In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.
Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?
Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.
On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.
Déjà vu all over again
In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.
For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.
From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.
The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.
When President Richard Nixon visited “Red” China in 1972, the Cold War morphed into something quite different. With the nation’s most prominent anticommunist taking obvious delight in shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, the war effort in Vietnam became utterly inexplicable — and so it has remained ever since.
When the Cold War subsequently ended in what was ostensibly a victory of cosmic proportions, any urge to reckon with Vietnam disappeared entirely. After all, in comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, how much did the fall of Saigon in 1975 matter? In Washington, the answer was clear: not all that much. On an issue that far exceeded the Vietnam War in importance, history had rendered a definitive verdict. Only the churlish would disagree.
Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11. In an instant, the “end of history,” inaugurated by the passing of the Cold War, itself abruptly ended. Rather than pausing to consider the possibility that they might have again misconstrued the signs of the times, descendants of the political elite that had contrived the Vietnam War — including several who had found ways to sit out that conflict — devised a new framework for basic U.S. policy. The Global War on Terror now became the organizing principle for American statecraft, serving a function comparable to the Cold War during the second half of the prior century.
As had been the case during the early phases of the Cold War, the Manichean mood of that post-9/11 moment favored action over deliberation. So, within weeks of those attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States embarked on a new shooting war in — of all places — landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan, famous for being the “graveyard of empires” (including the Soviet one) but not much else.
That war was destined to continue for 20 years. By the time it ended, many observers had long since begun to compare it to Vietnam. The similarities were impossible to miss. Both were wars of doubtful strategic necessity. Both dragged on endlessly. Both concluded in mortifying failure. To capture the essence of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t take long for critics to revive a term that had been widely used to describe Vietnam: each was a quagmire. Here was all you needed to know.
So based on outward appearances, the two wars seemed to be siblings. Yet when it came to substance, any relationship between the two rated as incidental. After all, the Vietnam and Afghan Wars occurred in entirely different periods of contemporary history, the one preceding the annus mirabilis of 1989 when that wall in Berlin came down and the other occurring in its wake.
But here’s the thing: in reality, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change everything. Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington that poses a greater threat to the wellbeing of the American people than communism or terrorism ever did. To confirm that assertion, look no further than… well, yes, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Changing the frame
You can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War I (1914-1918). And you can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War II (1939-1945). But to arrive at some approximation of definitive historical truth when it comes to twentieth-century Europe, you need to think of those two events as the Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Only then is the connective tissue between the “Guns of August” and the horrors that were to befall Western civilization three decades later revealed.
Something similar applies to America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In ways that may not be easily appreciated, the two are intimately related. Bringing to light their kinship — and, by extension, their true significance — requires situating them in a single historical framework. Classifying Vietnam as an episode in the Cold War and Afghanistan as an unrelated part of the Global War on Terror confers a certain superficial narrative order on the recent past. But doing so is like pretending that World War I and World War II were unrelated events. It overlooks essential connective tissue.
Instead, to identify a historical frame that encompasses both Vietnam and Afghanistan, consider this proposition: however momentous they were for Europeans, the events of 1989-1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, left the American way of life all but untouched. True, the end of the Cold War had enormous implications for Western and Eastern Europe (soon to merge), for the states of the former Soviet Union (cut loose to pursue their own destinies), and for Russia itself (diminished and humiliated, but still a mammoth successor state to the USSR).
While these events unleashed a torrent of self-congratulation in the U.S., the passing of the Cold War did not substantively modify the aspirations or expectations of the American people. For decades, the United States had exerted itself to uphold and enhance the advantageous position it gained in 1945. Its tacit goal was not only to hold the communist world in check but to achieve ideological, economic, political, and military primacy on a global scale, with all but the most cynical American leaders genuinely persuaded that U.S. supremacy served the interests of humankind.
Attach to this outlook whatever label you like: innocence, intractable ignorance, megalomania, naked imperialism, historical myopia, divine will, or destiny. Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.
