I wrote this in October, 2005 and kept it in draft until now. Now is the time to publish it.
"The Vietnam period was a really bad thing for the United States. In that time the country split left, right and center. Some people fought the war and others supported the enemy. There were even some who were actually pacifists. We don’t have that split yet and people on all sides should draw back from re-enacting it. It was a terrible thing. Some Americans marched inthe streets behind the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh. The NLF are going to win" while other Americans were dying or being maimed under the US flag.
Those of us who remained in the armed forces after the war remember just how bitter was the feeling on both sides, and it is with mixed feelings that Vietnam veterans see the appropriate and good way in which soldiers are treated today. The mythology of Vietnam lingers on today with many people in the population still believing that veterans of that war are ruined, drug soaked losers guilty of crimes they won’t admit, and unable to adjust to normal life. In fact, the opposite is true, but that does not stop people from thinking otherwise.
After Vietnam it took many years of "hard work" (quoting the pres.) to overcome the psychological gap between those who serve the Republic and those who are served. Iraq is dragging us back to that hateful period in American history. You only had to see that demonstration in Washington last week to know that the danger of deep division is upon us. What flag will the demonstrators march behind this time?
I understand from journalists who "hung out" around the headquarters of United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (USMACV) headquarters in Saigon during the once and future war that every afternoon the Public Information Office (PIO) would brief them at 5 PM. At these sessions the briefers would pretend to tell the journalists something and the journalists would pretend to learn something. This was known as the "Five O’clock Follies." It made for a kind of life, largely meaningless on both sides, but then, it was a hell of a lot easier for both sides than going to "the field." It was an exercise in "news management," something the military wasn’t very good at. Now the whole government is MUCH better at it but we seem the be returning to the spirit of the "Follies."
General Officers are now often heard saying things that are childish in their transparent "wrongness." The insistence that "all is well" in Iraq and that the political program now underway will end the insurgency is so blatently non-sensical that it is bringing the good name and reputation of the armed forces for selfless service into question once again. The generals are torn between the evidence before their eyes of impending decline in our position in that country and the insistence on the part of their political superiors that they should not only say that things are going well, but that they must BELIEVE IT. As a result you have the spectacle of generals vacillating on issues such as future troop withdrawals and the strength of the Iraqi military. This is pretty basic stuff.
Defenders of present policy often point out that the US presence in Iraq is doing some splendid things for the Iraqi people(s). That is undoubtedly true, but, in fact, if the political situation can not be straightened out so that the interests of the Sunni Arabs AS A COMMUNITY (not as individuals) are "taken care of" so that they stop supporting the guerrillas, then all these good works may be for naught. Surely the generals know that.
Like Cassandra, I will warn the generals. Gentlemen, you may be politicians in uniform but your subordinates are not. If you destroy their good name among their fellow citizens while at the same time giving tham an emtional burden to carry for life, they will never forgive you.
The clock is ticking and the options are political suicide for the Republicans. 1. withdraw without accomplishing any of the professed rationales for the war 2. claim victory that everyone knows is not true and then “cut & run” 3. the draft.
The Generals want to save American face but they have no choice but to do so with the lives of their own warriors and the death of “collateral”. Eventually, someone gets “fragged” and we wake up in 1967.
As an active Episcopal priest in D.C. during that conflict what I remember most is the ambiguity and conflictedness of the situation. I both buried kids I had kinown for years in some cases and counseled those who wished to resist the war. I was struck personally by the number of WWII vets who oppossed that war as well as th number of recently retired officers who talked about the disinformation comming out of the PR effort for the war. In that climate news manipulation leads to a kind of paranoid distrust of the statements of those in charge both politically and militarily. Given the level of ‘spin’, more properly BS used to get us into Iraq and to explain why we didn’t plan effectively for the aftermath I think the genuine possibilities of our intervention have been subverted and a worse mess created and no one is held resposible for any of it. Public anger is a blunt instrument to be sure but at times it seems to be the only instrument. Under the rubric that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” this administration has to be about as morally and intelluctually corrupt as any in my life time. If there are more precise instruments of oppossition we need to be using them to avoid the blunter ones tha tore us apart in the 60’s and early 70’s. We are a nation willing to sacrifice but not one willing to be lied to.
