Andrew Bacevich Military

Why Washington Has Learned Nothing From Vietnam to Afghanistan

Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.
Soldiers in Da Nang in 1967. [Marc Riboud / CC BY 2.0]

By Andrew Bacevich | TomDispatch

In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.

Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?

Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.

On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.

For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.

From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.

The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.

When President Richard Nixon visited “Red” China in 1972, the Cold War morphed into something quite different. With the nation’s most prominent anticommunist taking obvious delight in shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, the war effort in Vietnam became utterly inexplicable — and so it has remained ever since.

When the Cold War subsequently ended in what was ostensibly a victory of cosmic proportions, any urge to reckon with Vietnam disappeared entirely. After all, in comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, how much did the fall of Saigon in 1975 matter? In Washington, the answer was clear: not all that much. On an issue that far exceeded the Vietnam War in importance, history had rendered a definitive verdict. Only the churlish would disagree.

Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11. In an instant, the “end of history,” inaugurated by the passing of the Cold War, itself abruptly ended. Rather than pausing to consider the possibility that they might have again misconstrued the signs of the times, descendants of the political elite that had contrived the Vietnam War — including several who had found ways to sit out that conflict — devised a new framework for basic U.S. policy. The Global War on Terror now became the organizing principle for American statecraft, serving a function comparable to the Cold War during the second half of the prior century.

As had been the case during the early phases of the Cold War, the Manichean mood of that post-9/11 moment favored action over deliberation. So, within weeks of those attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States embarked on a new shooting war in — of all places — landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan, famous for being the “graveyard of empires” (including the Soviet one) but not much else.

That war was destined to continue for 20 years. By the time it ended, many observers had long since begun to compare it to Vietnam. The similarities were impossible to miss. Both were wars of doubtful strategic necessity. Both dragged on endlessly. Both concluded in mortifying failure. To capture the essence of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t take long for critics to revive a term that had been widely used to describe Vietnam: each was a quagmire. Here was all you needed to know.

So based on outward appearances, the two wars seemed to be siblings. Yet when it came to substance, any relationship between the two rated as incidental. After all, the Vietnam and Afghan Wars occurred in entirely different periods of contemporary history, the one preceding the annus mirabilis of 1989 when that wall in Berlin came down and the other occurring in its wake.

But here’s the thing: in reality, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change everything. Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington that poses a greater threat to the wellbeing of the American people than communism or terrorism ever did. To confirm that assertion, look no further than… well, yes, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Changing the Frame

You can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War I (1914-1918). And you can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War II (1939-1945). But to arrive at some approximation of definitive historical truth when it comes to twentieth-century Europe, you need to think of those two events as the Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Only then is the connective tissue between the “Guns of August” and the horrors that were to befall Western civilization three decades later revealed.

Something similar applies to America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In ways that may not be easily appreciated, the two are intimately related. Bringing to light their kinship — and, by extension, their true significance — requires situating them in a single historical framework. Classifying Vietnam as an episode in the Cold War and Afghanistan as an unrelated part of the Global War on Terror confers a certain superficial narrative order on the recent past. But doing so is like pretending that World War I and World War II were unrelated events. It overlooks essential connective tissue.

Instead, to identify a historical frame that encompasses both Vietnam and Afghanistan, consider this proposition: however momentous they were for Europeans, the events of 1989-1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, left the American way of life all but untouched. True, the end of the Cold War had enormous implications for Western and Eastern Europe (soon to merge), for the states of the former Soviet Union (cut loose to pursue their own destinies), and for Russia itself (diminished and humiliated, but still a mammoth successor state to the USSR).

While these events unleashed a torrent of self-congratulation in the U.S., the passing of the Cold War did not substantively modify the aspirations or expectations of the American people. For decades, the United States had exerted itself to uphold and enhance the advantageous position it gained in 1945. Its tacit goal was not only to hold the communist world in check but to achieve ideological, economic, political, and military primacy on a global scale, with all but the most cynical American leaders genuinely persuaded that U.S. supremacy served the interests of humankind.

