June 23, 2006

Battling the Ghosts of Vietnam

If you want to provoke an especially heated reaction from the supporters of our current foreign policy -- those who proclaim that we must stay in Iraq for the indefinite future, and until an impossible series of events miraculously transforms a bloody, murderous failure into something they might finally dub a "success" -- there is one guaranteed method of achieving that end: compare Iraq to Vietnam. Almost without exception, the hawks instantly burn with white-hot anger. Their moral outrage is palpable.

Since that is the case, those who planned and implemented the current nightmare should take more care not to invoke the comparison themselves. Here is the latest example, in an article titled, stunningly enough, "Cheney Warns of Iraq Domino Effect":
US Vice President Dick Cheney warned today that a hasty US retreat from Iraq would have a domino effect, helping terrorists and hurting US allies in the Middle East and from Europe to Asia.

"It is absolutely the worst possible thing we could do at this point," the Vice President told a television news channel in an interview. "In fact, we will have set up the situation in which the al-Qaeda types can win."


Taking aim at calls for a withdrawal, the Vice President said: "if we were to do that, it would be devastating from the standpoint of the global war on terror."

"It would affect what happens in Afghanistan, it would make it difficult for US to persuade the Iranians to give up their aspirations for nuclear weapons. It would threaten the stability of regimes like Musharraf in Pakistan and the Saudis in Saudi Arabia," said Cheney.

Al-Qaeda has "a plan to establish a caliphate that stretches from Spain all the way around to Indonesia, to kick the Americans out of the middle east, to destroy Israel, to take down most of those regimes in that part of the world," he said.

"They believe they can in fact force us to quit, that ultimately we'll get tired of the fight, that we don't have the stomach for a long, tough battle and that we'll pack it in and go home," said Cheney.

"We can win -- we are winning -- but we've got to stay at it," the Vice President said.
I read articles like this, and it's the late 1960s and early 1970s all over again.

It has been clear for some time that, in very significant part, many supporters of the Iraq catastrophe are fighting two wars: the war in Iraq -- which hasn't been a war since the Saddam regime was toppled, but only a bloody and futile occupation -- and the war in Vietnam. More precisely, they are fighting the ghost of the Vietnam defeat, and what they fear that defeat signifies about U.S. foreign policy ever since World War II. (In fact, that same foreign policy stretches back further, to the Spanish-American War. But the primary focus and concern of the interventionists is our actions overseas for the last half century.)

The supporters of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are desperately attempting to vindicate the foreign policy paradigm within which they operate. A key part of that paradigm lies in Bush's repeated declarations of his belief in the "universality of freedom" -- that is, freedom in the particularly Western mode. This was a fundamental part of the mindset that led to the Vietnam humiliation as well. As Barbara Tuchman writes:
Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. "The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe," stated President Eisenhower on taking office, "is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia." He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.
This mistake rests upon a broader error, and upon a particular conception of the West's role in human history. I offered a condensed version of this view in my series on the growing and entirely false "crisis" with Iran. In terms of its essentials, here is how this story goes:
Western civilization, more particularly the United States, constitutes the highest point of possible human development. It is only "freedom" and "democracy" as practiced in the West that can guarantee a future of peace. (Never mind the West's uninterrupted history of warfare within its own ranks, and never mind the West's unending, centuries-long interference with the rest of the world.)

The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?
I analyzed this perspective in detail in later parts of my Iran series. For our purposes here, I want to focus on an excerpt from this essay -- and a passage from Robert Merry in his book, Sands of Empire. Merry discusses two central contradictions involved in the Western "Idea of Progress," and writes:
The other great contradiction centers on the concept that this Idea of Progress applies to all mankind--a legacy of the Augustinian heritage, as we have seen. And yet the actual progress that is the focus of this Idea has taken place almost exclusively within Western civilization. It is all about Western science, Western technics, Western methods of inquiry, Western philosophy, and, in the end, Western political and economic ideals. [Robert] Nisbet offers a penetrating insight into all this when he notes that the Idea of Progress has always been essentially "Eurocentric." By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he writes, "the spell of the idea of progress--and with it the Eurocentric view of the entire world--had grown to such proportions that little if anything in the world could be considered in its own right. Everything had to be seen through the West and its values." Implicit in this was the view that other cultures were inferior to the West, and hence universal progress required that these inferior cultures embrace the Western heritage.
I added:
And Merry goes on to ask: "If Western ideas, developed via the intellectual progress of which Western minds are so proud, clash with those of other cultures, what does that say about the universality of the Idea of Progress?"
It is this belief, together with the entire Western perspective to which it is connected, that was imperiled by our ignominious defeat in Vietnam. And it is the same belief and perspective that is now so threatened by the Iraq catastrophe.

You can see the desperation the hawks experience when facing this challenge to their worldview in any number of articles. As just one example, consider my examination of a Mark Steyn column from a few years ago, in an essay entitled, "They Are the Damned." In his profoundly dishonest attack on John Kerry, Steyn gives away his much deeper concern right here: "The only relevant lesson from Vietnam is this: then, as now, it was not possible for the enemy to achieve military victory over the US; their only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself."

As I explain in that entry, Steyn and many other hawks thus try to shift the blame for failure entirely onto those who criticized or even questioned our involvement in Vietnam. In this view, failure cannot possibly be the result of a basic error in our own actions and policies: the fault must lie with those who dare to question the innate superiority of America, and those who suggest that we are not preordained to remake the world in our image. In this way, the hawks' belief that the West and America in particular embody the culminating point of human history remains intact.

