Of Soldiers, Spooks, and Do-Gooders

Right wing spokespersons are dutifully picking up Bush’s “Iraq is Vietnam” theme and trudging along with it. There are a couple of examples at the Corner. Here is the reliably inane Jonah Goldberg:

The mainstream media and a lot of liberal-leaning analysts seem to think it’s politically foolish or reckless for Bush to compare Vietnam to Iraq because they have one very specific narrative in mind when it comes to that war: America shouldn’t have gotten in, couldn’t have won, and then lost. What they have long failed to grasp is that’s not the moral of the story in the hearts of millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost (whether we should have gone in is a murkier question for many, I think).

And Byron York digs up an old article by James Webb that describes the aftermath of the fall of Saigon (Webb’s full article can be found here). Webb wrote in 2000 that the antiwar view of Vietnam was oversimplified, even cartoonish, and I agree that was usually the case. But then, so was the pro-war view.

York is implying, I think, that because terrible things happened in Southeast Asia after our military left, our military should not have left. He fails to note that terrible things happened in Southeast Asia while we were still there, and that most of the really bad things that came after — such as the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge — came about because of our military actions in Southeast Asia. In other words, the monster turned loose by our leaving was one of our own creation.

And who’s to say that, had we stayed longer, the monsters that eventually would have been unleashed wouldn’t have been bigger and badder?

The Right’s sudden, tender compassion for Cambodians reminds me of the concern that materialized in 2002 for the poor gassed Kurds. American right-wingers brushed off the gassing of the Kurds when it happened, in 1988. Attempts by liberals in Congress to address the issue were squelched by the Reagan administration, which continued to support the perpetrator, Saddam Hussein. Years passed without the poor Kurds being given a second thought. But suddenly, in 2002, when the Bush Administration needed to paint Saddam Hussein as the new Hitler, the Right seized upon the gassing of the Kurds as an unforgivable atrocity — which, of course, it was and always had been. And just as suddenly American wingnuts were beside themselves with anguish over the Kurds, and they insisted another second could not be lost in coming to their rescue, even though the gassing had occurred 15 years earlier and the Kurds had been protected from Saddam Hussein by U.S. flyovers since 1991.

I agree with Goldberg that there are “millions of Americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for American prestige and honor that we lost.” In a nation of more than 300 million you can find several million people who believe just about anything. However, I doubt that remorse over what happened to southeast Asians flickered through all that many wingnut hearts. It was, as Goldberg said, all about “prestige and honor.” And when Goldberg writes —

This is a point the Democrats fail to grasp: being on the side of surrender in a war is popular enough during the war, but if you succeed lots of Americans will later get buyer’s remorse and feel like it was a mistake and the next generation will see things very differently than their anti-war activist parents.

he fails to understand that millions of Americans in the early 1970s wanted us to stay in Vietnam, and these are the millions who kept alive the “we could have won had we stayed” notion. It wasn’t “buyer’s remorse,” because minds didn’t change. Somewhere in America there may be a handful of people who opposed the Vietnam war at the time but came to regret ending it, but I’ve never met such a person. The hawks, on the other hand, nursed their bitterness and shame, stubbornly refusing to notice that leaving Vietnam had no bad effects on the United States. Which, IMO, amounted to big honking empirical proof that what happened to South Vietnam was not a vital interest of the United States, and we shouldn’t have sent troops there to begin with.

What Really Happened in America is that once we were out of Vietnam the whole nation dropped the subject like a hot potato. This was a bipartisan subject dropping. The terrible things happening in Southeast Asia after 1975 had no measurable political ramifications here in the U.S. that I can think of.

It may be, as Goldberg suggests, that Americans too young to remember the Vietnam War themselves have been persuaded that we could have “won” had we stayed. It’s fairly easy to support a war when you are in no danger of being drafted to fight it. But in all these years no Vietnam War hawk has ever been able to explain to me what we would have “won” had we won, except more and bigger trouble, possibly from the Soviets, or China. Hawks never think past the parade.

Vietnam and Iraq are similar in that they present the same paradox — that victory could equal defeat. By that I mean using enough military force to utterly crush the warring factions would amount to throwing away our political objectives. The operative phrase, I believe, is “Pyrrhic victory.” To those who continue to complain that we could have “won” in Vietnam, and could still “win” in Iraq, I say, of course. But this isn’t a game. Get over childish ideas about “victory” and “defeat” and see the bigger picture, for once.