Attach to this outlook whatever label you like: innocence, intractable ignorance, megalomania, naked imperialism, historical myopia, divine will, or destiny. Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.

The fall of the Berlin Wall did nothing to dislodge or even modify this strategy. Indeed, the collapse of communism seemingly affirmed the plausibility of pre-existing American aspirations and expectations. So, too, did the events of 9/11. Bizarrely but crucially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only imparted to American exceptionalism a renewed sense that here was the very foundation of the nation’s identity. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush but continuing to the present moment, the United States regularly doubled down on its quest for a global primacy that was to be achieved largely, though by no means entirely, through the use or threatened use of military power.

We’re now in a position to assess the consequences of such an approach. An essential preliminary step toward doing so is to discard the narrative of contemporary history that centers on the Cold War, succeeded, after a brief but blissful interval, by an unrelated Global War on Terror. It’s time to substitute a narrative describing an American military enterprise that began when the first U.S. combat troops came ashore in South Vietnam and persisted until the last American soldier departed Kabul in defeat some 56 years later. While thinking of this conflict as the Fifty-Six Year War may be accurate, it lacks a certain ring to it. So, let’s call it the Very Long War (1965-2021), or VLW, instead.

At the outset of the VLW, this country’s global preeminence was, of course, self-evident. At home, the constitutional order, however imperfect, appeared sacrosanct. By the time that Very Long War had reached its climax, however, informed observers were debating the international implications of American decline, while speculating anxiously about whether the domestic political order, as it had existed since at least the end of the Civil War, would even survive.

As the episodes that launched, concluded, and defined the essential character of the VLW, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan hold the key to understanding its dismal outcome. Whether considered separately or together, they exhibit with unmistakable clarity the grotesque military malpractice that forms the VLW’s abiding theme.

Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.

Begin with the fact that neither the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s nor the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 qualified as in any way vital to this country’s national interest. Both were wars of choice undertaken in places of (at best) tangential importance to the United States.

Then, add into the mix a near total absence of competent political oversight; deficient generalship, with senior officers struggling to comprehend the nature of the wars they were charged with waging; unwarranted confidence in the utility of advanced military technology; an excessive reliance on firepower that killed, maimed, and displaced noncombatants in striking numbers, thereby alienating the local population; nation-building efforts that succeeded chiefly in spawning widespread corruption; an inability to inculcate in local militaries the capacity and motivation to defend their country; and not least of all, determined enemies who made up for their material shortcomings by outpacing their adversaries in a willingness to fight and die for the cause.

Each one of these factors informed the way the United States fought in Vietnam. A half-century later, each reappeared in Afghanistan.

In terms of their conduct, the two campaigns differed only in one important respect: the role allotted to the American people. Reliance on conscription to raise the force that fought in Vietnam spurred widespread popular opposition to that war. Reliance on a so-called volunteer military to carry the burden of waging the Afghan War allowed ordinary Americans to ignore what was being done in their name, especially when field commanders devised methods for keeping a lid on U.S. casualties.

Bookends

The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly to the rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system. Yet even today, too few Americans are willing to confront the disaster that has befallen the United States as a consequence of our serial misuse of military power.

This represents a grievous failure of imagination.

On that score, just consider for a moment if this country had neither intervened in Vietnam nor responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. What would have happened?

Almost certainly, the North Vietnamese would have succeeded in uniting their divided country with much less bloodshed. And Taliban control of Afghanistan would in all likelihood have continued without interruption in the years following 2001, with the Afghan people left to sort out their own destiny. Yet, despite immense sacrifices by U.S. troops, a vast expenditure of treasure, and quite literally millions of dead in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, that’s exactly how things turned out anyway.

Would the United States be worse off had it chosen not to engage in those twin wars of choice? Would the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and the People’s Republic of China more recently have interpreted such self-restraint as evidence of weakness? Or might this country’s adversaries have seen the avoidance of needless war as an indication of prudence and sound judgment by a powerful country? And had the follies of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan been avoided, might it not have been possible to avert, or at least diminish, the pathologies currently afflicting this country, including Trumpism and our deepening culture wars? Certainly, that possibility should haunt us all.

