Vietnam to Iraq and AfPak: traps of history

The United States's prolonged counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raise strong echoes of Vietnam. But new studies suggest that the lessons of this half-century military arc need to be carefully drawn, says Mariano Aguirre.

Mariano Aguirre
11 April 2011

There are remarkable continuities in the United States’s wartime policies since the 1960s. The context of the conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have been very different, but successive leaders in Washington seem to operate on similar ideological assumptions and to repeat their mistakes. The costly wars of the post-9/11 decade have exposed both the United States’s loss of legitimacy as a superpower and the limits of its military might and economic prosperity.

Some lessons of this history are revealed in a reading of four recent books They provide an opportunity to reflect on the state of American power in 2011 - when it is engaged in another military campaign in the Arab world, in Libya, albeit with far less complete exertion than before.

The consensus

The research in three of these works includes access to declassified information, notes from decision-makers and personal testimonies. The exception is Andrew J Bacevich’s Washington Rules: The Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010),  which is a historical interpretation. Yet the subtitle of this book is a good starting-point for a larger survey, for it reveals a core theme of the history of these four decades: that the United States’s pursuit of global military domination has led it to wage disastrous wars that have accelerated the decline of the United States as a global power.

A primary focus of these books is on the domestic civilian and military elite, an approach that reveals much about the role of inner-circle decision-makers in several administrations: from the the Ivy League technocrats (such as McGeorge Bundy) and cold-war generals who advised the John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson administrations, to the neo-conservatives that influenced George W Bush and the new military figures (such as David H Petraeus) pressing Barack Obama to continue the war in Afghanistan.

But Bacevich extends the range by arguing that a group of interlocking institutions drives the United States's imperial impulse. “Military-industrial complex”, he writes, “no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national security status.” This wider group consists of government agencies, think-tanks, the media and corporations. There is a continuity here between actors and their interests; corporations have a profit motive in selling weapons, for example, but also have to persuade Congress to free funds for that purpose. The period of Ronald Reagan’s administrations was notable for the formation of private foundations that funded rightwing research and media, part of a domestic contest in which the conservative side has been increasingly dominant.

These institutions too are actors and instruments in the ideology of “permanent war”, which generates a political economy of war (the “Washington consensus”, as Bacevich calls it). The author also criticises American society for kowtowing to its government's war policies. “The citizens of the United States”, he says, “have essentially forfeited any capacity to ask first-order questions about the fundamentals of national security policy.”

This Washington consensus, according to Bacevich (himself a former US army colonel), is not going to recede any time soon - even though the United States “no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection.” Americans, he says, “can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image.”

The ruin

Andrew J Bacevich sees a connection between the “permanent war” policy and the profound economic, political and civilian crisis that has affected the United States since 2008. The idea that an overstretched military power could contribute to the fall of an empire was proposed by Paul Kennedy in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). The United States's reaction to 9/11 and the international community's acceptance of this nation as the sole superpower for the foreseeable future initially was seen to invalidate Paul Kennedy's argument. But as George W Bush's presidency endured, the argument that US global influence is indeed declining gained renewed impetus.

The inability of the coalition forces to settle the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the perception that the “global war on terror” is unwinnable, reinforce doubts about the purposes and efficacy of the US military machine. The gross violations of detainees’ human rights in Guantánamo Bay and Iraq contribute further to questioning of the legitimacy of US power. In this context, the financial crisis of 2008 can all too plausibly be seen as a tipping-point into a new era where Washington’s diminished status is matched by the rising influence of other states in an emerging “multipolar” world.

The war in Iraq may have replenished the idea of American decline, though many subsequent studies analysing the phenomenon omit reference to Paul Kennedy's theory of overstretched military power as the agent of imperial fall. Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World (WW Norton, 2008), focuses more on international and domestic economic factors, such as trade wars with emerging powers.  A key domestic moment of decline is hurricane Katrina’s devastation of much of New Orleans in 2005, when the Washington government's response exposed mismanagement, contempt for and fear of the poor, and failed leadership. Around the world, people saw news images of what looked like an underdeveloped country whose agencies of state seemed inadequate and unfeeling.

Bacevich does echo Paul Kennedy's argument in pointing to the United States’s pursuit of “ruinous military and fiscal policies”. George W Bush doubled the military budget in 2001-08 and left his country with a structural debt of $10.6 trillion. The successor Barack Obama administration is sustaining very high levels of military spending. The Congressional Budget Office, the federal agency in charge of providing Congress with economic data, calls the long-term budget outlook “daunting”, and forecasts a steady trillion-dollar deficit for the next decade.

President Obama has assumed a prominent public role during what is now acknowledged as a crisis of US global power. He has stressed that his country is now operating in a very different environment than during the cold war and post-cold-war eras, in which severe domestic problems - the collapse of financial institutions and the real-estate market, resulting in high unemployment, evictions and foreclosures - constrain its international power at the very time that emerging states such as India and China are expanding.

