Afghanistan – Vietnam Redux?

October 10th, 2009

Families 40aI made the point in Vietnam and Afghanistan that we’re in danger of repeating the mistake we made in regard to the Vietnam War — sending more and more troops into a war we were inevitably doomed to lose.  We didn’t learn from the French experience in Vietnam; did we learn anything from our own experience?

It’s easy to brush off comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan1aAfghanistan by getting into the details of differences between the two wars.  That kind of analysis makes it easy to defeat the argument.  At the fundamental level, however, we really are in danger of making the same mistake again.  It cost about 58,000 American lives, huge numbers of wounded, and uncountable Vietnamese dead and injured.  In addition, the Vietnam War created political upheavals at home and abroad that we still haven’t overcome.  Are we ready to do it again?

The fundamental mistake President Johnson made was deciding to escalate a war and provide ever-increasing numbers of troops because many of his generals and some of his key advisers wanted him to.  As it turned out, victory was never clearly defined, but defeat was eventually crystal clear.  And Johnson made this mistake even though his common sense indicated to him that he shouldn’t do it.

Is President Obama smart enough and strong enough to avoid making the tragic mistake that President Johnson made?  One exercise he might find useful in making his decision is to take a detailed look at the Powell Doctrine.  It posits eight key questions which must all be answered in the affirmative before military action is taken.  Not one of the eight questions can be answered with an unequivocal “yes” in regard to Afghanistan.  Decide for yourself:

1.  Is a vital national security interest threatened?

2.  Do we have a clear attainable objective?

3.  Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

4.  Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?

5.  Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

6.  Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

7.  Is the action supported by the American people?

8.  Do we have genuine broad international support?

Afghan War Draws Comparisons to Vietnam, at the Voice of America website, is an interesting and relevant article.  It includes this:

“What I found being in Afghanistan was all too familiar of problems not only in Iraq, but in Vietnam years ago. We are fighting a war a half a century later that we lost for similar reasons a half a century earlier,” said Anthony Cordesman, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the 1960s we didn’t listen to the advice of people like Bernard Fall, who knew we would fail in Vietnam.  Are we also going to ignore the wise voices today that counsel against escalating the war in Afghanistan?

(Credit to Jan Barry for the link to the VOA article.)

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9 Responses to “Afghanistan – Vietnam Redux?”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    Some offer that if we are engaging them over there that we will keep them too busy to do anything here. The same argument can be applied to us.

    Here’s an interesting read by one of my favorite writers, Fred Reed, on our folly in the ME. Though he usually doesn’t do this, this particular column is “R” rated. Reed was a syndicated columnist for a while, and served as a Marine in Vietnam.

  2. Tom |

    Brian, engaging them over there to keep them from coming here was a rationale heard during the Vietnam War, too. That logic was used in the context of the presumed worldwide communist threat. Regardless of whether that threat existed, there was no danger that the VC or the Peoples Army of Vietnam was ever going to land in California.

    If the primitive Muslim Taliban are now the enemy in Afghanistan, then the argument is still invalid. They have neither the desire nor the capability to attack the U.S. homeland. If Al-Qaeda is the enemy, then maybe we should focus primarily on attacking them, wherever they may be.

    Reed’s article is somewhat extremist, but he makes some valid points. I have mixed feelings about the photo of the wounded Marine published in the press (which Reed re-published in the linked article). On the one hand, it’s hard to see, especially for his family and friends. On the other hand, it’s the cost of war that people rarely see but probably should. I’m not a good judge of this because I saw enough up close and personal and don’t need to see more of it. I know what the cost is.

    Reed made a common mistake in his article. George W. Bush didn’t institute the policy of forbidding photos of the arrival of the coffins of American soldiers. That policy began in the administration of George H.W. Bush and continued through the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations. President Obama ended the policy, and the press initially showed up at Dover AFB in large numbers to take pictures, but now they rarely even show up. I guess the level of press interest depends on who the president is.

  3. Brian Bagent |

    It’s as Stalin said: one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Once the novelty of taking pictures of dead boys wears off, they stop doing it so much.

  4. Jan |

    Brian, Thx for pointing out Fred Reed’s column on the current war follies. During the Vietnam disaster, Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan got so sick of taking photos of dead and dying Marines at Khe Sanh that he wrote a book titled “I Protest!” Reed’s column provided the uncensored comments of a still angry wounded GI. What’s often lost in our foreign policy debates is the impact on the troops sent on missions in hostile places that result in a lot of misery and cursing.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    Jan, something to consider from a journalistic perspective is the way many (maybe even most) journalists handled Vietnam. I have an acquaintance that was a spook over there, and he has shed light on some things that most people absolutely do not question. Journalistic integrity was sorely lacking, it would seem, for nearly all journalists over there. About the only one I have any respect for is Joe Galloway. There may be others, but I just haven’t gotten to them yet.

    Many revere Walter Cronkite, but I am not one of those people. He slanted his coverage so badly as to border on treason. If you’re interested, I can put you in touch with a former spook friend of mine that was over there and saw, first-hand, some of the things Cronkite did. And, for what it’s worth, my friend is a “rabid” centrist.

  6. doris |

    What’s a “rabid centrist,” Brian? This war needs to end; there is no evidence that ending it will lead to an attack here. The bad guys are there because it is close to their home and an easy war for them to fight and kill the Americans, who they hate.

  7. Brian |

    He’s neither conservative nor liberal, avowedly so.

  8. Kevin |

    I used to self-identify as a centrist. Then I was disabused of the notion by my friend Carla who co-founded PK with me way back in the day.

    Indentifying a given individual as conservative, liberal or centrist is largely a function of the lens the indentifier uses to filter the outside world through. As Carla put it in a 2005 post, “One man’s center is another man’s right wing conspiracy (or left wing nuttery…whatever).”

    A small selection of her essays on the subject, starting with one that riffed off of a post Tom wrote at his original blog and which is the source for the quote I just used:

  9. Tom |

    Kevin, I remember Carla’s articles well. As usual for her, they were well-written and persuasive. However, I still disagree with the basic idea that there is no “center” in American politics.

    To be a centrist, or a moderate if you like, doesn’t mean that you have no firm views that could be attributed to left or right. It does mean that you value discussion of issues with all sides, that you are capable of changing your views through logical persuasion, and that you’re free of the ideologue’s imperative to support a laundry list of your side’s positions.

    Personally, I’ve always seen myself as having one foot left of the line, most of the other foot right of the line, and a few toes poking into libertarianism. I’m pretty comfortable with that, and I wouldn’t know what to call it if the terms “centrist” and “moderate” were outlawed.

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