The fall of the Berlin Wall did nothing to dislodge or even modify this strategy. Indeed, the collapse of communism seemingly affirmed the plausibility of pre-existing American aspirations and expectations. So, too, did the events of 9/11. Bizarrely but crucially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only imparted to American exceptionalism a renewed sense that here was the very foundation of the nation’s identity. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush but continuing to the present moment, the United States regularly doubled down on its quest for a global primacy that was to be achieved largely, though by no means entirely, through the use or threatened use of military power.
We’re now in a position to assess the consequences of such an approach. An essential preliminary step toward doing so is to discard the narrative of contemporary history that centers on the Cold War, succeeded, after a brief but blissful interval, by an unrelated Global War on Terror. It’s time to substitute a narrative describing an American military enterprise that began when the first U.S. combat troops came ashore in South Vietnam and persisted until the last American soldier departed Kabul in defeat some 56 years later. While thinking of this conflict as the Fifty-Six Year War may be accurate, it lacks a certain ring to it. So, let’s call it the Very Long War (1965-2021), or VLW, instead.
At the outset of the VLW, this country’s global preeminence was, of course, self-evident. At home, the constitutional order, however imperfect, appeared sacrosanct. By the time that Very Long War had reached its climax, however, informed observers were debating the international implications of American decline, while speculating anxiously about whether the domestic political order, as it had existed since at least the end of the Civil War, would even survive.
As the episodes that launched, concluded, and defined the essential character of the VLW, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan hold the key to understanding its dismal outcome. Whether considered separately or together, they exhibit with unmistakable clarity the grotesque military malpractice that forms the VLW’s abiding theme.
Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.
Begin with the fact that neither the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s nor the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 qualified as in any way vital to this country’s national interest. Both were wars of choice undertaken in places of (at best) tangential importance to the United States.
Then, add into the mix a near total absence of competent political oversight; deficient generalship, with senior officers struggling to comprehend the nature of the wars they were charged with waging; unwarranted confidence in the utility of advanced military technology; an excessive reliance on firepower that killed, maimed, and displaced noncombatants in striking numbers, thereby alienating the local population; nation-building efforts that succeeded chiefly in spawning widespread corruption; an inability to inculcate in local militaries the capacity and motivation to defend their country; and not least of all, determined enemies who made up for their material shortcomings by outpacing their adversaries in a willingness to fight and die for the cause.
Each one of these factors informed the way the United States fought in Vietnam. A half-century later, each reappeared in Afghanistan.
In terms of their conduct, the two campaigns differed only in one important respect: the role allotted to the American people. Reliance on conscription to raise the force that fought in Vietnam spurred widespread popular opposition to that war. Reliance on a so-called volunteer military to carry the burden of waging the Afghan War allowed ordinary Americans to ignore what was being done in their name, especially when field commanders devised methods for keeping a lid on U.S. casualties.
The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly tothe rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system. Yet even today, too few Americans are willing to confront the disaster that has befallen the United States as a consequence of our serial misuse of military power.
This represents a grievous failure of imagination.
On that score, just consider for a moment if this country had neither intervened in Vietnam nor responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. What would have happened?
Almost certainly, the North Vietnamese would have succeeded in uniting their divided country with much less bloodshed. And Taliban control of Afghanistan would in all likelihood have continued without interruption in the years following 2001, with the Afghan people left to sort out their own destiny. Yet, despite immense sacrifices by U.S. troops, a vast expenditure of treasure, and quite literally millions of dead in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, that’s exactly how things turned out anyway.
Would the United States be worse off had it chosen not to engage in those twin wars of choice? Would the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and the People’s Republic of China more recently have interpreted such self-restraint as evidence of weakness? Or might this country’s adversaries have seen the avoidance of needless war as an indication of prudence and sound judgment by a powerful country? And had the follies of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan been avoided, might it not have been possible to avert, or at least diminish, the pathologies currently afflicting this country, including Trumpism and our deepening culture wars? Certainly, that possibility should haunt us all.
Of one thing only can we be certain: it’s past time to be done with the Very Long War and the misguided aspirations to global primacy that inspired it. Only if Americans abandon their fealty to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the militarism that has sustained it, might it be possible to conclude that the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan served some faintly useful purpose.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”