new environment, taking on an ostensibly “conservative” coloration, but the same Big Government ideology lurked just beneath the surface, albeit in somewhat modified form, waiting for a chance at self-assertion. And of course the neocons’ foreign policy views America as a global hegemon, steadily pushing the frontiers of Empire ever outward became, if anything, more extreme, and finally reached their apotheosis in the post-9/11 era. Today, nobody even blinks at the expression of the neocons’ self-proclaimed foreign policy goal of “benevolent global hegemony” indeed, it has become the official national security strategy of the United States.
It is, in short, the same old dogma pushed by the same old crowd: we’ve still got Elliot Abrams lurking about the halls of the national security bureaucracy, along with his fellow Iran-Contra veteran Michael Ledeen; we’ve still got Podhoretz railing from the sidelines (this time over the alleged necessity of starting and winning “World War IV”). We’ve still got the “Committee on the Present Danger,” this time reincarnated in an even more virulent form. We’ve still got the Kristols albeit the son, rather than the father, smiling smugly as he pontificates on the virtues of invading large swaths of the earth.
Another familiar note: the debate is still taking place within the parameters of an American “patriotism” that has all the earmarks of a nascent militarism. Questioning the policies of our leaders is, according to the War Party, an act tantamount to treason. The question of the war is posed in terms of: Do you “support our troops” or not? Borrowing a trope from Spiro Agnew and George Wallace the evil Glenn Reynolds has spent the greater part of the past few years impugning the patriotism of the antiwar movement: they aren’t antiwar, he avers, they’re “on the other side.” To question whether the problems that plague us even have a military solution or to note that the present conflict has only exacerbated them is an act of heresy, even treason. “World War III” otherwise known as the Cold War was portrayed as a Manichaean struggle against the forces of darkness that could allow for no shades of gray and no subtleties of execution. That mindset has survived the end of the Cold War, and is today even more starkly explicit: “You’re either with us,” as our president put it in the wake of 9/11, “or you’re with the terrorists.”
The terrain may be different, the enemy may be Islamic rather than Marxist, and the antiwar movement may have a different analysis of why and how we fell into the present quagmire oil and Israel rather than militant anti-Communism and “mission creep” but the conundrum faced by the U.S. military is eerily familiar to those officers who fought in Vietnam. That, of course, is why so many of them opposed the Iraq war to begin with: the “Vietnam syndrome” hit them the hardest, as Andrew Bacevich argues convincingly in his excellent new book, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. As Bacevich put it in an interview:
“The Vietnam War ended up with an officer corps deeply alienated from American society. So the officer corps quite consciously set out to reestablish its bonds to the American people, as well as the military profession’s status, and to do that in a way that established limits on how U.S. military power would be used in the future, so that there would be no more Vietnams. The bottom line was that they wanted to rebuild the forces and reestablish the notion of war as an autonomous sphere of activity over which officers would preside.
“The military tried very hard in the 1980s and 1990s not simply to rebuild and win its way back into the hearts of the American people, but also to establish ground rules about how we would fight wars.
“And again, I’d emphasize that the vision was not one of frequent intervention and meddling around the world, but of using force sparingly, as a last resort, only in pursuit of genuinely vital interests, and going in with overwhelming force, winning quickly, and getting home quickly. What’s striking in the aftermath of 9/11 is the extent to which all those constraints and limits have gone by the wayside. The comparison between Iraq and Vietnam is probably inappropriate 95 percent of the time. But one of the ways it is appropriate is that in Iraq the military finds itself engaged in almost precisely the kind of war that after Vietnam it swore it would never be involved in again: protracted war, unconventional war, war in which the freedom of action by the officers corps is limited by politics.”
In the 30 or so years between My Lai and Abu Ghraib, the dilemma of the officer corps caught between the delusions of an elite that believes in the invincibility of American military power and the very real limitations of that power on the ground has not changed very much. Our elites are still afflicted with a dangerous hubris magnified greatly by the fall of the Soviet Union and the ascension of the U.S. as the “hyperpower” in a “unipolar” world. Bogged down in Iraq, they look toward new battlefields in Syria and Iran on which to fight their crusade to cleanse the Middle East of “anti-American” tendencies. That our present rulers are accomplishing the exact opposite of their alleged intentions as evidenced by the recent evaluation of the Iraqi insurgency as “undiminished” after two full years, and by the admission that terrorism worldwide is on the upswing seems not to matter to them. Ideology trumps reality in the present dark age, just as it did in the Vietnam era. What are you, some kind of Commie-hippie-terrorist-loving traitor? How dare you question the policies of our president?
People hate Bush much as they did Nixon, and exhibit their disdain in much the same manner: conversely, the other side elevates our Warrior President to almost godlike status, and makes support or opposition not to his policies but to his persona a litmus test of loyalty to the nation. Yesterday, the loonies of the left were waving Viet Cong flags and chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” Today, the Ward Churchills of our time indulge themselves in the same inanity condemning the victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns” and the War Party finds them just as useful as they did last time around. It’s all very déjà vu.
The war we’re fighting is different, the set of issues we face is more complex, and the ostensible reasons for the present conflict are not the same as they were during the Vietnam era but we haven’t changed all that much. Except, perhaps, that our rulers are even more arrogant, more puffed-up by hubris, and less inclined to put up with or even listen to the arguments of the opposition.
The U.S. government is bigger and more overbearing: its tentacles reach into every nook and cranny of American life, from the university to the media to the corporate boardroom, its influence all-pervasive and dominant where once the private sector held sway. The ability and inclination of our rulers to impose their will on the nation which clearly does not support this war and the rest of the world has increased since the days of the Vietnam War.
Shrouded in secrecy and reveling in privilege, our governing elites go on about their business of world-saving with only the most tenuous connection to the body politic: a gerrymandered Congress dominated by foreign interests is prostrate before presidential power. A permanent national security bureaucracy which has fastened itself on American foreign policy and usurped the Constitution lies us into war and is never held accountable.
In Vietnam, it wasn’t the antiwar movement that stopped the conflict, but the military defeat of U.S. forces and the inability of our South Vietnamese allies to win the support of their own people. The same concatenation of circumstances could bring about an American withdrawal from Iraq and the entire Middle East. As the last American helicopter pulled away from the roof of the U.S. embassy, leaving its allies in the lurch and opening up the country to the depredations of the Communist regime, our withdrawal from Iraq would leave our allies in a similar quandary at the mercy of various Islamist groups, in addition to Iran, who are arguably the victors already. That, after all, was what Iraq’s recent election was all about: a similar exercise in Vietnam would have probably installed the Viet Cong in Saigon without firing a shot. The difference here, of course, is that the Shi’ite theocrats are supposed to be on our side although we’ll see how long that lasts. Not long, I imagine.
In any case, as we contemplate this tragic anniversary, the tragedy of our present collides with the past, making at least this commentator wonder if human beings are capable of learning from history or if they are doomed to simply repeat their errors until the accumulated folly overwhelms them.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Oooops! It’s error correction time. I posted a blog item about my appearance on Cincinnati’s WAIF-FM, but got the time wrong: it was at 1:30 p.m., not 1 p.m. Sorry about that. Also: in my last column, I wrote that Debbie Schlussel wrote a column for WorldNetDaily.com, among other places, and that people should write the editors expressing their displeasure; what I didn’t realize is that they discontinued her column some time ago. Sorry again!