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The Best Way to Honor a Vet is With the Truth

Stop me if you’ve heard this: American soldiers didn’t lose in Vietnam. In fact, our brave troopers had the commies whipped by the late ‘60s; that is, of course, before a conspiratorial cabal of cowardly hippies, anti-war protestors, and dovish liberals pulled the rug out from under an all-but-victorious U.S. military. It’s quite a tale, replete with heroes, villains, and glib moral lessons. It is all wrong of course, faulty and fallacious.

Others—debunked historians [1] and enthusiastic military officers [2] among them—posit an altogether different, and even more insidious myth. The U.S. military could’ve won, almost did win; it’s just that dusty old World War II vets like General Westmoreland remained fixated on conventional war when they should’ve applied counterinsurgency tactics. One young military officer you may have heard of—then Major David Petraeus—argued [3] as much in his Princeton doctoral dissertation. Later, as General Petraeus sought to apply [3] the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq, he spawned a generation of so-called soldier-scholar “COINdinistas” [4]—young Iraq and Afghan vets keen to win hearts and minds throughout the Islamic East. Counterinsurgency could work, they vociferously asserted (perhaps the “lady doth protest too much?”). Their favorite case studies [5]: Malaya and Vietnam.

They were wrong too, of course, and, like the Vietnam narrative spinners, are being by more serious scholars. As eminent Vietnam historian, and contributor to the recent Ken Burns documentary [6], Gregory Daddis, wrote [7]: rather than crafting a “better war” narrative we should see Vietnam as “a case study in the limits of U.S. power abroad.” Furthermore, “the outcome never lay entirely in American hands.” This was a civil war, a Vietnamese struggle for nation and identity. So, too, was (and is) the Iraq War.

Still, you have to admire the stories. Memory is a tricky thing. Sometimes the way we collectively remember an event becomes more durable than reality. Were the resulting mental paradigms less treacherous, one could simply ignore the errors and enjoy the fable. If only. Sadly, misremembering, and mythologizing Vietnam contributed to American adventurism, first in Central America [8] in the 1980s, then, more recently, in the Middle East.

U.S. Marine Corps LVTP-5 amphibious tractors transport 3rd Marine Division troops in Vietnam, 1966. (National Archives and Records Administration/Public Domain)

Scarcely a decade after Saigon’s fall, President Reagan reshaped [9] the Vietnam narrative. The veterans’ cause “was a noble one…fighting for human dignity, for free men everywhere,” he proclaimed. Reagan, faced with rebranding American pride and ethos in the wake of recession and the Iranian hostage crisis, flipped the script, overtly rebranding the military and its servicemembers as heroes more in the mold of his own Greatest Generation, rather than the depleted ranks following the failed Vietnam campaign. Even today, patriotic, if artless, theme songs – from Lee Greenwood [10] to Toby Keith [11] – serve as background music to the flag-draped militarism and patriotic hedonism so characteristic of the Reagan and Bush II administrations. But there it stood, always in the background: Vietnam.

You see, if America were to accept that Vietnam was a mistake, a tragedy, a ruse, a war crime [12], or simply unwinnable, then the public could be forgiven for their apprehensiveness regarding future foreign interventions. But, by making it ambiguous, or worse, convincing people it really was a victory, then those 58,000 American boys didn’t die in vain, our military remained undefeated (kind of), and the U.S. could once again spread its values—and troopers—around the world. What a coup, for neoconservatives, historical revisionists and liberal internationalists alike. Soon after President George H.W. Bush exalted [13]  (after Desert Storm) that, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” the U.S. recklessly launched what turned out to be a three-decade excursion in Greater Iraq. We’ve never truly left.

As in Vietnam, so it will be in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq was, as I’ve written [12], an unmitigated disaster, a quagmire, a spiraling transmitter of chaos and disorder across a troubled region. Surely, given the pervasive violence in Iraq, disorder in Syria, and growing regional humanitarian crises today, contemporary observers should also concede the folly of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  Right?  Hardly.

