Editor’s Note: I wrote this after binge-watching Ken Burns’ 18-hour (10 episode) documentary on the Vietnam War. It was a real eye opener for me, because I’d forgotten how much we had been lied to and how really terrible our involvement in Southeast Asia had been for the country. For those of you younger people out there who think we are currently terribly split by our Left-Right partisan differences, I can tell you that it’s nothing compared to how it was back then. And we had a draft hanging over our heads, so our president’s lying didn't just hurt your sense of patriotism and decency, it had the very real chance of being the cause of our death.

Vietnam Syndrome ... If Only


For an all-too-brief time in the 70s, America was afflicted with “Vietnam Syndrome.” Resulting from our defeat in Indochina, it manifested mainly as a reluctance to invade other countries.

In the decade following, Ronald Reagan, who’s credited with “getting the country walking tall again,” banished Vietnam Syndrome. In 1983, he flexed our muscles with Operation Urgent Fury — the conquest of the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada. In 1989, George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Causethe slightly more-ambitious invasion of Panama. Two years later, in our last successful ground war, Bush drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

In the new century, American Exceptionalism morphed into overconfidence. Although 9/11 made the Afghan invasion unavoidable, it didn’t force us to occupy it in perpetuity, and we had no legitimate reason to invade Iraq a second time. Afghanistan has now surpassed Vietnam as our longest-running war (Iraq II is third), and President Trump sounds like he’s planning for victory, although no one has any idea what winning would look like.

It’s beginning to sound tragically familiar. Trump’s Afghan mini-surge promises to be about as efficacious as President Obama’s pointless troop increase in 2009. Although George W. Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge was hailed by conservatives, the Iraq war still ended as an abject failure that aided the spread of ISIS and abetted Iran’s regional hegemony.

Like the Vietnam era’s continual escalations, these surges are what social scientists call “investment traps.” In common parlance, it’s the compulsion to “throw good money after bad.” I understand this concept, because I play poker. The phrase, “pot committed” refers to the unwillingness to fold a bad hand that started out good. Eventually, you realize your sevens in the hole are a loser, but you’ve already thrown lots of money into the pot and hate giving up without a fight. You’d started with high hopes, so you keep on betting.

We entered the Vietnam War with good intentions, and an exaggerated sense of American Exceptionalism that promised victory. However, as the body bags multiplied, the politicians and their advisors came to realize the war was unwinnable, and their claims of “light at the end of the tunnel” became increasingly untenable. Even George Kennan, the architect of our overarching Cold War strategy of “containment,” recognized that “American invincibility” was being compromised in Southeast Asia.

Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s defense secretary, knew the war was lost while he was directing it, and, in 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned as the “peace candidate” with a “secret plan” to end it. By the time he’d achieved “peace with honor,” he’d tallied another 20,000 coffins in a war he’d known all along we couldn’t win. In his eloquent address to Congress, war hero John Kerry, a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, said, “Someone has to die, so Nixon doesn’t become the first president to lose a war.”

The country became pot committed during the Nixon years. Over and over, politicians justified fighting on with pronouncements such as, “We’ve lost 49,000 men in Vietnam, and we don’t want them to have died in vain.” This enabled them to say the next year, “We’ve lost 55,000 men, and, if we leave now, they’ve died for nothing.” Similar things have been said about the Iraq war, and are now being said about Afghanistan.

We’re also practicing revisionist history. Just as southern Republicans (and some northern conservatives) revere the Civil War’s Lost Cause (including the Confederate flag and vile rebel generals, such as KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest), many on the Right continue to view Vietnam as a noble endeavor we’d have won, were it not for some vague “they” who “wouldn’t let us win.” You can hear this Rambo mentality in movies made by Hollywood conservatives like Sylvester Stallone.

Many Germans were humiliated by the World War I armistice, and believed Prussian Exceptionalism could only have been defeated by the traitors and Jews in their midst. This helped fuel the anger and paranoia Hitler would exploit to lead his country into the next world war. Similarly, despite the fact we had more than half a million troops in Vietnam, many conservatives still believe we could’ve won had we just tried a little harder for a few more years (or decades), and had the left-wing media not betrayed us.

At best, the War of 1812 and the Korean War ended in stalemate, and, in the Mexican and Spanish-American Wars, we bullied far-weaker foes to annex their territories. Yet we cling to the mythology that America is always the cowboy in the white hat that deservedly wins every war. Being defeated in Southeast Asia has taught us no lasting lessons; instead, Vietnam Syndrome has been supplanted by a new spasm of American Exceptionalism, unmitigated by our recent debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

In poker, being pot committed ends when the hand does, but history has no such arbitrary boundaries. Historically, occupying Afghanistan has never gone well for anyone who’s tried it, yet there’s no sign that Trump — not exactly a student of history — will throw his cards in anytime soon.

Vietnam Syndrome … if only.

Click here to return to the Mark Drought home page.