Vietnam Non-Lessons

09/13/2007 04:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear readers,

Okay, okay, I confess. I must take credit for pushing Bush into his lame Vietnam analogy a few weeks ago. I had posted "How to Lose a War" and drew a ton of comments. Of course, Bush blustered with the half baked bar blunder of a typical VFW meeting - full of false claims and "we coulda beat 'em" whining.

It seems most readers who wrote comments were especially concerned about the question of whether and how "we" lost the Vietnam War (I put "we" in parentheses because I, and we regular folks, did not lose the war; the US government and ruling class which launched the war then lost it). I'm satisfied that the readers have adequately shredded each others' arguments so I don't feel the need to weigh in - except to reiterate two points. One, the US did lose (please, please accept this. . . . whatever your ideology). Two, there were reasons the US lost (a simple proposition - one you must accept). Now, if the US lost and it was not because of a lack of firepower or "kills," then you have to concede that other factors (which everyone from Sun Tzu to Clauzewitz to Che Guevara could identify) led to the defeat: factors of morale, of psychological orientation, of political forces, of ethics, of economics, and of basic guerrilla tactics. Railing against the storm may feel good but it would help to take a deeper look.

But I guess who I really want to address one commenter simply because he (I assume he's a he) indulges in a rhetorical device which needs to be challenged. His big opener is "as a Veteran of the Viet Nam war . ." What's that supposed to mean? Do you have a greater purchase on truth, sir, because you are a vet? This opening is a typical way of bullying the opposition and is, when you think about it, meaningless. So you're a veteran of the Vietnam War. So you did the wrong thing. Perhaps you killed some Vietnamese people who were on their own homeland. Perhaps you faced danger or saw friends killed. Does that make your argument more correct? Or did you mean to apologize for being on the wrong side before starting your diatribe? Oh, and the "How dare you" at the end is supposed to be the emotional right of the "veteran" who should, apparently, have some greater standing. The French who fought at Dien Bien Phu, the Germans who fought at Stalingrad. . . . they all have pain to bear, they all have anger. But they do not have a greater right to speak or a greater authority.

I too am a veteran of the war. I fought in numerous demonstrations; I turned in my draft card as part of resistance actions; I went to Canada and helped house American exiles, especially those fleeing from active duty; I went back into the US Army as an anti-war organizer and completed basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and advanced training (11-C) at Fort Polk; I went AWOL with over half my company who were resisting the war; I helped numerous active duty GI's choose to do the right thing (choices unlike my commenter); I worked extensively with veterans and contributed to a peace village for Vietnamese children who were victims of Agent Orange; I took a group of high school students to Vietnam in an effort to build understanding and closeness between our peoples; and more. So that's my veteran story. And I don't use it to declare that my position is more correct or more truthful or more valid than yours.

My suggestion that the US won the battles (the military encounters) while losing the war simply repeats a common narrative. After the Tet Offensive of 1968, which utterly shattered US confidence in its future options, the military declared it a US victory - after all, many thousands of anti-US fighters had been killed. After most battles the US could claim a greater body count. In fact, the weekly body count was obscenely reported on the TV news every Friday, assuring Americans that the commies were losing. There were individual skirmishes in which US casualties were worse; and some larger battles, such as Hamburger Hill, could be counted as defeats by pretty traditional measures. But the overall story was that the Americans were more adept in the application of violence.

If only the dang enemy had played by our rules, we woulda had 'em. Ah, the arrogance of power. You can just hear the British complaining when fighting the pesky American colonists - the yanks should dress up in uniforms, create platoon box formations on open fields, and march towards our forces in a fair fight. Instead, they keep attacking from the side, sending out irregular forces. If they would play fair, we would be the winner. Yes, and in Vietnam (and Iraq), we could only wish we could match our helicopters against theirs; our battleships against theirs; our regular forces against theirs; we would win, hands down. But listen: it's not going to happen.

If some military veterans of the Vietnam War, and our politicians, refuse to learn the "lessons of Vietnam," let them continue to spin their fantasies. Meanwhile, those of us who are not so deluded need to carry on and try to build a rational and human relationship with the rest of the world.

But wait. Do I hear a bit of reality from the pentagon? Do I smell a breath of fresh air? It's amazing to see the many ways the US administration and military is attempting to "learn the lessons" of Vietnam. You see them trying to shake off Vietnam every day. "We don't do body counts," intones General Tommy Franks. That had turned around and bit them. "The war can't be won militarily, it must be won politically," their public information officer declares. It is not a quagmire! It is not a quagmire! It is not a quagmire!

Now, we see these military cheerleaders imagining, trying desperately, how to mount some kind of strategy which does not drag us into the swamp of Vietnam-style defeat. I hate to keep picking on PBS - I like them quite often, actually - but dang they do get used for some stupid propaganda. The latest is this expensive series, America at a Crossroads, which purports to take a deep look at the current world crisis. The latest chirpy contribution was this piece called "Inside America's Empire" - co-produced with Atlantic Monthly and featuring the Monthly's reporter Robert Kaplan junketing around the world to see America's new, sophisticated, not-at-all-like-Vietnam-era military doing its thing.

So this is how the huge power of the US has absorbed and attempted to apply the "lessons of Vietnam." No more search and destroy missions. No more carpet bombing. This is the new, friendly, US military. Kaplan shows up in the Philippines where the US army is putting down its guns to staff a medical clinic. There they are in Mali, doing projects to help with clean water and sanitation. What a lovely military? Hooray for the US!

This is what billions of dollars in think tank money came up with. Give 'em some vaccinations. They'll love us! Don't suggest anything about actually changing the economic relations. Don't imagine reworking the global economy so these people are something more than the low-paid workers for the riches of the US. Don't actually empower people to control their own government, resources, and destiny. But a vaccine! That will make them love us.

It reminds me of the prep school kid doing her/his obligatory "community service" - maybe dishing up food in a soup kitchen - in order to make that Harvard application look more attractive. We have every damn college-bound kid in America doing community service but somehow the homeless population, the drug plague, the violence in our cities continues.

This is the heart of the new, sophisticated US military strategy. Still kill a lot of people. Still bomb from the air. But once in awhile hand out some goodies. And try to get some locals to take up arms for you. Actually, of course, this is nothing new. The British tried the carrot and stick in Malaysia; the US famously attempted Vietnamization of their aggression. But in the end, it is resources - equitable distribution of resources - that is key to peace. If we think we can continue to sit on the rest of the world - parasitic and overfed - well, it just ain't gonna happen, one way or another.