Vietnam vis a vis Iraq in Congressional Debate--Lessons Learned? Or Biases Deeply Ingrained?

04/04/2007 02:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A couple weeks ago, my congressman John Kline took the lead on behalf of five other GOP Vietnam veterans in the House fighting with Speaker Pelosi to prolong the war in Iraq. What, if anything, can be made of the fact that these warhawks relied less on pragmatic analysis of current facts on the ground in Iraq than their prior personally traumatizing experiences?

Whether or not you think there are parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, the significance cannot be denied of the Vietnam experience nearly 40 years ago in producing two very opposite schools of thought among current congressional leaders. Views on what to do about Iraq seem to divide members of congress substantially based on how they processed their Vietnam experience, since each side's set of "lessons learned" is in direct opposition with the other's.

Vietnam was a terrible mistake

The majority camp consists of many who, having served in Vietnam, now view that war as a terrible mistake, from its inception based upon false reporting about the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident through the fallacy of the "domino theory" and the continuing "fog of war" public deception that lengthened U.S. involvement and casualties. A good example of the majority opinion came from Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968, who recently called the President's summons for more troops in Baghdad "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Senators John Kerry, Jim Webb and Congressman John Murtha are among those who have voiced similar sentiments.

The majority also includes those who, like Senator John Warner (R-Va) might not be willing to go so far as to call Vietnam an outright mistake but who, as a result of that war, have developed mature, sober assessments of the dangers and costs of war, including the blowback problem of veterans suffering for years from their physical and psychological wounds. A Washington Post news article recently described the guilt that Virginia Sen. John Warner still carries about the Vietnam War which explains "why this pillar of the Republican establishment is leading a bipartisan revolt against the (current) war plans of a president in his own party."

"I regret that I was not more outspoken during the Vietnam War," the former Navy secretary said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. "The Army generals would come in, 'Just send in another five or ten thousand.' You know, month after month. Another ten or fifteen thousand. They thought they could win it. We kept surging in those years. It didn't work."

Beginning with the "Pentagon Papers," and other revelations, admissions of error and public apologies like those made by former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, the majority viewpoint had long ago gained substantial acceptance in popular culture and from historians. As a result of the commonly-held "Vietnam syndrome" mindset which began to take root (almost 30 years prior to the commencement of the Iraq War), it was believed leaders would be cautious of military engagement unless "Powell Doctrine" factors of justification, international support and winnability could be met.

Vietnam--the only mistake was in leaving

A minority viewpoint about Vietnam, however, has always quietly seethed, just below the surface, amongst the other camp of Vietnam veterans who turned their anger and shame at "losing" the war and perhaps even some of their "survivor's guilt" upon peace protesters like Jane Fonda, "traitors" like Daniel Ellsberg, the "liberal media" and the American public. According to this view, the United States did not fight long or hard enough despite devoting nearly ten years and sacrificing the lives of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese. This group seems to believe that the U.S. could have "won the Vietnam War" had the American media and public opinion not turned against the war and had the presidents at the time not bowed to public and media pressure. In this category, you find Vietnam vets who have become congressmen like Duncan Hunter (R-California), Sam Johnson (R-Tex), John Kline (R-Minn), and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-California) who apparently lamented they were not given the heroes' welcome home from Vietnam they were due. Some seem to think their early military careers were unnecessarily tarnished as a result. "I served at a time when we saw the Congress reduce funding for the military," Rep. John Kline said in January 2007 while unveiling a resolution opposing any cutoff of funds to troops. "We served at a time when the military did not have the support of the people, the press or the Congress," said Kline, who flew Marine Corps helicopters during the Vietnam War. "I don't ever want to see that again."

Recently asked what he thought for an opinion piece on "Lessons of Vietnam--How to Avoid a Repeat...," Congressman Kline mentioned "that while the nation was on the retreat in Southeast Asia, disdain for American military power abroad trickled down to disdain for American military personnel at home. And it wasn't only antiwar protestors. In the wake of Vietnam, military personnel were discouraged from wearing uniforms while off duty within the city limits, and the feeling in the ranks was that even senior officials in the government viewed the military as an embarrassment."

