A Very Long War: From Vietnam to AfghanistanRoundup
tags: Vietnam War, war, militarism
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.
In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.
Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?
Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.
On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.
For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.
From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.
The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.
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