Afghanistan: Knowing the lessons of Vietnam didn't stop Vietnam either

From Jonathan Schell’s piece in a recent issue of The Nation, “The Fifty Year War:”

We are accustomed to thinking that hard experience in Vietnam taught certain lessons that then, for a while, became cautionary principles. But this record reveals that most of those lessons were known–though not publicly admitted–before the big Vietnam escalation. The difference is important. If the disaster was launched in full awareness of the “lessons,” then we shouldn’t expect that relearning those lessons will be potent in stopping a similar disaster now. If they didn’t prevent the disaster the first time, why should they the second or third time? Some other lessons seem to be needed. Why, we therefore need to ask, did Johnson and his advisers steer the country into a war that even to them was looking more and more like a lost cause, or at best a desperate gamble?

This is a question that I’ve been asking myself lately. To paraphrase Schell’s answer: domestic politics–Johnson’s fear of being weak on communism, and Obama’s fear of being weak on terror–outweigh(ed) the growing doubts about the rationale for the wars. In 1964, officialdom knew Vietnam was going to be a mess before sending hundred of thousands of troops to Saigon; in 2009, Obama’s team also seems very aware of the mess they are about to dive into. As Rory Stewart remarked:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …’”

In other words, everybody in the front seat sees the cliff, sees where we are headed, and knows we’re going to drive off it. Yet instead of stopping….

This is all somewhat frustrating and perplexing to me. It also tends to induce a certain level of stomach churning cynicism. Especially when a number of our current political leaders–SecState Clinton, Senator Kerry, I’m looking at you here, but there’s a long list–have always sold us the narrative that their political identities were shaped by the battlefields of the ’60s, at home and abroad. A big part of that story is Vietnam; heck, Vietnam has loomed over every presidential election we’ve had in this country since 1968. But three decades later, and now holding positions of power,  that generation of leaders has been behaving in the same way of the politicians they used to protest. Is this an inevitable byproduct of political power? And now Obama, the first truly post-Vietnam, post-Baby Boomer President, is getting sucked back into the Hanoi Warp Hole.

 I’ve contended that the similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan(and Iraq) are not primarily found in the details of the conflicts–they’re all pretty different–but in how American officialdom views the conflict. The fundamentally unchanged foreign policy worldview of our government elite(yikes, that’s not an appropriate word in polite society!) is where the strongest thread that connects the wars can be found. An official obsession with maintaining credibility, a pundit’s delight of smart and serious sounding yet deeply flawed theories(The Domino Theory then, the Democratic Domino Theory in Iraq, the Afghan Safe Haven Theory now), and the strange distorting effect that domestic political considerations has on the decisions we make in lands far, far, away. 


About michaelhastings

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2 Responses to Afghanistan: Knowing the lessons of Vietnam didn't stop Vietnam either

  1. Mr. Hastings,

    In 1986 a movie came out titled “Peggy Sue Got Married” in which a 43 year old woman is mysteriously transported back in time 25 years to her senior year in high school. Her life had not turned out well and she was full of regrets so suddenly she had a chance to change he life’s history. She would simply make different choices than she had the first time. One choice (get married) is as just easy as the other (don’t get married) so why not?

    What the movie then asks is, were those choices really equally easy, could they in fact be made freely or would a person in exactly the same time and place, with all of the same pressures and conditions, make the same “wrong” choices for the same “wrong” reasons? (Unfortunately the writers and director never follow that thought all the way through and the movie ends in a bit of muddle but it seemed a worthwhile image.)

    LBJ did not just end up with a war in Vietnam because he got bamboozled by his generals. The US was locked in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet Union and to have Soviet allies win the war in Vietnam (which is what the Viet Cong had basically done in 1965) was unacceptable. This is why liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans were initially united in support of the war. No president committed to winning the Cold War would have made a different decision.

    It was only after it was clear that the costs of the war were simply too great, in terms of the budgetary costs to the economy, the domestic political stability, international diplomatic isolation, and the inability of the military’s ability to hold itself together.

    I do not disagree with you about the domestic side of the political equation but I think it is the international side that is decisive. George W. Bush would not have decided to invade Afghanistan and occupy it had it not been strategically located next to Iran and the oil rich countries of the former Soviet Union. The same is even more true for Iraq, which aside from its own oil supply is located not only next to Iran but Syria as well. Further, it is within a very short distance of most of the critical petroleum transport choke-points.

    The decision to withdraw from Iraq was of course forced upon Mr. Bush by the Iraqis and US forces are not going very far once they do leave.

    There is a reason that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires”, it is because of its strategic location. The Mongols, the Russians, the British, the Soviets, the US, and the Pakistanis have not desired to control Afghanistan for no reason whatsoever and not for the presence of any natural resources either. People right now are telling Mr. Obama, “From here we can do X, Y, and Z to others and if we lose it others can do the same”.

    If the US has as a strategic goal hegemony of south-west Asia, the loss of military presence in Afghanistan is a real set back, not an imagined one, particularly when combined with the loss of the same in Iraq (which is moving more an more into Iran’s orbit). So long as that is the strategic goal, there is no way around the logic perpetual war in the area. That is, until the costs become to great. It can only be surrendered when that strategic goal is surrendered (or until the world stops loaning the Treasury Department money to fund the sky-rocketing deficit that is funding that war).

    How many people would be able to resist the geo-political math here? Perhaps a Greek tragedy would have been a better image, everyone knows the outcome but no one can do anything to change it.

  2. jaimecolemansc says:

    Michael, I enjoyed this post and davidlosangelos’s comment. My own opinion on the matter goes back and forth between increasing our military presence or leaving Afghanistan up to it’s residents. Choosing to maintain a presence in Afghanistan – and I am supposing the presence is of a dominating nature – strictly to prevent bad things that might happen is of less importance than what will happen with the continuation of said presence. Summed up, the costs of the occupation will drain the treasury.

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