Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said:
Your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more
We're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more…
- Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, John Prine, 1971
That’s the bottom end of the scale, right? Vietnam.
The pinnacle of America’s military prowess, is, of course, World War II.
Sure. The Greatest Generation, that’s what they call themselves. The Great Ones. America kicked some serious ass in WWII. By Jiminy, that’s how war should be, isn’t it? Glory. Heroism. For God and Country. Four, maybe five, years and whamo! enemies utterly destroyed and their countries rebuilt as allies, peace for everybody, and home to parades and cheering and a golden age of wealth and prosperity, right?
That’s what they tell us anyway.
But it’s been mostly downhill ever since.
And the low point? The antipode? That’s Vietnam, isn’t it?
That’s the one America doesn’t want to talk about. ‘Nam. Couldn’t win, couldn’t leave. Quagmire.
Vietnam. We’re always worried the next one will be Vietnam.
Nobody says, “hey, this one is going to be World War II all over again! Kickin’ ass and takin’ names! We roll through <insert name of Third World Country here> just like Patton chewing through Italy! Woohoo and hi-yo Silver!
Nobody says that. No, it’s always going to be Vietnam again.
And right from the start, right from that first night of the invasion on March 19th, 2003, the Iraq War has been compared to Vietnam.
Mark my words, boy, we never learn, it’ll be another quagmire, another Vietnam!
I’m leery of any such comparison, just as I am when people compare every politician they don’t like to Hitler.
But certainly there are parallels, aren’t there?
There are obvious lessons to be learned by looking at Vietnam.
And less obvious lessons, including one really big one, the one staring us right in the face. The most important one.
We’ll come back to that.
The current popular version of history says that America got involved in Vietnam over a lie, an unprovoked attack on US forces that never actually happened, the so-called Gulf Of Tonkin Incident – which became the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which then became the Vietnam Conflict, which was eventually relabeled properly as The Vietnam War. Whether description of that supposed attack was a deliberate lie or just the fog of war combined with political opportunism, I can’t say. Just as I can’t say with any certainty that the men who sent me into Iraq were deliberate liars or just criminally misguided.
But as they say: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Truer words were never spoken and nobody does that better than America.
The reality of the matter, if that word has any meaning here, is that we were involved in Indochina long, long before the Gulf of Tonkin. That’s why American ships were in the Gulf of Tonkin that night in the first place. We were just looking for an excuse and if it wasn’t an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats on US Navy destroyers, well, it would have been something else. Almost anything would do, political forces in the US were determined to have a war and they were going to get it, one way or the other.
You see, those men were terrified of communism.
They were certain that America and the rest of the so-called Free World were in imminent danger. They’d fought in World War II and they were fighting in Korea and they were facing the Red Scare at home and they were convinced, utterly convinced, that the communists were coming for them.
Americans were told to be afraid.
And so they were.
And so we went into Vietnam on the pretext of “the domino theory.” That is, America was told that they had to contain communism because if one country fell to the Red Menace, others would too, like dominos one after the other until the Russians and the Chinese came to kill us in our own houses.
"Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam."
- US Senator John F. Kennedy addressing the American Friends of Vietnam, 1955
The Red Tide of Communism. That’s it, right there. That’s what they were worried about.
So certain were they of this domino effect, that the Eisenhower Administration actually considered dropping nuclear weapons on Vietnam and Cambodia – in the 1950s, long before American forces were on the ground there.
Think about that for a minute.
Think about it in the context of the 1950s.
There was no internet in those days. TV and broadcast media were in their infancy, there was no satellite relays, no live streaming cable news from remote corners of the world. No Google Earth. No History Channel. Hell there weren’t even any Vietnamese restaurants in America. There were no Vietnamese Americans. No Laotians. No Hmong neighborhoods. Asians in the United States lived in Chinatown and most of white America didn’t even speak to black people let alone Asians. America was barely a decade out of World War II. Vietnam? We’re talking about a former French colony in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Vietnam? Nobody went to Vietnam for spring break. Americans didn’t buy anything from Vietnam. We didn’t sell them anything worth noting. There were no Americans in Vietnam, not in any significant number.
99.9% of Americans had never heard of Vietnam and had no idea where on the globe it was – nor did they care.
And yet … Eisenhower was thinking about nuking them?
Imagine just how scared you have to be in order to find yourself considering that option.
The Vietnam War required us to emphasize the national interest rather than abstract principles. What President Nixon and I tried to do was unnatural. And that is why we didn't make it.