Obama has signalled the need to develop a multilateral response to global challenges such as the environmental crisis and poverty; his response to the Libya conflict has also mixed limited military intervention (under the “no-fly zone” sanctioned by the United Nations) with a pronounced emphasis on the need for international cooperation and for Washington to avoid a directive role. In all this, Obama implicitly presents himself as the US’s first post-imperial president. At the same time, vast sectors of American society vehemently reject his leadership and views; even worse, he is entrapped in the country’s political and military inertia.

The legacy

Lyndon B Johnson's escalation of involvement in the Vietnam war overshadows (and partly undermined) the advances he was responsible for in civil and social rights. In a comparable way, Afghanistan could end by damaging Barack Obama's domestic social programme. The dramatic parallel is extended  by Bob Woodward in Obama's Wars (Simon & Schuster, 2010), which suggests that the effect of the anti-Taliban war may do to Obama’s presidency what Vietnam did to Richard M Nixon (as well as LBJ) and Iraq to George W Bush (see Neil Sheehan, "Woodward's Book Shows Parallels to Vietnam", Washington Post, 3 October 2010).

Obama’s campaign promises in 2008 included withdrawal from Iraq and an end to the war in Afghanistan. Woodward argues that the president was under pressure from the military establishment from his first day in the White House to postpone the deadline for final drawdown in Afghanistan - and to authorise a military “surge” there. The portrait of a president surrounded by powerful voices in the military establishment recommending a hard line indicates makes clear the difficulty faced by any US president seeking a change of policy in this area.

Gordon M Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster (Henry Holt, 2009) is a brilliant account of the decision-making process that drove the United States into the quagmire of Vietnam. It describes how an elite group of advisors - led by McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and the generals Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland - convinced LBJ to escalate the war in southeast Asia. Any voices against an air-bombing campaign and deploying combat-troops and in favour of settling the conflict through negotiations were dismissed; the diplomat George Ball, “the administration's prescient and articulate advocate of caution”, was one.

Johnson inherited the dilemma from John F Kennedy, who in 1961 had strong reservations about increasing the number of US troops in South Vietnam. After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson sought to resist involving his country in “that bitch of a war”. But the presidential system had a pyramid structure whose inner advisors could influence the president in a way that other officials (including the US ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge) could not. These advisors dismissed reports that contravened their vision, as George W Bush and Dick Cheney’s did CIA reports that questioned Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. President Johnson was eventually won over, and took the decisive steps towards Americanising the war.

The LBJ administration's policies were overall driven by ideas firmly entrenched in cold-war ideology. The domino theory, for example, aligned countries without taking into account their distinct histories or present realities; the credibility factor held that the strongest power in the world was simply not capable of losing a war; the global war against communism in the 1950s-1960s completely missed the vigorous nationalism behind many insurrections, from Cuba to Vietnam.

The My Lai effect

A common feature of the conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan is that failure is not an option for the United States. Indeed, Bernd Greiner’s War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam (Yale University Press, 2010) shows that the concept of military victory in the country is associated with an almost religious sense of destiny. The United States believes it is a country chosen by God to lead other countries on the road to freedom and democracy.

The writer Graham Greene captured some of this in his prophetic novel The Quiet American (1955; Penguin, 2004), whose vivid character portraits include an idealistic anti-communist CIA officer during the French war in South Vietnam after 1954; Alden Pyle’s conviction in the rightness of the cause leads to an endorsement of forces capable of wreaking death and destruction on innocent civilians.

Bernd Greiner casts new light on terrible episodes of destruction such as the My Lai massacre, when in March 1968 an American platoon murdered around 500 civilians in two Vietnamese hamlets. He argues that such incidents were an ultimate consequence of two factors in combination: the asymmetry between the North Vietnamese forces and US military power during the war; and the culture of victory, profoundly embedded in American culture, and always mythically reserved for exceptionally strong powers.

The less likely it looked that Washington would win the Vietnam war, however, the more it adopted a “total war” strategy that failed distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. If victory is unattainable, goes the logic, the United States would lose its credibility - and as a result the world would fall: to communism during the Vietnam era, to terrorism today. But Greiner also stresses that the Vietcong used this lack of distinction in its favour, exposing and sacrificing thousands of civilians for the sake of delegitimising the United States.

Gordon M Goldstein and Bernd Greiner show how decision-makers in the 1960s disregarded advice about sending troops to Vietnam. Bob Woodward describes a contemporary situation which indicates that the lessons of Vietnam have not been learned. Goldstein’s depiction of Bundy, security advisor during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, has a wider resonance: “he marched ahead with the expectation that an undefined degree of coercive military pressure would extract an undefined form of political capitulation over an undefined period of conflict.”

This attitude prolonged the Vietnam war and cost the lives of millions. It has also prolonged the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, where well over 100,000 lives have been claimed. The opposition to the Vietnam war in the United States grew after news of the My Lai massacre reached the public. The equivalent effect today on the domestic public has yet to arrive, though there are other signs that the appetite for “permanent war” among the American people is far weaker than it still is - Libya notwithstanding - among the elite.

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