Seven years before Navy SEALs killed him, Osama bin Laden revealed al Qaeda’s strategy against the United States. Al Qaeda was “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” bin Laden said. He pointed to the Soviet Union’s retreat from Afghanistan in the 1980s after mujahideen fighters “bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” More than a generation ago in the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerillas and the North Vietnamese Army had a similar strategy: a war of attrition to outlast America’s will to keep fighting. The unpopular military draft combined with 10 years of televised bloodshed and massive sustained protests helped their strategy succeed.
Now in the 16th year of fighting in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom has become Operation Enduring War. We have not cracked the code for defeating a determined guerilla army. We have not learned the lessons of Vietnam. We are in danger of becoming a nation where the status quo is war rather than peace.
As I have written before and will probably write again, remembering the lessons of Vietnam is the one thing that can redeem the loss of the 58,000 American men and women who died there; the millions of Vietnamese who died; and the soldiers who have suffered from PTSD, lost limbs and damaged brains.
We are fighting an indigenous force willing to sacrifice its soldiers as long as necessary to expel a foreign invader, just like Vietnam. We have seen armed forces in Afghanistan defeat another advanced army before we sent in ours, just like Vietnam. As doubts appeared about our ability to prevail, military commanders told us the war was still winnable if we had “a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve,” just like Vietnam. President Trump sent thousands more troops into battle last fall, promising that we have a “new strategy,” just like Vietnam. Commanders have embarked on an impossible effort to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people –- impossible because unless we can guarantee lasting protection for the people who cooperate with us, the Taliban will kill them and will do it horribly. That’s what happened in Vietnam. The enemy is able to find sanctuary by crossing into a country where we are not supposed to follow, just like Vietnam. We are propping up a corrupt and ineffective government, just like Vietnam. And just like Vietnam, it has begun to look like our objective now is not to win, but to save face.
Our current president, whose bad feet kept him out of Vietnam and any other kind of military service, does not believe in the value of diplomacy. That may be because he has not experienced the costs of war. Key diplomatic posts at the State Department remain vacant. Asked last month whether the vacancies in our diplomatic corps worried him, Trump gave this deeply troubling response: “When you don’t need to fill slots, don’t fill them… I’m the only person that matters because when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
Last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, President Trump issued a proclamation that reads in part, “We salute our brave Vietnam veterans who, in service to our Nation and in defense of liberty, fought gallantly against the spread of communism and defended the freedom of the Vietnamese people.” Those are the lofty sentiments we expect in a presidential proclamation, but they also are an example of how the Vietnam experience has faded into clichés. There was plenty of individual gallantry and bravery, yes, but the war itself deserves study, not celebration.
As veteran, author and educator Christian Apply has written, insofar as today’s young people hear about the Vietnam War, they have been given a whitewashed history. “Many older Americans have also been affected by decades of distortion and revision designed to sanitize an impossibly soiled record,” Appy writes.
That soiled record includes what happens when the “thin veneer of civilization” disappears among the warriors, when a sense of national purpose is lost, and when leaders continue the fight after the battle and the support of the American people have been lost. That’s what three of our presidents did, allowing tens of thousands of American soldiers to die long after the White House knew the war was unwinnable.
In his documentary film on the Vietnam War, Ken Burns notes that because of Vietnam, the baby boom generation became the first to discover that it could not trust its leaders. The importance of that lesson persists. When they deploy American warriors to fight and die in foreign lands, we must challenge the President and the military to show us compelling reasons vital to the security of the country, along with a clear mission and an exit strategy.
There is another important lesson we are ignoring today. When President Dwight Eisenhower was drafting his famous farewell speech in 1961 – the speech in which he warned us of a “military industrial complex” – he originally planned to talk about the “military-industrial-congressional” complex. Eisenhower decided that taking on the military and industry was enough, so he erased “congress” from his warning. He should not have. It is widely known today that some members of Congress force unneeded weapons systems on the military in order to keep weapons manufacturing jobs in their districts.
Eisenhower also warned us to avoid “a permanent armaments industry.” Yet for many years now, the United States has been the world’s largest arms dealer. American companies that manufacture military weapons exported $10 billion worth last year and contributed to the highest global trade in heavy weapons since the end of the Cold War in 1991. In recent years, more than 100 nations have bought aircraft, ships, missiles and other armaments from the U.S., including several countries in the volatile Middle East.
Rather than the complacence we see today, the American people should be asking some tough questions. How much longer will our leaders allow the Afghanistan war to continue? Do we want to be a country that is permanently at war? Should we and our allies switch to a strategy of policing terrorism with surgical strikes wherever it exists, rather than warfighting? Where is the pushback from Congress and our people against this seemingly endless war?
Could it be that war is so profitable for corporations and politicians that we now have the entrenched and permanent military-industrial-congressional complex that Eisenhower anticipated? What does it tell us when 29 percent of Americans including 43 percent of Republicans have said they could imagine supporting a military coup in the United States?
These are brutal times. We cannot be a nation of pacifists. But we can make much more intelligent distinctions between futile wars and genuinely necessary applications of military force. Vietnam was a killing ground, but it also was a learning ground. If we allow revisionists to cover up its lessons by draping them in stars and stripes and romanticizing about gallant wars, more young Americans in generations to come will die in futile, badly conceived and unnecessary wars sustained by leaders who find it embarrassing or inconvenient to quit.