IN keeping with yesterday's theme ("US History: It Looks A Lot Better If You Squint") we bring you John McCain, War College graduate, on a little thing called Vietnam.
In his book, Chuck Hagel writes of listening to declassified tapes from the mid-1960s in which Lyndon Johnson admitted to advisers that Vietnam probably couldn’t be won but rued that withdrawal would make him the first American president to lose a war. “I wish someone had told me when I was sitting on a burning tank in a Vietnamese rice paddy that I was fighting for a lost cause just to save a president’s legacy,” Hagel observes acidly.
In my own defense, Chuck, I was eleven at the time, but I'm pretty sure the people who were trying to tell you the war was a sham wish you had listened.
Although McCain was held and tortured for the same cause, he never saw the situation the way Hagel did. In his view, the American effort began to turn around with the promotion in 1968 of Gen. Creighton Abrams, who adopted the tactics favored by counterinsurgency experts like Fall. Abrams pulled back the search-and-destroy teams and instead focused on winning the “hearts and minds” of South Vietnamese villagers. His goal was to encourage the South Vietnamese military to take over their own defense — the process that came to be known as “Vietnamization.” McCain maintains that Abrams’s strategy was working, but it was undercut by the fact that, by that point, the American public had already rendered its verdict, and the drawdown of troops continued until the war’s chaotic end.
Okay, first, discussing Vietnam is like painting the Forth Bridge, except it's not that once you get done the paint's peeling at the other end, it's that once you're in the middle the area you just covered is resplattered with bullshit. Yes, indeed, Johnson knew the Vietnam war could never be won. It doesn't require listening to declassified secret LBJ tapes to figure this out. All it takes is looking at the history, specifically the Eisenhower administration's renege on the '56 elections. We were propping up a decrepit mandarin system run by a fey and almost unimaginably corrupt minority. We knew the majority of Vietnamese didn't want them, and looked upon them as quislings, but that didn't fit the Cold War narrative.
Who's to blame? Well, I can't say I'd be sorry to learn that LBJ will be farting live briquettes onto the Devil's hibachi for all eternity. But was he supposed to be the meat course at the Who Lost China II buffet, over a war he'd inherited? This, it seems to me, simply returns the question to the starting end of the bridge. By 1965 Americans had listened to twenty years of International Communist Conspiracy. They got it from the government, they got it from newspapers and radio and teevee, they got it from the punditry. They sincerely believed it. They'd already fought one large-scale war because of it. And like Korea, Vietnam would become "unpopular" in the sense that Americans watched other Americans bleed and die while their leaders dawdled and lied to them; like Korea it never became "unpopular" in the sense of the mission being rejected by a great majority of the voting public. Pace Senator McCain, pace the rest of the rewriters of Vietnam history--it's been a growth industry for thirty years--the war wasn't "lost" when the public turned against it (at the urging of Uncle Walter Cronkite). It was, like Iraq forty years later, only "winnable" under the rosiest of rosy scenarios, and those hopes had been dashed almost immediately. The public debate over Vietnam was always between those who saw this truth (a minority, if a vocal one) and the marshaled forces of perpetual fear (whose marshals, in them days, at least had the threat of global thermonuclear war as a trump card).
We may well ask, as we sit in on our burning Humvee, why Chuck Hagel sent us here for a war he had doubts about all along, but didn't express until it was politically expedient to do so. John McCain was the only US Senator publicly critical of the Iraq war effort in its early weeks. And Matt Bai reminds us that it was Senator McCain who introduced a bill calling for immediate withdrawal of US troops from Somalia after Blackhawk Down. The problem with modern American political life is there's not enough pox to go 'round.
As for Creighton Abrams--a capable leader, and a great combat commander--it should be noted that his "Vietnamization", Nixon's "Vietnamization", was properly Vietnamization III, (not counting the long-gone hope of the ever-lovable French for jaunissement); both Kennedy and Johnson had begun with the same plans. By 1968 Abrams had no choice, not to mention the fact that Westmoreland had failed, spectacularly, with the every-increasing troop levels and WWII tactics approach. If Abrams is today given credit for what, in the mouths of people like McCain, winds up sounding suspiciously like The Surge, we might also note that he, unlike they, understood that Tet was a strategic defeat, not a manufactured one, and that the ultimate outcome of the war was no longer in our hands.
The lesson McCain and other conservatives took away from this version of history is that America was driven from Vietnam principally because the voters, discouraged by dire reports from a skeptical media, lost their will. McCain has said in the past that he felt the war could have been won had the right strategy been followed sooner. When I met with McCain last month for a far-ranging conversation about Vietnam and Iraq, I asked him whether he still felt this was the case. “These are all hypotheticals,” he replied. “But I think that if we had employed the strategy that Creighton Abrams put into effect when he relieved General Westmoreland” — that is, if the Abrams strategy had been used years earlier — “then at least the casualties would have been dramatically different.”
I'm sorry, is that an answer? Whose hypothetical was it, anyway? Vietnam would have been "dramatically different" if we'd let Curtis LeMay nuke the fuck out of it, too. Is that an argument?
Bonus Matt Bai History Lesson:
The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq can be too readily overstated. The very nature of the wars is markedly different, for better or worse; Vietnam was a Communist uprising against an autocratic government, while Iraq represents a multiparty, ethnic conflict more similar to that of the Balkans. The casualties, to this point, aren’t nearly analogous, either. The United States lost some 58,000 soldiers in Vietnam, compared with a death toll, after five years in Iraq, of about 4,000.
Yes, yes, all those people claiming that Iraq is a war against Communist aggression are now properly put in their place, just as the early "Beware another jungle war in Iraq" doomsayers were. This, Matt, would seem to be more along the lines of "a description of the people we invaded and lost to" than a distinction in the nature of the conflicts. As for the KIA, I don't do this very often, but...sigh. It's not a freakin' scorecard, for one. It doesn't ever seem to occur to people who use it that way how fucking insulting that is. Two, Vietnam casualties occurred over an eleven year period, though most were suffered between 1965 and 1971. We had as many as 530,000 troops in Vietnam at one time. Iraq probably peaked around 160,000, a level we exceeded in Vietnam in 1965 and kept through 1972. As a percentage of total deployments, the fatality rate in Vietnam was 0.7%. In Iraq it is 0.5%. And that's with truly remarkable improvements in battlefield care, and that's with an enemy which can focus only on infantry troops; we're not losing helicopter pilots or jets to enemy action. And above all, this is in a war which has been conducted, from the first, with one eye to bolstering public opinion, including keeping casualties out of view (but not down, necessarily, if that meant spending on sufficient armor in Humvees or transports, or the best in personal armor). This sort of nonsense was being dispelled in the early days of the war, Matt. See Phil Carter in 2004, for example.