As we get deeper into Afghanistan I sense public indifference…

May 20, 2009

I know polls are done all the time and I know that one reason, besides the financial crisis, that is given for Barack Obama winning the election is that the public is displeased with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in my own highly unscientific view of things (support the troops bumper stickers notwithstanding) I sense great public indifference to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen was quoted within the last 48 hours as saying it might take the U.S. as much as two more years just to turn the tide in Afghanistan (and I think most of us see just an indefinite or open-ended commitment). And Mullen also said we have a difficult time avoiding civilian casualties and that those casualties play into the hands of our enemies, the Taliban, or is it Al Qaeda ? (whatever we’re calling them today)

Yes, in going after the enemy if civilians are in the way they are no doubt going to suffer. I really don’t know how our forces are expected to do their job trying to figure out who is friendly, who is indifferent, and who is the enemy, and who may be all three, keeping in mind the fact that none of these people are wearing uniforms.

And what with civilian casualties, yes it does seem a strange way to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, something that we are being told we must do to win the war.

Maybe, just maybe, if the people of Afghanistan realized that we are committed to going after the enemy and that to be near the enemy is dangerous that might have some effect on how they deal with this enemy. Or we could send tons of aid to try to win those hearts and minds. And meanwhile, what about the hearts and minds of so many of our own people? Pardon me if I sound sarcastic or frustrated or both.

Didn’t we face this same problem in Vietnam? Didn’t we fail there too? And didn’t I blog this previously? Yes to all.

I actually thought at one time we were in Afghanistan to go after the forces that hit us on 9/11. Now was that Al Qaeda or the Taliban? Originally we were told that it was Al Qaeda, which was given aid and comfort by the Taliban who at the time of the invasion were officially in charge of the country. Nowadays they still seem to be in charge of most of that country.

Somehow Al Qaeda and the Taliban have become one.

And for some comparison/contrast: at the height of Vietnam the U.S. had a half million troops committed. I think the U.S. invaded Iraq with some 300,000 troops and today we only have about 140,000 in Iraq, and we are trying to ease our way out. In Afghanistan the U.S. has committed nearly 60,000 troops, which include 17,000 ordered to Afghanistan by President Obama. An additional 30,000 have been committed by other NATO members.

We are nowhere near the casualty numbers in the current wars as we suffered in Vietnam and that may be a key reason we have been there so long and remain. That and the fact we have no military draft. If the draft had been imposed I doubt we would still be in Iraq or Afghanistan (win or lose).

In Vietnam, after more than a decade of war, the U.S. casualty total was nearly 60,000 military personnel dead with hundreds of thousands wounded. More than 4,000 have been killed and some 50,000 wounded in the current wars (primarily in Iraq, with the Afghanistan casualties rising). We’ve been in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003.

So, anyway, Admiral Mullen sees a tough road of as much as two years ahead. We were told for more than a decade in Vietnam that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that we were winning. In Afghanistan we are told it is indeed hard to see that light and, as a matter of fact, right now we are not winning. We’ve been there for going on nine years now with no measurable progress. Iraq is not won yet, but we may be smart enough to declare victory and get out — or not.

Supposedly we now have a counter insurgency, black ops expert of a general by the name of Stanley A. McChrystal who has been selected to take over in Afghanistan. Maybe he can figure it out.

But it seems like we need to be reminded of what our exact reason for being there is and if the American people are really as indifferent as I sense, I have to question why we are there at all.


The idea that we can conduct business as usual at home and successful wars abroad seems questionable at best. Maybe some of us can block the human tragedy out of our minds because we are not directly involved. But the financial cost of it all has already come home to roost. If you haven’t noticed the U.S.  either is or is going bankrupt. How long will China, a political and ideological adversary, bankroll our wars?

Surely they’re not standing in line for McCain…

November 2, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

I find it hard to believe that all those young people, all those new never voted before voters, and all those people starting to wait in line at 3 a.m. at one place for early voting are all excited to get out the vote for John McCain. That seems unlikely.