Former generals (think Petraeus), ambitious retired colonels (John Nagl), neocon academics (take your pick), and unrepentant “men-in-the-arena” (Dick Cheney), still celebrate the Iraq “Surge” (2007-10) as a victory denied. We, the Americans, had won, they tell us. We lowered violence, ended a civil war, and stabilized the country—only to be sold out by feckless Obama and his band of spineless misfits. The soldiers left too soon, the wars are “generational,” [14] the Iraqi Armed Forces needed more advisors…on and on the American solutions unfold.

They’re broken records, many of these (often military) folks, and you can understand why. They have sacrificed: years, lives, friends, limbs, and happiness. Surely that can’t all have been for nothing. Many veterans are vulnerable to benevolent lies. They, unlike their militarist cheerleaders, can be forgiven. Maybe. Policymakers and so-called strategists, however, must rise above such naïve fallacies. America didn’t win anything, not in Vietnam, nor in Iraq. Iraq’s violence dropped as senior officers bought off [15] former Sunni insurgents and surgically targeted extremists. There was, no doubt, much valor displayed on the streets of Baghdad and Anbar in 2007. I saw it first-hand. But it was temporary, fleeting, and momentary.

American troops, guns, money, and blood bought us time and a seemingly graceful exit. That’s about all. Iraq’s government never gained legitimacy in the Kurdish north or Sunni west. Corruption and sectarianism reigned. Our strongman, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, terrorized Sunni protesters, and kept Sunnis out of government work. The country is again in danger [16] of fracturing. The center didn’t hold—it never could. Iraq is a mirage, a post-colonial tempest, and its problems (and solutions) are Arab and Kurdish. Not American. Neither plucky Petraeus nor his surge-enthusiast minions could change that. Nor will President Trump or any of “his” generals.

Discounting or omitting Vietnamese (or Arab and Afghan) agency from our collective memory is problematic in the extreme. But today’s policymakers make decisions and craft “strategy” based on a distinct – if often erroneous – vision of the past. They deploy troops, drop bombs, and kill or maim human beings whilst viewing the world through the clouded lens of American exceptionalism. So where does that leave us?  One can guess. Surge enthusiasts and Iraq-War apologists will once again wave the “bloody shirt” of American combat deaths, denounce perfidious “doves,” and charge full tilt into America’s next gallant, Mideast catastrophe. I can see it all so clearly, and shudder: for my friends, children, and for this world. Because no one seems to care.

Maybe that’s the point; Americans seem to prefer the optimistic lie to the ugly truth. Call it collective delusion or cognitive and moral dissonance. It’s the sin of self-righteous soldiers and uninformed citizens alike. Perhaps—when it comes to protracted, indecisive war—ignorance really is bliss. So smile, everyone, and behold the crumbling republic.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular [17], is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge [18]. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet [19].

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

57 Comments (Open | Close)

57 Comments To "The Best Way to Honor a Vet is With the Truth"

#1 Comment By Buck On November 15, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

Although I spent eighteen months in Vietnam, I won’t presume to comment on the course or outcome of that conflict. I, however, believe the middle east is different in that for 3000+ years it has been a land of tribal based culture, society and even the passing governments. I think the middle east is a totally different situation than anywhere, except maybe Africa. Maybe there is no solution to either place.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 15, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

“The fact is that Trump’s action continues policies influenced by people working on behalf of a foreign country, whose goal has been to destabilize and reshape an entire region. This kind of aggressive interventionism focused on “regime change” launches cascading effects that include escalating violence.”

I would that Pres trump cease the meddling. However, he hasn’t done more than the previous executives, which counts as a positive considering. It’s hard to argue against regime change efforts have multiplied the issues in the middle east – no doubt. But what is not reported is that the French, the British and other NATO states are involved in operations there as well. Everyone wants to fill the vacuums left by previous leaderships. And Europe will have to take responsibility for that.

Our immigration policy is partly to fault for the events of September 11. Those VISAS were expired. And we should have shut that border for at least five years ten and overhauled it.

“I think the middle east is a totally different situation than anywhere, except maybe Africa. Maybe there is no solution to either place.”

I would certainly agree with about the vast differences. A for solutions — unless they request help (depending on the type of help), maybe we should risk allowing them to figure that out. Several hundred years of colonial rule might be hard to unravel o the road to forging new futures. At a time in which we have our internal repair to make, it’s a hard to sell to be seeking solutions for others of little strategic interest.