Instead of talking about winning and losing, we should clearly understand what our objectives are in Iraq and then consider how those objectives might be achieved. Military “victory” and “defeat” are abstractions that don’t apply to the reality.

Vietnam and Iraq are different in that, once out of Iraq, I doubt we will be able to shove it out of our minds as we did Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The Middle East is far more strategically important to us than Southeast Asia was. How we withdraw really does need to be given serious thought and planning. Just because we Americans could ignore what happened in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s doesn’t mean we will be able to ignore what happens in Iraq after we leave. Matters could get worse there. On the other hand, they could get better. There are so many variables I don’t think anyone can know with certainty how events will play out. However, the argument that we can’t leave because the situation might get worse if we do does not wash.

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

Politics, not ideology, will determine the future of the Middle East. That’s good news and bad news. Good news because the interests and aspirations of Arabs and non-Arabs, Shiites and Sunnis, modernizers and traditionalists will combine to prevent any one faction from gaining the upper hand. Bad news because those same factors guarantee that the Middle East will remain an unstable mess for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes people can manage their own affairs. Does the U.S. need to attend to that mess? Perhaps not.

Here the experience of Vietnam following the U.S. defeat is instructive. Once the Americans departed, the Vietnamese began getting their act together. Although not a utopia, Vietnam has become a stable and increasingly prosperous nation. It is a responsible member of the international community. In Hanoi, the communists remain in power. From an American point of view, who cares?

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.

There is much hysterical rhetoric coming from war supporters about the “cause of freedom.” I suggest the best way to support the “cause of freedom” is to let people have it.

See also Dan Froomkin’s “The Lost Year” and the Saturday cartoons.

Update: This post of Digby’s slipped my mind, but deserves to be mentioned here. A right-wing organization called Family Security Matters sent around an email, since scrubbed, advocating nuking Iraq.

The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office, if not his freedom or his life.

And this reveals the “inadequacy of democracy.” Barbara Comstock, Monica Crowley, Frank Gaffney, Laura Ingraham and James Woolsey are among the righties on the Family Security Matters board of directors.

33 thoughts on “Of Soldiers, Spooks, and Do-Gooders

  1. With either Vietnam or Iraq, I have yet to hear a definition of “victory” that makes any sense.

  2. From B.Tuchman, part of the reason why our war in Vietnam was doomed to end in failure “was the failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill.”

    Her last chapter in “The March of Folly” is titled ‘America Betrays Herself in Vietnam.’ She quotes Chatham’s summary of a nation’s self-betrayal: “by the arts of imposition, by its own credulity, through the means of false hope, false pride and promised advantages of the most romantic and improbale nature.”

    Great post, Maha. Would an example of ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ be bombing a place right off the map, because we could bomb Iraq with conventional weapons and in about two months it would be off the map. (The oil would still be there, of course) How many hawks privately favor this strategy, but how many would say so in public? (Especially if they were running for office?) Which is exactly why ‘hawk talk’ ends up being a lot of sound and fury signifying nada.

  3. Wow, that Jonah quote is a choice illustration of your earlier post about myth. For him it’s all about a choice of narratives, and the failure of the liberals to understand the ‘moral’ of ‘the story’. God forbid there might be any authority in something like actual fact-based history.

    It’s a shame they can’t find the gripping stories History actually holds, like that one from 289 BC about King Pyrrhus:

    The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

    Pyrrhus, first of the Defeatocrats?

  4. I am glad that President Bush finally dared to speak the truth (however gingerly) about the massive treachery committed by Congressional Democrats, which was the sole cause of our defeat and humiliation in Vietnam. By 1972 General Creighton Abrams, a brilliant military strategist like General Petraeus, had achieved a stunning victory over the North Vietnamese armies in the south and turned over control to the South Vietnamese army, which he had capably trained into a formidable force more than capable of handling their Communist foes. The American people rewarded President Nixon with a crushing reelection victory in 1972. Congressional Democrats could not stand their humiliation and putting party politics ahead of the welfare of the nation, staged a coup d’etat and forced President Nixon to resign on trumped up charges of no consequence and then proceeded to pull the rug from under our valiant Vietnamese allies and handed victory to the Communists on a silver platter. President Bush should speak more forcefully and make it clear to the American people that he will use whatever means are necessary to prevent a treacherous opposition from having their way and sabotaging our hard won victory in Iraq.

