In one of the most thoughtful Vietnam-era accounts written by a senior military officer, Gen. Bruce Palmer once observed, “With respect to Vietnam, our leaders should have known that the American people would not stand still for a protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the U.S. commitment.”


General Palmer thereby distilled into a single sentence the central lesson of Vietnam: to embark upon an open-ended war lacking clearly defined and achievable objectives was to forfeit public support, thereby courting disaster. The implications were clear: never again.

Palmer’s book, which he titled The Twenty-Five Year War, appeared in 1984. Today, exactly 25 years later, we once again find ourselves mired in a “protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the U. S. commitment.” It’s déjà vu all over again. How to explain this astonishing turn of events?


In the wake of Vietnam, the officer corps set out to preclude any recurrence of protracted, indeterminate conflict. The Armed Forces developed a new American way of war, emphasizing advanced technology and superior skills. The generals were by no means keen to put these new methods to the test: their preference was for wars to be fought infrequently and then only in pursuit of genuinely vital interests. Yet when war did come, they intended to dispatch any adversary promptly and economically, thereby protecting the military from the possibility of public abandonment. Finish the job quickly and go home: this defined the new paradigm to which the lessons of Vietnam had given rise.


In 1991, Operation Desert Storm seemingly validated that paradigm. Yet events since 9/11, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have now demolished it. Once again, as in Vietnam, the enemy calls the tune, obliging American soldiers to fight on his terms. Decision has become elusive. Costs skyrocket and are ignored. The fighting drags on. As it does so, the overall purpose of the undertaking—other than of avoiding the humiliation of abject failure—becomes increasingly difficult to discern.


The dirty little secret to which few in Washington will own up is that the United States now faces the prospect of perpetual conflict. We find ourselves in the midst of what the Pentagon calls the “Long War,” a conflict global in scope (if largely concentrated in the Greater Middle East) and expected to outlast even General Palmer’s “Twenty-Five Year War.” The present generation of senior civilians and officers have either forgotten or inverted the lessons of Vietnam, embracing open-ended war as an inescapable reality.


To apply to the Long War the plaintive query that Gen. David Petraeus once posed with regard to Iraq—“Tell me how this ends”—the answer is clear: no one has the foggiest idea. War has become like the changing phases of the moon. It’s part of everyday existence. For American soldiers there is no end in sight.


Yet there is one notable difference between today and the last time the United States found itself mired in a seemingly endless war. During the Vietnam era, even as some young Americans headed off to Indochina to fight in the jungles and rice paddies, many other young Americans back on the home front fought against the war itself. More than any other event of the 1960s, the war created a climate of intense political engagement. Today, in contrast, the civilian contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely tuned out the Long War. The predominant mood of the country is not one of anger or anxiety but of dull acceptance. Vietnam divided Americans; the Long War has rendered them inert.


To cite General Palmer’s formulation, the citizens of this country at present do appear willing to “stand still” when considering the prospect of war that goes on and on. While there are many explanations for why Americans have disengaged from the Long War, the most important, in my view, is that so few of us have any immediate personal stake in that conflict.


When the citizen-soldier tradition collapsed under the weight of Vietnam, the military rebuilt itself as a professional force. The creation of this all-volunteer military was widely hailed as a great success—well-trained and highly motivated soldiers made the new American way of war work. Only now are we beginning to glimpse the shortcomings of this arrangement, chief among them the fact that today’s “standing army” exists at considerable remove from the society it purports to defend. Americans today profess to “support the troops” but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious or sustained public concern about whether those same troops are being used wisely and well.


The upshot is that with the eighth anniversary of the Long War upon us, fundamental questions about this enterprise remain unasked. The contrast with Vietnam is striking: back then the core questions may not have gotten straight answers, but at least they got posed.


When testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, the young John Kerry famously—or infamously, in the eyes of some—asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”


What exactly was that mistake? Well, there were many. Yet the most fundamental lay in President Johnson’s erroneous conviction that the Republic of Vietnam constituted a vital American security interest and that ensuring that country’s survival required direct and massive U.S. military intervention.


Johnson erred in his estimation of South Vietnam’s importance. He compounded that error with a tragic failure of imagination, persuading himself that once in, there was no way out. The United States needed to stay the course in Vietnam, regardless of the cost or consequences.


Now we are, in our own day and in our own way, repeating LBJ’s errors. In his 1971 Senate testimony, reflecting the views of other Vietnam veterans who had turned against the war in which they had fought, Kerry derisively remarked, “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.”


The larger struggle against communism commonly referred to as the Cold War was both just and necessary. Yet the furies evoked by irresponsible (or cowardly) politicians more interested in partisan advantage than in advancing the common good transformed the Cold War from an enterprise governed by reason into one driven by fear. Beginning with McCarthyism and the post-1945 Red Scare and continuing on through phantasms such as the domino theory, bomber gap, missile gap, and the putative threat to our survival posed by a two-bit Cuban revolutionary, panic induced policies that were reckless, wrong-headed, and unnecessary, with Vietnam being just one particularly egregious example.


The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s, so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.


As a direct result, it leads us to exaggerate the importance of places like Afghanistan and indeed to exaggerate the jihadist threat, which falls well short of being existential. It induces flights of fancy so that otherwise sensible people conjure up visions of providing clean water, functioning schools, and good governance to Afghanistan’s 40,000 villages, with expectations of thereby winning Afghan hearts and minds. It causes people to ignore considerations of cost. With the Long War already this nation’s second most expensive conflict, trailing only World War II, and with the federal government projecting trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, how much can we afford and where is the money coming from?


For political reasons the Obama administration may have banished the phrase “global war on terror,” yet the conviction persists that the United States is called upon to dominate or liberate or transform the Greater Middle East. Methods may be shifting, with the emphasis on pacification giving way to militarized nation-building. Priorities may be changing, Af-Pak now supplanting Iraq as the main effort. But by whatever name, the larger enterprise continues. The president who vows to “change the way Washington works” has not yet exhibited the imagination needed to conceive of an alternative to the project that his predecessor began.

The urgent need is to de-mystify that project, which was from the outset a misguided one. Just as in the 1960s we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of Southeast Asia, so today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East. To persist in efforts to do so—as the Obama administration appears intent on doing in Afghanistan —will simply replicate on an even greater scale mistakes like those that Bruce Palmer and John Kerry once rightly decried. 

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Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, just out in paperback.

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