Good letter PL. Your focusing on the role our current generation of senior officers are playing in Iraq is understandable. And in that sense, Iraq is very much like Vietnam. But for the country as a whole this war is nothing like Vietnam, and this truth needs repeating endlessly.
As bad as Vietnam was for America, the war did at least fall within an overarching strategy in our national fight against communism. Hindsight might show that Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time, it may have been a horrendously wasteful war, but it was, in essence, a defensive war that fit neatly into the overall U.S. strategy of containment. Seen in this light, the initial decision to fight in Vietnam can be seen as a rational one, even if the ultimate prosecution of the war and its final outcome were disastrous.
The current war in Iraq is a very different type of military exercise. This is an offensive war with the stated aims of introducing democracy into the Middle East. As best I can tell this war does not fit into any overarching U.S. national strategy, at least not one articulated by the current administration. With the exception of Bush’s vague and perplexing 2nd inaugural speech in Jan.’05, I have heard no strategy of universal liberation coming out of Washington. Indeed, the Iraq invasion seems at best a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 and the desire of the American people to strike back at “bad” Muslims. A desire that our leaders used to propel this war from neo-con dream to hideous reality.
I suppose my point is this… at least in Vietnam the national leadership could frame the war as a part of a larger strategy of containment. And in that sense, fighting in Vietnam was a rational decision. But I can’t imagine how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, and on down the line through the Joint Chiefs could ever have justified the Iraq invasion as a part of an overall U.S. strategy. Our invasion of Iraq was an offensive war, a war of aggression, a war that does not appear to fit into any stated national policy goals. In this sense, the failure of our national leadership is beyond tragic. To have started out on this misadventure without a proper national strategy articulated to and supported by the American people was to invite failure from the first. Combine that with a total failure of post-invasion planning and it becomes clear that our Iraq war was criminal in a way that Vietnam never was.
Col. Well said. I enlisted in ’79, and lived through part of that hard work. The news management is aimed squarely at the American people in the hopes of shoring up domestic support and power to continue the conservative agenda at home. As one of your prior posts warned, they are already shouting ‘we wuz robbed’ and blaming the liberals – even though they actually wield no power.
“The clock is ticking and the options are political suicide for the Republicans. 1. withdraw without accomplishing any of the professed rationales for the war 2. claim victory that everyone knows is not true and then ‘cut & run’ 3. the draft.”
Option 1 is out of the question for this administration. Option 2 has an outside chance if the right set of circumstances should arise in which blame for any failure could be placed on the Iraqis. The time is long gone when a lot more US troops would make a big difference, so option 3 wouldn’t be useful.
It think the most likely is option 4, which is treading water until the next president takes over and can assume blame. This carries the tragedy of several thousand more US and many more Iraqi deaths, and billions of dollars down the crapper. This option also has the possibility of failing this administration due to some major attack in which a large number of American lives are lost in Iraq. I am constantly fearful of that.
If we can avoid the divisiveness of the Vietnam era, it will probably be a miracle. So far at least the troops have not been mistreated, and I sincerely hope that continues. As with Vietnam, the biggest price will be paid by the people who have to live with the war in their back yard – in this case, the Iraqis. Option 2 probably limits their suffering and ours in the long run.
Bush tries to impose new terms of victory
Times on Line
Middle East Fears Iraq partition
“Imagine a necklace that breaks and all the pearls fall to the ground.’
“We’ll have a replay of the Iran-Iraq War between the Iranians and the Arab states over what’s left of Iraq.”
“Everything here is new, a century old. The system has endured, but once it comes unstuck, anything can be challenged,” he said. “It’s madness, but if Iraq falls apart madness will rule the day.”