Of one thing only can we be certain: it’s past time to be done with the Very Long War and the misguided aspirations to global primacy that inspired it. Only if Americans abandon their fealty to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the militarism that has sustained it, might it be possible to conclude that the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan served some faintly useful purpose.

Copyright Andrew Bacevich 2022

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.

19 comments

  1. These wars are for resources, in the service of the U.S. empire, and to enrich the military/intelligence/industrial complex. What those who prosecute these wars need to learn is to stop obsessing on money and power, and to allow other countries to run their own affairs and keep their own resources. And of course we need to eliminate the complex, probably the most evil thing on Earth at this point.

  2. Actually, Washington has learned quite a lot from every war our military or CIA has been involved in for decades. Congress has funded every one of them for their corporate and wealthy donor’s business interests. Most importantly, our electorate doesn’t seem to be aware of the part they play in the deaths of civilians from our imperial army invasions.

  3. Like we have any say in the matter. Another if wishes were horses article. Given those in charge you should be worried. Very worried. It’s like watching a spoiled angry child having a temper tantrum with a machine gun….

  4. This is a very long winded (VLW) exercise in how to frame the history of US empire.

    Of course, the revisions can’t touch certain obligatory frames, like how the US ‘failed’ to achieve any substantive national and geopolitical interests, apart from keeping GloboCap’s colonies in line by making an extreme example of some hellholes which their damned might deem a horrific success.

    And even as U$, Inc. and the MIC profited enormously from bloody bizzness ventures into these opportune and extended “quagmires,” the creeping fascism back in the Homeland likewise benefited from the blowback of an ever more militarized police state locking down subjects, formerly known as citizens, in permanent war and rumors of war, guaranteed health of the AllState which hangs over us now in the war on/of bioterror.

    But don’t pay attention to any of that. Just stay focused on Trumpism and culture wars as across nations of the world we’re all marched toward the climax of global domination upon the grand plans of the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith).

  5. Noam Chomsky has explained the Vietnam war aptly as the Don (US Mafia State) punishing Vietnam (the recalcitrant shop keeper) for thinking of independent nationalism, as an example to the other Asian States of what would happen if they had similar thoughts.

    The ongoing punishment of Cuba is another great example of the Mafia Boss punishing someone who stepped out of line. And its not about money in Cuba’s case. It’s just a vindictive Don paying out on someone who diss’d him.

    Indonesia was the main concern of the US with all of its riches in coal, and other resources. But in the end they installed that pig Suharto who murdered hundreds of thousands of his opponents in the interests of good governance i.e. a dictatorial oligopoly and in the interests of grabbing the loot.

  6. $8 Killion more over the next 10 years for more Weapons of Mass Destruction! More weapons manufacturer contracts! More arms deals! More endless illegal preemptive wars of aggression! God Bless America!

    To believe that steel skyscrapers can just freefall directly into their own footprints from office fires started by a little jet fuel? Now that’s serious delusion!
https://youtu.be/nUDoGuLpirc

    AUMF, Atrocious Unconscionable Murder Forever

    The US Congressional Industrial Military National Insecurity Saudi Israeli Complex did 9/11! We can start there and start flipping their Catalyst!

    3500+ Architects & Engineers ain’t just your average conspiracy theorists!!! ae911truth.org

    Cyril Wecht validates controlled demolition

  7. Washington doesn’t give a shit about learning anything – they just want to make war and money.

  8. Long ago, an agenda of global domination was established by a small group or Cabal of very wealthy people. Today that group has grown in size and they have appointed themselves as having the right to determine what is best for the rest of the world. Enter the Great Reset, or as I call it the Great Regret. We ill own nothing but we will be happy, that is their mantra. It is not mine and it should not be yours. Like used car salesmen, they sell you an image, and nothing of substance. Every human being is sovereign, and no government is over them. No corporation is over them. And this will always be the case. you see the super rich do not care about us. We must protect our interests.