- Henry A. Kissinger
By the time the 1960s arrived, our full involvement was nearly inevitable.
And so we went into Vietnam.
It was supposed to be quick, they were just peasants with pointy sticks after all. And we were Americans, Goddamnit, we had a modern military and nuclear weapons and Aircraft carriers. We’d train them to speak English, how to fight, and they’d beat back the commies.
And America would be safe again.
A police action and military advisors quickly turned into actual war and more than a decade of bloody combat.
And we couldn’t get out.
We won every battle, but we couldn’t win the war. We couldn’t get out. No matter how many we killed, no matter how high the body count, them, us, they just kept coming and we couldn’t get out. We kept sending in more, more troops, more guns, more planes, more ships. Liberal president. Conservative president. Republicans. Democrats. It didn’t matter, we couldn’t get out. So we just kept throwing our children at them because we couldn’t think of anything better to do. Back home, the country tore itself apart. There were protests and riots and Watergate and bombings and mass murder and social upheaval and cults and counterculture and police brutality and military action against civilians.
And it just went on and on and on.
Every night the news was full of body counts and pictures of dead soldiers. The newspapers and magazines were filled with Pulitzer Prize winning pictures of burned and maimed children, atrocities, mass graves, burning villages, and bloody battlefields. Our streets were filled with hippies and ragged veterans, the airwave sang protest songs, and the VA waiting rooms were stuffed to bursting with shattered men.
And we couldn’t get out.
But we had to do it.
We had to.
Sure we did. We had to because if we didn’t, well, sir, the communists were certain to take over the world. If Vietnam fell, if Cambodia fell, then the Red Tide would flood all of Indochina and spill over into Asia, the Pacific, Europe, and then, inevitably, America.
By the time we did get out we’d been there for twenty years, from 1955 to 1975 and America had been changed nearly beyond recognition. But for some, it wasn’t enough, they were convinced we could still “win,” that we could remake Vietnam into America. And they might have convinced us to go back, but public support for the conflict was long, long gone and so we finally left Vietnam once and for all.
Nobody really knows how many Vietnamese died. Most Americans don’t really care.
But 58,000 Americans died in that jungle.
Some of them are still dying.
The war didn’t make America any safer. The war didn’t make Vietnam any safer. The war didn’t end the slaughter. It didn’t stop communism.
Those 58,000 Americans died for nothing.
And here we are.
We’ve been at war, again, for a decade. More. We went into Iraq because they told us we had to, because they told us Iraq had attacked us – I know, I was there. We went into Iraq because we were told that if we didn’t fight them there, we’d have to fight them here. Loud voices back home had been shouting for war and if it wasn’t 911, it would have been something else. We just needed an excuse. In the years since, hundreds of thousands have died, nobody really knows exactly how many. Most Americans don’t care. And we can’t get out. Every night for the last fourteen years, since 911 our TV screens have been filled with the dead and dying, the burning villages, the horrors, the atrocities, the machines of war. And we can’t get out. Our country continues to cut at itself, our streets are filled with protests and riots, cults and militia grow like cancers, we hate and fear our government and our own neighbors. And we can’t get out. Conservative president. Liberal president. Republicans. Democrats. And we can’t get out. Our streets are full of ragged veterans, our VA waiting rooms are filled with shattered soldiers. And we can’t get out.
Vietnam, they say. Quagmire.
We thought it was over, we thought it was done. We thought, we thought, we’d done a better job this time. We won the battles, we won the war. We left Iraq on our own schedule, a schedule set by a republican and executed by a democrat. This time there were no pictures of overloaded helicopters lifting desperate Americans from the roof of our embassy as enemy troops smashed through the walls below.
After ten long, brutal years – twenty really, and more – we thought it was finally over.
But now Iraq is falling apart, along with Syria.
See? The warhawks crow. Told ya! We should have stayed, we should have kept fighting! We should go back!
Last week, Fox News’ Eric Bolling openly declared that America needed to put fighting forces into Iraq and Syria to combat “terrorism.”
Fox’s Jonathan Hoenig agreed, “We have enemies, and they’re the ones who are declaring war on America and slicing journalists’ heads off.” Hoenig then explained that there were no more Japanese kamikazes or attacks from the Nazis because the United States wiped out both those threats in World War II.
“I honestly wonder if our current administration would have won World War II. I think we would have lost it.”
Why stop there?
