Vietnam Syndrome dominated the U.S. military and much of American foreign policy until the Reagan rebuilding, and was to a great extent undone for my generation in 1991 when the U.S. military pounded one of the world’s largest and most experienced armies from the air and then overran it in less than 100 hours. Saddam Hussein promised the “mother of all battles,” but the U.S. military delivered the mother of all routs. My generation, of which Barack Obama is a member, tends to see Vietnam as one of several conflicts, not the defining American conflict. If anything, World War II and Desert Storm say more to most of us than Vietnam does.
But Obama is out of the mainstream on this, as he is on so many issues. Behind the veneer of the sports fan in chief is a man whose worldview does come from those hippie communes and from even farther left, in the Midwest Academy and the international socialist view that America is, for the most part, the problem. We’re not really a beacon of freedom and our chickens come home to roost in the form of attacks on us. He does his best to cloak his beliefs, but his 1980s article promoting the “nuclear freeze” disarmament movement gives him away. So do his choices to nominate John Kerry to head America’s foreign policy and Chuck Hagel to head our defense. To the far left, Vietnam was a defeat for America, but a victory for them.
Both Kerry and Hagel are decorated Vietnam veterans, which is to their eternal credit. Both men have seen war and hate it, as any sane person who has seen war does. Both bear internal scars from their experiences, and Hagel still bears shrapnel in his body. Neither are to be taken lightly. Their experiences matter.
But the scars of Vietnam, peculiar to their generation, should not have undue influence on American foreign policy now. Vietnam is not the fulcrum of American history. It did not equal Grenada, for instance, or Panama, or the Gulf Wars, or Afghanistan. Each war has had its own set of challenges. No two wars are the same, but lessons can be learned from them all and applied to future conflicts. The U.S. military is the best trained and funded in the world, and is quite a few notches above the Vietnam-era military that was composed mostly of draftees and had not yet come to terms with modern styles of warfare based much less on large command structures than on small cells that engage in infowar and hit-and-run attacks against America’s superior forces. Today’s wars are fought as much in the media and online as they are on battlefields. We go into conflicts with much clearer purpose now, even if that purpose morphs as conditions change on the ground, as they have in Afghanistan.
My point is, the American military has learned the lessons of Vietnam and applied them as much as possible to the conflicts that have followed. But John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are stuck there in that war that they fought in, and lost. It’s not fair to blame them for that. They’re human and that experience profoundly shaped them. But it’s not fair to subject this and future generations to Vietnam Syndrome and its obsessive defeatism. Kerry and Hagel are, in their core, defeatists. It is fair to blame Barack Obama for elevating them. He knows exactly what message he is sending by appointing them.
By appointing them to such positions of responsibility, Barack Obama is turning back the clock. The U.S. military and the American people had mostly defeated Vietnam Syndrome and moved on. Kerry and Hagel never did. They’re stuck in a worldview that views the U.S., our allies, and our adversaries with more or less equal skepticism, and will give the likes of Iran a benefit of the doubt that they have not earned and do not merit.