In 2008 conference remarks, Marilyn Young reflected on “lessons not learned” five years after the beginning of the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq.
Of course, lessons were learned: indeed, since Vietnam, a veritable primer has been developed on the dos and don’ts of war fighting so as to maintain public support for an enterprise until long past its sell-by date. I’ve made a list of ten lessons I think the Bush administrations (the father’s and the son’s) learned from the Vietnam war. And then one very important lesson they did not learn.
First, controlling the press is a good idea, although not always easy to achieve. The common wisdom, post-Vietnam, was that the press—in particular television—was responsible for the erosion of public support for the war and thus its loss. Harping on this theme had the effect of making reporters wary, and it made successive administrations determined to limit press access to the action. In Grenada, Panama, and Gulf War I, the press operated under stringent rules and through a pool of reporters. The current war perfected the technique, offering the press the opportunity to be “embedded” with the troops.
Second, controlling the historical narrative is no easier than controlling the press, but it’s also important. For a time, when opponents of the war in Iraq used the example of the Vietnam war to denounce it, the Bush administration and its supporters protested. But then—and I do not suggest a conspiracy here—a more effective approach emerged: the administration itself remembered Vietnam, only differently than most, though not all, historians. The United States in this version really won the Vietnam war, or would have if not for Congress and/or the press and/or the peace movement.
Third, perhaps the most important rule responds to the widely accepted view that Americans let the soldiers down in the Vietnam war. Preemptively, even those who oppose the war in Iraq explain that they nonetheless support the troops. But this is not an easy distinction. To attack the war necessarily impugns the morality of the troops’ actions and the righteousness of their sacrifices. A Doonesbury cartoon of a presidential press conference captures the difficulty brilliantly. “Mr. President, you’ve been arguing that we must remain in Iraq to ensure that those who’ve given their lives didn’t die in vain. What if our troops are still dying at the current rate a year from now? Will we withdraw then?” “No,” the president answers. “Because if we do all of next year’s deaths will have been in vain.” “What about two years from now? Or five years?” And Bush answers: “Again, we’ll stay the course. We cannot dishonor the upcoming sacrifice of those who have yet to die. Remember, some of them haven’t even enlisted yet. If we cut and run, what kind of message would that be sending them and their families?” “That they might live?” “Dishonoring their own future deaths? I don’t think so.”1
Fourth, at all costs avoid a draft; do not call upon the public to do more for the war effort than tolerate it except when called upon to support the troops.
Fifth, also avoid body counts.
Sixth, when atrocities are uncovered, direct attention firmly down the ranks to the inevitable bad apples. This worked in My Lai; it can be made to work in Iraq.
Seventh, try to avoid language that evokes bad memories: an increase in the number of troops is a “surge” not an “escalation.” The withdrawal of that increase counts as a drawdown of troops. When counting, don’t include the forty-eight thousand mercenaries under contract.
Eighth, when in trouble, up the ante—Iran is this war’s Cambodia.
Ninth, a war needs heroes. The only heroes in Vietnam were the returning POWs—ambiguous figures at best and in any case unavailable to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It took a while, but on the model of the NYPD and NYFD heroes of 9/11, General David Petraeus, PhD, and his circle of warrior intellectuals have emerged as reasonable facsimiles.
Tenth, criticism of tactics is acceptable and can possibly even be useful. Some military analysts believe that had counterinsurgency tactics and strategies been consistently applied in Vietnam, that war would have been won. Now, at last, under General Petraeus, those tactics are in place and have had a telling effect. To withdraw when things are going so well would be to repeat the tragedy of Vietnam, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
What, in my view, should have been learned from Vietnam? That a bad war can’t be fixed except by ending it; that failing to have dealt with old bad wars means repeating them.
