Barack Obama And The Ghost Of Vietnam

 Vietnam War

photo: wiki commons

The speech will be delivered tonight but a key element has already been released.  30,000 more American troops will be sent to Afghanistan.   England’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced yesterday that he’s sending in another 500 troops from the UK.  500 is better than nothing.  At least they aren’t pulling out.  When you’re stuck in the mud, it’s nice to have friends who are willing to try and get you unstuck.

Beyond that, as important, and possibly more important than this new “surge” is the question of an exit plan.   Apparently President Obama is going to tell us that he has one.   We can only hope.   If he doesn’t,  it could very well signal the end to much of his credibility as the agent of change he promised to be.  Looked at his popularity ratings lately?  His approval numbers are crashing along racial lines.

If Americans are becoming increasingly conflicted about our 8-year long involvement in Afghanistan, those concerns are only heightened for those of us who went through that season in hell known as the Vietnam Conflict.   I’m referring particularly to the men and women who enlisted or were drafted and who then fought in Vietnam.  However, I refer also to those Americans who were simply alive at the time.   When it gets to the point that your troops and police are killing your own people on your own ground over someone else’s civil war, you’ve got a real problem.

The Vietnam problem, it turned out, was that we had been told we were fighting a war we could win if only we would increase the number of troops and then stick it out for just a little longer.  Sound familiar?   We really could win the “Vietnam Conflict” General Westmoreland kept saying,  as the daily body count kept pointing to more Vietnamese than Americans dying on the field of battle.   It turned out of course,  that the body count was bogus.  A lie.  The truth was that it was an open-ended war of attrition that was not winnable and our political leaders knew it.  And they lied to us about it.  Repeatedly.  Robert S. McNamara, the father of military “metrics” knew it.  He left the Johnson Administration because he could not persuade LBJ that the only reasonable course of action in Vietnam was to get out.

It was a war the Vietnamese had been fighting for generations.  First against the Chinese and then against the French.  Then it was the Japanese during World War II.   Then the French returned following WW II.  When they left, the United States moved in.  We were there because we were seized by anti-communist paranoia.  We also thought we could win even though no one else had.  We were there even though Ike Eisenhower had advised against getting involved in a land war in Southeast Asia.  We were there because we did not understand the culture and the history of the Vietnamese people.  They weren’t going to just submit to our overwhelming force, give up and go along with a foreign occupier’s grand plan for their country.    They never had, but we ignored Eisenhower and history.   We left ourselves open to be doomed to repeat the mistakes of others.

Fast forward to 2001, when the United States did what any country would have done after coming under attack.  We sought justice.  However, as with Vietnam, we again went to war with no viable exit strategy.  Again, we were going into a country with a long history of refusing to knuckle under to foreign invaders.  The British, sent their troops there in 1838, but were driven out of Kabul by an onslaught of civilian attacks.  The entire country has been in an almost constant state of civil war since the 1970’s, interrupted only by occasional foreign invasions.  The Soviet Union sent its troops in 1979, but were driven out by the Taliban with our support.  Some referred to the incursion as “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.”  And then of course, we went in, following the attacks of 2001.

This time though, and subsequently in Iraq, we were going to war without the draft, making it a relatively painless process for those who were in no way connected to the military.  The Neocons, thoughtless about so much of what they were doing, did have that part of it figured out.   Scare the populace half to death and then tell them you have a plan to go out and get the bad guys without drafting their sons and daughters.  It would have been far more difficult to convince the nation that an invasion of Iraq was a good idea if getting Saddam meant subjecting the country’s kids to the draft.  But that wasn’t going to happen  Not this time.

Some of those who had been in Vietnam, those who had served there,  advised against going to war in Afghanistan, without first determining what we wanted to accomplish, how long it would take to get the job done and then how we would get our people the hell out of there.   The calls for a defined exit strategy continue.  Clearly, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company weren’t thinking along those lines.   There’s a body of evidence indicating that for Cheney,Rumsfeld and their fellow “Neocons,”  Afghanistan was just a stepping stone on the way to a broader war with Iraq.

They apparently had little trouble convincing George W. that their grand vision would work.   All of it, as we now know, led to the President having grandiose dreams of democratizing the whole of the Middle East.  At least, that’s what he said.  The “end of days” was coming anyway, so what did it matter?  Things can get pretty dicey when you have a President with a reputation for being something less than intellectually powerful,  apparently mixing his religious beliefs with someone else’s war strategy.

“George W. Bush is among the most openly religious presidents in U.S. history. A daily Bible reader, he often talks about how Jesus changed his heart. He has spoken, publicly and privately, of hearing God’s call to run for the presidency and of praying for God’s help since he came into office.” –The Washington Post

And so we went into Afghanistan and then Iraq, with no viable exit plan for either one.  The whole mess was eventually  dumped on Barack Obama,  after winning an election based in part on his promise to end the war and bring our people home.

And now we wait for the speech.  We wait for President Obama’s plan for untangling the United States from the mess the Neocons handed the American people.

He had better have an exit strategy that’s more than just “something we might be able to do…eventually….if things go a certain way for a given amount of time…after we send in another 30,000 troops….after the Afghans are able to secure their country for themselves….”   If that’s all he’s got, then it will be nothing more than a continuation of something that already failed to work in Vietnam.

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