William McGurn wants Americans to feel bad about ending the unnecessary wars their government has waged on their behalf:
In the 40 Aprils that have come and gone since, Vietnam has become shorthand for a political orthodoxy built on the idea that American military intervention overseas creates more problems than it solves. This thinking feeds an entire industry pumping out tedious lectures about “The Lessons of Vietnam.”
Still, the most obvious lesson of Vietnam is the one hardly ever acknowledged: the terrible price paid—human as well as strategic—when America loses a war.
If this lesson of the Vietnam War is “hardly ever acknowledged,” it is probably not one of the “most obvious” ones available. This lesson is probably not acknowledged very often because it is untrue. In almost all cases, American military intervention in the last half century has created more problems than it solved. Vietnam is hardly the only example of that, but it is one of the most appalling and costly examples of it. The U.S. pretended that it was of vital importance to go to war to shore up a state that had no real strategic importance to the U.S. or to the broader goals of the Cold War, and for the sake of that fantasy tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died. The costs that we should be worried about are those of the unnecessary wars that the U.S. fights when it could avoid them. Whether the war is “unwinnable” or not, the more important question is whether the U.S. has any business fighting there in the first place. In Vietnam, as in many other places since then, the answer is clearly that our government had no business going to war there. Even if U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s had in some sense “worked,” that would not have made it the right thing for the U.S. to do.
It is simply absurd to draw a line from U.S. withdrawal in Vietnam to developments that occurred many years later in other parts of the world. That doesn’t stop McGurn from trying. He writes:
[Bush] might have added the strategic consequences, which included more aggressive Soviet intervention in the Third World that included in the invasion of Afghanistan. Because what America left behind on that rooftop in Saigon was something we still haven’t fully recovered: the certainty among friend and foe alike that America keeps its commitments.
McGurn is bizarrely trying to revive domino theory alarmism decades after it was thoroughly discredited. The truly sad and appalling thing about the end of the U.S. role in Vietnam was that it had no meaningful consequences anywhere else in the world, but that role was continued for years out of fear of what “signal” withdrawal might send. For all of the obsession in Washington with maintaining U.S. “credibility” elsewhere, the end of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was something our allies thought long overdue. Withdrawal from Vietnam did not make the Soviets doubt U.S. commitment elsewhere. On the contrary, Moscow didn’t understand why the U.S. had persisted so long in a useless war in a strategically irrelevant part of the world.
Contra McGurn, no one actually argues that “America can just up and leave a war without any serious damage.” For one thing, the damage that the U.S. does during its intervention is often very serious. That is damage that interventionists ignore or whitewash as someone else’s fault. No one opposed to these wars pretends that this just disappears or fades away when U.S. forces withdraw. U.S. withdrawal is obviously not a panacea for any other country’s woes, but it does keep the U.S. from further contributing to that country’s problems. If there is a “lesson” from Vietnam, it is that we in the U.S. often convince ourselves that we can “help” in a foreign conflict, but we haven’t the foggiest how to “help.”
Neither does anyone seriously argue that there are not serious consequences for any country where the U.S. has intervened militarily for any length of time. On the contrary, it is usually the advocates of military intervention that dismiss the idea that U.S. military action could possibly do any lasting harm, and they are the ones that pay the least attention to the long-term effects of war on the country in question. The fact that there will be serious consequences for a country after U.S. withdrawal does not tell us that the U.S. ought to keep a military presence there indefinitely. Instead, it usually tells us that the U.S. had no business being there in the first place.