If Obama was president during the Indian Wars, why we might have lost the Great Plains! America would be confined to a thin slice of North America east of the Appalachians. What if Obama was in charge during the Spanish American War? Who then would have freed Cuba to become communists? And what if Obama was in charge during the Civil War? Why we might still have secessionists and Tea Party racists waving Confederate flags … Okay, that’s a bad example, let’s just move on.
It’s not enough to address what’s actually happening, it’s not enough for a supposed news source to report the actual news, no, they have to imagine what might happen in some alternate universe. See, what if Obama went back in time and replaced Franklin Roosevelt as president? My God, can you imagine a liberal in charge during World War II? A liberal? Why Obama would have lost the whole damned thing and we’d have been fighting Nazis, goddamned Nazis, in the streets of America! Thank Holy Jesus, Roosevelt was a socialism-hatin’ small government conse… Okay, again, bad example, but I think I’ve made my point here.
We’ve got to go back. We need boots on the ground. Air strikes. Cruise missiles. Nuke ‘em from orbit!
If we don’t kill them over there, why, we’ll have to kill them over here!
And it all just sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Like the steady beat of the drum or the click click click of dominos falling, one after the other.
“To destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders, take back their territory, cut off the finances and destroy the capability to regenerate. This is a war we’re fighting not a counter terrorism operation. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home!”
- Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC
Oh no! Not back here at home! Not that!
Predictably, Graham went on to compare the Islamic State in Syria to the Nazis, because, well, Goddamned Nazis, you know. We need boots on the ground Graham said, in Syria. We need to send the Army back to Iraq. Or else the dominos will fall, one by one, click click click, until Islam comes for America.
“This,” Graham declared, “is ISIL versus mankind!”
ISIL versus Mankind no less.
Wow. All of Mankind. Just like the commies. Click click click.
The world’s bestest conservative, Ted Nugent, who himself managed to infamously avoid serving in Vietnam, declared that Americans would absolutely positively be fighting Islam in the streets of their hometowns, door to door and hand to hand, on September 11. That would be September 11th, two weeks ago. You remember, right? Big battle. Slaughter in the streets. How many of them did you have to kill?
Those who carry guns had better gun & ammo up no matter where you go, carrying at least 10 spare mags or 10 spare speedloaders because the allahpukes are confident they will once again methodically slaughter walking cowering whining cryin helpless sitting ducks capable of zero resistance. To gullible naive embarrassing ill prepared targets, there is still time to firepower up ASAP. Head for cover but retain an attentiveness in order to identify the evildoers and dbl tap center mass, then two to the head. Then take cover and prepare your next evasive escape, taking dwn known jihadists to the best of your ability, Aim small miss small center mass & headshots, This is going to be the real deal & absolutely survivable against these 4th world allahpuke zombies. STAND! Go heavy, Only a–holes are outgunned, Dont be outgunned or out ammo’d. Goodluck. Be safe, Shoot straight & OFTEN, Godspeed, killemall
Helpless sitting ducks. In the streets of America. This is going to be the real deal, folks. We’ve got to armor up! Seek cover, shoot for the head!
Except September 11 came and went …
… and somehow the streets weren’t filled with Islamic fighters.
It wasn’t the real deal.
There were no zombies.
Americans remained safe in their beds.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Aisle, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) was cautiously satisfied with President Obama's plan. But then he went on to say that he strongly opposes any effort to use ground troops unless Congress authorized a war.
It’s not that he was willing to rule out war and invasion, he just wanted to have a hand in it this time.
"Every war I've been in Congress on has started out with advisers and no boots on the ground. And then..."
Every war I’ve been in Congress for? How many is that, exactly? And is it just me who finds that statement more than a little troubling, for a number of reasons?
Last Tuesday Rangel explained that if America did send troops back the Middle East, Congress would first have to declare war, and second … authorize a draft.
Advisors, then a declaration of war followed by boots on the ground.
And a draft.
Talk about Vietnam.
What’s next Charlie? We going to have Ted soil himself in public again, while we dig up the festering corpse of General Westmoreland to run the thing?
If there is one man, one member of Congress who should understand the folly of an endless, unwinnable war, it’s John McCain.
If there is one man, one member of the American government, one war hero, one leader, who should understand the value of prudence and caution, it’s John McCain.
If there is one veteran who should understand reluctance to throw our children into the fire without specific goals, without well thought out plans, and without a unity of the national will, it’s John McCain.
If there is one man, one man, who should understand Vietnam, goddamn but it should be John McCain.