Let me say a little more about this last point. Journalists and historians have written about the “defeat” of the United States in Vietnam. However, although the United States acknowledges having lost the Vietnam war, it has never acknowledged that the war it fought and lost was, in many respects, criminal. Defeat in a war in which criminal acts have taken place or because it was a war of aggression or constituted a violation of international law as such has resulted in international trials, an acknowledgement of the crimes of war and crimes against humanity committed, even the payment of reparations to victims. Germany, Japan, and Serbia come to mind. Other countries that have lost colonial or neocolonial wars, France in Indochina and Algeria, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, for example, have gone through extended periods of national soul-searching.
Moreover, this process of dealing with the past is ongoing, for Japan, Germany, France (with respect to Vichy), to name a few. As Patrick Hagopian put it in a symposium on the Vietnam war published in the Journal of American History, about U.S.-perpetrated crimes in Vietnam, “there is still an embarrassed silence.”2 It is indeed impossible to imagine an international trial or an official national self-examination with respect to widely recognized criminal behavior of the United States in Vietnam or Iraq, although the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, may soon get to vote on whether to declare Bush and Cheney war criminals who can be arrested and prosecuted should they ever step foot in the neighborhood.3 The closest the United States ever came to a formal acknowledgement of what it had done in Vietnam was when President Jimmy Carter deemed the destruction caused by the war to both the United States and Vietnam to have been “mutual.”
The United States believes itself to be, by definition, incapable of waging an aggressive war, or committing war crimes or crimes against humanity that would require an international trial. When the evidence that these things have occurred is overwhelming, understanding has nowhere to go but the exceptional: this low-level guard, that misunderstood order, these soldiers grieving for comrades and under great stress. Surprisingly, even open debate about the abrogation of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners does not move the discussion beyond the particular. Yet torture as an instrument of “counterterror” has a known history in the United States. Those complaining that the military in Iraq has failed to learn the lessons of counterinsurgency note that some lessons had been fully learned: techniques of torture, assassination, and the use of indigenous death squads developed by the CIA in Vietnam and widely disseminated since. Rob Corddry has explained this phenomenon best when he reported on Abu Ghraib to The Daily Show: “Jon, there’s no question what took place in that prison was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a . . . well, that we shouldn’t be judged on actions. It’s our principles that matter; our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember, Jon, just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.”4
Most Americans now know that, in Vietnam, the United States fought a war of great violence in a small country whose national choices could not have affected the safety and security of the United States. Most Americans now know that terrible crimes were committed in the course of that war: specific crimes of rape, torture, massacre and more general crimes of unparalleled bombing of civilians. But this knowledge has had few consequences.
Because these lessons of the Vietnam war have not been learned, the central issues it raised over four decades ago about the United States in the world remain the central issues today. Unresolved, they come back not as ghosts but as the living: the Phoenix Program of targeted assassinations, torture, and wholesale detentions; bombing of densely populated areas; the credibility of the United States as an explanation for an indefinite commitment to a chosen war gone sour; the unchecked expansion of presidential power; the demoralization of the military; illegal domestic spying; dissent defined as treason; the insistence that fighting “them” over there protects “us” over here—all continue in daily practice.
The refusal to force the country to deal directly with the crimes of war and the crime of war in Vietnam means that one day when the war in Iraq ends, or simply stops, the United States will once again fail to come to terms with the damage done by this unprovoked war of aggression, laying the ground for the next war.
1. G. B. Trudeau’s Doonsbury, October 9, 2005, Washington Post Archive, https://www.washingtonpost.com/doonesbury/strip/archive/2005/10/9.
2. “Interchange: Legacies of the Vietnam War,” Journal of American History 93, no. 2 (2006): 457.
3. As Young anticipated, Brattleboro and Marlboro, Vermont, voted on such a measure in March 2008, approving the arrest of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for “crimes against our Constitution.” “Vermont towns vote to arrest Bush and Cheney,” Reuters, March 4, 2008, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-politics-vermont/vermont-towns-vote-to-arrest-bush-and-cheney-idUSN0454699420080305.
4. “Prison Abuse Scandal,” The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, May 6, 2004, http://www.cc.com/video-clips/2rrxzn/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-prison-abuse-scandal.