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.
How could the political transformation from peace to war happen so soon after the disastrous failed war in Vietnam and the explosive popular opposition it provoked?
Colonel Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who fought in Vietnam and whose son fought and died in Iraq, provided a coherent narrative. In the 1970s, he explained, the military faced what it called the “Vietnam syndrome”—the long war fought by citizen soldiers had seriously restricted the military establishment and posed a terrible problem for Pentagon strategists.
“The public was regarded as fickle and untrustworthy and prone to isolationism,” he said. “Members of the national security elite viewed this as a monstrous thing. Efforts to overturn the Vietnam Syndrome involved two important things. The first was the creation of the all-volunteer force. Rather than citizen soldiers, it relied on a professional force. That would save money and produce a more reliable force. It promised to give members of the policy elite greater latitude in employing that force. With a sufficiently capable army of professionals, the state could take the nation to war without involving the public.
Phyllis Bennis of IPS described a parallel way in which the shift was fundamentally driven by the horrendous casualties in Vietnam, but also by class conflict. “There was the end of the Legal Draft and the beginning of the Poverty Draft,” she said. “Then the shift was no longer dependent on the poor and racial minorities, but what you do have is a shift to the people from small towns and rural places—people so cut off from the power centers on both coasts. Now it is the Draft by Lack of Opportunity.”
The second major change Bacevich described was in war-planning—a new high-tech force designed and equipped to produce rapid results. “Future wars, unlike Vietnam, would be short rather than long,” the colonel explained, “and more importantly, they would involve clear-cut victories. Disciplined, highly trained soldiers along with technology, the best that money could buy, would give the force clear advantage on any battlefield.”
Desert Storm in 1991 was the test model—overwhelming force and quick victory. It succeeded brilliantly. Most everyone cheered. The military videos were a big hit.
Desert Storm “produced the illusion of a decisive victory, won quickly and safely, which left the American people confined happily to the role of spectators,” Bacevich added.
About the same time, the Cold War ended with the Soviet collapse. But that didn’t change much. As the only remaining superpower, Washington expanded its military reach in a string of small quasi-wars—Somalia, Panama, Haiti, Kosovo. “So Cold War or no Cold War, kicking the Vietnam syndrome opened the door to a new age of interventionism,” the colonel observed. “Happy to indulge in the notion of the world’s sole superpower, the American public really didn’t pay all that much attention.”
Nor did the wars remain short and sweet. The war-fighting capabilities and failure to limit military ambitions created something resembling “permanent war,” Bacevich concluded. The new wars do not end neatly but keep expanding to new battlefields.
The new wars, he judged, “are waged by a military force that has proven to be remarkably durable but that can’t win and is directed by a strategically clueless elite and is indulged by a public that professes to support the troops but is largely indifferent as to how the troops are actually used.”
“No end in sight,” he concluded. “In terms of recognizing the limits of force we are no better shape today than we were back in 1965 when President Johnson so recklessly sent US troops off to fight.”
There were moments of hopeful discussion and polite disagreement, though optimism was muted. Bennis sees real momentum in anti-war organizations and the peace movement. Bacevich did not see the movement that she sees.
“How are we going to get out of this?” the colonel asked. “We are going to get out of this once the officer corps become alert to the dangerous course on which we have been headed for such a long time—the course I would argue that is not in the interest of the military institution they serve and which they profess to love.”
He gently suggested to the peace movement: “Do not work on the assumption that the officer corps is your adversary. In truth, there is a unique potential for the officer corps to be your ally.”
From her experience addressing military ranks, Bennis said she doubted that potential. “l don’t think the officer corps is our adversary,” she said. “Militarism is our adversary.”
Maybe both of them are right. Certainly they do agree on this: US militarism will not be reined in until the American people get off the sidelines and accept their own culpability for stupid, horrendous, endless wars fought in their name.