I've been rereading Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.
I had a comparative literature professor who, when he got the inevitable underclassman "Are you choking on something?" looks for pronouncing Van Gogh "Van Hocckkkk" would say, sweetly, "You'll pardon me for pronouncing it correctly." For us Boomers who still walk among you there has always been a relatively simple choice: pronounce Vietnam correctly, ignore it, or take cover in the rewriting of history that began a decade after our involvement there ended. God knows plenty of people who lived through those years have no idea how we got there in the first place, no idea of how the war was fought, no cognizance of the lies that sustained it or the lies that paved it over later. For Chuck Hagel, who was there, who was seriously wounded, and who cannot ignore at least the simple outline of that history, the lost war "humiliated" us. For me, too young by a year to get caught in the draft, the military outcome was of little import to the disgrace of not living up to our standing as the World's Great Democracy, of our decision that self-determination was for Europeans only, that international law was for the other guy to observe, of young American lives thrown away at the whim of hubristic bureaucrats.
Just as all wars are fought by generals prepared to win the previous one, Vietnam was fought with one eye on Korea, and all of our internationalist adventures since have been fought as a do-over of 'Nam. We hear the same litany of lies about Fifth Columnists and criticizing an action while soldiers are in harm's way. We see in the moral cowardice of the refusal to call for conscription and bring the war into every household in America the same willingness to let other people do the killing and dying for us. And above all we see the same insistence that the American theory of meat-grinder warfare will succeed in all cases, provided we "stay the course", the same bureaucratic smothering of any contrary views.
It would have taken a remarkable leader to face the public on 9/11 and call for a reasoned course of action to make the world safer instead of a cry to slake our bloodlust. I'm not sure it could have been done. We had already squandered our good fortune as Americans in battles over blowjobs and stone tablets, and our leadership reflects it. Today is a day to grieve for the needless suffering in London. Ever day is a day to do that somewhere. And by tomorrow, no doubt we'll be back to the same arguments over the same failed approach.