Myths about the Vietnam War laid the foundation for our Forever War

Summary: Today we have a reading that provides insights about our mad wars, written by someone who fought in the Cold War and later fought to prevent more wars. He explains how our leaders steered us into supporting these wars, such as by creating the myths about Vietnam that laid the foundations for our forever war. Essays like this are useful, since learning from our experiences can help cure our problems. We can do better.

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America’s Memory of the Vietnam War
in the Epoch of the Forever War

H. Bruce Franklin (Professor of English, Rutgers)
Los Angeles Review of Books, 16 July 2014

Opening

WHILE WASHINGTON PONDERS the ifs and wheres of our next military adventures, the hawks are shrieking against America’s “war weariness” and croaking that Americans have no right to be weary.

  1. Robert Samuelson writes in The Washington Post that our unending wars have “posed no burdens, required no sacrifices, and involved no disruptions” for us civilians.
  2. William Kristol, who promised us in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a “2 month war, not an 8 year war,” raves that the “war-weary public” must again be “awakened and rallied.”
  3. Sounding her familiar alarm, Condoleezza Rice urges us to “heed the wake-up call of Ukraine” before it’s too late.
  4. “Of what exactly are you weary,” demands an irate Wall Street Journal correspondent, arguing that those with an authentic right to weariness are just “those who have suffered severe physical and mental wounds or lost a loved one.”

War-weary citizens seem to be just a gaggle of selfish, spoiled brats, traitors to the heroes fighting our wars.

Maybe we have no right to be weary of our young service people getting maimed and killed, weary of the slaughter and devastation we have been inflicting on peoples in dozens of nations, or selfishly weary of having trillions of dollars sucked out of health care, education, infrastructure, and the environment to pay for these wars.


Perhaps we have grown weary of our endless post-9/11 wars. Just as after Vietnam we were weary of war. But after Vietnam we had not learned from our experience; so eventually we resumed our wars. If we have not learned from our Long War, eventually our wars will resume.

Learning from history

There is another explanation for our lack of enthusiasm about our forever war: perhaps we have learned the futility of these wars — and the folly of listening to hawks about our wars.

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It’s quite astonishing that the underlying rule remains unseen by us after so long: foreign armies (like ours) almost always lose when fighting local insurgents. Despite the historical evidence, our geopolitical experts work to conceal this (as Upton Sinclair said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”). This information could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past history of  counter-insurgencies.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012

We have fought covert proxy wars with sad results in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Libya. And phony pointless wars in Panama and Grenada.  And experienced outright defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. What have we learned?

A note from history

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, but created an existential challenge to our military-industrial complex. Prof Franklin explains how they responded to this with speed and brilliance. But they responded in their interest, not in ours.

  • 7 April 1990: The USSR passes a law allowing its constituent Republics to secede.
  • 12 June 1990: The First Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic passed motion declaring Russia’s sovereignty.  This was a decisive milestone on the road to the dissolution of the USSR.
  • 7 August 1990: The USA launches operation Desert Shield. The first US troops arrive in Saudi Arabia. Our generation-long wars in the Middle East begins.

This too should teach us something.

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22 thoughts on “Myths about the Vietnam War laid the foundation for our Forever War

  1. In addition to his arguments, we should note that Iraq War II ( begun in 2003 ) was largely motivated as a demonstration of how Vietnam should have been “done right.”

  2. I recommend “Dereliction of Duty” by Mag. Gen. H. R. McMaster. A compelling and extremely well-sourced read laying out how the best and the brightest together w/their military advisors failed each other and the country as well. I believe the country could learn a lot from McMaster’s scholarly approach to our Vietnam failure as seen from a military perspective. Gen Shoup USMC Commandant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_M._Shoup) was the only one at the time that learned from his own personal experience and those who proceeded him to stay out of a land war in SE Asia. Incredibly, I believe this book is required reading at the Army War College. Although, I must admit, that the current JC appear to be holding the line against invading Ukraine, Iran, Syria and Iraq (again) … the MIC must not be happy.

  3. Of course, a major motivating factor behind the Forever War is the Military Industrial Complex that President Eisenhower warned us about when he left office. When you have as many people making a profit from war as we have in this country — not just the US Department of Defense (which employs more people than any other organization, public or private, on this planet) but also all the private subcontractors which either primarily or exclusively supply the military with goods and services — there is a very strong incentive to remain in a constant state of war in order to justify the profits. In order to fully justify the cost of their purchase and maintain a steady stream of revenue for their manufacturers, weapons must be used instead of simply lying around collecting dust.