” The mythology of Vietnam lingers on today with many people in the population still believing that veterans of that war are ruined, drug soaked losers guilty of crimes they won’t admit, and unable to adjust to normal life. In fact, the opposite is true, but that does not stop people from thinking otherwise.”
I know this to be the case. I went into the Army in 1974 and can state that the vast bulk of Viet Nam veterans were as fine body of men to be found anywhere. As a former line troop I would have followed them into combat without question.
Your comment about the generals brings to mind something I have thought about. I wouldn’t allow these men to deal with the media and indeed, I suspect the reason we see them a lot is because they are ordered to preform this unpleasant duty that the civilian “leadership” should do instead. They would rather use them as to give themselves (i.e., Rumsfeld) credibility.
This week I finally heard one of the commanding generals in Iraq say (or, was reported to have said) that there can be no military solution in Iraq now; only a political-diplomatic solution.
I was just thinking how right Gen. Wm. Odom (ret’d.) was about Iraq at least as far back as 2004. And he had the balls to speak publicly.
I have never seen the United States as divided as what it is today.
It does harken back to the period of Viet Nam.
But, division lines are not restricted to warfare in Iraq. Called into question is sexuality, abortion and the right to life.
Who gets to live a life of their own in the United States anymore? Homeland security is everywhere. From hair tonic to whether there will be immigration?
The fabric of the United States is being torn to shreds.
I fear for the American people.
Your national ID card is on the way.
The clock has been ticking since the day it was decided to invade Iraq based on a pack of lies and a truck load of wishful thinking.
The total moral and ethical failure which would allow this has simply spread wider, to the point where it has become endemic for the nation as a whole. The tortuous leaps of illogic exhibited every day by so called “leaders” are just proof of their fundamental inabliity to view the world as it is instead of as a neocon fantasist would wish it to be.
Exactly how many ordrinary citizens on all sides will have to die before “face” has been saved? Is the protection of their vanity worth that – I would say absolutely not. Protecting their career may keep serving officers silent, but when they look back after retirement, they will most likely wish they took a higher road than silence. Those who actively promote lies and delusion deserve a special place in hell.
If loyalty to superiors is enough to justify any action, then Nuremburg would have resulted in no convictions of accused war criminals.
The current situation is altogether strange.
The best way I can characterize it is as follows:
“If Caesar had lost the Gallic Wars, whence the Roman Republic?”
It was not the defeat of the Roman armies but actually their victory that brought about the Republic’s end. The Romans essentially became too decadent to govern themselves any longer.
I would assert that the Bush administration was not the cause but rather a symptom of something decadent creeping into post-Cold War American society.
As bitter a pill to swallow as a defeat in Iraq may be, at least these decadent factors have been discredited.
The most corrosive impact of the neo-conservatives whispering in the ears of the True Believers is that their ideology of governance that the American hoi polloi have to be deceived and that only a select elite have the skills and secret knowledge to rule over the inferior. They are intent on creating a true American Empire. It is the Five O’clock Follies all over again, this time written large; propaganda permeating all of main stream media.
Worse, the True Believers thinking they are hearing God’s whispers in their ears accept their own propaganda as the truth.
Americans are deprived of the most basic facts and knowledge to make a rational democratic decision on the fate of their nation and families.
While I’ve never been a military man, had I been I’d have felt honored to have you as my commanding officer.
I’ve long had sypathy for the generals, both this time around and for those who had to parse Viet Nam in real time.
Today, of course, there were warning signs; there were resignations of outspoken leaders and there was, from all accounts, massive political shuffling in the ranks by Rumsfeld long before the great crusade was launched. The tenor of the time even before the towers fell was not one tolerant of critical thinking. So today’s generals had their choices more or less clearly presented to them.
It must be hard to be a professional soldier when the political establishment one serves goes batshit. But it remains a choice to get up every day and put that uniform on. After a while I think the choice needs to be seen as one between serving the concept of loyalty itself or serving the ideals that underly our the relatively unique project that is this Nation.
Our ideals are pretty clearly spelled out, too. They’re things like liberty and all men (all people) being created equal.
