On July 25, 2010, the website Wikileaks released 92, 000 pages of classified documents, dubbed "The War Logs." Comparisons were immediately made to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.
Frank Rich wrote a compelling column in the Sunday New York Times arguing that the comparison is warranted not only in scope but in eventual impact. The Pentagon Papers, Rich wrote, came on the downward slope of public opinion regarding Vietnam, giving it the gentle nudge into the grave that ended the war. So too will The War Logs, despite their lack of immediate impact, administer the coup de grace to an unpopular war.
Then, in Mediate and these webpages, Dan Abrams argued that Rich was wrong. Not only were the Pentagon Papers a sophisticated synthesis of analysis, as opposed to The War Logs episodic ground level reports, but:
unlike the Vietnam War, there is no question about why we are in Afghanistan in the first place. Every major political figure of both parties has long agreed that military action had to be taken in Afghanistan after 9/11 as the Taliban continued to protect those directly responsible for the attacks on the United States. Nothing similar can be said of the war in Vietnam.
Abrams is right, of course, when he says that The War Logs are messier than the Pentagon Papers. But then, the Pentagon Papers have taken on a consistency in retrospect that they didn't have at the time.
In fact, the Pentagon Papers were and are a rather crazy-quilt of after-action reports on the activities of commandos like Edward Geary Lansdale, the supposed model for Graham Greene's Quiet American, all the way to reports of strategic bombing campaigns.
Where Abrams is really wrong, however, is in assigning a certainty of purpose to the Afghanistan war that he claims Vietnam lacked.
For much of the Vietnam war, there was a greater sense of purpose than the Afghanistan war. Even though the explicit causa bella of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was later discredited in a way that the 9-11 attacks cannot be, the threat of communism during the Vietnam war was perceived as every bit as grave as the threat of terrorism.
Lyndon Johnson and his aides were deeply influenced the experience of Truman "losing China" to the Communists. They were determined not to allow another McCarthy to rise on the back of perceived Democratic weakness in the face of communism.
Most policy makers believed fervently in the so-called "Domino theory." They believed that communist insurgents in one country, if left unchecked, would naturally spread to other countries and each would topple in turn.
There was even an issue of precious minerals, rubber from Malaya.
American belief in the strategic bombing that won World War 2 was as strong during Vietnam as our faith in unmanned drones is today. Never mind that studies later showed that our strategic bombing in World War 2 strengthened enemy resolve while yielding little tangible benefit. And never mind that our current enthusiasm for drones is undercut by the revelations, in The War Logs and elsewhere, that too often our drone missiles hit structures vacated by the targets but tragically still occupied by civilians.
The United States was drawn into war in Vietnam under the premise of fighting communism. The tragedy of Vietnam was that Ho Chi Minh was much more of a nationalist than a communist. Few remember his role in saving downed American pilots from the Japanese. In our global struggle against communism, Vietnam was considered part of the communist monolith, no matter the evidence to the contrary.
The tragedy of the Afghanistan war is that we once again have chosen an inappropriate theater for our global war, this time against terrorism. Like Vietnam, we find ourselves with a corrupt local government despised by the people. Like Vietnam, our soldiers are fish out of water, not knowing which local is a simple farmer trying to eke out an existence and which one is a hardened Taliban fighter.
In terms of cultural impact, Abrams may be right. But not for the reasons he thinks.
On Facebook, a local candidate for Circuit Court Judge in Miami, Robert Kuntz, wrote:
Lindsey Lohan, 20-something, fills the news with her pointless bad behavior. The following 20-somethings -- Justin Allen, Brett Linley, Matt Weikert, Justus Bartett, Dave Santos, Chase Stanley, Jesse Reed, Matthew King, Christopher Goeke and Sheldon Tate -- all gave their lives in service to their country in the past week or so. Google any one of those names to read about a young hero.
Our ability to ignore the human cost of the Afghanistan war -- especially due to the lack of a draft -- is really what distinguishes it from Vietnam. It is likely nothing will change that.