Lesson to learn from Vietnam

A lot of people have tried to convince me that Afghanistan is not Vietnam; that all comparisons between the two “break down” quickly. I’m not buying it. Indeed, the similarities are alarmingly numerous.

Historically, both countries have spent centuries fighting off formidable foreign aggressors: Vietnam frustrated China, France and Japan before showing us the door, and Afghanistan already has Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Russia, Britain, India and the Soviet Union under its belt. Tactically and strategically, both wars involve rough terrain and an enemy we cannot locate, already, both conflicts can be characterized by us dropping a ridiculous number of bombs on civilians, trees and rocks without fulfilling our stated objectives. Both wars also involve impoverished, “scary” ethnic minorities for whom most Americans have little respect or regard. Both have been directly preceded by a tax cut and an increase in government spending: President Lyndon Johnson with his Great Society programs and Bush with his corporate bail-outs. Both began without formal declarations of war, but with attempts to expand executive authority and curtail civil liberties. Both began as “crusades” against “evil,” a fact which is not particularly noteworthy considering that every American war has been framed in a moral context. It is worth noting, however, that we rarely engage a less developed enemy in a truly responsible or moral fashion (e.g. Spanish-American War, Vietnam, the Gulf War). At any rate, the list of similarities continues, but all this is, after all, only history and, therefore, not terribly applicable to this new, unprecedented situation. I mean, it’s not as if we can learn from past mistakes or anything. Right?

Historical relevance or irrelevance aside, many pro-war associates of mine have smugly tried to call my beautiful list of comparisons into question by citing “some very real differences” between Afghanistan and Vietnam. Hawks tend to cite the unanimous and unwavering support of Americans for the war in Afghanistan and the weak support for the Taliban among Afghanis as proof that Afghanistan will not be another quagmire. Neither of these distinctions, however, is a reason to breathe a sigh of relief, let alone jump on the war wagon. So we have unanimous support for an unjust war. Excuse me while I go throw a party.

This is especially dark news considering that American involvement in Vietnam, despite civilian opposition, actually managed to last close to a decade. Fueled by body bags and growing unrest at home, it took this country a decade to convince our government that stopping the war was in its best interest. I am not trying to insinuate that the war in Afghanistan will last more than a decade, but I honestly would not be surprised if the polar ice caps melted before we stopped our attacks on “those who harbor them.”

The argument that lack of support for the Taliban and Bin Laden will somehow make Afghanistan “better” than Vietnam is equally ignorant. As long as we continue to conduct the war in the present fashion, support will quickly develop. Contrary to what President Bush would have us believe, dropping a couple of apple pies in the desert is not going to change the average Afghan’s perspective. They see a rich nation bombing them from miles above the ground for a tragedy they were in no way responsible for; they see their poverty deteriorating into starvation and their only chances of survival, transports of food and emigration, blocked by war and draconian refugee policies; in short, they see evil. And what, among other things, does Mr. Bin Laden delight in calling America?

You do the math: Bin Laden and the Taliban may not have support now, but, if the war lasts much longer, they and hundreds of other anti-American extremist movements around the world will only grow stronger. Moreover, the “silent majority” of American supporters in the Muslim world is a non-factor; one does not have to look farther than our own political history to understand that a “silent majority” is about as worthless as our current “shrapnel and soup” policy. Finally, the legitimacy of Bush’s post-war “nation-building” (yes, he actually called it that, even after expressly saying it was a waste of time throughout his entire campaign) will not be helped by the memory of suffering induced by America our policy is now giving the Afghan people.

I realize that I have not countered all the pro-war arguments and I know that, like many critics, I have failed to offer up any solutions of my own. I do not have any: I, like every other American, does not know the first thing about how to track down and neutralize the most advanced, well-financed terrorist organization in history.

All I am saying is that the only reason we are fighting this war is to send a message. The Administration has already confessed that the war against terrorism will not end with Afghanistan and that military action on our part has, if anything, increased the threat of terrorist attack. The only problem is we are sending the wrong message. Day by day, on the television screens of the entire world, we look like much of what Bin Laden accuses us of being. What is more, Bin Laden and the governments that support those like him simply are not threatened by us: they could care less if their citizens (particularly the “vast majority” which do not support them) and troops are killed. We are not scaring anyone: on the contrary, we are just strengthening the terrorist movement and, in the process, killing a lot of people. Now I do not know how we are going to diminish the terrorist threat, but I do know one thing: Vietnam did not help end the Cold War. Now most of us agree that Vietnam should not have happened the way it did; but few of us are recognizing that the way we are fighting in Afghanistan is not a serious departure from conflicts like Vietnam and the Gulf War.

I would like to hope that, 50 years from now, we will not have to shake our heads at the “great mistake in Afghanistan;” unfortunately, even the evidence of fundamental differences between the war in Afghanistan and other “mistakes” suggests that the support for our conduct of this war will not decline soon enough to prevent another stain on our nation’s history.

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