So each person needs to decide for themselves when they see the ethical fruits of their actions supporting or working against those ideals.
To paraphrase the old Knight Templar in the Indiana Jones film, it is important to choose wisely.
The United States are about to be judged. Judged in the Biblical sense.
There is more than enough information available to the electorate to vote for the right candidates in a few days.
If a Republican House and a Republican Senate are returned to office, the United States will be judged. 2008 is much too far away to be of any relevance whatsoever.
The people will be judged. The leaders are a known quantity. It is the people who about to make a stand. As they sow, so shall they reap.
That was then, now is now. From the point of view of your post, one difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that reporters such as Neal Sheehan for UPI and Peter Arnett for AP, and eventually others, did in fact get out in the field. This is what made the Five O’Clock Follies so foolish. First-hand observation vs. political spin also fed the divisions at home. It’s different today. With the notable exception of Tom Lasseter, there are no Sheehans and Arnetts in Iraq. (I might add: The media also is more corporate and monolithic, reporters are millionaires.) Division at home is much more muted–look at the Democrats’ dilemma–and public respect and concern for the troops is still very high, a year after you put your own concerns on paper. It’s the politicians who are in trouble. Facts will chase them down.
In these grim times there was a comment in the London-based Sunday Times by a US Army sergeant in Iraq that allowed me a brief moment of consolation: “When I was here in 2004 the Sunnis kept on attacking us and killed some of my good friends. Now the Sunnis are begging us for help from Shiite death squads. Well, tough luck.”
You wrote “I suppose my point is this… at least in Vietnam the national leadership could frame the war as a part of a larger strategy of containment”. Yes, you could. But, I suggest, you would have to dismiss the widespread belief that Communism had ceased to be a world wide monolithic movement by the time, at the earliest, of the show trials, at the latest, of Soviet-Nazi Pact.
Certainly by 1960 it was known world wide (though not widely admitted here) that there was a serious split between the Soviets and the Chinese. As it was widely known that there was a historical dislike between the North Vietnamese and the Chinese. As it was widely known that there were serious frictions between the Pathet Lao and the N. Vietnamese. And between the Cambodians and the N. Vietnamese. We are not talking about miffed feelings between all these groups. We are talking about war between most of them.
I believe that history has borne all this out.
But then again, if you want to believe “containment” was why we were in Vietnam you won’t be alone. It is the myth many buy.
We were there…..and in other places in Asia, for the exact same reasons we are in Iraq; in search of EmpireLite. There is very little difference. And once again, once again, the vast majority of senior military stayed silent (when it counted!), as in Vietnam. And once again….they, and military, and the nation, will pay for it.
I say again – those who send me phony e-mails will not have their comments posted. pl
Your essay is excellent. I would not wish a return to the days of Vietnam on my worst enemy.
I still remember “demonstration days” when we were ordered not to wear our uniforms and to turn up for work in plain clothes, “so as to avoid exciting the demonstrators”.
I remember carrying the colors as the youngest officer, during an ANZAC day march when rumors were that demonstrators would try to take them. We sent the rumor back that the bayonets were real and would be used in such a situation.
As regards the current situation, I’m afraid commentators and pundits are still suffering from national narcisissm. This is a disorder whose cost I will spell out below.
By narcissism, I mean the total lack of empathy with anyone not American.
I watched the classic example on Fox News yesterday – feigned moral outrage about American media screening a video taken by an insurgent of a sniper shooting, and apparently killing, an American soldier in Iraq. Now the narcissists see this as morally terrible, but any sane person would immediately remember the media showing videos of Americans killing Iraqi’s which is just as bad.
What nobody seems to understand, especially the narcissists,is that in all this talk of “options” in Iraq, is that there exists Walrus’s “option 5” (or maybe six, pick a number).
“Option Five” is that the insurgents coordinate well enough to cause our defences in Iraq to collapse and they then kill every single one of the 140,000 troops there and boot our sorry ass right out of the Gulf.
