Many of us progressives now in our 60s and 70s spent years of our young lives in “The Sixties” trying to stop the U.S. war in Vietnam. Many in this cohort were beaten, jailed, lost jobs, suffered discrimination. We were, after all, considered “unpatriotic” and “traitors” by government leaders and their rightwing supporters.
We didn’t end the war on our own, of course, much as we would have liked to believe that. Mainly, it was the Vietnamese themselves who were responsible for that outcome as they battled U.S. forces to a quagmire standoff and then took over the country when the massively unpopular South Vietnamese government collapsed.
But our anti-war activism was at least partially responsible for altering the-government-knows-better-than-you-do attitude of our parents’ generation. Our “Movement” also helped educate the new generation as to the truth of what was happening in Southeast Asia and in the rest of the world as U.S. forces, representing the corporatism at the heart of Western society, supplanted the old European colonialists in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Whenever I speak about those anti-Vietnam War days — as I began to do again after the illegal, immoral war was launched against Iraq in 2003 — I surprise myself by how emotional I still am about the tumultuous “Sixties.” Its impact is strong. The past truly is never past, and isn’t even the past. In talking about the war and the mass-movement opposition to it in “The Sixties” (in my reckoning, from the civil rights era of the late-’50s/’60s roughly to the mid-’70s), long-buried feelings leap out.
The Civil War in the Sixties
I revisited my old anti-war haunts in the Pacific Northwest some years ago and found my body trembling as those old sense-memories washed over me. Another time, after seeing the movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” I was trying to explain to my teenage son about why so many of us had been so engaged trying to get the war stopped — and I was barely able to talk coherently, I was sobbing so much.
That was such a painful period in my life (also a gloriously liberating time as well, of course) and in the lives of so many others in this country. Not to mention how the war affected the Vietnamese, who may have lost close to two million loved ones in that conflict. (The irony: Today, we have good trade relations with communist Vietnam.)
The U.S. was nearly torn in two by the Vietnam War and the opposition to it. It was a kind of cultural/political civil war, aided to a large degree by the presence of the military draft. That civil war was ugly and painful, affecting nearly everyone in the country. It’s difficult to describe, for those who weren’t there, the chaotic and often bloody nature of the politics of that day.
Have to Fight the Same Fight Again?
And here we are again, with two more wars inherited from the CheneyBush Administration but willingly adopted by the new administration. In Iraq, Obama promises to withdraw U.S. combat forces by next year, but, significantly, hedges with if “the situation on the ground” permits. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has doubled-down on a war that cannot be won (it’s estimated there are 200,000 U.S. troops there now).
It seems that the only thing American governments learn from history is that they don’t learn from history.
In Iraq, Obama has begun re-positioning U.S. forces away from the urban battlegrounds in preparation for the promised pre-2012-election troop withdrawals. The U.S. situation in Afghanistan more and more resembles the history of America in Vietnam four decades before.
The Parallels Then & Now
The parallels between Afghanistan and ‘Nam are not exact, of course, but the main points are remarkably similar:
In Vietnam, the U.S. was fighting a native insurgency that it barely understood. In Afghanistan, the U.S. is fighting a native insurgency — laced with arcane political, clan and familial complexities — that it barely understands. (Need it be stated? The U.S. has precious few who speak the local languages; indeed, because they are gay, it fired a whole passel of intelligence agent in Iraq/Afghanistan/D.C. who did speak the languages.)
In Vietnam, the U.S. had taken over from the colonial French, who were being defeated by the native insurgency led by Ho Chi Minh. In Afghanistan, the native insurgency had battled earlier British colonial control and later the Soviets. Both were forced to depart their stalemated wars, unable to afford the political and financial costs.
In South Vietnam, the local government propped up by the Americans was venal, corrupt, brutal, well-versed in the arts of torture. A succession of military regimes came and went, and none of them earned the respect or support of the civilian population. In Afghanistan, we are propping up a venal, corrupt government that barely controls its capital, with many of the provincial governments run by drug lords (one of them the brother of the president) and warlords; this time, it’s the U.S. that is often the torturer.
