Tonight President Trump is going to address the nation to announce his decision on the way forward in Afghanistan. He is expected to reveal that he will send more troops into the war. A war we have been fighting for 16 years, to defend a government that cannot defend itself.
The other day, I received in the mail a media preview copy of the upcoming Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Vietnam War, which will begin airing on PBS on September 17. So far, it’s quite good, especially in backgrounding Vietnamese anti-colonial politics prior to US entry into the war. I watched the first two episodes last night with my son Matt, who is 17. At one point, a US Marine veteran talks about how the ink wasn’t dry on his high school diploma before he was on patrol in Vietnam, scared to death. It hit Matt and me at the same time that that Marine was in combat when he was not much older than Matt, who turns 18 next month.
The idea that my son would be sent off to an unwinnable war by a military high command unwilling to see what was in front of its eyes, and a government ultimately determined to deceive the American people about the nature of that war — it’s abhorrent to me. Another veteran says on camera something close to, “Ours was the last generation that believed our government wouldn’t lie to us.”
This morning I was out doing errands and listened to this long Fresh Air interview with author Mark Bowden about his new book on the battle for Hue, which was part of the game-changing 1968 Tet Offensive. Excerpt:
[HOST] DAVE DAVIES: You know, one of the things that you write about is the deception and self-deception within the American military, telling politicians that they’re winning the war, that the other side is suffering so many casualties, they can’t go on. Now suddenly this imperial city Hue is under the enemy’s control. Did this deception continue? How did they respond?
BOWDEN: This was frankly, Dave, one of the things that most surprised me about the story. Gen. Westmoreland had no inkling that this was going to happen and, in fact, had many times explained that nothing like this could happen because they simply – the enemy lacked the numbers of troops, and they couldn’t put themselves in that sort of position.
And I get it. I mean, anyone can be faked out in a war. But when the city was taken, basically, the American command refused to believe it had happened. And this wasn’t just a public-relations ploy. In the cables that Westmoreland and his commanders were sending to Washington, they were saying there was only a few hundred Vietnamese sort of dead-enders who were holed up here in there in the city. And they’ll be chased out in a day or two.
And this led to small units of American Marines being set to attack a huge – an overwhelming force, well-entrenched. And they got slaughtered. And it didn’t just happen once. It happened over and over again. And even though these young company commanders – these captains – in way were informing their superior officers that they were up against an overwhelming enemy force and that they had taken the entire city, no one would believe them. They continued to try to fight this one-sided, suicidal battle. And a lot of Americans got killed as a result.
BOWDEN: Yeah. You know, Walter [Cronkite] got fed up by the Tet Offensive because he had been a supporter of the War in Vietnam, and he had been in his broadcasts in the evening essentially delivering the official line on what was going on there. He believed, you know, Gen. Westmoreland and President Johnson.
And – but when the Tet Offensive happened, he realized – he’s an old combat correspondent from World War II – that the story he was being told – in fact, the story he was delivering to the American people did not appear to be true. So he went on his own fact-finding tour in Vietnam and, in fact, interviewed Westmoreland, who assured him that Hue was under control. There was nothing really serious going on there.
So then he went to Hue, and he landed there right in the middle of this horrific battle. And he could see with his own eyes that he had been lied to. So he came back to the United States. And he delivered his famous homily about how Vietnam was not a winnable war. It was a stalemate. And the best we could hope for was a political solution.
Bowden talks in the interview about how horrifically cruel the Viet Cong were. But it’s also clear from the interview — and from the Burns/Novick documentary so far — that there were plenty of reasons specific to Vietnam and its history why this war was unwinnable. The American leadership could not conceive that the United States, the most powerful military in the world, could be beaten by local guerrillas. Bowden calls it “a triumph of ideology over reality in Washington, this anti-communist ideology which completely ignored the realities of Southeast Asia and Vietnam’s history and what actually was happening there.”
He says the same thing is happening today in Afghanistan. I think he’s right, except now, we, the American people, have no excuse for putting up with it. We have lived through Vietnam. We have lived through the debacle of Iraq. And yet — and yet! — we will allow Washington to send thousands more American soldiers to fight and die in a war we cannot win. According to the US Government’s own statistics, as of November 2016, the Afghan government only controlled 57 percent of the country.
This, after 16 years of American military involvement there, fighting barbaric Islamic hillbillies, at the cost of 2,400 dead US soldiers, and over 20,000 US casualties.
This time, it’s different they will say.
UPDATE: Sen. Rand Paul says:
The Trump administration is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan and, by doing so, keeping us involved even longer in a 16-year-old war that has long since gone past its time.
The mission in Afghanistan has lost its purpose, and I think it is a terrible idea to send any more troops into that war. It’s time to come home now.
Our war in Afghanistan began in a proper fashion. We were attacked on 9/11. The Taliban, who then controlled Afghanistan, were harboring al Qaeda, and after being warned, and after an authorization from Congress, our military executed a plan to strike back. Had I been in Congress then, I would have voted to authorize this military action.
But as is typical, there was significant mission creep in Afghanistan. We went from striking back against those who attacked us, to regime change, to nation-building, to policing their country for them. And we do it all now with an authorization that is flimsy at best, with the reason blurred, and the costs now known. We do it with an authorization that was debated and passed before some of our newest military personnel were out of diapers. This isn’t fair to them, to the American people, or to a rational foreign policy.