  5. Oh, lookee, folks, nabalzbbfr finally figured out how to get around the twit filter. How’s the weather in your universe, fella?

  6. nabal-whatever must be running around the blogoshpere with that screed. I just saw the same thing at Balloon Juice.

    I hope he didn’t stay up all night writing it.

  7. This has always been the problem for the Conservative mindset. They reinforce their own misconceptions by listening to no one but themselves. If all of the people they associate with held these views they must therefore be the majority view. If any poll shows differently it must be the product of some liberal bias.
    If the reality of the situation in Iraq cannot be accepted by these Republinuts, then they need to be marginalized by the media. Giving them equal or greater time to present a view is not balanced reporting it is abetting insanity.

  8. In case anyone still doesn’t know, “nabalzbbfr”=”anonymoose” in ROT13. (ROT13 explained)

    Might I suggest everyone stop playing along with its name-shift? (or at least refer to it from now on as nonymoose-ay.)

  9. Someone needs to resurrect polling data from about 1970 to the late 70s regarding public attitudes toward VietNam, and construct a timeline, to refute the wingnuts’ revisionism. Gallup or a similar org must have this in their vaults. Otherwise all we have is anecdotal hearsay of what people thought about it back then.

    Of course “millions” thought what what the inane Jonah Goldberg states. As you point out this is a weaseling technique often used by the right when trying muscle their views forward. It says more about them and the tiny universe they inhabit, as well as their utter lack of concern for fairness and truth. I would add, this type of weaseling with words like “millions” taken out of context needs to be pointed out and shoved in their face whenever they attempt it.

    What I remember of VietNam (anecdotal evidence) was an enormous relief when it was over, a national dropping of it from the public mindspace like a hot potato, as you wrote. A loss of prestige for our country is inevitable if we were somewhere where we didn’t belong.

    As for our friend nabalzbbfr, I’m reminded of all those Doonesbury cartoons where Uncle Duke is depicted with all sorts of tiny bubbles and whatnot rising and popping around his head, when he’s off on some psychedelic mind excursion. These people then embarass themselves when they try to communicate with the reality based community.

    And I do like From Pyrrhus to Petraeus.

  10. I find it amazing that those who claim that the U.S. could have avoided defeat in Vietnam never provide specifics about what should have been done differently. The U.S. was actively involved in Vietnam for over a decade and, for several years, the U.S. troop level was at or near 500,000 – all of this for a country the approximate size of Wisconsin, a country that had never attacked us and had no ability to attack us.

    I want people like Goldberg to explain exactly what should have been done in Vietnam and how these changes in our actions/strategy would have been accomplished.

  11. Go Jonah!.. Real history where coulda’s count.

    You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

  12. #13
    I do remember that there were quite a few hawk types who believed that the full force of our military and arsenal should be launched on the North. Their argument was that we were fighting a war” with our hands tied behind our backs.” Why the politicians, the five presidents and/or the military didn’t level the place, I can’t answer.

    Those of us in the streets protesting were blamed – as if we had control of the ‘situation’ – for the way the war was being fought. (The misplaced blame game was as alive and well in the ’60’s and ’70’s as it is now.)

    As far as Goldberg is concerned, give it up. As I remember it, the pull-out from Nam was actually the result of a disgruntled, disobedient, even rebellious American military. The troops were near mutiny – if you can mutiny on land. I don’t know how far up the military line of command the ‘rebellion’ went, but it definitely existed among the rank and file.

  13. #16 — I always figured that we couldn’t pull out all the stops in Vietnam without engaging the Soviet Union, which was supplying and training North Vietnam in the 1970s. The Soviets were keenly interested in maintaining some kind of presence in Indochina because they didn’t trust the Chinese, so they were making nice with North Vietnam. I believe one of the reasons China was willing to talk to Nixon and Kissinger back then was that the Chinese were concerned North Vietnam would become a Soviet puppet.

    Anyway, at the time it seemed to me that the U.S. had begun a total war campaign against North Vietnam, the Soviets might have felt they had no choice but to engage us. And this would have been in China’s back yard. This would have been bad.