In Vietnam, the U.S. administrations’ experts warned all the presidents over the years that it could not win that war. Despite overwhelming firepower and technological supremacy, the best that could be hoped for in this type of guerrilla conflict, these experts noted, was endless stalemate: a prohibitively costly quagmire. The various Presidents “stayed the course” anyway, and paid the price: The U.S. had to retreat from Vietnam in disarray, and is similarly likely to have to leave Afghanistan with nothing that can be called a “victory.” Even President Obama has publicly acknowledged the likely military stalemate in that nation, a country that in no way can be considered a vital national interest to the United States.
(Remember Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, saying U.S. forces couldn’t find anything in Afghanistan worth bombing?)
Sticking with Corrupt Leaders
U.S. policy in Afghanistan rests upon the continued strong presence of President Hamid Karzai. True, his most recent election was a corrupt electoral farce, but he’s Our (Made) Man in Kabul and Obama will stick with him — until the U.S. realizes it must cut him loose and push him under the bus. Much as the U.S. did to President Diem and subsequent Vietnamese rulers during that war.
One is left wondering why the new U.S. president didn’t announce a staged withdrawal from Afghanistan after hearing from all his experts. Obama doesn’t believe the neo-conservative B.S. that victory is possible in this war, so why keep sending in more and more troops to fight it? Is he trying to strengthen his “national-security” creds by going all macho, thus giving the rightwing little opening to attack him as a weak-kneed commander-in-chief? Is he saving the withdrawal speech until after the 2012 election? Is he a true believer in, and supporter of, the military-industrial complex that pulls the strings in Washington — the same movers and shakers who might financially support his re-election campaign? Is he trying to wipe out the Taliban before the U.S. pulls out?
Certainly, not much good news is coming out of Afghanistan. Taliban leaders are killed, and the Taliban grows more leaders, gains new recruits. A recent poll of Pashtun areas revealed that 80% of these men are angry, a doubling of this response from one year ago, and only 9% are angry at the Taliban. Guess where their anger is directed: yep, the U.S./NATO occupiers. (By the way, you probably haven’t read about this in the mainstream press, but there are reports that the Times Square bomber says his anger about Predator drone attacks in his native Pakistan, killing so many innocent civilians, is what led him to make his car-bomb. In other words: U.S. policy, not “hating our freedoms.”)
Everyone, seemingly including President Obama, knows how this Afghanistan misadventure will turn out. Either the U.S. will leave voluntarily soon, on its own staged-withdrawal schedule, or America will be forced to retreat from Afghanistan later, like the Brits and Soviets did (and as the U.S. did from ‘Nam), as yet another major world power forced to admit it could not tame the poor, downtrodden fighters in this destitute South Asian country .
Cut Losses, Get Out ASAP
Let’s do the tallying: This is an unwinnable war. There is no vital U.S. national interest there. America continues to alienate Muslims all over the world by our occupation of, and brutal behavior in, yet another Islamic country. The U.S. is proving to be a top recruiter for the Taliban and Al Qaida by our policy. The U.S. is propping up provincial regimes in Afghanistan that are dependent on drug-trafficking. America time and time again winds up slaughtering innocent men and women and children in Afghanistan — how many slaughtered wedding parties does the U.S. need to have on its resume? — thus losing the battle for “hearts and minds” on the ground. We need the billions this war is costing us at home.
And, perhaps most important domestically, the U.S. is losing its sense of itself as a moral country. Much as we would like to believe so, we are not seen as, and we are not in fact, the good guys here. It’s well past time for President Obama to realize that he made a bad mistake, and exit as quickly as practicable.
Would the U.S. look bad? Yeah, for a few minutes. Unless the policy changes, imagine what America will look like years from now after many thousands more U.S. troops and Afghan civilians are killed and maimed before our country comes to its senses and gets the hell out of there.
Just get out. Now.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers. To comment: [email protected].