Bob Schwartz

Tag: Vietnam War

If You’re Tired of Hearing About the Vietnam War, Tell Our Leaders to Stop Reenacting It

This weekend, an administration official tried to explain in an interview what exactly we are now doing in Iraq and Syria. It was like a ghost or the walking dead, sounding eerily and unhappily exactly like the rhetoric that was rolled out in the middle days of the Vietnam War.

There are roughly three groups about Vietnam: those who lived through it on the home front, those who lived through it (or not) in battle, and a generation or more that is so tired of hearing about a war that ended forty years ago. So tired of it. Can’t you all ever get over it?

Too bad. No, we should never “get over” Vietnam, no matter how many generations pass, and no matter how tired those generations are about the lessons we might learn. Vietnam was the first truly modern war of the media age and of the post-national era.

In media terms, it offered the best possibility up to that time to say positive stuff about a complex war policy, have it widely broadcast (though not as widely as digital today), and have the media endorse it and people believe it. Okay, that does sound like a description of what happened in Iraq, but that just proves the point.

As far as post-national warfare, Vietnam was technically a civil war, but it was obviously something else too. There was an army of North Vietnam, but there were also indigenous forces and a people’s movement trying to upset an unacceptable status quo, which we supported and ultimately defended. For a while. Until there was no more government of South Vietnam. And then it became a matter of just not losing. Which we did.

Another parallel is not paying attention to history, our own and that of others. The French abandoned Indochina, but that was supposedly just because they were, well, French. Americans know and are better than that. Just as in Afghanistan, where the Soviets abandoned their war, but that was supposedly because, well, they were Commies. Freedom loving Americans know and are better.

Which brings us back round to Iraq and Syria today. If you make the effort, you could go back to the LBJ days of Vietnam and hear exactly the same words that were spoken this weekend. Not just something like it, but exactly. Such as: it’s their fight, not ours.

There are things worth fighting for on the world stage, even when it is not on our homeland. But it is hard enough to figure out what those things are, and even harder to commit ourselves and our loved ones to the fight, when we are swimming in a sea of official stuff and nonsense. We want the brutal truth, if our leaders can tell it, especially when it is bound to be a brutal and long fight.

Afghanistan Without End. Amen.

It is time to stop expecting American leadership in either party, at any level, to reasonably articulate an achievable goal in Afghanistan. Either the conclusion they’ve reached is that there is none or it is too hard to tell us the inconvenient truth they have concluded.

So we are just going to have to take on the role of citizen policy analysts and do it ourselves.

We are unlikely to ever help establish an Afghan military capable or willing to hold back whatever insurgent force mortally threatens stability and national integrity.

We are unlikely to see the establishment of a stable semi-permanent semi-democracy in Afghanistan.

We are never going to “defeat” the Taliban or other similar threats in Afghanistan, in the sense of forever eliminating and precluding such evil developments.

That leaves one possibility. We are keeping troops in Afghanistan to help keep things from getting worse.

It’s a problem to admit that. First, because a military mission of stopping things from getting worse seems unending, which it well might be. Entropy tells us that things fall apart naturally unless acted upon otherwise. In Afghanistan that otherwise is us. It’s also hard to tell those who serve that the point of their sacrifice is to keep things from getting worse, rather than seeing a genuinely better future and having a defined endpoint.

But at least it would be honest. And on top of the war without end, that is an equally big problem. From the Vietnam War to today, there has been a lot of official and political obfuscation. Well, let’s call it lying. It isn’t that the policy makers don’t have noble principles in mind, such as freedom, self-determination, and the like. It’s just that the plans they put in place—very expensive plans—have practically no chance of fulfilling any of those principles.

Robert Stone

Robert Stone

Author Robert Stone (1937-2015) died a couple of weeks ago. You may not know of him, but do celebrate his career by reading a little of his extraordinary work.

If you write, and if you read (which you should do, often and well, if you write), you may find yourself reading certain authors and saying: wow, I wish I could sound like that. Stone was one of those who had a voice so good that even when one of his many novels didn’t hit the mark, you still wanted to listen.

His most celebrated novel was his second, Dog Soldiers (1974), which Time magazine named to its list of the Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It may be the best novel written about the Vietnam War in America. It is a short, sharp, and compulsively readable take on the craziness and morality of it all. Compare to Francis Ford’s Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, also great, but big and spectacular, taking millions of dollars to do what Stone did in a few thousand words. (Speaking of movies, the film version of Dog Soldiers, called Who’ll Stop the Rain, is worth seeing only as evidence of the how great novels can and do go wrong on screen.)