    I’m old enough to remember the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Clinton administration began looking at the defense budget and pointing out (quite rightly) that it would no longer be possible to justify such massive expenditures. I also remember the howls of protest from people (mostly Republicans, of course) who acted as if Clinton was proposing total disarmament (which he wasn’t) and who implied that this decision would leave the United States completely helpless in the face of future enemies even though we were still more than capable of defending ourselves against virtually any conventional army on the planet. Then George W. Bush came into office with an administration packed with people allied with PNAC (Project for a New American Century), a neoconservative think tank which had been agitating for the past two years for regime change in Iraq specifically and global military expansion generally. 9-11 gave them the perfect excuse to justify and carry out out their objectives.

    Who is it exactly that the writers FM cited above want us to take on anyway? Iran? Russia? Syria? According to GlobalFirepower.com, which offers estimates of defense capability — and not just in terms of weaponry and active/potential personnel, but also transportation and resources (both financial and natural) — Iran is approximately 22nd in the world in its ability to fight. Russia is 2nd, right behind us. Syria is 26th. By contrast, Iraq is currently estimated to be 68th on the list. Afghanistan is even lower at 76th.

    As FM points out, what did we manage to achieve after over ten years of constant war (which did not punish those responsible for 9-11 and which all the evidence suggests was unnecessary) in Iraq and Afghanistan — apart from wasting billions of dollars, killing tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of people, overtaxing our military, and damaging our economy? Answer…very little if anything, certainly nothing of significant long-term value. And these people want us to believe that we could hope to achieve much against a fighting force at least twice the strength of the ones we’ve been fighting — even if our military had not been overtaxed? At least on the surface of it, there seem to be only two plausible explanations for this. One is that these people are drunk on their own hubris to the point of irrationality — the other is that they have financial ties to the Military Industrial Complex and therefore have a vested interest in seeing to it that the United States remains in a state of war.

    1. Agreed. If it makes no tactical, strategic or common sense, it’s a “racket” for profit (see Smedley Butler).

    2. Bluestocking and Dissenter,

      While I agree with you, let’s not ignore other factors. My Twitter feed oozes blood-lust and seethes with belligerence — from Americans and Brits. Hawks and fear-mongers exploit our anger and insecurities — but these exist independent of them, and allow us to be easily manipulated.

      As citizens we must move beyond whines about those who manipulate us, and take responsibility for our own beliefs — and for the deeds done in our name. EVERYTHING starts with the man in the mirror.

    3. Looking back, I see that I was incorrect in attributing the citations to articles Condoleeza Rice and William Kristol to FM — they are in fact citations from Dr. Franklin’s article, which was extremely interesting (and more than a little harrowing). Assuming that what he says is true (and I see no particular reason to doubt him), it’s staggering to learn for the first time that Ho Chi Minh read from our own Declaration of Independence to celebrate the August Revolution which freed the Vietnamese people from Japanese and French rule in Vietnam — and to learn that we were already planning to subvert that freedom. It’s also frightening to learn that we were on at least one (and possibly more than one) occasion — and not during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but actually at some earlier point — literally minutes away from dropping a thermonuclear device on the Soviet Union and that only a timely recall prevented it from being carried out. Echoes of the film “Fail Safe” come to mind.

    1. John,

      As they say, peace is the hypothetical condition we deduce from the existence of brief periods between wars.

      Perhaps the most realistic dreams of peace are those created by benign hegemonic military forces: Heinlein’s Space Patrol, EE Smith’s Triplanetary (and later Lensmen), the Green Lantern Corps. Sad that these are the most realistic.

    2. Unfortunately, if human history is anything to go on, I’m not convinced it’s that very “realistic” to expect a hegemonic military force to be benign — or at least to expect that it will remain so over a long period of time. As I pointed out in a comment in response to another post on this site not long ago, one of the problems with American fictional heroes is that many of them follow the Law of the Instrument — “give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” The more expensive and extensive the weapons, the more likely it seems to be that a rationale for using them will eventually be found (or manufactured) — even if only to ensure a reasonable return on investment. If nothing else, the way in which armies and/or nations have typically chosen to treat the people they take captive (regardless of means or purpose) offers little evidence of the noble ideals and principles Heinlein gives the Space Patrol.

    3. Bluestocking,

      I was not clear. I said that a benign hegemonic force was the most likely dream of peace, and cited fiction. What I meant was these are dreams, probably not possible in the real world. Green Lanterns and Lensmen require the Gods of OA and Arisia to choose the worthy.

  4. “EVERYTHING starts with the man in the mirror.” Agreed. However, taking action, thinking wrong thoughts and speaking the unspeakable can get you targeted by the man … oh wait.

  5. If the Endless War ( aka “War on Terror” (TM) ) is indeed a product of Reagan myth, then our brave militarists are, among other things,s engaging in poetic combat.

    Time to reply, on that level, if not others. To take arms against a sea of troubles and – by opposing- end them.