I’m not sure how much good McCain’s appearance on Saturday Night Live did him two days before election Tuesday. With an assist from wife Cindy along with Tina Fey doing her Sarah Palin routine, complete with a “going rogue” aside about her running in 2012, McCain did a pretty good skit. But really, is that the image he wants just before election day running for the most powerful office in the world? Well, who knows? maybe he could do like that other Republican oldster war hero and presidential campaign loser Bob Dole and wind up taking a job doing Viagra commercials.

No, I’m envisioning an Obama landslide, not just a win, but a Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater (the latter of course being an Arizonan like McCain) kind of an affair. Of course I was sure Mitt Romney was going to be the Republican candidate too (even though I don’t care for him).

With so many top Republicans repudiating McCain and with so many more conceding either tacitly or directly he won’t win, it seems those who actually decide, the voters, are not likely to pull this one out of the hat for him, even if McCain acts as if he is the happy underdog confident that he will come back from behind one last time. Heck a large percentage of the voters have already cast their ballots and more of them are registered Democratic than not, I believe.

If this were still an extremely tight race, I might be concerned about voting irregularities and dirty tricks with the ballots, but with the overwhelming outpouring I am witnessing on television of voters across the nation I find it hard to believe that the election can or will be stolen, even though there is sure to be some mischief (from either side).

—  So I can’t sleep and in the middle of the night I get up and watch C-Span and I see convicted bribe taker Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens debating his Democratic opponent and declaring that they (the Senate) won’t kick him out. They wouldn’t dare, he proclaims indignantly. He has a lot of friends, he boasts (hmm I wouldn’t count on it Ted). He is well respected, he says. Okay already, keep believing it. Call me sappy, but I almost don’t want to see the old coot go to jail, I just want him out of government.

But even more startling: Stevens in answer to a question by the moderator as to whether he thinks Iraq had any hand in 9/11 (here we go again) confidently said yes it did and he knows things others don’t. I know, and so did Bush. But they are keeping it secret from the rest of the American people.

Why is this?

Apparently there is some super secret information that explains why our nation has done what it has done in Iraq and if we only knew what it was we would not complain, but we cannot be told, because, well, I don’t know why. But at any rate, only Republicans can be privy to this super secret information. Maybe it should not even be shared with other Republicans. Maybe George W. and Dick Cheney should be able to continue in office.

And let me state here and now: I do not know for sure whether there was ever any connection between Saddam Hussein and his Iraq and 9/11 but I have never come across it and I read the news regularly. Of course I know old Saddam was not sorry for it – well at least not until he got blamed for it and later got hanged. I also know that no matter how much is written there will always be people, and quite a few of them at that, who did not get the message that Iraq apparently had no direct connection with 9/11. Who knows? Maybe some day we will find evidence that there was some direct or indirect connection between Saddam Hussein’s regime and the 9/11 terrorists (I doubt it) and we might even stumble upon a secret cache of weapons of mass destruction or a bakery where yellow cake was being made, now covered under a sand dune. (I was kidding; I know it’s a different kind of yellow cake.)

We went into Afghanistan with an army to basically find one man, Osama bin Laden, and still have not located him (psst, he’s in Pakistan, but keep that under your hat – oh I forgot, McCain told us he knows where Osama is and he knows how to get him, and Nixon had a secret plan to get us out of the Vietnam War, it was called drag out the war and try to sue for peace in the background and then quit the presidency and let the other guy take the blame for quitting the war.

We went into Iraq because George W. for various reasons, including a reported attempt by Saddam Hussein to assassinate his father and to make up for what he considered the weakness of his father for not going all the way to Baghdad at the conclusion of the otherwise successful Gulf War. “Regime change” was called for by the fashionably dressed Condoleezza Rice and others, and Bush had been convinced by those who put together a think tank paper called “Project for a New Century” that we needed to control the Middle East for strategic interests. To put it bluntly, we needed to have control over an area that produces most of the world’s easily refinable crude oil.

—  What is up with this thing when the talking heads discuss whether some politician should have had a better speech written for him or her? Why, I ask, can’t they say their own words? Even taking into consideration that some folks have an ability to speak more eloquently than others, say Obama over McCain, why would we want to elect someone who can’t even come up with his or her own words?