I believe this is a serious possibility. Israel just got cured of its national narcissism by Hezbollah. It’s our turn next, unless we can get rid of the narcissists and their fantasy world in which America is all powerful.
Then maybe we can put people in Washington who don’t believe that the sun shines out of the President’s @ss.
Compared to Vietnam, at least now the troops are not villified. All Americans support the valiant efforts of our soldiers on the ground in Iraq. The split is not between the populace and the military and in fact the military are held in high regard.
The generals on the other hand may not judged well by history and the American public. When Gen. Pace says that Rummy is inspired by God that enables criticism of sycophancy. Did the Generals provide real advice or did they say what the political leadership wanted to hear? This will come out at some point and they will be judged.
What will be interesting is the aftermath of Iraq on the American body politic. How will the lines be drawn? What will be the terms of the debate? Will anyone be held accountable?
The neocons will blame the liberals, Democrats and realists for losing Iraq and be very strident and definitive. Reminiscent of Vietnam the right will find their anti-war, dope smoking, hippie archetype. They will be supported in their narrative by the corporate media and the pundit class. They will clash with the segment that may not be very political but have been well informed. So the “big lie” will meet the semblance of truth in the battle of rhetoric and political gamesmanship. If political leadership that represents those that will not be so easily bamboozeled will emerge then the fight will get intense and there is a possibility that the realists will be vindicated.
As Bill Maher points out the Bush/Cheney led neocons have not got one decision right but more importantly they abused our system. There were many voices in America in 2002 that counseled caution and warned about the impending disaster if the invasion went ahead. So the big question is where will the next generation of Americans be in their judgement of this period. Will they vindicate the realists as patriots and defenders of American values and our constitution or will they believe the neocon rhetoric and blame the realists for the loss in Iraq?
jonst, your point about fractured communism by 1965 is well taken. Still, what do you make of Chinese support (arms and advisors) for Vietnam against the French in the 50’s?
Saw your niece and nephew today at Head of the Charles. They are thriving.
As long as Bush states outrageous lies such as this recent example on ABC,
STEPHANOPOULOS: James Baker says that he’s looking for something between “cut and run” and “stay the course.”
BUSH: Well, hey, listen, we’ve never been “stay the course,” George. We have been — we will complete the mission, we will do our job, and help achieve the goal, but we’re constantly adjusting to tactics. Constantly.
I don’t think people in the military need worry about taking flak.
His next big idea will be to invade Russia and take Stalingrad before winter sets in.
Maybe it is because I am from a certain type/area in the South where people were brought up to “do their duty”..but I never saw any anti-war marches or heard anyone call soliders names.
However I do remember my father making a comment when my brother, a Marine Lt. came back from VietNam that a large welcome home party would not be “appropiate”. I was somewhat puzzled by that as I thought some expression of gratitude or acknowledgment was due for the three purple hearts, two bronze and one silver star..not to mention one wound he would have to live with the rest of his life.
But it didn’t matter to him. He’s been married to his childhood sweetheart for 38 years, has had a successful life and now four grandchildren.
I will say, that today I think he would be willing to lead a attack on Washington before he would send his son to another VN type war or any other “political” war.
There’s dying, and then there is watching your men die and then there are generals sitting in the pentagon…and then there are so called citizens of this country like Wolfowitz, spitting on their comb to primp before they go on TV to hawk their war with lies.
Hang the traitors. Hang the generals if they don’t hang the traitors.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the thrust of your argument jonst. I would only point out that containing communist ideology in the post-colonial world (regardless of the particular national flavor) was a rational strategy for capitalist America. It might have been wrong, or a smokescreen for “EmpireLite”, but it was a rational, overarching national strategy. My first post was simply an attempt to contrast what I consider the rational (even if mistaken) initial strategy of waging war in Southeast Asia with the current Administration’s choice to wage an aggressive, offensive war seemingly outside of any current strategic context.