Stone was interested in politics and government, particularly in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when those seemed to become unhinged and unmoored. People were becoming unhinged and unmoored too, but Stone never used his characters as mere stand-ins for ideas. He drew full-blooded, complex people.

He seemed to genuinely love people, even as they, and he, were at loose ends. If you like cultural history, read the memoir of his life and times in the early 1960s, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties. It is a sketch of his role as a writer and traveler in the early counterculture, and while it is a very small picture, his honesty and self-awareness are refreshing and appealing.

Back to novels, if you do read Dog Soldiers and want more, try A Flag for Sunrise (1981). While the general topic of this political thriller is turbulent military and foreign policy in Latin America at that time, the subtext is timeless and global—as in, none of the issues has gone away, or will.

The Promise of and Lessons from the Hong Kong Protests

Albert Einstein Institute

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protests appear to be over—for now. The protest leaders have surrendered, and the official plan to have Beijing approve candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office remains in place. The result is disappointing but not surprising. Facing off against the world’s biggest and most powerful non-democracy is by definition quixotic.

Yet for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who admire the thousands who engaged in this nonviolent movement, there are lessons to be learned and practiced. As pointed out here before, thinkers such as Gene Sharp at the Albert Einstein Institution have spent lifetimes mapping the path to nonviolent change. Here are a few of the lessons:

Be organized and disciplined. If you watched the news coverage of the Hong Kong events, you got to see an orderly and colorful tent city that served as a base, along with protestors carrying the symbolic (and also colorful) umbrellas, which served double-duty as a shield against police force.

Be specific. Movement goals can range in size and scope, from the ouster of a president to, as in Hong Kong, the right to select candidates for an election, as promised in an agreement. In the U.S., both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement had such specific goals. In civil rights, it was piece by piece in a bigger picture: desegregation of public transport, desegregation of restaurants, voting rights, etc. Vietnam was specific and absolute: get out. The recent Occupy movements in the U.S., on the other hand, seemed to be all over the map, even when their complaints were justified. We are now seeing a bit of that in the Ferguson movement. The general discontent over the treatment of black citizens by police and justice is justified, but the power of the protests is diluted by uncertainty about what is being requested. (Possible answer: The St. Louis county prosecutor, having made an unprecedented mess of the criminal charging and grand jury process, can convene another grand jury and do it properly the next time. That’s probably as unlikely as Beijing giving in, but it would be something specific to ask for.)

Be informed. One of the other things you might notice about the Hong Kong protest is that protestors could speak knowledgeably about why they were protesting and what they wanted. Not to keep picking on our Occupy movement, but if you asked a hundred protestors about what it is they wanted, you might well have gotten a hundred different answers.

Be patient. Perseverance furthers. The U.S. civil rights movement took decades to achieve its goals, though some would argue that in fact the spirit of those goals is still far from being reached. Globally, movements for change are like the tides, in and out, high and low. Just this week, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek was cleared of criminal charges in the deaths of protestors at Tahrir Square four years ago. Today, in terms of democracy, Egypt looks different than but the same as it did then. Perseverance can further, but it is no guarantee. Even without certainty, though, organized, disciplined, specific, informed, patient nonviolence remains the best that can be done.

Warriors Day

Battle of the Somme - 1916

Today is Warriors Day. We call it Veterans Day, which intentionally or inadvertently distances it from a harsher reality. It began in 1919 to commemorate the Armistice that ended World War I, the War to End All Wars.

Who is a warrior?

In broad terms, all of us are warriors of some sort, battling for causes and ideals ranging from the personal to the cosmic, and everything in between. We fight for ourselves, our families, our nation, our ideologies, our traditions.

But the warriors of Warriors Day are something very specific. These are the people we delegate to fight for us, for causes that we deem significant enough to sacrifice their safety, their bodies, their lives. Under threat, current or prospective, real or perceived, we sacrifice them and peace so that we might ultimately have peace.

What should we do?

After the fact of war, we should keep whatever promises we make to warriors—without adjustment, equivocation, or renegotiation. World War I provided one of the most egregious instances of this. World War I veterans were not to receive full payment of their service bonus until 1945. But the Depression left many of them destitute. Thousands of them marched on Washington in 1932, seeking an advance of this payment. The letter of the law dictated waiting; the spirit of their sacrifice and hardship demanded payment. The Bonus Marchers were violently dispersed, though in 1936 Congress met the demands—over FDR’s veto.

