If our wars in the Greater Middle East ever end, it’s a pretty safe bet that they will end badly—and it won’t be the first time. The “fall of Saigon” in 1975 was the quintessential bitter end to a war. Oddly enough, however, we’ve since found ways to reimagine that denouement which miraculously transformed a failed and brutal war of American aggression into a tragic humanitarian rescue mission. Our most popular Vietnam end-stories bury the long, ghastly history that preceded the “fall,” while managing to absolve us of our primary responsibility for creating the disaster. Think of them as silver-lining tributes to good intentions and last-ditch heroism that may come in handy in the years ahead.
The trick, it turned out, was to separate the final act from the rest of the play. To be sure, the ending in Vietnam was not a happy one, at least not for many Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of those final days of the war. We will once again surely see the searing images of terrified refugees, desperate evacuations, and final defeat. But even that grim tale offers a lesson to those who will someday memorialize our present round of disastrous wars: toss out the historical background and you can recast any US mission as a flawed but honorable, if not noble, effort by good-guy rescuers to save innocents from the rampaging forces of aggression. In the Vietnamese case, of course, the rescue was so incomplete and the defeat so total that many Americans concluded their country had “abandoned” its cause and “betrayed” its allies. By focusing on the gloomy conclusion, however, you could at least stop dwelling on the far more incriminating tale of the war’s origins and expansion, and the ruthless way the United States waged it.
Here’s another way to feel better about America’s role in starting and fighting bad wars: make sure US troops leave the stage for a decent interval before the final debacle. That way, in the last act, they can swoop back in with a new and less objectionable mission. Instead of once again waging brutal counterinsurgencies on behalf of despised governments, American troops can concentrate on a humanitarian effort most war-weary citizens and soldiers would welcome: evacuation and escape.
Phony Endings and Actual Ones