    Our current problems began with the “Military Revolution” promulgated by, among others, our friend, Machiavelli, in his Art of War. Thus began the Military Revolution of the Early Modern Era – essentially a souped-up Roman legion type outfit that bombarded medieval castles and rendered useless knights in shining armour and ladies fair. This process culminated in the 30 Years War, ended by the famous Treaty of Westphalia, about which much prose has been written but few songs sung.

    Amongst the many propagandists / poetic combatants of that era was Ludovico Ariosto, whose Orlando Furioso ( The Madness of Roland ) lampooned the Legends of Charlemagne. It describe the adventures ( or rather misadventures ) of sundry Paladins of Charlemagne during a Muslim siege of Paris as well as those of sundry ladies, Amazon warriors, and Muslim warriors.

    And now we find ourselves in another epic struggle – gone awry. But it is the the Military Revolution itself that has come a cropper. So we should turn the tables on Ludovico. “Rambo Furioso” is out. That title would offend the Intellectual Property gods. Something like that, however, is called for.

    Here is the Wikipedia on Orlando Furioso:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando_Furioso

  6. Where are the ET-Aliens? Then again, if they are anything like us….One of my favorite documentaries is the Fog of War w/RS McNamara–11 lessons from RSM’s life…I teach a national security class and show that film to the students every year…Going into the 9th year now…I never tire of watching it and the kids love it…They are tested on the film, and other matters, by having to list their top 4 lessons and why, plus provide examples relevant to today….Perhaps our fearless leaders who seem to want to send our kids out to die in every part of the globe should be forced to watch the flick and then ISIS in action…Maybe force their eyes open like as was done to Alex in a Clockwork Orange…I think Heinlen (sp?) was a US Navy guy….One of the great scfi guys was….

  7. I believe FM was saying that a period of extended peace for America is something out of a Green Lantern comic book — a pleasant fantasy, but not something we can expect in the real world.

    The military-police-prison-surveillance-torture complex has long since captured the U.S. government in a soft coup. America’s economy now depends too heavily on police/military/national security spending to shut it down. Like Spain in the 17th century, America has been taken over in a bloodless revolution by forces that feed on the nation’s decay — private prison contractors, military contractors, arms/surveillance/robotics manufacturers who have all shifted their operations to the military end of the spectrum, aviation companies now kept alive financially solely by their military contracts, computer and other hi-tech corporations only surviving by sucking at the military teat, and so on.

    In fact, the army and air force have been quite straightforward about their desire to entirely eliminate humans from military operations.

    Last week at the Army Aviation Symposium, in Arlington, Va., a U.S. Army officer announced that the Army is looking to slim down its personnel numbers and adopt more robots over the coming years. The biggest surprise, though, is the scale of the downsizing the Army might aim for.

    At the current rate, the Army is expected to shrink from 540,000 people down to 420,000 by 2019. But at last week’s event, Gen. Robert Cone, head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, offered some surprising details about the slim-down plans. As Defense News put it, he “quietly dropped a bomb,” saying the Army is studying the possibility of reducing the size of a brigade from 4,000 soldiers to 3,000 in the coming years.

    Source: “U.S. Army Considers Replacing Thousands of Soldiers With Robots,” IEEE Spectrum, January 2014.

    This should work as well as replacing humans with automated phone messages in U.S. businesses. One can only imagine the chaos and destruction resulting from the inevitable bluescreen errors and UNEXPECTED APPLICATION ERROR crashes and buggy behavior of the military robots. It would all be funny if it weren’t so horrifying.

  8. Looking at the man in the mirror, I see a man who has changed over his lifetime. I see a man who said, I am trying hard to to feed my family, I don’t have the luxury of time to figure this political stuff out. This must be the case for a large percentage of Americans.

    I also see a man who has given advice to his son over the years that I still stand by. I remember saying – do not believe anything anyone has to say about the Middle East. Because of the convergence of religion and oil, nothing that our government or anyone else has to say is the truth. This goes for other governments in the area, including Israel. In my experience, a lie is told when the truth would suffice. This is advice I still believe in and would repeat to my grandson.

    1. gilsr,

      “I am trying hard to to feed my family, I don’t have the luxury of time to figure this political stuff out.”

      It would be interesting to get comment on that from our ancestors, the Americans of 1776 and 1870. Considering how rich most of us are to the average family back then, I suspect their reply would be ___________________ (let every reader fill in the blanks as they see fit).

    2. Interesting exercise. How would our/your/my ancestors feel about my comment? I assume my ancestor was probably dropped off a prison ship or at best an indentured newcomer. It seems that after the lower levels of Maslow’s Pyramid were satisfied, my ancestors would be as receptive to propaganda as anyone. But it would be interesting to hear what that person had to say when told to report for militia duty to put down a rebellion of his fellow citizens.

      Maybe other readers have Madison or Jefferson or even Shays as ancestors to lean on but not I. And in my case I felt overwhelmed by the liberal – conservative arguments of the time when there was so much competing for my attention. The reason I commented? I felt that it was a reality that possibly wasn’t being considered. Unless I misconstrued your reply, bingo.

