On Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Bloody Irreversibility

One war ends; another begins; nothing really changes (Image from the original article/Jared Rodriguez)

W.J. Astore

Eight years ago to this month, I wrote the following article for Truthout about America’s ongoing folly in Afghanistan.  I was inspired by an old Look magazine from the 1960s and its coverage of the Vietnam War.

Reading old articles about the Vietnam War is sobering precisely because they read like articles written yesterday. Consider just one example. On May 30, 1967, Look magazine published a comprehensive, 25-page review entitled “USA in Asia.” The subtitle gave the game away: “Our bloody commitments in Asia horrify many Americans. But like it or not, we are irreversibly involved.”

Today, more than forty years later, many say the same of our involvement in Central Asia. Our bloody commitments continue to horrify Americans. And yet again we’re told we’re irreversibly involved. Yet if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that the “irreversible” is eminently reversible.

Historians and pundits alike can cite dozens of well-informed reasons why today’s Afghanistan is not like yesterday’s Vietnam. And they’re right — and wrong. For what remains the same is us, especially the power of our own self-regard, as well as that of our overly militarized vision, both of which must be overcome if we are ever to succeed in Asia.

Consider how Look in 1967 labeled Vietnam as “our albatross.” Yet those Americans who dared to question our country’s immense military commitment to this “albatross” were labeled as leftist isolationists, “more upset about the billions diverted to Asia than the $22 billion being spent to put a man on the moon,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, comparing Vietnam to landlocked Laos, an unnamed US official gushed that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”

So, Look portrayed “our” Vietnam either as an albatross weighing us down or as the “right place” for American power projection. That the real Vietnam was something different from a vexatious burden for us or an ideal showcase for our military prowess doesn’t seem to have occurred to an Amero-centric Look staff.

Consider as well Look’s précis of the Vietnam War in 1967 and its relevance to our approach to fighting in Afghanistan today:

“The crux is winning the loyalty of the people. We have spent billions … [on] ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘Revolutionary Development,’ and have failed to make much progress. We have had to reoccupy villages as many as eight times. There is no front and no sanctuary.”

“Our latest ploy has been to turn ‘pacification’ over to the South Vietnamese Army … Unfortunately, most of the ARVN is badly trained and led, shows little energy and is reputedly penetrated by the Vietcong …. Whether such an undisciplined army can move into villages and win over the people is dubious.

“We are trying harsher measures. We have even organized ‘counter-terror’ teams to turn Vietcong tactics against their own terrorist leaders. ‘The real cancer is the terrorist inner circle,’ says one U.S. leader. ‘These terrorists are very tough people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet.’

“We can really win in Vietnam only if we achieve the ‘pacification’ that now seems almost impossible.”

Note the continuities between past and present: the emphasis on winning hearts and minds, the unreliability and corruption of indigenous allied forces, the use of counter-terror against a “very tough” terrorist foe (with barely suppressed disgust that “our” friendly allies lack this same toughness, for reasons that are not exposed in bright sunlight), the sense of mounting futility.

Counterinsurgency combined with counter-terror, escalating US combat forces while simultaneously seeking to “Vietnamize” (today’s “Afghanize”) the war to facilitate an American withdrawal: An approach that failed so miserably forty years ago does not magically improve with age.

Look’s Asian tour concluded on a somber, even fatalistic, note: “The wind blows not of triumphs but of struggle, at a high price, from which there is no escape and with which we have to learn to live…. Men who bomb; men who are killed. Men who booby-trap; men who are maimed. And children who are maimed and who die. They are the price of our bloody involvements in Asia.”

Bloody inevitability — but was it inevitable? Was it irreversible?

So it seems, even today. Why? Precisely because we continue to look so unreflectively and so exclusively through military field glasses for solutions. As Look noted in 1967: “Our massive military presence dominates our involvement in Asia,” words that ring as true today as they did then. And as Secretary of State Dean Rusk opined back then, “It’s going to be useful for some time to come for American power to be able to control every wave of the Pacific, if necessary.”

Again, the sentiment of “full spectrum dominance” rings ever true.

But one thing has changed. Back then, Look described our “massive” commitment to Asia as a byproduct of our “might and wealth,” evidence of our “fat.” We wouldn’t be there, Look suggested, “if we were poor or powerless.”

Today, a slimmer America (at least in terms of budgetary strength) nevertheless persists in making massive military commitments to Asia. Again, we say we’re irreversibly involved, and that blood is the price of our involvement.

But is Central Asia truly today’s new “right place” to project American power? In arresting the spread of a “very tough” terrorist foe, must we see Afghanistan as a truly irreversible — even irresistible — theater for war?

Our persistence in squinting at Asia through blood-stained military goggles suggests that we still have much to learn from old articles about Vietnam.

