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Take off your hat. Taps is playing. Almost four decades late, the Vietnam War and its post-war spawn, the Vietnam Syndrome, are finally heading for their American grave. It may qualify as the longest attempted burial in history. Last words—both eulogies and curses—have been offered too many times to mention, and yet no American administration found the silver bullet that would put that war away for keeps.
Richard Nixon tried to get rid of it while it was still going on by “Vietnamizing” it. Seven years after it ended, Ronald Reagan tried to praise it into the dustbin of history, hailing it as “a noble cause.” Instead, it morphed from a defeat in the imperium into a “syndrome,” an unhealthy aversion to war-making believed to afflict the American people to their core.
A decade later, after the US military smashed Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait in the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush exulted that the country had finally “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” As it turned out, despite the organization of massive “victory parades” at home to prove that this hadn’t been Vietnam redux, that war kicked back. Another decade passed and there were H.W.’s son W. and his advisors planning the invasion of Iraq through a haze of Vietnam-constrained obsessions.
W.’s top officials and the Pentagon would actually organize the public relations aspect of that invasion and the occupation that followed as a Vietnam opposite’s game—no “body counts” to turn off the public, plenty of embedded reporters so that journalists couldn’t roam free and (as in Vietnam) harm the war effort, and so on. The one thing they weren’t going to do was lose another war the way Vietnam had been lost. Yet they managed once again to bog the US military down in disaster on the Eurasian mainland, could barely manage to win a heart or a mind and even began issuing body counts of the enemy dead.
“We don’t do body counts,” General Tommy Franks, Afghan War commander, had insisted in 2001, and as late as November 2006, the president was still expressing his irritation about Iraq to a group of conservative news columnists this way: “We don’t get to say that—a thousand of the enemy killed or whatever the number was. It’s happening. You just don’t know it.” The problem, he explained, was: “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body count team” (à la Vietnam). And then, of course, those body counts began appearing.