John Galvin: The Lessons of Vietnam

Pundits have informed us for the past 25 years that, "America has learned the lessons of Vietnam." We have been confidently reassured that never again will we make those mistakes. Less optimistic commentators may have used more cautious phrases such as "We must not forget the lessons of Vietnam," implying that there is a need for continual reminders. But in general, we have believed that we only need fear making new mistakes; we were certain that we would not repeat the old ones. That’s why this conflict in Afghanistan has such a Kafkaesque feel to it. Our fearless leaders who are initiating this fight with the Taliban, and our even more intrepid feuilletonistas who are encouraging us to launch World War III against the entire Middle East, seem to be living in an alternate universe where the past 25 years never occurred. For the militarists, it seems that the only lesson Vietnam taught us was to control media access to the conflict. They still blame the loss of Southeast Asia on television. But I lived through that period in a middle-class, middle-American community, and I can testify that support for the war never flagged among those people who watched Walter Cronkite. The hippies, the yippies, and the members of the Weathermen underground, on the other hand, were not watching much television. Let’s check one simple data point: In 1972 Richard M. Nixon won reelection in the biggest landslide to date. So our problem was never that we lost the propaganda war; it was that we lost the actual war on the ground in South Vietnam. Here are the real lessons of Vietnam, so far as I understand them: 1. Identify your enemy and declare war. 2. Identify clear objectives, the achievement of which will result in victory. 3. Identify an exit strategy before you go in. Please note that these are lessons about fighting a war, under the assumption that one intends to engage in conflict. We are not dealing here with what many consider the other lesson of Vietnam: "Stay out of the conflict entirely." The last time the United States declared war was on December 8, 1941. Franklin D. Roosevelt, no matter what else you might say about him, pursued a course that led to ultimate victory. He declared to the entire world who our allies were and who we were fighting. He stated our goal: unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. He prosecuted a cautious war policy that brought us slowly but inexorably to achieve that goal. With our enemies utterly crushed, we could clean up, get out and go home. (Okay, our military is still in Germany and Japan, but that’s a different story.) In Vietnam we violated all 3 of these fundamental tenets: We gradually got sucked into the "quagmire," initially by sending "advisors." (Didn’t Russia get involved in Afghanistan by sending "advisors"? And those troops on the ground in Afghanistan assisting the Northern Alliance, are we calling them "advisors," or did the PR agency hired by the Pentagon recommend against using that particular term?) We never had a strategy for victory. At best, we hoped to maintain the status quo. And we never knew what our ultimate resolution would be. If the fall of Saigon had never occurred, would we still be fighting in Vietnam today? Of course these mistakes were not unique to Vietnam. Consider Korea: We never declared war, we weren’t clear whether or not we were fighting the Chinese, and we still haven’t figured out an exit strategy 50 years later. There are many legitimate criticisms that can be made of the Gulf War. But at least it seemed that we had "learned the lessons of Vietnam." Although there was never a declaration of war as per the Constitution, George Bush Sr. did identify the enemy. He built a coalition of allies. He secured the necessary support and assistance. He received Congressional approval for the action. The military objective was clearly defined: remove Iraq from Kuwait. It’s true that many people take exception with that objective and say it should have been the total defeat of our identified enemy, Saddam Hussein. But that argument misses the point. We should be grateful that we had any objective at all; let’s not quibble about whether or not it was the correct one. Certainly one can criticize the exit strategy. The strategy of pressuring Saddam Hussein to resign while encouraging disaffected groups to revolt turned out to be a failure. We’re still committing acts of war in Iraq every day; even though more than ten years have passed. But in fairness, we must admit that an exit strategy – no matter how inane it may have been – did exist. Now let’s compare today’s military action with the historical record. Do we have an identified enemy? Do we have a military objective? Do we have an exit strategy? The questions answer themselves. Our ability to identify our enemy has been lacking to the point of ludicrousness. The Onion website has created a masterful parody of the US approach to the "war on terrorism" with articles such as "U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With." You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you read Onion articles such as this one: US Urges Bin Laden To Form Nation It Can Attack WASHINGTON, DC – Speaking via closed-circuit television from the Oval Office Monday, President Bush made a direct plea to Osama bin Laden to form a nation the US can attack. "Whether you take over an existing nation like Afghanistan or create a new breakaway republic called, say, Osamastan, the important thing is that you establish an identifiable nation-state with an army, a capital, and clearly defined borders," Bush said. "Maybe you could also sign some quick treaties to definitively establish who your allies are." The president then pledged $600 million to bin Laden for the construction of a state-of-the-art defense headquarters that the US can bomb. Are we even at war at all? No one seems to be sure. An eminent British historian believes that the US wants to accomplish limited objectives and get out, and so therefore talk about "war" will unnecessarily escalate the conflict. But it’s not clear that we do want to accomplish limited objectives, or that we want to avoid an escalation. When Sir Michael Howard says, "To declare that one is 'at war' is immediately to create a war psychosis that may be totally counterproductive for the objective that we seek. It will arouse an immediate expectation, and demand, for spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary, preferably a hostile state; action leading to decisive results," he is warning us against the very thing that the war party in the Pentagon is so desperately seeking. As to step 2, identifying our military objectives, even the neo-conservative warmongers have admitted that we’re not doing any better in this area than we are identifying the enemy. Do we want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul? Today we do, tomorrow we don’t. What about conquering Mazar-e-Sharif? Apparently it’s on-again, off-again. Maybe we should go for the gusto and launch a full-scale, ground invasion of Afghanistan along the lines of D-Day? How about a simple, straightforward, and plausibly achievable goal like assassinating Osama bin Laden? Certainly, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Apparently not, according to Donald Rumsfeld. In fairness, the government doesn’t have to reveal all its plans to civilians. But