“it was, in essence, a defensive war that fit neatly into the overall U.S. strategy of containment”
I may have been born a decade after the fall of Saigon, but to me it seems that the Vietnam War was about as defensive as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. The US would have been in a superior strategic position worldwide if SE Asia had been free of Communism, but that hardly makes it defensive, especially considering the tendency of Communist nations to fight among themselves absent an immediate external threat.
Your observations are well taken. The Vietnam-Iraq debate is at once relevant and irrelevant. The biggest difference is that we went into Vietnam with some semblence of national unity that took about 3 or 4 years to fracture. We were divided goint into Iraq and lack of a clear mission and the descent into chaos and civil war has turned the nation against the war.
I was both an anti-war demonstrator during college and a combat infantryman in Vietnam. I returned alive and whole. I was not harassed or scorned, just ignored by a nation and even friends who did not know what to make of me and the others who served. I’m pleased to see that Iraq veterans are welcomed back but I know that civilians will never understand combat and how it lingers.
Perhaps if the Iraq war served some purpose this sacrifice would be tolerable but, like Vietnam, it comes to naught because BushCheney has squandered the lives of our soldiers.
Good phrase, from jonst above.
Having worked in East Africa and dealt with “diplomatic” expats, I am sure that paying $14,000 rental per month for a family to occupy a house is a bit OTT.
Empire heavy on $$$$$$$$$ kickbacks.
The young singer’s emphasis on “He’s a Marine” says alot.
All of this discussion presumes that the NeoKons are rational human beings that have traditional human valures.
I still think their original airm is to break Irak into three peaces.
1. an oil rich Kurdistan that will teach the Turks our friendship is not be taken for granted.
2. a poor Sunni middle that can “eat sand.”
3. a Shia bottom that WILL NOT be allied with Iran
their plan all along was to also BREAK UP IRAN.
They don’t give a ff for the nukes. It’s ultimately about money and that means who controls the oil wealth.
Iran is a multiethnic society with cracks ready to be blown asunder and Dumbya is the man to do it. If not in the next fortnight, then shortly thereafter.
That’s what you get when a kid is president w/ no adult supervision (can’t count the pumphead).
Frailty, thy name is Tehran
I didn’t serve in the military, nor did my father. I started college in 1974 and was active in the YMCA there. The office next door was the Veterans Affairs office. I would talk with the director sometimes in the hall, the job nearly broke him.
PTSD wasn’t named then and that was a part of the stress. VFWs and American Legion Posts often barred Vietnam Vets that was another another part. There were many problems among Vets including substance abuse and the criminal enterprises which enabled them. The divisions in America which made returning so hard were real, but the divisions weren’t so neat as often remembered.
The important point is Vets did not get the support they needed. I always think of one of the YMCA volunteers who tutored a third grader. I didn’t really know him, except that nominally I was the one in charge of the tutoring program. I saw him often walking to school being dropped off by his wife with his young daughter in the car and kissing them goodbye. When he didn’t show up for his tutoring session I called and learned he’d committed suicide. Probably there was nothing I could have done, but I felt guilty still feel guilty; guilty for not seeing his pain.
Returning Vets aren’t getting the support now. I t’s a difficult problem and the division and distrust among Americans is key to it. Perhaps you’ve heard about the film http://www.patdollard.com There is a trailer at YouTube (4.25 minutes) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isdhEDWXg4I It’s worth watching because the divisions are not easy to bridge. The refrain in the music to the trailer: “I’m not like you.”
As an anti-war freak all I can say is I want to build bridges. I don’t want returning Vets to be isolated and detached from ordinary life like the returning Vets from Vietnam were. But the bridge is a complex project.
Col. Lang, I’ve got enormous respect for you and this remarkable blog you’ve created. That respect was reinforced when I saw that you didn’t dump my comment, but posted it.
The gap between “those who serve the Republic and those who are served” requires hard work. Indeed those who are served have the greatest responsibility. As citizens we owe all those who serve attention to the policies which shape their service. Reading this blog provides much needed clarity. Thank you for all the work you do. You are a true patriot.