That was John McCain’s response to Greta Van Susteren on Fox News last Tuesday when she asked what our strategy should be.
She asked him to maybe provide a little more expansion on his plan, kill ‘em:
“They’ve got to be destroyed! And you’ve got to have a goal, the president does, and we have to have a strategy to fit that goal and policies that will implement it. We have none of the above.”
That’s what John McCain learned from Vietnam. Kill ‘em!
McCain used his interview with Susteren to push for war in both Iraq and Syria. He declared that the threat requires the “full weight of American air power” and “some more boots and support on the ground.”
“All this didn’t have to happen. We could have left a force behind in Iraq that would have stabilized Iraq. And we are paying an incredible price for the president’s leading from behind, whether it be in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, or a number of countries in the Middle East. We are seeing the chickens coming home to roost.”
We could have left a force behind in Iraq, so says John McCain.
We could have. The obvious implication being that President John McCain certainly would have left American combat forces in Iraq.
McCain conveniently failed to mention that that force would be either an occupying force or a force subject to Islamic law.
McCain also conveniently failed to mention that putting American combat forces on the ground in either Iraq or Syria would be an act of open war.
And that war would be a preemptive one.
You see, while the Islamic State may certainly be a threat to American interests, they have not attacked us. They killed an American hostage, yes, but we generally don’t start wars over one person. Do we? Especially ones that travel of their own free will to meet the enemy. The Islamic State is fighting the Iraqi and Syrian governments – one of which is a corrupt and unreliable ally and one of which is a self-declared enemy of the United States – not us.
Last time I checked, preemptive wars are illegal, a violation of both international law and our own.
And John McCain, of all people, should know that. What McCain demands is illegal, it’s against our law, international law, Iraqi law, Syrian law, and the wishes of our allies in the region. And yet, he’s a prominent figure in the party who keeps saying that Obama doesn’t adhere to the law. Riiiight.
Neither the Iraqi government or most especially the Syrian government wants American troops on their territory. Syria’s hatred of America is well known and unchanged – especially since we are openly supporting the rebels fighting against the Syrian government. And Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said on Wednesday that foreign troops on Iraqi soil are "out of the question."
So, if we were to put “boots on the ground” as John McCain demands, it will be as an invasion.
For us to put combat forces into Iraq and Syria, “boots on the ground,” it will have to be a full up declared war. There are no bases for American forces there, no safe havens, no allies. We will return as invaders, we will have to either topple the legal governments of both countries or take them hostage at bayonet point and force our will upon them – all while fighting both their militaries and the Islamic State.
You’ll note John McCain failed to mention that as well.
McCain also didn’t bother to mention what happens when you let politicians and their contractor pals run a war for profit – like Vietnam.
Take the Institute for the Study of War as an example.
Institute for the Study of War. Sounds ponderously official, doesn’t it? The Institute describes itself as a non-partisan think-tank, but it’s run by a bunch of civilian staffers/military hangers-on – Whiz Kids, to use the Vietnam era vernacular – and various former Army officers and funded almost entirely by defense contractors such as Raytheon and General Dynamics.
Non-partisan. You’ll forgive my skeptical expression, won’t you?
Not entirely surprising, the Institute for the Study of War typically proposes more war as a solution for war.
Last week the Institute’s founder, Dr. Kimberly Kagan and the Institute’s director of research, Jessica Lewis, a former Army intel officer (who is careful not to include her former rank in her bio and who was one of those folks who won themselves a bronze star or two for non-combat related action, hoorah!), penned an official looking report that makes a case for, well, war.
It’s called “A strategy to Defeat the Islamic State” and it’s freely available to the public on the think-tank's website.
It’s an interesting read. It makes some good points and outlines some useful objectives.
But the part I really enjoyed was the last paragraph of the executive summary:
Though this strategy contains a high risk of failure and the near-certainty of U.S. troop casualties, the outcomes of ISIS retaining control of the territory it has seized, an escalated sectarian war, more foreign fighters, and the largest al-Qaeda safe haven it has ever known outweigh those risks.
A high risk of failure.
Near certainty of US casualties.
Gotta do it though. Fight ‘em there, or we’ll have to fight ‘em here. Dominos, boys, dominos.
Goddamn, if that isn’t pure Whiz Kid I don’t know what is. I went back to see if the Ghost of Robert McNamara was on the Institute’s board of directors.
Listen to me, when you let the defense industry tell you when to go to war, you’re never going to have not war. Ever.
And it appears McCain learned nothing from Vietnam.
As did we all.
