Relapse of Vietnam Syndrome

According to the United States Census Department, approximately 60 percent of the population is under the age of 40. The majority of living Americans either were not born or less than 10 years old when US involvement in the War in Vietnam ended. They are thus resistant to what has been labeled as the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Those afflicted by this condition are marked by the conviction that the United States should always scrupulously avoid military intervention abroad. Those with the more benign form of the affliction have concluded from the inept military strategy in Vietnam that the US military is incapable of conducting successful and humane military operations. Why involve oneself in costly operations that will not succeed? The more virulent disorder is associated with the conviction that the United States is an inherently aggressive and evil country. Thus, any intervention must be in the service of imperialistic aims to dominate the world and must be opposed.

Those younger than 40 do not remember a world of American military losses, accompanied by angry divisiveness at home. They remember American power and leadership leading to the end of the Cold War and the liberation of Eastern Europe. They remember the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in a remarkably efficient US military operation. They remember the liberation of Panama from dictatorship and the stability brought by American forces to Haiti. They remember that American air power effectively stopped ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo. They remember the US military, with less than 400 troops on the ground, toppled the regime in Afghanistan that harbored the terrorist organization that killed 3,000 people on US soil on September 11, 2001. The experience of the younger part of the electorate is definitively different from those who came of age in the 1960s.

Of course, knowledge and appreciation of history should extend beyond only our collective generational memories. But it appears that some in the media who came of age in the 1960s were so traumatized by the Vietnam War that they are incessantly haunted by it. They seek feverishly for another Vietnam around every corner.

In 2001, New York Times columnist R. W. Apple quintessentially represented those still afflicted by the Vietnam Syndrome. After several weeks of bombing Afghanistan, Apple was fretting about a potential “quagmire.” In many ways, the Afghan War was fundamentally different from Vietnam. It was not a guerilla war supported by a sympathetic populace and, unlike Vietnam, the US made a total commitment to victory. However, these important differences were dismissed. Most of the time one has to wait a long time to find out if one is in error. Apple learned more swiftly, when a few weeks after his column US troops were in Kabul.

Unchastened by this conspicuous failure, as the National Review pointed out, a week ago Apple already concluded “With every passing day, it is more evident that the allies made two gross military misjudgments in concluding that coalition forces could safely bypass Basra and Nasiriya and that Shitte Muslims in southern Iraq would rise up against Saddam Hussein.” Apple scorned the Administration for “over confidence.”

A week later Coalition forces are in Baghdad and “with every passing day, it is more evident” that US war plans were sufficiently flexible to deal with contingencies and as Shittes begin to feel free of Saddam’s retribution, they are becoming far more welcoming of Coalition forces. “With every passing day, it is more evident” that whatever the difficulties, the speed of the US advance preserved Iraqi civilian infrastructure by not allowing Hussein¬ís forces sufficient time to blow more oil wells and destroy the bridge approaches to Baghdad.

Perhaps Apple ought to be forgiven his errors given that he probably relied on the “news” portion of the New York Times for his information. Apple claimed that “a commander of American ground forces in the war zone conceded that the war they were fighting is not the one they and their officers had foreseen.” Apple was apparently relying on a front page New York Times article quoting Lt. Gen William Wallace, as saying, “The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against.” Later, the New York Times corrected the quote to “The enemy we’re fighting is a bit [emphasis added-FMM] different from the one we war-gamed against.” This latter corrected quotation conveys a significantly different perspective.

Drawing an analogy with optimistic exaggerations by US leaders during Vietnam, Apple criticized the Administration for raising expectations too high. According to Apple, after a week, Americans had “been conditioned by predictions of American officials (to quote one of them, Vice President Dick Cheney) that Mr. Hussein’s government would prove to be a `house of cards.”’ Actually, Administration leaders are on the record stating that the Iraq War could be very difficult and take some time. Later the New York Times correction column conceded that, another front page article was in error and Dick Cheney had never used the phrase “house of cards.”

It would be foolish to predict how the war will proceed. Wars are notoriously unpredictable and extrapolation after two weeks is hardly better than extrapolation after one week. However, we should all feel fortunate that so far the direst predictions have not born out. There have been, so far, no terrorist attacks on the US in the wake of the war; no ecological catastrophes from a large number of blown oil wells; no massive numbers of refugees; and no massive use of chemical and biological weapons.

Perhaps we should give credit where credit is due. Kenneth Pollack, a Clinton Administration hawk, articulated the case for going to war Iraq in the book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. There, he predicted that liberating Iraq would take four to eight weeks and between 500 and 1,000 American casualties. At this point, Pollack seems to have provided wise and conservative counsel.

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