An Anti-War Democrat Can Win the Presidency in 2020

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Isn’t it time to get behind the peace flag?

W.J. Astore

How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020?  The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war.  A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire.  A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war.  (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.)  Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.

Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars.  (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”)  Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year.  Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.

Many of Trump’s supporters get this.  I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania.  Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:

“We’re tired.  Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time.  When does it stop?  We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”

Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative.  Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.

Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”

I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation.  Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.

Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this.  All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries.  The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria.  Who is benefiting from all this agony?  I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”

If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere.  But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs.  This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.

American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press).  Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed.  Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.

Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam.  In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony.  When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens.  The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia.  Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources.  So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.

Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam.  Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration).  And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy.  Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.

In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:

portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War.  The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists.  Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles.  Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare.  By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)

Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam.  It was about them.  This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war.  Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood.  When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).

Withdrawal, of course, was never an option.  As Appy insightfully notes,

LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage.  In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs.  They could see that the war was failing.  But they could not pull out.  A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war.  They simply could not accept being viewed as losers.  A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)

A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.

Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen.  Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda).  As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’  It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)

As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering.  They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.

Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting.  But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?

Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.  Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope.  Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.