Friday, January 12, 2007


Ted Kennedy recently called the Iraq War, "Bush's Vietnam." The tendency to such analogies seems rampant, but what do they really mean? What Ted was supposedly trying to say is that Bush, like those unwitting prezzes who got us into the Vietnam debacle (including his older bro JFK), has entered an unwinnable war and so it's time to pull out. But if there's a history lesson from Vietnam it's: "don't enter unwinnable wars." Too late for that! And since most of those on Capitol Hill approved of "the war plan" way back when....

The point of comparison is that a war is unwinnable when there is no final realizable goal. In Vietnam it was: to demoralize North Vietnam so that they would surrender any claim to South Vietnam, or to drive them to the table to agree to our terms. Never quite happened. The other point was to prevent "the spread of Communism," which was just the trumped-up rhetorical version of the WMD: the ostensible causus belli. Neither really panned-out in the long run, but it didn't matter since their strategic purpose was to create the "launch" mentality. LBJ did that with just the Tonkin incident to (fudge and) drum up support; GB2 had the World Trade Center attack. So, yes, we must rush to war. Oh shit, it's not going our way (after years). Now what?

The other point of the Vietnam analogy is: just when everyone thought the war was being won, they decided, after the Tet offensive, it was really lost. It wasn't either. But that was enough to turn everyone against an effort that shouldn't have been made in the first place but that, once committed, had to be seen through. In that sense I find myself in the ridiculous position of actually agreeing with Bush! (inasmuch as the "I am in blood steeped so far that returning were as tedious as go o'er" mentality of Macbeth applies -- in other words, if you can't be ruthless, why go to war?).

The point at which to pull-the-plug was before GB2 got started, not now (so why was there no serious opposition then?). Could Nixon have "won" the war he inherited? Doubtful, but he at least was working toward diplomacy with China so that the vast "communist threat" argument was weakened and the question of what to do about North Vietnam might've become a more general geopolitical question, not just an effort by the U.S. to set up an unpopular regime in the South and call it the ruler of both Vietnams.

Is there any hope of attaining an actual goal in Iraq? I have no idea because I don't think anyone really knows what the goal was to begin with. To get Saddam, yes. Did that. But then what? Uh... watch democracy take root. Er, build-up more economic dependence on the U.S. and install government friendly to our interests in the area? Um, try not to get killed too much while trying to stop others from killing each other as they wrestle for power and attack the U.S. simply for being there at all?

But the point about "winning" is that, for civilians, it seems to mean that we send in the military with "a job to do," and they do it and come back home and the place is now all the better after our "intervention" (invasion). But, historically, if you invade, you take over (which means constant military presence), but no, we don't really want to do that! (Of course not, that would be imperialist). BUT, for the military, being "in action" is the entire point. To be a presence -- policing, subduing, invading -- is its purpose and the military "wins" when it is allowed to press on into such a situation. Thus the doublethink of our news reports with their sentimental "support our boys and girls at the front" -- because these are real lives being risked and lost -- must avoid any recognition of what the U.S. military is as a purposeful entity in the world. The general view seems to be: it's "ours" and so "we" support "it." But we don't want it doing what it trains itself to do if too many lives or too much money is lost. Thus any checks upon it come only from "public opinion" exerted upon politicians, which has little grasp of the strategy or the purpose of taking a military action.

The analogy between Vietnam and Iraq stands because in both cases Prezzes following their own agendas committed the U.S. in situations that were much more complex and vexed than they realized, depending on military know-how to bring the situation to order. In both cases, the military went about its actions according to its lights, with no end in sight (unless some diplomatic coup occurred). The political purpose of the engagement was left to the politicians, but there was no real consensus on what that should be, so the engagement simply ran on and on, until everyone at home got so tired of it, they pulled the plug on the venture, pulled out the military, and let hell come down. Hey, we tried. Now let's find somebody to blame.


Andrew Shields said...

"so why was there no serious opposition then?" I keep wondering that myself. It's not like the writing was not on the wall: there were numerous public voices in Europe who described the current situation in Iraq back in 2002. But Rummy's ridiculous rhetoric of "Old Europe" managed to silence the potential public voices in the U.S.

One significant difference between I and V that crossed my mind the other day is that Vietnam was a gradual involvement that lasted through three presidencies before Johnson escalated it (DDE, JFK, and the beginning of LBJ). So each of them could blame the others, if need be. But Iraq is wholly and entirely the result of one huge, utterly misguided invasion ordered by GWB.

jim said...

re: "Iraq is wholly and entirely the result of one huge, utterly misguided invasion ordered by GWB."

Unfortunately, the groundwork has already been carefully laid by the administration and the right-wing pundit class for our inevitable failure to be blamed on the media, Democrats, the "extreme" left, and a country that just didn't have the stomach to see Bush's plan through to the end. It's depressing to watch all of the C-Y-A, eye-on-how-the-history-will-be-written maneuvering going on (and both sides are guilty of this, but since the right "owns" the war I'll point the finger at them a lot more) while actual people are out there getting killed.

Donald Brown said...

Good point -- the record will show that Bush got us into the mess, but I think it's time to drawback from the Bush-bashing to understand what is really at work in the U.S.'s gung-ho rush into war and then its "erosion of confidence" later on -- the public, not just the politicians.

It's true many will want to blame that "erosion of confidence" in Iraq, as in Vietnam, on the Dems and the media, because the Repubs do "own" the war (in this case), but after the next election, the Dems may find themselves inheriting a war, and the disaster of abandoning a military venture to suit the folks back home is one of the lessons of Vietnam.

Whether a Repub abandons the war the Dems escalated, or a Dem abandons a war the Repubs initiated is just party politics. The military is still the issue.

renew said...

"Don't enter unwinnable wars"???

What? Don't enter any wars. Period! There are no winners to a war to begin with. As soon as you enter you've lost.

And if these people hadn't shot JFK then Vietnam probably wouldn't have been as big a disaster. Isn't that why he was shot in the first place, because he wanted to end it quickly?

Sorry, but that's the pacifist and conspiracy theorist talking. :-)

Andrew Shields said...

There is no real evidence that JFK was trying to get out of Vietnam, so the idea that American participation there would not have escalated if he had not been shot is unconvincing.

renew said...

I'm not too familiar with all that stuff (JFK was shot more than 20 years before I was born) so my question was not rhetorical, but serious.
Is it not the "big" explanation/theory that he was killed because he didn't approve of the Vietnam war?

Donald Brown said...

well that explanation/theory is a new one on me! I suppose it's popular with those who want to believe in JFK's sainted memory: a way to be against Vietnam and for JFK at the same time. But JFK was a virulent Cold Warrior who very much escalated our presence. He wanted to turn the task over to Diem, but that proved impossible (just as Bush is finding it impossible to turn Iraq over to Iraqis). LBJ mainly carried on the war policy as inherited from JFK and his adminstration's hawks -- until they began to turn tail. He became so demoralized he refused to run again. Unlike Bush, he did have others to blame, partly.

Andrew Shields said...

"JFK was a virulent Cold Warrior": all of the JFK myth has to do with what he did on the home front, really (except the Ich bin ein Berliner part).

Donald Brown said...

In Against the Day there is an institutionalized man who believes he is a jelly doughnut (and leaves powdered sugar wherever he goes), known for saying "Ich bin ein Berliner."

But that moment at the wall was just one of many "I'll Take My Stand" moments in JFK's battle with communism "anywhere on the globe" -- Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam. I can understand a myth that he would've "won" the war, but not a myth that he was against it.