  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHAb_Mx_9CU

    Antony Blinken, Secretary of Duplicity, the personification of the U.S., once again winking and blinking at U.S. duplicity; not even batting an eye – nothing unusual here, for a secretory organ of state, promoting the lies and deceptions of the hegemonic corporate narrative.
    “Only following orders, as I am instructed, Sir!”
    Haven’t we heard this line before???

  10. This analysis misses the elephant in the room, the war profiteering banking cartel which now controls America’s press and politicians. America is a tool. It decides nothing. The basic history of this takeover is in “War Profiteer Story”
    https://warprofiteerstory.blogspot.com

    This corruption needs to be cleaned out and these people brought to justice.

  11. Very nice reprisal of the markings that lead up to our current proto-fascism. I would start a bit earlier than Vietnam, for in regards to both disasters, there were a number of imperial misadventures preceding. Korea was as much a disaster as Vietnam, born of the same mindset.

  12. Article eadtes no words. Very clearly put. Sobering , too.

    Astonishing to see Secy. Of Def. Austin , and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Milley staring glassy eyed & jut-jawed at the cameras today , as if they were auditioning for a re-make of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ !

    General Milley needs to be coaxed into retirement ASAP. He’s ratcheting himself & others into a state of frenzied dementia.

    – JJ ( Detroit, near Canada )

  13. Washington is not the problem—americans are!
    “mean bitter people”. David Riesman
    “only in USA do people act like machines, are treated like machines and only in America are machine metaphors used to describe human behavior”. Geoffrey Gorer
    “in america the citizen has been transformed into a client, the worker into a consumer”. Christopher Lasch
    “in Mexico nothing works but everything works out; in USA everything works, nothing works out”. Morris Berman
    “the American world view is nihilism with a happy ending”. Allan Bloom
    “americans do not converse they entertain each other. americans do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. the problem with americans is not Orwellian it is huxleyan”. americans love their oppression”. Neil postman
    “the american ideal is that everybody should be the same”. James Baldwin
    achieved!

  14. I am always interested to see what Bacevich sees in American foreign policy. His experience in the military and his obvious education and intelligence often generate tremendous insight. But on this question – what connects Vietnam and the War on Terror – I think he is wrong.

    It was not arrogance and incompetence that explains these things: it is empire. Empire is the connective tissue that binds the bone and sinew of American foreign policy from the 1890s to the present. For all that time, the elixir of empire has maintained the health and welfare of America’s corporate ruling class, while it has cowed the population at large with ‘patriotism’ and crumbs from the feast of foreign labor and resources gained from US imperial policy.

    Invoking arrogance and stupidity to explain the history of US foreign policy is a mistake, which focuses inordinate attention on that character and morals of individuals, and slights the tremendous impact of social and institutional structures in shaping thought and action.

    1. Perhaps Bacevich considers the truth that ideology produces action, so that correct thinking produces correct action; likewise, an unbalanced, perverted ideology produces incompetent, stupid action, in this case ‘foreign policy’.
      At the end of WW II, American elites realized they possessed an inordinate amount of world wealth compared to the size of their population. They determined to keep it that way, no matter the cost, and thus proceeded their new Empire on steroids (compared to the old one).
      As a corollary, this ideology of wealth-accumulation eventually came home to produce the domestic social chaos and wealth inequality now plaguing America.

    2. Perhaps Bacevich considers the truth that ideology produces action, so that correct thinking produces correct action; likewise, an unbalanced, perverted ideology produces incompetent, stupid action, in this case ‘foreign policy’.
      At the end of WW II, American elites realized they possessed an inordinate amount of world wealth compared to the size of their population. They determined to keep it that way, no matter the cost, and thus proceeded their new Empire on steroids (compared to the old one).
      As a corollary, this ideology of wealth-accumulation eventually came home to produce the domestic social chaos and wealth inequality now plaguing America.

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