  14. Short of genocide, we could not win in Vietnam unless we could convince the Vietnamese people to accept neocolonial status and support the US controlled puppet regime.

    Because it was a war of independence.

  15. George McGovern, March 1965, in a CBS panel discussion on Vietnam (referenced in the just-released “The Liberals’ Moment” by Bruce Miroff):

    I think there will be a staggering loss of human life out of all proportion to the stakes involved and I see no guarantee that once we go through that kind of a murderous and destructive kind of military effort that the situation out there will be any better. In fact, I think it will be a lot worse.

  16. i agree with goldberg that there are “millions of americans who believe that we could have won if wanted to and it was a disaster for american prestige and honor that we lost.” in a nation of more than 300 million you can find several million people who believe just about anything.

    there’s actually a similiar number, perhaps many of them overlapping, that believe jesus will lift them up out of their clothes into the sky when the dead walk the earth and jews burst into spontaneous combustion.

  17. By the time we left Vietnam, our Army had been shattered. A complete breakdown of discipline: drug abuse was rampant, as was fragging (in theater) of officers. Had we stay on another 5-10 years, our (conscript) military would have truly ceased to function as an effective fighting force. I don’t know a single historian who would disagree with that.

    With the woeful state of our military (in the mid 70s) in mind, what intelligent person would advocate, even in retrospect, prolonging America’s longest war? It’s utter insanity to suggest such a thing.

    But President AWOL went ahead and did it, anyway . . .

  18. One has to wonder when the big guys will understand that ‘wars’ like Nam, Korea, Afghanistan (Russians) Algeria, Iraq invariably turn out the same way. Almost all the convential battles are won by the big guy while failing to control the countryside.

    Doesn’t anybody read history? Brezezinski does. He wrote to Carter when the Soviets crossed the Afghan border, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviets its Vietnam War.”

  19. Goldberg isn’t old enough to know any thing but what he has read about Vietnam. He isn’t old enough to have known even one of those 58,000+ names on the Vietnam memorial wall. Thus, he isn’t even old enough to know “what the moral of Vietnam” was.

    And, all this talk about nuclear bombs . . . . Doesn’t any one understand any more that nuclear bombs do more damage than wipe out the target????!!!!! If Iraq were nuked, the radiation would spread all through Europe–our allies!–Russia, and Asia. With the right winds, the radiation would blow across the ocean to America. That is why all the political leaders of the 50s and 60s worked hard to keep that from happening.

    I understand that these rightwing nut jobs seem to enjoy murdering people who don’t look like them and they hate worrying about destroying the environment; but, to not understand the impact of nuclear bombs!!! The height of stupidity. Jonah and his gang of nitwits need to spend a few years with air raid drills several times a day every day, hiding under their desks, building fallout shelters, etc.

    I am truly appalled at all the talk of nuking people and no one ever bringing up the after effects. Dropping a nuclear bomb on some country is spoken, oh, so casually–as if it’s nothing more than dropping a shirt off at the dry cleaners.

  20. I am truly appalled at all the talk of nuking people and no one ever bringing up the after effects.

    Worse than radioactive clouds heading our way, using nukes would seriously up the ante, turning a medium sized, relatively contained war – “just keep shopping, America” – into potentially something truly horrifying, truly deserving of the name “World War III”. It greatly risks the killing of millions instantly, while risking serious shocks to the world economy, while turning the whole world against us.

    Bloodthirsty rightwingers would finally learn the lesson that what goes ’round comes around. They think America is all powerful because of our nukes, and they also think that the rest of the world would and should tremble before us – because that’s how they themselves relate to power – they project their same fear-based relationship onto others.

    In 2003, when Bush was amassing his invasion fleet on Iraq’s doorstep, the space shuttle Columbia blew up on reentry. A right wing coworker – convinced that Saddam was hiding WMDs per the propaganda – suggested that this would be an excellent time for Saddam to send condolences to Bush. I looked at the clueless idiot, and replied that, if I were Saddam, I would take this as an omen that Allah is on my side, and reply to Bush: “fuck your dead astronauts, America”. The doofus right winger could not comprehend a Saddam who was not cowed by America’s power, because this is how the right winger relates to power, as a compliant, submissive coward.

