Reading old articles about the Vietnam War is sobering precisely because they read like articles written yesterday. Consider just one example. On May 30, 1967, Look magazine published a comprehensive, 25-page review entitled “USA in Asia.” The subtitle gave the game away: “Our bloody commitments in Asia horrify many Americans. But like it or not, we are irreversibly involved.”
Today, more than forty years later, many say the same of our involvement in Central Asia. Our bloody commitments continue to horrify Americans. And yet again we’re told we’re irreversibly involved. Yet if Vietnam taught us anything, it’s that the “irreversible” is eminently reversible.
Historians and pundits alike can cite dozens of well-informed reasons why today’s Afghanistan is not like yesterday’s Vietnam. And they’re right – and wrong. For what remains the same is us, especially the power of our own self-regard, as well as that of our overly militarized vision, both of which must be overcome if we are ever to succeed in Asia.
Consider how Look in 1967 labeled Vietnam as “our albatross.” Yet those Americans who dared to question our country’s immense military commitment to this “albatross” were labeled as leftist isolationists, “more upset about the billions diverted to Asia than the $22 billion being spent to put a man on the moon,” a non sequitur if ever there was one. Meanwhile, comparing Vietnam to landlocked Laos, an unnamed US official gushed that Vietnam has “the ocean, and we’re great on the ocean. It’s the right place.”
So, Look portrayed “our” Vietnam either as an albatross weighing us down or as the “right place” for American power projection. That the real Vietnam was something different from a vexatious burden for us or an ideal showcase for our military prowess doesn’t seem to have occurred to an Amero-centric Look staff.
Consider as well Look’s précis of the Vietnam War in 1967 and its relevance to our approach to fighting in Afghanistan today:
“The crux is winning the loyalty of the people. We have spent billions … [on] ‘strategic hamlets’ to ‘Revolutionary Development,’ and have failed to make much progress. We have had to reoccupy villages as many as eight times. There is no front and no sanctuary.”
“Our latest ploy has been to turn ‘pacification’ over to the South Vietnamese Army … Unfortunately, most of the ARVIN is badly trained and led, shows little energy and is reputedly penetrated by the Vietcong …. Whether such an undisciplined army can move into villages and win over the people is dubious.
“We are trying harsher measures. We have even organized ‘counter-terror’ teams to turn Vietcong tactics against their own terrorist leaders. ‘The real cancer is the terrorist inner circle,’ says one U.S. leader. ‘These terrorists are very tough people. We haven’t scratched the surface yet.’
“We can really win in Vietnam only if we achieve the ‘pacification’ that now seems almost impossible.”
Note the continuities between past and present: the emphasis on winning hearts and minds, the unreliability and corruption of indigenous allied forces, the use of counter-terror against a “very tough” terrorist foe (with barely suppressed disgust that “our” friendly allies lack this same toughness, for reasons that are not exposed in bright sunlight), the sense of mounting futility.
Counterinsurgency combined with counter-terror, escalating US combat forces while simultaneously seeking to “Vietnamize” (today’s “Afghanize”) the war to facilitate an American withdrawal: An approach that failed so miserably forty years ago does not magically improve with age.
Look’s Asian tour concluded on a somber, even fatalistic, note: “The wind blows not of triumphs but of struggle, at a high price, from which there is no escape and with which we have to learn to live…. Men who bomb; men who are killed. Men who booby-trap; men who are maimed. And children who are maimed and who die. They are the price of our bloody involvements in Asia.”
Bloody inevitability – but was it inevitable? Was it irreversible?
So it seems, even today. Why? Precisely because we continue to look so unreflectively and so exclusively through military field glasses for solutions. As Look noted in 1967: “Our massive military presence dominates our involvement in Asia,” words that ring as true today as they did then. And as Secretary of State Dean Rusk opined back then, “It’s going to be useful for some time to come for American power to be able to control every wave of the Pacific, if necessary.” Again, the sentiment of “full spectrum dominance” rings ever true.
But one thing has changed. Back then, Look described our “massive” commitment to Asia as a byproduct of our “might and wealth,” evidence of our “fat.” We wouldn’t be there, Look suggested, “if we were poor or powerless.”
Today, a slimmer America (at least in terms of budgetary strength) nevertheless persists in making massive military commitments to Asia. Again, we say we’re irreversibly involved, and that blood is the price of our involvement.
But is Central Asia truly today’s new “right place” to project American power? In arresting the spread of a “very tough” terrorist foe, must we see Afghanistan as a truly irreversible – even irresistible – theater for war?
Our persistence in squinting at Asia through blood-stained military goggles suggests that we still have much to learn from old articles about Vietnam.