See, we never talk about what happened after.
Oh certainly we learned a few things in the years since 1975. Support the troops, don’t blame them for the sins of our political leadership. See that they are properly equipped – we don’t do that, but we know that we should. Have a plan, a solid strategy with measurable goals – we don’t do that, but we know that we should. Have a plan for after the war, for rebuilding the nation, for winning hearts and minds – we don’t do that, but we know that we should. Take care of veterans when they come home – we don’t do that either, of course, but we know that we should.
But we missed the big one.
When we left Vietnam, well, to be blunt, the domino toppled.
We left our former allies to their fates, to the killing fields and the mass executions and the reeducation camps and the atrocities of civil war. We left them to collective farms and economic collapse.
We left them to the communists.
And the communists won.
And yet – and yet – Burma (now Myanmar), Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines, those dominos didn’t topple.
Myanmar is a brutal repressive regime today, but that has nothing to do with our departure from Vietnam. There was already a repressive government in the Philippines, one propped up by the United States and made worse by the flood of American forces pouring through the whorehouses and tattoo parlors outside of Subic Bay and Clark Air Force base. Since that time, since America left, the Philippines has become an actual democracy. Though I doubt anybody would say the country is perfect, things are far better for Filipinos today than they were back then. Thailand continues on as it always has, ditto Japan. And India is rapidly becoming a superpower.
In point of fact, it seems that the domino theory was about as accurate as Ted Nugent.
In the forty years since Vietnam, the dominos that fell were mostly communist.
The Soviet Union withered and died, bankrupted by a war ironically in the very same region and against the very same people John McCain would have us return to fighting.
After two decades, reform came to Vietnam. The old guard was peacefully replaced, the collective farms were privatized, Soviet style economics became free-market reforms.
And Vietnam today?
The communists still hold power, true. Vietnam is one of the few remaining nations with a single party socialist government, but even that is slowly fading away. Vietnam is a vibrant country, a ripe target for American investment and economic growth.
Vietnam is hardly a paradise. But it has become a peaceful nation and, predictably, an economic partner of the United States.
And the region is far more stable today for our lack of boots on the ground than it ever was as the pawns and proxies and colonies of the First World.
Fast forward 40 years and certainly we can not stand by and allow ISIS/ISIL to slaughter the innocents without protest. Morally we must do something, we must send aid, we must help our allies, no matter how unsavory. We must train and equip those willing to defend their own homes. Certainly, I don’t argue that. If we are to call ourselves moral people, then we have a moral obligation.
Just as we have a moral obligation to rescue our people from the clutches of terrorists. Just as we have a moral obligation to hunt down and destroy those who would murder our people.
But boots on the ground? Invasion? War?
Certainly the fanatics of the Islamic State may one day come for us. That is certainly a possibility.
Or they may not.
Certainly the fanatics of the Islamic State may one day threaten other nations in the Middle East.
Or they may not.
Or, perhaps, like Vietnam, forty years from now these people will find peace and civilization if left to their own devices.
Will they? What are the odds? Is it likely? Maybe not, probably not, but it for damned sure isn’t going to happen in a state of continuous invasion.
This threat exists because war and conflict have destabilized the region.
More war won’t fix that.
Just as throwing more and more of our children into Vietnam didn’t bring peace or stability there.
Most certainly we should be concerned. We should be outraged and appalled at the brutality and the horror. Absolutely we should be. Absolutely we should acknowledge our role in this mess and provide what support we can to aid those caught in the middle. With caution. With prudence. With an understanding that real peace and stability can’t be imposed at the muzzle of a gun or dropped from a bomb bay or by shouting Kill ‘em!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no pacifist – though I don’t care if you think I am.
I’m no Neville Chamberlain. I’m no isolationist. I spent my entire life in the military. I did my time in Iraq. But my oath was to defend the United States, not throw my life and the lives of the forces under my command away for political goals or because fearful men shake in terror at the thought of what might happen someday.
And that, right there, is the real lesson of Vietnam.
Yeah, my blood's so mad feels like coagulatin'
I'm sitting here just contemplatin'
I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation
Handful of senators don't pass legislation
And marches alone can't bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin'
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin'
Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama
You may leave here for four days in space
But when you return, it's the same old place
The poundin' of the drums, the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead, but don't leave a trace
Hate your next-door neighbor, but don't forget to say grace
And, tell me over and over and over and over again, my friend
You don't believe we're on the eve of destruction
No no, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction
- Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction, 1965