The Vietnam War still looms very large in the United States military’s collective understanding of history. So large that, about 15 years after the war’s end and a couple of years after the triumph of Desert Storm, Vietnam occupied a large part of the classroom portion of the US Air Force’s basic training curriculum. I know, because in 1993 I was an enlisted airman undergoing basic at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
When I attended basic in 1993, the military more or less divided history into two eras: Before Vietnam and After Vietnam. Before Vietnam, the military teaches lessons from the Civil War forward through both world wars and touches lightly on the Korean War. All of those wars come with the feelings one would expect from learning about victories: Americans in arms stood astride the world, fought evil, and kept the world free. Our Army and Marines serve as tripwires protecting innocent people and posing a deterrent to all threats, our Navy keeps the seas safe for global trade and communication, and our Air Force commands the heights from space on down. It’s a stirring picture for a young airman, and I had graduated college with a history degree prior to joining up.
The After Vietnam classwork taught different lessons. America intervened for questionable reasons, was unsure of her strategy, and lost. I never got the sense from the the official military curriculum that fighting in Vietnam served much of a larger strategic purpose. We learned about some of the landmarks, Tet and Operation Linebacker, but not about what the war won, because we lost.
Vietnam did serve a stategic purpose, of course. It was a local civil war with a global spin. The war there was, from the American leadership’s point of view at the time, about halting the spread of international Communism. Communism was an existential threat to our way of life. The Cold War had dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Vietnam was one theater in the Cold War, the one we happened to lose while winning the overall war. But that story is hardly ever told anymore, and many veterans who came home from that defeat found themselves scorned by a large slice of society and bearing the stigma of, in John Kerry’s words, having behaved in a fashion reminiscent of Jenjis Khan on behalf of a mistake. Vietnam Syndrome was not so much born in the 1960s and 1970s hippie communes as it was born in the voice of an aristocratic Bostonian who trashed all of the Vietnam War’s nobler purposes and proposed that a generation of “new soldiers” should fight against American interventions at home. Kerry has spent most of the years since then marrying rich and comparing every possible conflict to the one that scarred him and upon which he built his career.
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.