at a minimum, we do need to know what the government intends to accomplish. The US government didn’t inform the civilian population that D-day was going to occur on June 6th in Normandy. But they did make it clear that we were going to fight the Nazi armies, and we were going to continue fighting them until they were defeated. We were going to invade continental Europe at some point in time at some location. The US population knew the goal, and they knew that each step was an attempt to achieve that goal. Does any US citizen know the goal in Afghanistan? It would be quite a feat if they did, since even President Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld don’t know, or at least cannot agree. Is this just my opinion? If so, it’s one that’s shared by the British Defense Secretary. Statements like the following from our only staunch ally cannot inspire confidence, "The commander of the British task group preparing to mount commando raids against terrorist targets in Afghanistan admitted he had no idea how the campaign would develop, or how it would end." The editor of Jane’s World Armies adds, "We're hearing some very strange stories out of the Pentagon and US Central Command, which is supposed to be running operations, that the initial stages of the war were more driven by political rhetoric than military logic." The examples of confusion given above all relate to immediate, near-term objectives of military operations being carried on today. If the administration doesn’t have consensus on these issues, how can they possibly agree on whether our military objectives require attacks on Iraq, Sudan or Syria? With an entrance strategy that appears to be crafted on an ad hoc basis, how can we possibly expect to have an exit strategy? Not that exit strategies have ever been a strong suit of American foreign policy. It’s not surprising to see that we’re still in Korea 50 years after the "conflict," when one considers that we’re still occupying territories we grabbed during the Spanish-American War, in the century before last. (Truculent newspaper columnists are another obvious parallel. Is the coverage we read today of Afghanistan any different from the coverage of the Spanish-American War in which, "Readers were treated to a steady diet of battles that never happened, Cuban victories which never occurred, exaggerated stories of Spanish brutality and such flights of fancy as repeated stories of beautiful, savage Cuban 'Amazon' warriors, serving the Revolution as Cavalry and showing no mercy to the hated Spaniard.") Does any possibility exist that our leaders have thought ahead to an exit strategy when the commander of our allies’ amphibious forces can say, "I don’t think it is clear in anyone’s mind how events will unfold. That’s all part of the challenge." A daunting challenge indeed. Will we restore Zahir Shar, the deposed king? Last week it was yes, this week no. Our recent carpet-bombing of front-line Taliban forces seems to indicate that we’ve decided to aid the efforts of the Northern Alliance to retake the reins of power. But do we want a renewal of "mass rapes, looting, rocket attacks and other atrocities by the Alliance against civilians and the Taliban that date back to the mid-1990s"? The administration now admits that we have virtually no postwar plan for Afghanistan (but that won’t persuade us to let up on the bombing). "It’s a disaster," admits a Western diplomat involved in the negotiations. Of the scenarios being discussed by diplomats such as John Negroponte, US ambassador to the U.N., "none are certain, few are good." Of course, in a pinch we can always return to the tried-and-true American strategy used to such good effect in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia: cut-and-run and let the natives sort out their own problems. Reviewing America’s military experience during the past 60 years, one can see that the ultimate success of the endeavor is decided before the opening shot is fired. Churchill slept his soundest sleep of the war the night after Pearl Harbor because knew the ultimate outcome was no longer in doubt. What prediction then can we make for our current "war on terrorism" based on the opening moves? It’s hard to see how anyone can predict any outcome but a debacle. We do have one advantage that could overcome all our failures: we are the richest, most prosperous country with a military that is superior to the rest of the world combined, and we are fighting against one of the poorest, most devastated countries; one that doesn’t even own a military aircraft. On the surface this looks like the Super Bowl champions taking on a Pop Warner team of twelve-year olds. Yet the Russians could have made a similar statement twenty years ago, and they encountered disaster in Afghanistan, disaster severe enough to contribute to the toppling of the Communist government and the end of that particular way of life. Today they are still a comparatively powerful country, yet in the Chechnya region of their own country they are unable to defeat a ragtag band of "terrorists." Being a perpetual Cassandra is not a very comfortable position to be in. No one likes to spend his time, as she did, wailing: "Home cursed of God! Bear witness unto me, Ye visioned woes within – The blood-stained hands of them that smite their kin – The strangling noose, and, spattered o'er With human blood, the reeking floor!" Yet the strategy being pursued can hardly end in any other result. We are rushing headlong towards catastrophe, confident that the repercussions of our folly will, as they always have in the past, fall disproportionately on people living somewhere far away. Perhaps only the hundreds of thousands of Afghanis who are displaced from their shattered homes and are suffering from cold and hunger this winter will feel the brunt of our "war." After all, we didn’t get all worked up when Afghan citizens were starving and freezing to death even before we started blowing up their homes, why should we be concerned now that they are "the enemy"? But there is always the chance that another scenario will unfold; that America could be tied down in an un-winnable war on the other side of the globe at the same time that terrorists, emboldened by their previous success, make the WTC disaster seem like just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine Vietnam, but with a Vietcong that has the capacity to hit targets and terrify civilians in the continental USA. Imagine further shocks to our economic system sufficient to transform our current mild recession into a full-fledged depression. Imagine popular support evaporating as the American public comes to realize that their frisch, frohliche Krieg, a short jolly war, has turned into a life-or-death struggle, and the nation is torn in two, with one half wanting to make the best of a bad business, and the other half pushing for escalation into Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, etc. Imagine, in short, that the divine retribution for American hubris we have evaded for so long finally strikes home, America discovers that history hasn’t ended after all, and we are brought to the realization that the United States was not the ultimate culmination of a Hegelian evolution, but just one more way station destined to take its place next to Babylon and Nineveh, Tyre and Sidon.

John Galvin

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