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Afghanistan and the “Other” Vietnam War

When discussing the Vietnam War or comparing it to America's other conflicts

When discussing the Vietnam War or comparing it to America’s other conflicts, such as the current one in Afghanistan, the “other” Vietnam War is rarely mentioned. This is very unfortunate, because it might be just the correct path to pursue in seeking a peaceful solution.

And much like President Barack Obama, who inherited the hostilities in Afghanistan, then-President Johnson inherited the Vietnam War. As the war dragged on, some personal aides claimed Johnson was never more ecstatic over Vietnam than when pledging to send billions of dollars to help toward construction and agricultural projects and the economic growth of Southeast Asia and the Mekong River region.(1)

In a speech in 1965, Johnson said that “impressive power” was not the guns and bombs, the rockets and the warships, for they are all symbols of human failure and a witness to human folly. Instead, what is impressive is a dam built across a great river, or providing electricity, or a rich harvest in a hungry land, or the sight of healthy children.(2)

President Johnson had actually grown up in the “hill country” of central Texas and had witnessed extreme poverty firsthand. While teaching in Cotulla, he noticed how many children arrived at school either hungry or ill-clothed. Because of this, they were often listless and had difficulties learning. He started a free breakfast program and believed deeply in social action.

It was also one of the reasons that, as president, he declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” The Johnson administration would be the architects of the Great Society, or trying to establish a more equitable and egalitarian America. Medicare and Medicaid, Project Head Start, the Housing and Urban Development Act and the Office of Economic Opportunity decreased poverty and provided more educational chances.

President Johnson wanted to expand this vision to include Vietnam, so he met with Vietnam’s Premier Ky and General Thieu. After the conference, Johnson issued a joint statement claiming that the US was going to establish and maintain a stable, viable economy and build a better material life for the Vietnamese – a true democracy.(3)

Johnson referred to it as his Open Arms Program, or the “Other War,” and counseled with economic and agricultural experts on how to develop rice farming, irrigation techniques, schools, clinics and improved nutrition and health programs. He also wanted it to be a grassroots movement, something the Vietnamese would initiate.(4)

Unfortunately, like some of the Great Society programs, the Open Arms Program, or the “Other War,” faltered. Pacification – militarily forcing people from their homes and putting them in controlled hamlets with checkpoints, won out over the Marshall Plan for Vietnam. So did carpet bombing, Agent Orange and massive aerial assaults.

Recently, it was reported that President Obama has narrowed down his Afghanistan strategy to four options. Rumors have speculated the options to be either a 20,000-25,000 troop escalation, a 45,000 troop escalation or a compromise of 34,000. No one knows, or is discussing, the fourth possible option.

President Obama might want to consider more funding for the “other war” in Afghanistan, or the building of more schools, clinics and roads, and the development of agriculture and small industry. He could start in secured areas that would serve as an example and model to other territories in Afghanistan, including the Nuristan Triangle. He may also want to seek assistance from Islamic missions and development programs.

It costs approximately $500,000 each year to train, equip, feed, house and transport one US soldier in Afghanistan. Instead of sending 45,000 more troops, why not spend billions more dollars on improving the quality of life for the people in Afghanistan? And if this plan fails, would it not be better to have books and farm equipment fall into the hands of the Taliban instead of bombs and military weapons?

One thing was certain in Vietnam, and also now in Afghanistan: war does not establish a more peaceful society. Neither does it win the hearts and minds of people. A true and lasting democracy can only be built with roads, schools, construction projects and employment. These, “not mighty arms,” as President Johnson said, are the real achievements which America believes to be impressive.(5)

(1) Miller, Merle. Lyndon, “An Oral Biography.” New York, New York: Ballantine Books, 1980. p. 565.

(2) Ibid., p. 565.

(3) Ibid., p. 566.

(4) Ibid., p. 566.

(5) Ibid., p. 565.

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