Swiftboating other Vietnam vets who learned different lessons

Hunter, Kline and others have consequently turned their anger and swift boat efforts upon the other Vietnam Veteran congressmen in the majority camp. In April 2004 Rep. Sam Johnson denounced Massachusetts Senator Kerry on the 33rd anniversary of his testimony before a Senate panel in which he (Kerry) had sharply criticized the conduct of some U.S. troops in Vietnam. (Kerry, a decorated Navy officer in Vietnam, had emerged as a prominent antiwar spokesman after his discharge.) Johnson, who spent seven years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, said the young Kerry "blasted our nation, chastised our troops and hurt our morale. . . . What he did was nothing short of aiding and abetting the enemy." Comparing Kerry to former antiwar activist Jane Fonda, Johnson said: "He's called Hanoi John." Other Republicans then poured it on with Rep. John Kline saying Kerry's service in the war "does not excuse his joining ranks with Jane Fonda and others in speaking ill of our troops or their service, then or now." Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.), whose plane was shot down over North Vietnam, said Kerry's 1971 remarks angered Cunningham and his comrades at the time. "We do not need a Jane Fonda as commander in chief," he said.

In May 2004, Rep. John Kline was quoted in a news report about Democrats' criticism of Donald Rumsfeld and the administration's failing policy in Iraq, including its handling of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, saying, "I am furious (with Murtha). Because when that message gets out to our forces they won't feel love and support. They'll feel betrayal.'' Kline later made further, similar comments to these in a lengthy interview on the Powerline Blog about his view that progress was being made in Iraq in December 2005. Duncan Hunter was also linked via his staff and a group called "Vietnam Vets for Truth" to the later swiftboating of John Murtha after Murtha's 2005 stance to redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Rep. Sam Johnson emerged again as the GOP's point man in mid-February's debate in the House of a non-binding resolution expressing disapproval of President Bush's buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq. Using his POW experience in Vietnam for almost the entire time he was allotted, Johnson linked support of Bush's "surge" strategy with support for the troops. Rep. Sam Johnson was then chosen to give a second impassioned closing speech again linking the Iraq War with Vietnam: "Let my body serve as a brutal reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past." Rep. Kline just took the lead in drafting the letter to House Leader Nancy Pelosi in March in which he and five other Vietnam veteran GOP congressmen argue against setting any timetables for withdrawing our troops from Iraq. His letter apparently blames congressional interference for hurting troop morale which in turn led to the lack of victory in Vietnam.

Fighting to write history

It should be acknowledged that a smaller number of historians who back this minority view may be gaining more prominence in military establishments. In his book "Abandoning Vietnam," James Willbanks, a historian at the Combat Studies Institute at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, digs through the Nixon administration's series of decisions that finally resulted in the fall of Saigon in 1975. Mr. Willbanks, a military veteran who saw combat as an infantryman during North Vietnam's 1972 Easter Offensive, tries to show that the Nixon administration was focused more on ending the war than on winning it and that the U.S. came a lot closer to "winning" than many people believe today.

There are, of course, all kinds of other parallels being made between Vietnam and Iraq including the wild overstatements of the threat to the U.S. (LBJ said that if we didn't fight them over there, then we would have to fight them in Hawaii. Bush and McCain likewise claim the Iraqi terrorists will attack us here if we leave Iraq.) And in both wars, the advocates urged staying the course to achieve some unspecified goal of 'winning.' (What a victory in Iraq, however, would look like is hard to say, but most sober analysts think anything that could even be remotely portrayed as a victory in Iraq is receding over the horizon.)

Merging "Vietnam Syndrome" into "Iraq Syndrome"

In any event, we may have to wait to reach some cooler and saner point down the road before social psychologists, historians and/or military strategists are able to make sense of the difference in the radically different "lessons learned" of the two different camps of Vietnam veterans turned Congressmen. I did however recently see the following comment posted to a thought piece by Norman Soloman which might explain things:

As for Senator McCain, he typifies the major enduring difference between many infantry and air power guys, enlisted men and officers, where "learning the lessons of Vietnam" are concerned. . . men who drop bombs from on high are distanced from the sober political realities on the ground. In victory, they tend to take too much credit, and in stalemate or defeat, it's always because the bombing campaign was not intensive enough, or else it was imprecisely targeted. A winning strategic or tactical mix lies always just beyond the horizon, if only the civilian policymakers would just hunker down and persevere.

Exploitation of Vietnam has already taken on such importance in the debate in Congress, that it would be better if the experts could weigh in sooner rather than later. In an odd twist, comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam are now being used more by pro-Iraq War than anti-Iraq War figures. But even now one thing can be discerned about the group who, instead of talking about the harsh, current reality of facts on the ground in Iraq, constantly falls back, in a highly emotional way, on their Vietnam experiences as justification for their insistence upon "staying the course" to achieve "victory in Iraq" no matter the cost. One must question whether this group is being honest with themselves. Ego defense mechanisms do have a way of turning old psychological wounds into deeply ingrained biases. To quote Norman Soloman, "the Congressional Record is filled with insistence that the lessons of Vietnam must not be forgotten. But they cannot be truly remembered if they were never learned in the first place."