Before the fact of war, we should consider everything involved. Really consider, not just blow hard self-righteously and politically. This is easier for those who have actually been warriors, though that number is decreasing as a proportion of our population, especially among our politicians and policy makers. Those veterans may or may not be able to sort through and articulate all the issues of our most complex geopolitics ever, but they can do something home front folks can’t—relive the experience of being a warrior.

Demand truth. Truth is said to be the first casualty of war, including pre-war and post-war. Right now, for example, Obama’s talk about “advisers only” in Iraq is making some veterans, particularly those of Vietnam, shake their heads. Col. Jack Jacobs, an NBC commentator, observed this morning that his experience as an “adviser” in Vietnam inevitably involved combat.

What about peace?

Peace, the absence of conflict at all levels, may not be a possibility. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our default position, the one from which all other circumstances are an aberration. For whatever reasons, conflict seems to be the default position for some, including those in positions of power and influence. There are things worth fighting for, but before moving forward, we need to be much surer of what those things are, how we are going about the fight, and how honest we can be. Most of all, if it is someone else doing the fighting at our command, we must realize that we are totally answerable for the consequences, as uncomfortable and costly as that might turn out to be.

Do Something/Anything about ISIS? Would You Rather Have No Strategy or Bad Strategy?

Just Do It

President Obama candidly admitted that we have no strategy for dealing with ISIS, but that we are developing one.

Maybe too candid for the moment and his leadership position, but still a necessary truth. Necessary because no one on earth has a good strategy for dealing with that or the complex of situations around the world right now. For the religiously inclined, consider that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed convening in the Situation Room would have a tough time figuring out what to do next, short of calling in the Big Gun and wiping the slate clean and starting again.

This hasn’t stopped Congress from urging a simple solution to this puzzle: do something/anything. This is an all-time irony, given that Congress is currently infamous for doing absolutely nothing, ever, no matter how important the problem and no matter how relatively simple the solution. If a number of the members had a sense of irony, we could all wryly laugh at this, except that their sense of irony is absent, along with a sense of duty, democracy, and Americanism (the real kind, not the fake). Some of these same members do seem to have a sense of justice, John Wayne frontier justice, which is unfortunately out of place in the liquid world of 2014 global politics and insurgency.

A few years ago, some thought that democracy would spread around the oppressed nations like an epidemic, like Arab Spring fever. But chaos is also an opportunistic contagion, and as those on one insurgent or imperialist front look at the other fronts multiplying, they see opportunity and seize it. It doesn’t help that the geography is claustrophobic. If you don’t know it, connect the dots from Iraq to Syria to Israel to Gaza to Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. And that’s just one pole of the current dynamic.

We have been tragically mistaken on strategy in the last three major American wars. One was an abject defeat, the other two—Iraq and Afghanistan—have sort of ended, with an indeterminate outcome, and withdrawal that may or may not last. Let’s pull back from partisan finger-pointing, and just admit that some situations—whether you choose to demur or however you choose to engage—may have outcomes, but may not have solutions.

You can be smart or stupid, fearless or timid, right or wrong, and you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances. That is, there is no “perfect” strategy, especially not with the way things are aligning. So no, you can’t wait for that perfect strategy. But you also shouldn’t rush in with the next idea that comes into your head, especially if that idea comes from some outdated playbook that has already proven itself ineffective in current realities.

“Just do it” sounds great, as long as you spend sufficient time really considering what “it” is and what the consequences and outcomes might be. Oh, and also, you might try being candid, as Obama has been, rather than making stuff up. Like about WMDs. Like about wars that will last weeks and cost nothing. Let’s leave that sort of unhelpful lying to fairy tale tellers like Vladimir Putin, who is not invading Ukraine, and to Putin’s admirers and portrait painters.

Thank You for Your Service

I continue to receive comments from veterans of the recent wars about the post The Tin Anniversary of the Iraq War.  Rather than just reply to each comment, here is what I want to say.

Politics debases our language. Language is a tool, and like all tools, can be used for good, for ill, or for some combination.

In the political context, it is hard to tell whether “thank you for your service” from various politicos is sincere, tactical or, most likely, both. But even if it is meaningful, it sometimes seems like an automatic phrase, much like the obligatory speech close “and God bless the United States of America.” It becomes a cliché.