12 thoughts on “On Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Bloody Irreversibility

  1. “Wherever the German soldier plants his boot, there he must remain.” — Wehrmacht slogan from The Third Reich

    “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this he seemed to mean not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that a truly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. — Moby Dick

    From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley (lines 855-868):

    Syndrome’s Revenge

    See how the generals begin to quake
    As history, ironic and perverse,
    Reveals the rank careerism at stake:

    As yes-men officers salute and nurse
    The dreams of them not frightened by a whale:
    A Starbuck’s Syndrome written in reverse;

    Succeeding after decades to derail
    The bitter train of Southeast Asian guides
    Who warned that wanton willfulness will wail

    If sent to fight for him who fear derides
    A legion built for one who says, “I am,”
    When asked who is the leader that decides

    A force forecast to fail at Whack-and-Wham:
    An army unafraid of Vietnam.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006-2010


    1. As a Navy guy, you must have loved the comment that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”

      I have to admit there’s a tiny bit of sense there. No ocean in Afghanistan, thus we’re dependent on Pakistan and traditional mountain passes. The logistical challenges and costs alone should have prevented the U.S. from getting involved in a big way. But never underestimate greed, folly, and stubbornness.


  2. There was nothing to win in Nam and there is nothing to win now. Someone needs to explain what winning is. Why are we repeating the history of failure?


  3. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/02/02/another-warmonger-rewarded-being-wrong-iraq-war
    From the article:
    Another Warmonger Rewarded for Being Wrong on Iraq War

    Max Boot joins WaPo opinion staff, where opinion was 91 percent in favor of Iraq invasion.
    It’s a cliche to say US pundits “failed” on the Iraq War, but Boot’s rise to the top shows that they succeeded exactly as they were supposed to in the defense and amplification of United States national security propaganda.

    So who is Max Boot?? Max Boot has enthusiastically called on America ”unambiguously to embrace its imperial role.” Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Just to prove their is no daylight between the Neo-Cons and the establishment Corporate Democratic Party – Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in The New Republic this year (2014) that “it is clear that in administration councils she (Hillary Clinton) was a principled voice for a strong stand on controversial issues, whether supporting the Afghan surge or the intervention in Libya.” Mrs. Clinton voted for the Iraq war; supported sending arms to Syrian rebels.

    During the 2016 primaries Killary, sorry I meant Hillary was endlessly praised for her “nuanced” (this was word commonly found in the McMega-Media attached to Hillary’s foreign policy utterings) approach to foreign relations. I guess nuanced meant using two 500 pound bombs vs two 1,000 pound bombs.

    I was surprised at the time of the build up to Bush The Youngers Iraq War 2, the reporters and McMega Media out lets could not see the striking similarities to the Gulf of Tonkin hype and lies and the WMD’s. Colon Powell, did his best to equate some trailers in Iraq to Soviet Missiles in Cuba in 1962. Powell should have been laughed off the stage at the UN. I realized the so called American free press was in fact, the AmeriKan version of Pravda. The Dixie Chicks found the AmeriKan Corporate Media ready, willing and able to deliver shock and awe against anyone who opposed Bush the Younger and his gang of Neo-Cons. Like the Miranda warning – You have the right to remain silent.

    Well today is the Stupor Bowl. How many American Flags will be needed to prove the NFL’s patriotism??? Since the game is in domed stadium the fly by’s of some fighter aircraft may not have the drama of flying over an open stadium. Marching bands of marines, air force and army will probably make an appearance. Some veterans, maybe including some in wheel chairs will paraded out and the MC will urge us to cheer the Warriors. The message will be clear, thank god our warriors are fighting “them” over “there” and not “here”. The overwhelming crowd in the stands and suites of healthy, wealthy white people will cheer.


    1. Good points about the cynical propaganda showmanship on display at the Stupid Bowl, ML. I got to thinking about that sort of heavy-handed public-relations image-mongering the other day when I learned that Robert Parry — the independent journalist who broke the Iran-Contra Scandal and later founded Consortium News — had passed away. I always found Mr Parry’s work a refreshing and necessary antidote to the slavish stenography of what you call the McMega Media. For my part, I like to say that the Concentrated Corporate Media no longer do “reporting,” they just do “repeating.”

      I no longer have access to the article, but I once read a piece by Robert Parry in which he offered an observation of the physical effect that President George “Deputy Dubya” Bush seemed to have on certain “conservative” pundits, most notably David Brooks who had written a column about attending a private Bush Administration White House briefing. Mr Parry quoted David Brooks as follows:

      “… every time I brush against [President George W.] Bush I’m reminded that this guy is different. … A leader’s first job is to project authority, and George Bush certainly does that. … Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas – always projecting confidence and intensity.” — David Brooks, New York Times, Sept. 14, 2006.

      That swooning, “all confidant and stuff” reaction by David Brooks reminded me of a similar “conservative” reaction to a Bush, Jr PR stunt that I had witnessed some three years previously. In that instance, the subconsciously smitten wordsmith went by the name of David Broder, the “Dean” of Washington press correspondents, or so I have heard him described. I quote:

      This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command.” — David Broder (of The Washington Post) upon witnessing President George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” flight-suit dance upon the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in early 2003.