Don’t know if it is true, but weren’t we taught that Abe Lincoln wrote his own speeches. Supposedly he scrawled out the Gettysburg Address on the train en-route to his speaking engagement and stuck the draft in his stove pipe hat (and wouldn’t you have thought he would have had an advance man to get the address for him – I digress). I thought of this inability in drafting one’s own words when I watched a clip of former speech writer and economic guru Ben Stein telling Larry King that Sarah Palin benefitted from a good speech writer when she was introduced at the convention, but suffered from not having the same support later. He also claimed that she is incredibly able, in many ways more so than Barack Obama (huh?), but lamentably she just doesn’t appear to have, his words: “presidential timbre”. I would just add that she is “clueless”. That having been said, that would not preclude her from running for president as the Republican candidate in the future.

—  And here’s something that I have been hearing a lot lately, so much so, I wonder if it will not become accepted as correct. It’s about elementary grammar. I confess, I didn’t know what to call it, but I consulted a grammar text and it called what I am encountering a “double comparison”. Anyway, it’s when you hear someone say something like “more better”, when better alone would suffice and be correct English. I keep hearing these double comparisons on the radio and television from those who should know better, so much so, that it does not appear to be just careless speech.

I think Dave Letterman usually uses correct speech, even though he is a jokester. But I just watched a clip from his show where he asked guest Alec Baldwin if had ever seen a “more hotter political figure” than Sarah Palin. And I know that when people talk fast that sometimes their grammar slips, but I hear this all the time (and I know technically one is not supposed to begin a sentence with and, as I just did and often do – it’s a holdover from my journalism experience where many rules are broken. We who call ourselves writers feel that it is okay to break the rules if we know that we are breaking them, and sometimes I do, know that I am breaking the rules, that is).

—  And I just saw and heard Sarah Palin, whiny voice and all, stating to the crowd “doggone it, government is the problem not the solution.” So I must ask: then why do you want so much to be part of it Mrs. Palin?



Correction: I incorrectly stated in a recent blog that the Catholic-run hospital in my city was a for-profit business. It is a non-profit run by Catholic Healthcare West.

What’s a patriotic white boy to do???

September 6, 2008

(copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

You’re almost made to feel guilty if you don’t vote for John McCain, especially if you’re a patriotic white boy like me.

Here’s this all-American son of a military family, a little wild – boys will be boys – darn near gets burned up on an aircraft carrier in a horrible fire where many did lose their lives and a year later gets shot down over North Vietnam while on a bombing mission. Says he really thought mostly of himself until crawling out of the darkness of a hole in the ground and seeing the light after being tortured way beyond the endurance of any normal human being (that’s why he was against torture until he decided lately he was for it again). Then and there, as he tells the story (and in my most non-sarcastic voice, I say a compelling one it is), he decided that there was something in life more important than himself – it was the good old USA, mom and apple pie he missed so dearly. But even though the longing for home was great and the torture dreadful, he honorably refused the propaganda ploy by the North Vietnamese to let him go before others who had been there longer (he was the son of an active-duty Navy Admiral at the time).

He went on to serve his country in the congress, first as a representative and then as a senator.

Well so far, so good.

I have no problem with McCain’s heroism, but I think I’ve heard the story enough now and would rather get on to the issues of the day.

Oh, if I were pressed, I could find fault with his military service, but even I have to admit I probably would be a bit unfair about it all. It was not McCain’s fault, as it was not the fault of most or all who served in the Vietnam War, but if ever there was a war we did not need or should not have been involved in, I believe that was it – well, maybe this one in Iraq ties it or even beats it.

North Vietnam and the Viet Cong did not attack us (unless you go by the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which it is entirely unclear what happened and in which there was no loss of life). The United States was trying to prop up a corrupt government in South Vietnam, whose only attribute was that it was opposed to communism. There is of course a lot more to that history, but we don’t want to get off into a whole different subject here. The idea is that we were not “fighting for our freedom” as unnecessary wars are always sold to us as being – a fight for our freedom, that is.

In Iraq, we are not “fighting for our freedom” as the Republicans and other war supporters claim we are. We are struggling for dominance of a region, which just happens to have a lot of oil. If your argument is that we have to go after all the world’s resources to ensure our freedom, well okay, I’m wrong, onward Christian soldiers.

Iraq did not attack us and there is no evidence that it in any way supported the 9/11 attack. Saudi Arabian citizens made up most of the attacking contingent (but the Saudis are our allies (???)). And we weren’t legally enforcing UN sanctions either, because the UN did not call for it (and I have little use for the UN, but that’s off point).

