General McChrystal's War

The remarkable sight of Newsweek running a cover story purporting to demonstrate how the US could have "won" in Vietnam turns out to be a stalking horse for General McChrystal and the Pentagon hawks.

The article is a hodgepodge of ridiculous arguments by Monday morning quarterbacks, rightists who imagine we "lost" Vietnam and could have "won." The key argument the article dusts off is made in A Better War by Lewis Sorley, a retired military man. Sorley points to the superior firepower and wealth of the US side. What is astounding is how tone-deaf the Pentagon hawks are, how little they have learned. Still today, the lessons of Vietnam must be learned -- the battle to explain the war goes on. Let's start with the fact that the Vietnamese knew, all along, that war is not won by only military firepower. It also depends on political, psychological, and moral elements. In these areas, the US was decidedly under-resourced.

"How could this happen?" the Pentagon types keep wailing. They cannot see the reality right before their eyes. Their self-pitying complaint, the whining of a bully that has been stopped in his tracks. Their need for more time (12 years), more money (the hawks were not denied any military aid by Congress until the last year), more fighting spirit from our allies. If only we had slaughtered some hundreds of thousands more (58,000 US troops were killed; and 3 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians), we would have "won."

But what would it mean to have won in Vietnam? A murderous dictatorship utterly dependent on US dollars and weapons; a corrupt regime shipping ever-more heroin to the US; an ongoing war of attrition against North Vietnam; even more returning veterans, traumatized and seeking truth. Thank god we lost. Or rather, we, the people did not lose. The Pentagon and their enablers lost and it was a significant victory (at great human cost) for Vietnam, for anti-colonial movements all over the world, and for democracy, for popular power, in the US.

But Newsweek writers Evan Thomas and John Barry trot out all the usual suspects, all the crackpot theories. Let's review and highlight some talking points about the article and about the Pentagon:

  1. Thomas and Barry don't even have the historical memory - or integrity or decency - to remember that the record was set straight forty years ago. Their brief timeline on the war includes the discredited claim that US ships were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese in speedboats. President Johnson used this incident to justify his first big escalation. Within four years after the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing the war, the consensus was that no attack even happened. Yet they repeat the Tonkin incident as part of their cozy return to the delusional thinking of the time.

  • The article begins with a ridiculous scene in which Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy in Afghanistan, phones from Kabul to Stanley Karnow, the author of a general reader history of the Vietnam War. Holbrooke passes the phone to McChrystal who asks Karnow the question: "Is there anything we learned in Vietnam that we can apply to Afghanistan?" Really? You hadn't thought to ask until now? Come on now. The Pentagon has been worrying about how to understand their defeat in Vietnam for 40 years and their strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan are haunted by Vietnam every day. Harry Summers' 1982 "On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War" is just one of many required texts for the officer corps.
  • McChrystal and the U.S. generals in Kabul - publicly arguing to Obama for US troop escalation in Afghanistan -- pushed this Lewis Sorley book, with its thesis of how "we" could have won in Vietnam, on Newsweek - which has clearly taken the bait. Indeed, it is a battle of different analyses. The Newsweek piece attacks Bordon Goldstein's book, Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, precisely because it suggests that the Pentagon not be allowed its endless wars.
  • During the Vietnam War, the Pentagon was widely regarded as war mongers and one-sided advocates for escalation. In recent decades, Pentagon brass have carefully positioned their public image as simple technicians, people who do the job they are told to do, as well as they can. Freed of public criticism for their positions, shorn of all dissenters during the Bush years, they strove to keep their lobbying subtle, though McChrystal's recent leaks and public comments have pushed the limits of their PR strategy.

    In the end, the military (not the troops, mind you, but the officers and the massive military industrial complex behind them) need war and promote it. It is how they gain glory -- and promotions. Certainly, some among them worried about Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the end their interest was in occupation and making war.

    This new, Obama-era occupation force we hear about, one that focuses on protecting civilians instead of trying to find an enemy and kill him, is a myth. You cannot coopt a strategy used by indigenous resistance forces, a strategy used to fight invaders, and retrofit it for an army of occupation. Invasion and occupation, by their nature, mean violence and cruelty. They inevitably create more resistance. You might dig a few toilets, set up a few temporary schools, but this is seen locally as not much different from German troops setting up urban services when they occupied Paris. In the end, the Pentagon generals end up with the same blinkered strategy of strategic bases like the current one in Dananeh, Afghanistan.

    4) So what has the Pentagon learned from their defeat in Vietnam? A few things they have learned well, and have implemented most consistently. First, never allow independent journalists open and free access to a US war zone. Control the media. Win them over. Intimidate them. Embed them. Control the message. Second, avoid a citizen army, avoid the draft at all costs. The Pentagon believes that protests are inevitable if citizens are sent to fight involuntarily. By keeping away from a draft, they're counting on apathy and inertia. Of course, a military made up of poor people dragooned in because of economic circumstances does not guarantee unquestioned loyalty either, and the Pentagon remains plenty worried about those who refuse to fight, the anti-war sentiment that is growing again in the military ranks. But the Pentagon's rule: avoid the draft, that's a certainty.

    Even as the Pentagon presses for more US troops, more wars, more drone and distance killings, we can see the writing on the wall. The dreams of the Obama era could easily be sunk in the horrors and disillusionment of an Afghan war. While World War II had, in the view of many, justification in confronting Nazism, there has really been no war since then that the US has entered that has served freedom or democracy. The subsequent US wars have all been for privilege, oil, domination of markets and resources, and Pentagon career-building.

    It is tragic and bitter to hear bereaved families on Veteran's Day speak of the sacrifices of their loved ones in the name of democracy and freedom. War deaths leave families casting about for a reason, for a noble purpose. It would be so much more truthful to mark the anniversary with an admission that our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, died to make Exxon Mobil or BP or Chevron rich. But it is even more cynical for these war-mongers to consecrate their adventures with the bodies of our citizens.

    General McChrystal is the current point man for the escalating war plan. Thomas and Barry of Newsweek represent just the kind of cheerleaders we became so disgusted with during the Vietnam War.