Remembrance of Wars Past
Mr. McElvaine is a Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College. His latest book is Oh Freedom! — America in the 1960s, forthcoming from W.W. Norton.The past three weekends have been a time for remembrance of wars past—and what they can tell us about war present.
First there was the annual day of remembrance, Veterans’ Day, commemorating the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when World War I ended. A week later, President Bush was concluding his first visit to Vietnam, inevitably bringing to the fore questions about parallels between the American war there and the war in Iraq.
A week ago Sunday, it was the huge war that occurred between those two conflicts that was remembered as the length of the current war surpassed the time that the United States was involved in World War II. That same weekend, any argument that Iraq has not descended into full civil war lost whatever shred of credibility it still had.
“History,” Mark Twain famously said, “doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
President Bush and his party attempted during the recent campaign to persuade the American people that his war rhymes with World War II, but the actual echoes from that conflict ended three-and-a-half years ago when Bush stood in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Aside from the length of the wars, the only striking rhyme of the current war with that which ended six decades ago is that we have adopted some of the standards we had condemned in our enemies. In World War II we were rightly horrified when the Nazis targeted civilian populations. Our response went by such names as Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Iraq War rhymes of letting our wicked enemies set the standards are Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, “no habeas corpus,” and water-boarding.
The historical rhymes between Vietnam and Iraq are more numerous. “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “Ties to al Qaeda,” and “mushroom cloud” don’t rhyme acoustically with “Gulf of Tonkin Incident,” but they all rhyme historically. Lie, obviously, rhymes with itself.
Likewise, quagmire, disaster, foolhardy, senseless, and a host of other words apply equally to both wars.
McNamara does not sound much like Rumsfeld, but the historical rhyme between these arrogant and misguided Defense secretaries is plain to the eye, if not the ear.
The sound of the intellectual architects of the wars—the “Best and the Brightest” advisers Lyndon Johnson inherited from John F. Kennedy and the neo-conservatives who assured George W. Bush that Iraq would be a “cakewalk”—jumping ship and leaving a Texan president alone at the helm of his sinking warship is almost identical: Plop! Flop!
The president faced several queries in Hanoi about the Vietnam and Iraq wars, but the most pertinent one remained unasked. The increasingly Americanized culture and capitalistic economy evident in Hanoi begs the question: How would Vietnam be different or worse today if the United States had never fought its war there, or had departed in 1966, when Republican Sen. George Aiken of Vermont suggested that we should “declare victory and get out”? If the answer is, it seems to be, “Not significantly,” then for what did nearly 60,000 Americans die?
Unfortunately, there are also important aspects of the current war that do not rhyme historically with Vietnam. Foremost among them is that leaving the hornet’s nest that Bush foolishly poked in Iraq will have much worse consequences than did the very belated departure from the situation created by a similar imprudent action by Johnson. In both cases, the United States was in fact fighting against one of its stated objectives: to prevent the spread of a dangerous enemy. Both Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein were brutal dictators, but each was the best means of maintaining a unified nation to check the expansion of a more dangerous neighbor: China and Iran. Leaving Vietnam meant that Ho would unify the country, but the early American success in the conventional war in Iraq removed Saddam and now what will be left behind is a dismembered non-nation that assures Iranian domination of the region.
But will the result be any different if we stay longer? If not, clearly we must leave quickly, before more of our troops are killed and maimed unnecessarily.
What must be understood is that this disastrous outcome is the result of the terrible mistake of entering an unnecessary and counterproductive war, not of leaving it when it has become clear that it cannot be won.
As of mid-March, the United States will have been fighting in Iraq’s civil war longer than our ancestors fought in our own Civil War. But we would have to stay there for five more years to be in Iraq’s civil war as long as we were in Vietnam’s. That unhappy milestone would not be reached until December 2011. The eleventh year of this century will be long after the eleventh hour of Mr. Bush’s War, which is striking midnight right now.
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Howard C Berkowitz - 12/12/2006
Before the question of not keeping the national word is whether or not that word should be offered. All too often, political opportunism and sloganeering leads to an implicit commitment of lives, fortunes, and the honor of others.
Without selecting alliances carefully, there are any number of situations where the justification for being in conflict morphs from even a quasi-purpose into "we will lose face."
Sidney R. Tran - 12/4/2006
This is another commentator who has the special ability for being omniscient to all things in war.
"The increasingly Americanized culture and capitalistic economy evident in Hanoi begs the question: How would Vietnam be different or worse today if the United States had never fought its war there, or had departed in 1966"
To the writer's above question: ever heard of the cold war? Would VC Vietnam have changed to a quasi-market economy if its sponsor the USSR collapsed and the spigot been shut off? How did this miraculous transformation of Communist Viet Nam occur? Maybe, in part it was US engagement in the region by bolstering pro-US allies like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia. Amazingly, some of these countries were our strongest allies in that contentious War. So, I beg this question to the writer. How would SE.Asia looked like today if we did not intervene in 1965 and let the chips fall where they may? Would the other SE. Asian countries be strong enough to resist communist insurrections on their territory if the US had stayed out in 1965 and not give the much needed support and resolve in fighting the communist menace in the region? Therefore, to answer about the deaths of 60,000 Americans while very tragic indeed, did manage to give a jolt to our allies to throw in their lot to the US. There is no substitute for American resolve and leadership.
"Both Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein were brutal dictators, but each was the best means of maintaining a unified nation to check the expansion of a more dangerous neighbor: China and Iran. Leaving Vietnam meant that Ho would unify the country"
Again, this writer likes to go to history and selects the parts which suit his particular view. Of course there is no insight here rather typical observation through hindsight. To understand fully about history, one has to accept the entire verdict of history in its totality. Fact was Ho's Viet Nam would have never come to power without the help of Mao and his communists. They were the decisive force in providing the material supplies, weaponry, rear base area, and political support to Ho's Viet Minh. This was particularly true at Dien Bien Phu. Without Mao's victory over the KMT in China's Civil War, then Ho and his band of revolutionaries would have been one of many in post-colonial Viet Nam. The writer seems to ignore that reality by just focusing on Viet Nam later alliance with the USSR and its subsequent split with China. This writer lacks the understanding of cause and effect and has confused it with correlation. He seems to forget that dictatorships are inherently unstable. The facade of stability is observed because the problems that underlie such societies are not heard, written, or debated. Denial of problems does not mean the problems do not exist.
We are faced with a very vexing predicament in Iraq as in Vietnam. Mistakes can be very tragic such as the legacy of the "Killing Fields, the "boat people", and "re-education camps". Those things also happened after America's betrayal of trust not just the rapprochement between foes. However mistakes have a wonderful quality of giving lessons to present and future dilemmas. The lesson should be for the US not to abandon an ally because of half-hearted resolve. What message do we convey to world if we do not keep our word and honor?
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