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
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.
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 Cause — the
slightly more-ambitious invasion of Panama. Two years later, in our last
successful ground war, Bush drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Syndrome … if only.
Click here to return to
Drought home page.