      By the way, I feel that I have found my way. I have figured it out.

    3. Gilsr,

      There is no need to guess. We have records of the past to guide us.

      Few Americans today live lives as physically exhausting and close to the edge as Illinois farmers in 1858 (both men and women). Most were poor by our standards. Yet they turned out in large numbers to watch the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Three hours long.

      They read like term papers of today’s college sophmores. They are longer, more complex and sophisticated than the “debates” of today, in which candidates volley sound-bites with journalists.

      Those people didn’t believe that their struggle for existence was an excuse to disregard their responsibilities as citizens.

  9. Dear Fab, You got me. I was making an excuse. But let me make a few more excuses. First, I didn’t mean to say that I withdrew from political thought or action. I voted in most elections since eligible.

    The thing is, I had to ask of older and differently educated men at the age of 18, what is this liberalism and conservatism. This is only to point out my naivete. And this was in a different age. When newspaper job offerings had “WCM’s only need apply” in them. And this a newspaper in a major eastern city. But why there seemed to be a split on just about every subject between these two political identities confounded me. So the question, should I have waited? Until I had more knowledge? Until I realized that some people choose their political stance like they choose their sports team? And for others there a genetic/chemical difference between the two poles which has come to light in recent research? Should I have waited to see the bravery of oppressed people fighting for their rights?

    All these things I have learned since I said “I am trying hard to to feed my family, I don’t have the luxury of time to figure this political stuff out.”. Should I have waited to vote till I understood these things? Waiting would have saved me voting for Nixon twice.(Bet you don’t hear/see that often). So I took a shortcut and made a choice. So what would you advise a me 50 years ago? I knew I was not knowledgeable about certain things. Not uneducated but miseducated.

    Your point about the audience for the Lincoln-Douglas debates is true. Large audiences did show for these debates and there were people with both points of view in the audience. But I would caution you from thinking that a great percentage were there to be educated in the main topic of the debate. I say this only because I have been to a pre-mall, pre-internet small farming community on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t mean to take anything away from the debates and their effect in later years. But I have seen what would pass as entertainment in those towns.

    The large crowds at the debates made me smile. 12000 people to hear an un-amplified debate. It reminded me o the scene in “Life of Brian” when they are listening to the Sermon on the Mount from too far away to make out the spoken words. Blessed are the geeks for they shall inherit the earth. Readers can fill in their debate punchlines here.______________.

    1. Gilsr,

      No question that when political activities are popular, they become spectacles that attract people for other reasons — including entertainment.

      However, read the speeches of the L-D debate. Could you attract a crowd of any substantial size to hear material at that level? THAT is the key point.

      Looking further back, read the Federalist Papers. Written for a still poorer, closer to the edge population (no 40 hour, 5 day week; no social safety nets). Imagine publishing material at such a level in mass media of today. Would it find an audience?

      I see no basis for the we work so hard to feed our families excuse for our political apathy.

      I don’t know how old your were 50 years ago, but it’s IMO hardly relevant. Our problem IMO is not that young adults, even in their 20s, are politically apathetic. But that people in their 30 – 60 year range are.

    2. Fab,

      You are quite right about our lack of ability to hold each others attention and talk about complex ideas. In general. You write eloquently about this. I look forward to further discussion about ways to cope with these changes.

      In my original comment I should have said: Even though as a young man I was politically naive, and very little knowledge of the world, I told my son to be wary of news of the Middle East. If worded this way It would have saved us both some time and energy. Also, the latter part of my comment was what I considered important.

      So the explanations of my age and my thinking at that time was to explain the “excuse for political apathy” as you put it. I did tell myself to “leave it alone” but it was because I was spending a large amount of time thinking about politics and taking attention from a young family and work. As I look back, I don’t believe I was apathetic. Plus I like to talk about the changes I have seen in my lifetime.

      I am tempted to comment further on audiences of the debates and the Federalist Papers but I think we’ve had enough. Thanks for the great great site.

  10. Gaga land FM..I said a long time ago on this forum “we are in a race between US economic collapse and WW3”

    The race has been lost you, the US, is now going to war, with full Congressional approval, with Russia.

    Forget all your silly articles..this is it boys. Your congress and your President have said so.

    Sorry, you haven’t been following the Ukraine..out of the loop..or do you agree with this? The, so obvious false flag,..getting worse at that over time. The demonification of Putin, and now Russia. Obama’s (obviously how he has been briefed) lies about Russia, how weak it is, “They’ were responsible (quoting Twitter reports).

    Does the old Marine Corp lust come to you, taking over Crimea before the US Army gets there. ..from these ‘weak Russians’…..

    You are going to war with Russia now FM.(half of your team,at least, will love this).. And you and everyone else will die.

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