But the by gosh by jingo USA, USA, USA folks are not concerned with the finer points of all of this. They want to win a presidential election.

Really what we have here is ideological, philosophical, and class, and race (to some extent) warfare with things a bit jumbled. There’s not only a struggle going on between Republicans and Democrats, but between Republicans themselves. One piece I read said in the Republican Party it’s the old country club set vs. Sam’s Club, a clear reference to Sarah Palin (and I don’t know if she goes to Sam’s Club or not).

There is a similar struggle going on in Democratic circles involving women, working class folks, with some split among the races (the competition at the lower end of the food chain is often fierce), as well as moderates vs. liberals, and conservatives in there too, yes, there is also such a thing as conservative Democrats (the South had a lot of them until Nixon stole them away).

Interestingly, though, despite the struggles, it appears that both parties have come out of their respective conventions fairly well united and enthused.

Obama did it for the Democrats, and surprise, surprise, the spunky firebrand Palin did it for the Republicans. Actually, for once, the Republican convention, despite its delayed start, was more exciting, at least from my TV vantage point, than the Democratic one.

One TV commentator announced after the strong speech by Palin: “a star is born!”

If I were her, I wouldn’t quit my Alaska governor gig just yet (and watch out for those National Enquirer articles), but there is no doubt that the potential is there. She’s kind of the Republican version of Ann Richards, but better looking (sorry Ann and may you rest in peace).

But as that already tiresome modern catch phrase goes, “at the end of the day,” we have two basic philosophies running against each other:

The Republicans think that government’s job is more or less simply to provide for the best business environment and that a high tide lifts all boats. And they of course want the government to provide for the common defense. Their definition of a common defense is any war that the president decides is necessary.

The Democrats support a more activist government that supports or helps people in a more direct fashion, and they want a government that while providing a good business environment also protects workers (and the majority of the populace is workers). They support a strong defense as well.

But sometimes the compassionate get tired. You have a class of folks who howled and complained that they did not get the help they needed in a hurricane disaster a few years ago – we saw it played out on our television sets. The whole force of the United States government could not get in to help them, but TV news crews could get in to get the story. The complaints were bitter and understandable. Fast forward, though, and government acts swifter, evacuating folks before the storm. Now they complain that they want to go home, that their shelters are not good enough. Maybe so, maybe not, but such crying is not conducive to garnering more help or compassion from the populace as a whole. And anyone who is honest, knows that the ranks of the freeloaders of all races and ethnicities in society grow and grow over the decades, with some not able to hold down jobs but exceedingly skillful at reaping every benefit available, a trait passed down through generations. And my is this class prolific.

On the other side of the coin, though, there is corporate welfare. As an example, gamblers and out and out thieves manipulate the housing market and then get the government to bail them out when their house(s) of cards falls apart.

Philosophies aside, in the actual workings of government Democrats and Republicans often do pretty much the same thing. That’s why the presidential contest is one more between individuals than parties.

The wild card this time around is that both candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican McCain, are calling for change. In fact, McCain cleverly co-opted Obama’s call for change in his own acceptance speech and came off sounding, and I did say sounding, like he might just be the man to do it. He even rebuked members of his own party saying that they went to Washington to change things and Washington changed them. In the strongest terms he vowed to clean house on corruption and wasteful spending (McCain, though, has not been immune to scandal or accusations of such).

McCain has the governmental experience and he was been at odds in the past with those in his own party and he even tested the waters awhile back for switching parties, he was so frustrated.

Obama is of a new generation and he calls for a completely different way of looking at things, possibly, but will he be able to act, being the comparative neophyte he is in the national realm? And all those neither yes nor no but “present” votes in the Illinois legislature indicate a lack of conviction or perhaps guile to me.

But, if you are not of the upper economic echelon or not even of the middle class, who would more likely represent your interests?

I don’t have to answer that for you. In your heart (you know I’m right, no, whoops that was Barry Goldwater), you know the answer, but you might still wrestle with it.

