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.