Forty years after the US withdrawal from Vietnam, scholars and old soldiers gathered last week in Washington for sober reflection on what Americans learned from that bloody conflict and what many historians now teach. The Pentagon produced its own white-washed commemoration of the war it lost, but the seminars sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and New York University sounded more like regretful lamentations.
It wasn’t that government policy makers and the US military learned nothing from Vietnam. On the contrary, they learned how to fight two, three, many mini-Vietnams all at once, and without provoking the anger of the American people. That’s an extraordinary political achievement, when you think about it. Most Americans don’t think about it. Instead, they occasionally participate as spectators in the maudlin rituals of faux patriotism that have replaced the mammoth anti-war rallies of yesteryear.
One lesson of Vietnam, as a seminar participant quipped, is “Don’t draft white kids from the Ivy League.”
Working-class young people (of all colors) do the fighting for us now and take the casualties, especially when there are no good jobs for them back home. In return, people will pause for a solemn moment at baseball games and other public events to thank the dead and wounded for their sacrifice. “They were not heroes,” Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies observed. “They were the victims.”
Nevertheless, the military commanders and elite crafters of US foreign policy have established that the American people will tolerate long, even endless wars that do not lead to old-fashioned, unambiguous victory so long as American casualties are kept low. Never mind the foreign casualties or the massive bombing that kills so many innocent bystanders. Disregard the blatant illegalities of torture and murder in the midst of warfare. America insists upon seeing itself as the injured innocent in world affairs.
Soldiers and scholars at the NYU seminars argued the opposite—that the nation has still failed to recognize and confront the true lesson of Vietnam. The consequences of this failure are visible now in the chaos and killing across the Middle East and in some African nations. Just as in Vietnam, the military establishment political leaders cling to a naïve and arrogant presumption that American military power will solve political problems in foreign societies.
“That is what we’re still saying in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Colonel Gregory Daddis, who teaches history at West Point. “We just believe we can create new societies by applying military power. We are engaged in the same thing despite what happened in Iraq. We still believe we can build democracies with military force.”
I asked Colonel Daddis if his skepticism is now widely expressed at West Point. “In the history department,” he said with a smile.