    The big argument argument against the neocons’ aggressions in my mind always was what the CIA called “blowback” – and this is not referring to radioactive clouds. Using nukes would worsen the blowback exponentially.

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  22. Once again, a stupendous essay and fantastic comments all around. I’m quite glad to have found your website.

    The interesting thing for me is how Vietnam fits so nicely in how the right live by myths. While I’m not old enough to remember it, from the history I’ve read I have always concluded it was a civil war and the U.S. had no business being there. The entire domino theory was just a great absurdity without any connection to reality. However, since the right can’t think critically anymore, due to years of listening to Rush Limbuagh, and more recently, watching fixed news, the right has hooked on this myth that the “victory” in Vietnam was just around the corner and it was all the liberal societies fault we lost.

    Therefore a great portion of our nation have become un-critical “dittoheads” who are nothing more than robots for the Republican party. Democracy is a great thing huh?

  23. I have read several articles bemoaning the outcome of the Vietnam War, including Webb’s, and what struck me was that they all subscibe to the same fallacy that the antiwar movement was pro-communist.

    I wouldn’t dream of asserting that there were no marxists or marxist leaning participants in the antiwar crowd during Vietnam, although I suspect many if not most were dilettantes playing at being revolutionaries.

    But my personal recollections and everything I have read support the conclusion that most members of the antiwar movement were simply that; antiwar.

    It is no different today. I haven’t seen anyone who would defend Saddam Hussein or his regime. He was an evil tyrant and his sons were even worse.

    But a common meme of the chickenhawk crowd is to equate being against our invasion and occupation of Iraq with being pro-Saddam.

    I suspect however, that there is a growing group of people who see Saddam more favorably than they used to, and who long somewhat nostalgically for the days when he was in power.

    That group are the Iraqis who we “rescued” from the frying pan and put into the fire.

    Like Vietnam, Iraq was a mess we should have stayed out of, not because the people we fought were noble and good, but because our involvement was only going to make things worse.

  24. #27

    Not many dilettantes, a lot of students (available time and newly fired up minds), Nam vets, mothers (I), fathers, grandparents, priests, other religious, nuns, pacifists, show-offs and the just plained bored…Of course the mix grew and diversified as the war continued, but revolutionaries or marxists? If there were any, they weren’t going around shouting workers of the world unite.

  25. If you want to know how Goldberg and company would have “won” just think back to their right wing ancestors who wanted to use nukes in Vietnam. These are of course the same folks who wanted JFK to go nuclear in the Cuban Missle crisis, and Ike to go nuclear against China in regards to the Taiwan Straits. You see a pattern here?

  26. It wasn’t the nuke them all comment which got it pulled.

    I have friends who wouldn’t blinnk a moral eyelid at turning all of Iraq to glass.

    But the other comments in that column; that Bush needs to play Caesar at the Rubicon and declare himself president for life, so we can engage in genocide… that’s the part they would quail from.

    They have come to the decision that the present administration is anti-american, and that column proved some of it’s more influential supporters are in favor of those policies.

    It was lifting the veil.

  27. As I recall, there was an attempt to bomb the North into submisssion. The target(s) were neighborhoods, not military installations, and the backlash, national & international, marked the end of a strategy that was accepted in WWII, carpet bombing cities, and ushered in the era of the ‘smart bomb’.

    Mass murder, as a strategy, worked in WWII. The Axis Powers were also willing to bomb civilains, and develop weapons of mass destruction. The world has rejected the strategy of partial or complete genocide. What happend to Germany – WWII – proves an adage that must not be fogotten. A bad-ass may be able to beat up anyone on the blook, but he can’t whip EVERYONE on the block. How well would the US economy survive sanctions & embargos if the world united against us?

  28. #10: In case anyone still doesn’t know, “nabalzbbfr”=”anonymoose” in ROT13.

    Wow, blast from the past – I haven’t seen anyone using ROT13 since the late 80’s. I thought the name meant “Nabal’s best boy friend.” 🙂

  29. The added irony of the sudden outpouring of right-wing grief for the casualties of Indochina following the fall of Saigon is that these are the same goddamn people who would refuse (or refused) the waves of immigrants that came out of that situation.

    Are there any right-wingers who’ve been pushing to allow Iraqi refugee immigration at present?

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