Fear of Defeat and the Vietnam War

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General William Westmoreland in 1968 (Stars and Stripes)

W.J. Astore

Fear of defeat drives military men to folly.  Early in 1968, General William Westmoreland, America’s commanding general in Vietnam, feared that communist forces might overrun U.S. military positions at Khe Sanh.  His response, according to recently declassified cables as reported in the New York Times today, was to seek authorization to move nuclear weapons into Vietnam.  He planned to use tactical nuclear weapons against concentrations of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops.  President Lyndon Johnson cancelled Westmoreland’s plans and ordered that discussions about using nuclear weapons be kept secret (i.e. hidden from the American people), which for the last fifty years they have been.

Westmoreland and the U.S. military/government had already been lying to the American people about progress in the war.  Khe Sanh as well as the Tet Offensive of 1968 were illustrations that there was no light in sight at the end of the tunnel — no victory loomed by force of arms.  Thus the call for nuclear weapons to be deployed to Vietnam, a call that President Johnson wisely refused to countenance.

Westmoreland’s recourse to nuclear weapons would have made a limited war (“limited” for U.S. forces, not for the Vietnamese on the receiving end of U.S. firepower) unlimited.  A nuclear attack in Vietnam likely would have been catastrophic to world order, perhaps leading to a much wider war in Asia that could have led to world-ending nuclear exchanges.  But Westmoreland seems to have had only Khe Sanh in his sights: only the staving off of defeat in a position that American forces quickly abandoned after they had “won” the battle.

War, as French leader Georges Clemenceau famously said, is too important to be left to generals.  Generals often see the battlefield in narrow terms, seeking victory at any price, if only to avoid the stain of defeat.

But what price victory if the world ends as a result?

Afghan War Update: Fail, Fail Again

Khanabad 08-04-2008 carpenters
Afghan carpenters: the peaceful, “normal,” Afghanistan that Americans rarely see, because “Afghan” and “War” are always co-joined in our minds (Photo by Anna M.)

W.J. Astore

According to General Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Central Command, several thousand more U.S. troops will likely be sent to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize Afghan governmental forces and to halt, and eventually reverse, recent Taliban gains.

Basically, the U.S. is rewarding Afghan governmental forces for failure.  The more they fail, the more aid the U.S. sends in the form of money, weaponry, and troops.  Naturally, warrior-corporations (among others) profit from this, so even though the Afghan war itself is unwinnable (you can’t win someone else’s civil war), someone always wins in the sense of making loads of money.

The motto for the U.S. war in Afghanistan might go something like this: If at first you succeed (in defeating the Taliban in 2001), fail and fail again by overstaying your welcome and flailing around in a country that has a well-deserved reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”

There are several reasons why U.S. folly in Afghanistan persists.  First, there’s our national conviction that all wars must be won, else American credibility will be irreparably damaged.  We’d rather persist in a losing cause than to admit defeat and withdraw.  Smart, right?

Second is the domestic political scene.  Afghanistan is already being advertised (by the New York Times, no less) as “Trump’s war.”  Do you think “winner” Trump wants to be seen as backing away from a fight?

Third is the men in charge of the fight and how they see the war.  Trump’s generals and top civilian advisers don’t see the Afghan war in terms of Afghanistan; they see it in terms of themselves and their global war on radical Islamic terrorism.  They can’t be seen as “losing” in that global war, nor can they see themselves as lacking in toughness (especially when compared to the Obama administration), so queue up more troop deployments and future mission creep.

Parallels to Vietnam in the 1960s are immediate and telling.  The refusal to admit defeat.  Domestic politics.  War in the name of containing a global enemy, whether it’s called communism or terrorism.  Nowadays, since there’s no military draft and relatively few U.S. troops are being killed and wounded, there’s little opposition to the Afghan war in the U.S.  Lacking an opposition movement like the one the U.S. experienced during the Vietnam War, the Afghan war may well continue for generations, sold as it has been as a critical “platform” in the war on terror.

Two comments.  First, we’ll never win the war in Afghanistan because that’s the only way we understand the country and its peoples: as a war.  Second, as the saying goes in Afghanistan, the U.S. has the watches, but the Taliban has the time.  Sure, we have all the fancy technology, all the force multipliers, but all the Taliban (and other “insurgent” forces) has to do is to survive, biding its time (for generations, if necessary) until Americans finally see the light at the end of their own tunnel and leave.

It’s been sixteen years and counting, but we still don’t see the light. Maybe in another sixteen years?

Update (3/11/17): I wrote the following to a reader:

Most of what I read or see about Afghanistan is filtered through the U.S. military, or journalists embedded with the U.S. military.  Rarely do we see in the USA the “real” Afghanistan, the one that’s not synonymous with war or terrorism or corruption or violence or drugs.

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Afghan Chick Pea Vendor (Anna M.)

That’s a BIG problem for our understanding of Afghanistan.  We see what we want to see, which is mainly (to repeat myself) terrorism, violence, IEDs, and heroin.

Back in 2008 or thereabouts, I had a student who’d been in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan.  I asked him what he remembered: he said “dirt” and primitiveness.  That it made him think of Biblical times.  So I think Americans see Afghanistan as “primitive” and “dirty” and benighted. Again, how can we “win” there, with that attitude?