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 and enthusiastic military officers 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 as much in his Princeton doctoral dissertation. Later, as General Petraeus sought to apply the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq, he spawned a generation of so-called soldier-scholar “COINdinistas”—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: 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, Gregory Daddis, wrote: 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 in the 1980s, then, more recently, in the Middle East.
Scarcely a decade after Saigon’s fall, President Reagan reshaped 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 to Toby Keith – 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, 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 (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, 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,” 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 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 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, 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. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[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.]