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Jeb Bush, Iraq, and the Vietnam Syndrome

05/21/2015 07:13 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016
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David Brooks is a nice guy, and thinks the rest of us have been too mean to Jeb Bush, dumping on him for his bungling responses to questions about his brother's war in Iraq. Don't dwell on the past, he wrote in his New York Times column (May 19) because you can't undo it. Instead, he offered, let's use Jeb's foot-in-mouth episode(s) as a teachable moment. Let's learn from our mistakes and move on.

Great idea! And as a teacher I'm all for teachable moments. The lessons Brooks thinks we ought to learn, however, pertain only to what the United States should and should not do in the future. He does not want to inquire after the more fundamental lessons: why did we launch that war in the first place and what does that lesson teach? And in this Brooks is surely not alone.

There is no single answer to that question, of course. But underneath the recklessness that sent American troops on their feckless journey to Baghdad lies the failure to reckon the military fiasco in Southeast Asia and the lessons we decidedly did not learn from the Vietnam War.

Forty years ago last month, April 1975, Americans -- and America itself -- finally came home from Vietnam, limping and beleaguered. Our involvement in Vietnam had spanned twenty years and five presidents. What Dwight Eisenhower started, Gerald Ford had to finish. There was no victory in South Vietnam, as Lyndon Johnson promised, nor any peace with honor. There was only defeat in a war whose rationale had ceased to make sense for many Americans.

Brooks suggests that one lesson we should take away from the debacle in Iraq is that we "should look at intelligence products with a more skeptical eye." Good point and one we ought to have learned 50 years ago.

Our escalation in Vietnam began exactly with the same sort of intelligence dissembling that the Bush administration foisted on the nation in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. In 1964 Lyndon Johnson turned a murky naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin into the now-infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution. With that Congressional blessing Johnson widened the war, which is what he (and many of his advisors) had hoped to do all along. As he told an aide in 1965 "For all I know, our navy was shooting at whales out there."

The second lesson Brooks thinks we ought to learn is to question just how much the United States can change other nations. Once again, this lesson was apparent by the late 1960s in Vietnam. We did not understand Vietnamese history or culture; we did not understand the country's own political dynamics; we didn't even have many proficient Vietnamese speakers running the show. A generation later, we understood exactly as much about Iraq and Iraqis, and in both countries that colossal ignorance had devastating consequences.

And I'll add a third lesson to David Brooks' list. Beware of unintended consequences. After American troops left Southeast Asia in 1975 the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia (which American bombing had helped destabilize) and launched a three-year reign of terror and genocidal madness. We wonder where ISIS came from? ISIS is the middle-eastern analog to the Khmer Rouge.

After 1975 we did not much pause to consider what the Vietnam War might teach us. Some Americans wanted to forget it altogether; some tried and couldn't. Lots of ordinary Americans were wary of any more military adverturism, reluctant to send their own children overseas, given the lies and failure that Vietnam represented. They called it "The Vietnam syndrome."

A number of military leaders and policy-makers, however, wanted some sort of do-over. These people wanted to find another war to demonstrate that we could win after all. For them, the humility of defeat and the introspection it might have engendered were things to be overcome and ignored. They wanted to cure the Vietnam syndrome by erasing Vietnam from our memory.

Ronald Reagan took the first steps in this direction in 1983, eight years after Americans evacuated from Saigon, when he launched an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, a country with a population slightly less than the capacity of the Ohio State University football stadium. Much chest-thumping celebration ensued after that stirring military triumph.

Seven years after, that, in 1990, President George H. W. Bush led a massive international coalition to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In March 1991, basking in the glow of that First Gulf War, President Bush ended some otherwise anodyne remarks to a gathering of state legislators by saying "And by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" Ten year later, a number of those who helped us to kick the Vietnam syndrome in the early 1990s wound up in the next Bush administration.

Which brings us to our current exercise in historical amnesia. In our eagerness to move past the tragedy that was the Vietnam War, we never paused to ask the hard questions our failures there demanded we ask. Likewise, by encouraging us to ignore and forget the reasons why we invaded Iraq, David Brooks speaks for all those who want to ignore and forget just how we wound up stuck in the desert as Iraqi society collapsed around our ears. Those who forget the past may not be doomed to repeat it, but they might well make a lot of very bad decisions that the rest of us wind up regretting.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.