Hard to ignore the vast resources in Africa.

#3 Comment By Charlieford On November 20, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

“Pres. Nixon had no intention of not honoring his commitment. As demonstrated by his support for the South in the first test by N. Vietnam”

We can’t know, of course, how Nixon would have responded to later events (had they occurred in the same way) but we know a little more than you let on here. The cease-fire never, in fact, took hold. The areas of South Vietnam held by the North in January 1973 remained battle grounds, with the North jockeying for advantage and the South responding. These were strictly speaking violations of the agreement, and they continued up to and past Nixon’s resignation, yet while in office for more than a year and a half, he made no response, just as Ford made no response in April 1975.

This is hardly mysterious. Nixon’s aim had been from the beginning to terminate America’s participation in the war. The price for being able to do so was a complete withdrawal of US forces. He had been vice president in 1953 when the agreement in Korea was inked, and he well understood that if South Vietnam was going to be defended in the ensuing years, there would need to be a residual US force there, just as in South Korea. Instead, he opted for what he called a “decent interval” between US withdrawal and the collapse of the GVN.

He understood also that if US forces were gone, when that collapse came, it might be possible to spin that as a GVN loss, not an “American loss.” His hope was that this wouldn’t happen until 1977 or after, and that the connection between the US withdrawal and the GVN’s collapse would be obscured. His concern, as he expressed repeatedly, was not to avoid the collapse of South Vietnam, but to avoid the perception of a US loss, as he believed the geopolitical implications of such a loss would be profoundly harmful in numerous ways.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 22, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

“He understood also that if US forces were gone, when that collapse came, it might be possible to spin that as a GVN loss, not an “American loss.”

I think it is clear based on the record as previously stated. When the North attacked S. Vietnam the US provided support minus troops. The north did not engage in a second war until after Pres Nixon was gone. I think its fair to conclude the he was the key factor, not merely the mood of the country.

On the one hand you say it is impossible to know and then your last paragraph proceeds as if it is a known. What we know and we can reasonably conclud based on the available data is.

1. Pre Niox pledged to get us out of Vietnam.

2. He intended to do that on the grounds that we successfully support a S. Vietnamese state.

3. He, US military and the South Vietnamese accomplished that task.

4. He did insist that the the S. Vietnamese Pres take the disputed territory on the chin — there was a S. Vietnam, mall price to pay.

5. After Pres Nixon left office, the North invaded. in 1975.

6. Of course the purpose was have the US claim victory, that is no secret, nor as you suggest was it sinister — he made that point upon running for office. Furthermore, it was not “spin” it was the accounted events.

7. To years later North Vietnam launched another conflict and the US military was not involved — even in a support basis.

After obfuscation, laugh and laugh . . . only the most insidious agendas would list open and stated goals accomplished as ruse of obfuscation. I think the previous term you referenced was “kibuki theater.”

There certainly was mythos as theater on display, but it was in display in the streets, classrooms, and political hoola hoops of the protesters, which as previously stated — got nearly every single data set about Vietnam incorrect.

And when rebutted, find still more rhetorical flights of fancy to mislead and sideline the fact that they got it wrong and have been seeking recompense on the back of US service members in; Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc.

Needles to say, they got that wrong as well. It’s no wonder the common refrains about Nixon’s knowledge and participation in the watergate break-in are so off the mark as well. The fixation of blame minus any data to eschew the previously mentioned inaccuracies of liberal data sets and interpretation of events is a long winding web that seems to have not the slightest integrity of goal — but must fit the goal of exonerating themselves.

The lengthy rhetorical pose on Pres Nixon as opposed to Pres Kennedy, Johnson and a leer extent, Pres Eisenhower —

The only thing missing here is a link to Pres Trump.

#5 Comment By Charlieford On November 24, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

“When the North attacked S. Vietnam the US provided support minus troops. The north did not engage in a second war until after Pres Nixon was gone. I think its fair to conclude the he was the key factor, not merely the mood of the country.”

You are correct that the outcomes of the 1972 and 1975 offensives were different, and that the lack of US support in 1975 was what made for the difference.