Put it another way: no other country and no one else at all can ever defeat the United States. Only we can defeat ourselves -- which is precisely what Steyn himself says. It should be obvious how this leads into a messianic conception of the United States' role in human affairs: we are gods on earth -- or at least God's representatives on earth -- here to bring enlightenment to the inferior cultures and peoples who surround us. This conception of ourselves is not only dangerously wrong, but dangerously destructive and brutal: if we and only we have the key to humanity's future, then what are the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of inferior people -- or even the deaths of millions? If the world is to be saved, no price is too great and no pile of corpses, no matter how high, should deter us from our mission.

The parallels to Vietnam are striking and numerous. Barbara Tuchman describes many of them in the excerpts from The March of Folly that I offer here. For example:
Like Kennedy, Johnson believed that to lose South Vietnam would be to lose the White House. It would mean a destructive debate, he was later to say, that would "shatter my Presidency, kill my Administration, and damage our democracy." The loss of China, he said, which had led to the rise of Joe McCarthy, was "chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam." Robert Kennedy would be out in front telling everyone that "I was a coward, an unmanly man, a man without a spine." Worse, as soon as United States weakness was perceived by Moscow and Peking, they would move to "expand their control over the vacuum of power we would leave behind us ... and so would begin World War III." He was as sure of this "as nearly as anyone can be certain of anything." No one is so sure of his premises as the man who knows too little.

The purpose of the war was not gain or national defense. It would have been a simpler matter had it been either, for it is easier to finish a war by conquest of territory or by destruction of the enemy's forces and resources than it is to establish a principle by superior force and call it victory. America's purpose was to demonstrate her intent and her capacity to stop Communism in a framework of preserving an artificially created, inadequately motivated and not very viable state. The nature of the society we were upholding was an inherent flaw in the case, and despite all efforts at "nation-building," it did not essentially change.

In the illusion of omnipotence, American policy-makers took it for granted that on a given aim, especially in Asia, American will could be made to prevail.
This assumption came from the can-do character of a self-created nation and from the sense of competence and superpower derived from World War II. If this was "arrogance of power," in Senator Fulbright's phrase, it was not so much the fatal hubris and over-extension that defeated Athens and Napoleon, and in the 20th century Germany and Japan, as it was failure to understand that problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques or even American goodwill. "Nation-building" was the most presumptuous of the illusions. Settlers of the North American continent had built a nation from Plymouth Rock to Valley Forge to the fulfilled frontier, yet failed to learn from their success that elsewhere, too, only the inhabitants can make the process work.

Wooden-headedness, the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts" habit, is a universal folly never more conspicuous than at upper levels of Washington with respect to Vietnam. Its grossest fault was underestimation of North Vietnam's commitment to its goal. Enemy motivation was a missing element in American calculations, and Washington could therefore ignore all the evidence of nationalist fervor and of the passion for independence which as early as 1945 Hanoi had declared "no human force can any longer restrain." Washington could ignore General Leclerc's prediction that conquest would take half a million men and "Even then it could not be done." It could ignore the demonstration of elan and capacity that won victory over a French army with modern weapons at Dien Bien Phu, and all the continuing evidence thereafter.

American refusal to take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account has been explained by those responsible on the ground of ignorance of Vietnam's history, traditions and national character: there were "no experts available," in the words of one high-ranking official. But the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina. Attentive consultation with French administrators whose official lives had been spent in Vietnam would have made up for the lack of American expertise. Even superficial American acquaintance with the area, when it began to supply reports, provided creditable information. Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.


Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist--unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.

For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune in the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: "Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together." The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging.
Change the names, and we are in Iraq today. And Cheney's remarks, as well as those of all the others who insist we must "stay the course," reveal that these dynamics are exacting their awful toll still one more time.

I offer these excerpts again in connection with the Cheney comments to demonstrate why the defenders of the Iraq disaster are so vehement in their refusal to admit defeat, and why they will not even consider an immediate withdrawal. It is not only this particular catastrophe that they cannot afford to acknowledge: it is the entire perspective, including their view of world history and our place in it, that is imperiled on the deepest level. To ensure the continuance of that worldview, defeat in Iraq is unthinkable -- and they must even retrospectively reclaim the legitimacy of the Vietnam debacle.

I will indulge myself and quote part of my conclusion in that earlier essay, because I don't think I can express this point better:
For our political leaders, in terms of the methodology they bring to bear on questions of foreign policy, it is as if the United States is a country without a history. In this respect, they are like the most dangerous of nihilist revolutionaries: they believe they can make the entire world anew, writing on a blank slate. But when you completely disregard the realities of history and culture, when you set aside facts and the complexities of men and the societies they create, you will achieve only what such revolutionaries have always achieved: destruction. Tragically for all of us, and for the world, they have failed to learn that lesson as well.
We refuse to learn the lessons of history, even of recent history. And so identical tragedies are reenacted without end.

Because their mistaken view of world history and of our role in it is so central to their identity, our leaders cannot permit that view to be challenged. But to maintain it, they must deny innumerable facts, just as they must deny the full reality of the ongoing death and destruction. And in large part, they fight phantoms and ghosts -- because the ghosts of past defeats also threaten to unravel all the beliefs they cling to so desperately.