      Needless to say, I did not find myself moved by Deputy Dubya’s “movements,” nor did I feel in any way “authoritativly commanded” by him. AWOL Texas Air National Guardsmen just don’t do it for me. The idea of “conservative” pundits and columnists going all-weak-in-the-knees at the mere sight of a posturing peacock like Deputy Dubya — who always reminded me of Don Knotts as Mayberry, R.F.D., Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife of the old Andy Griffith Show — did, however, fit right in with my ever-evolving epic narrative poem, Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave. In this case, and as a tribute to the memory of Robert Parry, I reprise (from eleven years ago):

      Boobie Preternatural Semi-Eroticism

      A gaggle of his sycophant
      Stenographers convened
      To quiver in his presence like
      Some puppies never weaned
      From off their mother’s suckling tit
      Thus Dubya them demeaned

      According to one David Brooks,
      Dim Dubya spread his arms
      To indicate “ideas” that
      Had “breadth” among their charms
      Which kept those in his audience
      From sounding the alarms

      The Boobie David Brooks, you see,
      Disdains the thinking mind
      And much prefers the glandular
      Secretions of his kind
      Whose little woodies stiffen when
      George shows them his behind

      Like David Broder gushing at
      The flight-suit caper which
      Once made him feel so “confident”
      With each new pose and twitch
      That “Top-Gun” George performed for him
      With just one glaring hitch:

      It seemed a little premature
      To claim we had “prevailed”
      When all the evidence to date
      Had shown we’d clearly failed
      And only rushed into a trap
      In which we’ve flopped and flailed

      Now over four long years have passed
      Since Dubya did his dance
      And senile David Broder swooned
      Enraptured in a trance
      Convinced that Dubya’s “movements” showed
      A “learning” curve enhanced

      Thus Boobies Brooks and Broder both
      Seem prone to faint on cue
      Whenever Dubya strikes a pose
      Within their line of view
      And glands into their boiling blood
      Erotic hormones spew

      Just like the Midnight Cowboy who
      “Was formed in such a way”
      To drive the women mad with lust
      Till they would gladly lay
      Upon their backs and part with cash
      If Joe with them would play

      Just so, George Bush the Younger wields
      His “presence” like a tool
      Inducing neo-cons to sing
      Like pigeons on a stool
      When George invites them to his room
      To wet their pants and drool

      What Joe Buck was to women, George
      Is to “conservatives”:
      A loser whose grand schemes have use,
      Like bowel laxatives:
      He cures their constipation with
      The tax-cuts that he gives

      Korzybski named it long ago:
      The hypothalamus
      Which governs how the thoughtless live
      Without a strain or fuss
      When glands secrete a dreamy drug
      Anaesthetizing us

      Thus “body language” intervenes
      When eyes cut out the brain
      Appealing to the lizard that
      Keeps hissing its refrain:
      “Don’t mind that silly cortex ‘cause
      Its thinking just brings pain.”

      And so the Boobies huddle ’round
      The light and heat of fire
      As Dubya mimes a tale for them
      About his new empire
      Where advertisers specialize
      In selling dumb desire

      But Brooks and Broder and their ilk
      Find written words a bore
      At least when others use them
      To elucidate the core
      Of concepts Dubya can’t convey
      By playing cowboy whore

      The midday Crawford cow-guy thus
      Performs his manic act
      While undisturbed by anything
      Related to a fact
      Content that both his Davids will
      Supply what he has lacked

      They like the way he “crouches” when
      He “swallows up the room”
      Projecting “leadership” to those
      Who inhale his perfume
      Neglecting to observe that he
      Has “led” us to our doom

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2007

      Rest in Peace, Robert Parry.


      1. Yes, amazing article imho, written by a very dear friend ( I am biased ) who introduced me to Mr Parry’s writings 10 yrs ago!


  4. RS, thank you for the links. I read Gary Webb’s book Dark Alliance. Webb made the following comments: “The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post”, he stated. “They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as The New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA.”

    If we had met five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me … And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job … The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.

    It is disgusting to think that how many people who were at the heart of Iran-Contra Scandal emerged unscathed and Gary Webb was blackballed.

    I agree with Parry’s statement, “it’s hard to identify one moment when American journalism died”. It has died and we know that.


    1. “The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.”
      That is a very telling comment.
      So called liberal paper hires the likes of Bret Stephens on pretext of diversity…..then one understands what ‘journalism’ means to MSM!!
      A documentary maker, Mark Manning, went to Falluja and his story ( EXCELLENT ) written by a reporter was deleted by the original website! He is lucky, only his recorded interview tapes were stolen… he was not hounded like Mr Webb was.
      Sadly ( and it is outrageous ) that journalists are not safe anymore, not only from the warring parties but their own governments!!


    2. I was talking to a journalist about my age who addressed journalism students at a major Massachusetts university. He said the students don’t want to challenge power: they want to be power, or what passes for it in the MSM. They want lucrative jobs in the industry (an apt word, I think). You don’t get those jobs by challenging the master narrative.

      The old ideal of Watergate is dead. The new ideal is being a well-compensated talking head with access to the powerful and rich, with the eventual goal of becoming one of them, if only on a minor scale.

      How much did Matt Lauer make at NBC? $25 million a year, apparently. That’s the aspiration of many (most? nearly all?) journalism students today.


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