However, it’s not the case that the North was quiescent in the intervening period. They had occupied territory in the South as a result of 1972, and they held that territory going forward. Us bombing applied to the 1972 Easter Offensive had the result of stopping the North, but it didn’t roll them back.

After 1972, there was constant fighting between the North and the South around that territory, and that persisted despite the 1973 Accords. The cease fire not only didn’t hold, it was barely recognized.

That’s critical for understanding Nixon’s record. The cease-fire was being continuously violated, yet he did nothing between January 1973 and August 1974.

We can’t know what Nixon’s response to the 1975 offensive would have been (or if it even would have occurred), but we know what his response to the cease fire violations was between 1973 and 1975.

Nixon was in a much different position in the Spring of 1972 than he would have been in 1975: In 1972, he was heading into his last election, and of course didn’t want to have the military loss of Vietnam hanging on him at that point. Would that have meant he would have acted differently in 1975? Maybe. His inaction during the more than a year and a half after the Accords would at least indicate that possibility.

As you perhaps recall, by 1972 the war’s purpose, from Nixon’s standpoint, had become more about getting our POWs back than anything else. During the Christmas bombing that December, 28 aircraft were lost (including 16 B-52s, making the Air Force very nervous, as these were no longer in production). 43 Americans were killed, and another 49 taken as POWs.

Our efforts that December to force the North to release our POWs was actually creating more POWs.

Had the North invaded in 1975 with Nixon still at the helm, would he have been willing to run the risk of losing more B-52s and having more pilots and crews captured, thus putting us back in the agonizing position he had finally extracted us from after four nightmarish years of work?

Like I said, no one can know, but there are good reasons to doubt that he would have.

With us not involved, Nixon would have been able–as Ford did–to put the blame on the South Vietnamese. I suspect that option would have been more attractive to reopening a war he had finally extricated us from.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 24, 2017 @ 9:05 pm

“With us not involved, Nixon would have been able–as Ford did–to put the blame on the South Vietnamese. I suspect that option would have been more attractive to reopening a war he had finally extricated us from.”

I am not ure there is much to be gained by answering positions previously answerd and then having to face the same positions again while skipping over the rationale for my responses to repeat your previous position.

I am sure I have brain damage, but it is so severe that that would pretend to engage positions previously addressed in response to your comments as well as previously noted earlier in conversation.

But we know is that the when the N. launched a second war and the US was not there to provide support. This territorial issues has been addressed and there is nothing new in the comments, save the B-52 add on.

To which,


I think it i safe to say that unlike Pres Ford, Nixon would not angered the B-52 after their demonstrated success in aiding S Vietnam minus the troops. In fact, I could add layers on the matter of territory but enough said.

I think there is substantial information that Pres Nixon would have ensured that 1972/’73 victory. There is only factor that halted the bombing — North Vietnam coming to the table.

Note; I have never contended we could no beyond doubt. To make such a suggestion is to contend something I did not. I indicate that there is sufficient information that Pres Nixon would not have abandoned the S. Vietnamese when it was clear support could have maintained the peace and their right of self determination.

My kudos to all of the men who fought in Vietnam and the women who served their military service needs.

#7 Comment By Charlieford On November 26, 2017 @ 2:27 am

This would be easier to respond to had it been translated into English first, but I’ll soldier on.

“when the N. launched a second war”

There’s your first error. The north never launched a second war. There was one war, it began in the 1930s, and it ended in 1975.

“and the US was not there to provide support”

And why wasn’t it? Nixon understood that if you wanted to guarantee US involvement, you kept troops in theater, as Eisenhower did in Korea (notice there have been no cross-border offensives there). Nixon did not do that–he agreed to pull out all US troops by March 1973. Why wasn’t the US there to provide support? Because Nixon didn’t follow the Korea paradigm. Why didn’t he? Because he didn’t want yet another Asian commitment in a theater far less defensible than the Korean peninsula?

“I think it i safe to say that unlike Pres Ford, Nixon would not angered the B-52 . . . In fact, I could add layers . . . I think . . .”

Well, you sure do think. And be assured, what you think is very special.