The Varnish of Vietnam

The United States still hasn't stopped trying to win unwinnable wars.


The Pentagon’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the American victory in Vietnam is about to descend on us. This miscast, colored, and distorted Pentagon remembrance should remind us of the dangers of imagining war outcomes in an illusory way, and of letting domestic politics dictate national security decisions that feed the illusion. As the Sorcerer knew in Goethe’s poem about the Apprentice, cutting the broom of war in half has a way of creating even more war brooms to come, carrying buckets full of adversaries, drowning our security.

Vietnam was, of course, no victory; it was a defeat. A defeat for those who thought the United States knew how to fight an insurgency, knew how to carry out "nation-building" in another country, how to win "hearts and minds." More than 58,000 men (and a number of women, mostly nurses) died in that war. More than 150,000 were wounded; countless more of those who lived through it have been suffering with the psychological consequences of that war.

But the Pentagon wants to airbrush that experience — it wants to honor the soldiers (which is all good), but not tell the truth about how ugly and disastrous the war was. It is a sad commentary that 50 years later, the erasure of memory is already well under way, and the lessons have been lost. The massacre at My Lai, in the Pentagon’s commemoration, was an "incident," not a tragic repetition of the way the war was fought, as roughly 1 million Vietnamese paid for a U.S. strategy of scorched earth and strategic hamlets. (For documentation, read Nick Turse’s 2013 book, a detailed and deeply researched study of the way the war was actually fought, titled, Kill Anything That Moves.) 

And before you conclude that in making this observation I am blaming the soldier, understand that the decision to go to war was not made by the soldier, and killing civilians, which happened regularly, was a direct result of orders to deliver a body count, any way a unit could, as Turse amply documents. My Lai was not an exception and it was part of a pattern of orders. Killing civilians was the result of a policy decision by policy makers and senior military leaders.

No, this column is not about the soldiers who fight in America’s wars. It is about the policy-makers and the politicians who take the nation into wars on the assumption they are winnable and doing so will not have a long-term downside for our security. Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, a new generation of policy-makers ignored the lessons of Vietnam and decided it would make fine policy and good politics to carry out regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, to win those hearts and minds, to fight the insurgents, and to build democracy in sandy soil. They sent off a new generation — of professionals, not conscripts — to do the job, to the cheers of the home crowd and with the encouragement of the vast majority of the Congress, eager for vengeance, even if Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11.

Once again, policy failed. We are now living with the unanticipated consequence of that war — widespread regional instability and conflict. And we have lost more than 6,700 soldiers with roughly 50,000 wounded Americans, along with another large number of post-combat stress disordered lives. 

According to some, like Sen. John McCain, we should have stayed in Iraq to prevent this "loss." And yet they cannot answer the question, however, of how our continued presence on the ground in Iraq would have created democracy, ensured regional stability, or guaranteed the terrorists would go away. At some point the piper would have to be paid. Truth be told, staying there would certainly have created a lovely new set of targets for those unhappy with the local political status quo.

Americans are not fools. Remaking another country is very hard. Remaking it as an occupying power — harder. Remaking it when the country has precious little tradition of politics, American or even European-style — virtually impossible. As the saying goes, "fool me once, your fault; fool me twice, my fault."

We have not waited 40 years for some more fooling around or for letting politics get in the way of good sense, driving us, once again, to war and the splitting of the brooms, creating more enemies, drowning our security in more troubled waters. Here we are in an election campaign, the Republican Party seeking to win a Senate majority, campaigning on the mantra of "fear" and toughness. The politicians are in full flower on "doing something," destroying the Islamic State, and showing our military manhood. The White House gets the signal — it is a political signal — which  says, "unless you do something, look tough, strike back, the Senate is lost, maybe even the presidency in two years."

We did learn one lesson from the recent past: We won’t send ground troops (at least, not many); there will be no body bags, at least not for now, though the pressure to add them is inevitable. That’s too recent a memory. We will settle the score with IS from the air. But strike we will for the political threat at home is existential, even if the military one abroad is not.

When will we learn that minding other people’s business, in their own countries and regions, is not a winning strategy, not even a decent step toward our own security? When will we finally realize that each time we lash out today to fix another part of the planet, the Sorcerer laughs?

Leadership is not about "doing something." Leadership is not about "striking back." Leadership is about wisdom, knowing what you can change and what you cannot change. And it’s about speaking that truth in a clear, intentional way. American air strikes may save some Kurdish lives; they may defer the day the Iraqi government has to deal with its dysfunction; they may extend Basher al-Assad’s day of reckoning.

But all they buy is time — and not a lot of time, at that. The real resolution of the mayhem in the Middle East is not in the hands of the United States. Striking IS, and failing to "destroy" them (a politically-chosen objective, if ever there was one) may lead, inexorably, to the commitment of more capability, resources, and, yes, American ground troops. It’s kind of a setup — in for a dime, in for a dollar; another broom, please.

And each step down that road, the new brooms emerge, carrying more water.  Another deferral of the day the Turks, the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Iraqis, the Egyptians, the Saudis, and the Iranians have to figure out and settle their own differences. Each of them is happy to let Uncle Sam become the adversary, the axe handler. Uncle Sam has a lot of axes — well-ground ones, too.

In the end, though, it is their water. It should not be up to the United States to teach them to swim. And it should not be up to the war hawks in the Congress to drive us to give swimming lessons, when the only consequence is that more American fighters will join their predecessors in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in paying the price for decisions make by policymakers, driven by the need to "do something" and avoid being accused of being weak.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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