The Vietnam War is not just a textbook case in modern American history. It is an entire encyclopedia. One of the sorriest lessons was the treatment of returning vets. “Thank you for your service” is something those vets rarely if ever heard. All these years later, they mostly still haven’t.

Here it is, to the veterans and the fallen of our wars, then and now, however essential or popular or ill-conceived the wars may be or have been, and to their families, friends and everyone who has supported them in all ways: Thank you for your service.

In a related note, thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) for keeping the veterans of our longest wars out front and in our faces. Among our “never agains” should be never again asking Americans to sacrifice so gravely, then thanking them loudly or not at all, and then putting them at the back of the line. These people are not political props or calendar items, because every day is Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Thank you.

The Tin Anniversary of the Iraq War

Tin CupTin is the traditional gift to mark a 10th wedding anniversary, just as it is silver for the 25th and gold for the 50th. There is no tradition about the anniversaries of wars, so tin will have to do.

All wars are controversial, whatever the split in support (80/20, 20/80, 50/50, rarely true 100% support), whatever the rationale, whatever the price. Every American war has had its naysayers, contemporary with combat and in the rear view mirror of history. World War II came close to consensus, although even there questions are still raised about whether we were late getting in and whether the unprecedented brutal way we got out was necessary.

This paragraph was going to include a bunch of numbers about the Iraq War. But you are going to find those numbers everywhere: how many of our personnel served, how many were killed and wounded, how many civilians were killed and wounded, how much it cost in dollars. Those numbers are meant to demonstrate the price paid, in, as they say, blood and treasure. Here it is in brief: the price was staggeringly high.

And next is something surprisingly good to say about the Vietnam War. If we learned nothing else from that nation-dividing conflict, we learned this: whatever we believe about a war, we can never, ever, ever take anything away from the service of those who fight.

Some people miss an important point when they argue that we have to justify a war after the fact so that those who suffered won’t have suffered “in vain”. It is the exact opposite. When a war turns out in hindsight to present real questions about why, those who fought are maybe more our most loyal heroes, especially in a volunteer army. They didn’t answer a call to defeat some cosmic embodiment of evil (e.g., Hitler); they just loyally answered a call to serve. They deserve all we can give them (which, by the way, includes world-class medical care).

In August 2002 I sent an e-mail to some U.S. Senators, including Bob Graham of Florida and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Both of them were skeptical about the rush to war, and both—particularly Byrd—believed that the role of Congress was being ignored.

This is an excerpt from that e-mail It is not here to reveal some astute analysis or prescience. Lots of people knew or suspected that something was wrong. It is just here as an artifact of a moment that led us to the anniversary today.

Sent August 29, 2002

Congress has the constitutional power to make war, which includes careful deliberation and action if necessary.

In the case of Iraq, you and Congress should assert that power immediately and clearly. Congress has previously allowed that power to erode in the face of political pressure, and now faces an administration that is using an atmosphere of fear (that it has intentionally or inadvertently helped create) to dare Congress to defy its claimed authority.

When you do exercise that power, as I hope you will, it should be more than a rubber stamp. The President seems to have a simplistic and maybe, with all due respect, a simple-minded view of world affairs. The role he is carving out for the U.S. as the world’s sheriff may be right in a moral sense, but is possibly disastrous in the world of the 21st century. Which evildoer is next on the list; which town is he planning to clean up?

This isn’t High Noon or The Magnificent Seven. We have been lucky in Afghanistan, though I expect things will fall apart there within the next year or so. The destabilization of Iraq, especially in the face of global disdain for our actions, could be much more costly.

Finally, I believe that the President’s strange game of hide-the-ball regarding his plans for Iraq (in the guise of not telegraphing our strategy) is wreaking havoc with our economic confidence. Anybody with any economic insight knows that things are much worse than anyone is willing to talk about, restraining such talk in the hope that consumers and businesses will regain lost faith in the future. There is no way that an attack on Iraq can help that situation, and a thousand ways it can and will hurt.

For the record, when the Iraq War Resolution did pass Congress in October 2002, Byrd, Graham and a total of 23 Senators (21 Democrats, 1 Republican, 1 Independent) voted against it. Of those, only a handful are still in the Senate: Barbara Boxer, Dick Durbin, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, Jack Reed, Debbie Stabenow and Ron Wyden. It has been more than ten years, so choice and death have taken the rest of them. One who did vote for it who is no longer in the Senate is John Kerry, who became Secretary of State after the “official” end of the Iraq War, and who, between the vote for the war and the end of it, ran for President.

It’s a funny old world.