Dont look now, but its back. Vietnam, that is. Yes, that Vietnam the one that decades up the road is still the go-to, bottom line, bloody baseline for modern American wars. The one that should have changed forever the way the worlds remaining superpower chooses and executes it wars. But didnt.
So as of the end of December, the nation began its post-Iraq era. So far, just as with the war itself, its a disorienting exercise in Vietnam Redux.
The president may have brought the troops home, but no one in his administration has spent the resulting capital in shaping a cogent Iraq war narrative: Why we went, why we stayed and why we left. And why we died.
But in his defense, explaining wrongheaded war is never easy.
Confronted with the psychic triage of Vietnam, the Nixon administration did no better. We were an invading country fresh off a disorienting, highly dubious, protracted war with obscene noncombatant casualties. We needed a presidential truth-teller were we to move through what was done and left undone in our name. And we got Watergate. Vietnam and Iraq. To our shared shame, the analogies are as apt as they are familiar.
Witness the Dec. 27 editorial from the progressive biweekly magazine, Christian Century. Change the theatre of operations, body count and adjust for inflation, and it could have been written in 1975: The Iraq war ends without a peace treaty or victory march. This misadventure has cost over $800 billion so far and taken the lives of more than 4,000 American soldiers and as many as 600,000 Iraqis. It represents a defeat for the neoconservative dream of bringing liberty and American dominance to the Middle East by a military invasion.
We should be sobered by the truth of such obvious similarities. But at least for the time being, Iraq is not Vietnam Redux. Because Nam will forever be code for the ineffectual use of overwhelming power. Its a war suspended in time. A cautionary tale. But Iraq may still be salvageable, if only in the American psyche.
Heres what we, all of us, can learn from Iraq that should have been learned from Vietnam.
First, this is the era of asymmetrical warfare: few if any stable battle lines, fixed objectives, unassailable weapons or complete victories. Daytime friendlies become nighttime bad guys. Improvised weapons are easily assembled and deployed. Innocents die in scores. This is the grizzly, fog of war reality of modern warfare waged upon and among insurgencies the world over. Short of the horrifying deployment of weapons of mass destruction, the war in Iraq is far and away the most likely sort for the foreseeable American military future. The time for symmetrical battle has run out, and everybody from the White House to the Pentagon to the rank-and-file needs to get that.
Second, this is the era of no-closure warfare. Vietnam and Iraq are veritable case studies in a draw as the new victory. Stalemate is the battle norm across the Middle East and Africa, to name but a few instances.With Vietnam, America entered the international fold where closure is rare. If Iraq is to become something other than one more exercise in unrealistic expectations, well have to get our heads right and deal with cease-fires that may well produce no clear endings.
In the end, there is such a thing as the terrible burden of knowing.
Two generations ago we decided not to confront the grim lessons of what was then to the military, government and nation a new and different kind of war.
We decided not to know and there can be no Vietnam reset. But whatever we missed in that war has heartbreakingly come back around again.
God forbid we repeat the pattern, but if so, yet another primer is in the making.
Its called Afghanistan.
Rev. Don Rollins is Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2012
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