P.S.  One of my main concerns (not the only, by a long shot) with McCain is that he has made it clear that he is itching for a fight with Iran over their nuclear program. While I understand the danger there, it seems imprudent to draw lines in the sand. One loses the option of choosing when and how to act when the adversary decides on his own to accept your challenge and cross that line. We have actually already made our position clear. It should be up to Iran to wonder what the next move is. McCain should know better. He’s a follower of Teddy Roosevelt who called for speaking softly and carrying a big stick. But McCain sees military puffery as his top campaign tool.

Shared guilt…

May 30, 2008
By Tony Walther
If you had blood on your hands, you’d have a guilty conscience too.
I think that pretty well explains the latest mea culpa to come out of Foggy Bottom, Scott McClellan’s new blockbuster, “What Happened,” about how George W. Bush and his administration lied (or oversold?) to the public concerning Iraq.
But maybe it’s the public who ought to feel guilty. The facts have always been there. Even though the major TV networks fell in lock step with the official story, there were newspaper stories and magazine stories, and even a few, only a few, radio talk show hosts with the real story, before the whole mess began.
Well before we went into Iraq, the public was warned that that was what the Bush administration planned to do. The 9/11 attacks made it all possible. A position paper called the Project for a New Century had already been written and it said that what was needed was another Pearl Harbor to wake America up. Some neo conservative policy wonks had decided that America needed to take over or at least make its influence known in the Middle East, because, well, that’s where the oil is.
And I’m getting tired of explaining this, but the 9/11 attacks did not come from Iraq, but then who really cares? Even I don’t care anymore.
Regardless of disagreements as to the real facts in all of this, I think the unquestionable truth here is that we got suckered into another quagmire. We are wasting tremendous resources and suffering a tremendous loss in lives over what appears to be a blunder.
Yes, resources. At a time that we need oil, we have disrupted the oil supply out of Iraq.
We are in an economic crisis here at home. Could that be because of the billions, trillions we are and will spend in Iraq?
Way back when, the popular nonsense line was, “Bush is the president. He knows things we do not.”
I would venture to say that he probably does (such as just how much money he and Dick Cheney are making in all of this through their defense contractor and oil business ties). But what does that have to do with anything?
What exactly this special knowledge George W. Bush was holding, I haven’t a clue, but I do get the impression that he is not terribly bright. But his family does have money and holds great influence. In fact, that has been the business of his family, influence. They are professional influence peddlers.
Bush is or has been an alcoholic, reportedly a cocaine user, did not show academic prowess in school, failed at business (but rich people bailed him out because they knew his family connections and the resulting influence would be valuable some day), and he proudly crows that he is the “decider,” while seemingly to lament that he is not a dictator, because that would be easier.
One wonders how Bush got to be president in the first place. I suppose it’s because for whatever reason at the time of the elections a large portion of the voters (but not a majority in the first election which was as you recall decided not by the voters but the Supreme Court) felt that this simple speaking man was more down to earth than the more polished Al Gore, and then the even more polished and elitist John Kerry in the second election.
Ever since the Democrats got us bogged down in Vietnam and then saw the error of their ways and went pacifist for a few years, large numbers of the public have seen them as lily livered cowards who would sell out their country rather than fight for it. Never mind that Gore, a Democrat, and Kerry, a Democrat, were both Vietnam veterans. Never mind that tough talking George W. Bush was an AWOL (away without leave) Air National Guard member during Vietnam, no better than a deserter, really. But when you have decided you support someone, you kind of turn a blind eye to that person’s faults.
So back to Scott McClellan. He lied for Bush. Now he feels guilty. Before he dies, he wants to say that he is sorry. So did former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about Vietnam. And former CIA director George Tenet also tried to explain himself, feeling guilty for letting the 9/11 attackers run free even though his own agents warned of them.
Back to Iraq. I still think the thing could be won. I even feel that Vietnam could have been won. The legitimate question may have been, should we have gotten involved in the first place. But isn’t that all academic by now?
Winning requires some type of definition. But I think what we want over in the Middle East is to stabilize things in Iraq and Afghanistan and let some type of western friendly government prevail. And I don’t think we ought to be embarrassed to make demands. We have considerable investment there already.
As much as John McCain bothers me with his willingness to stay the course no matter how long it takes, the idea of a Barack Obama going hat in hand Neville Chamberlain style to look for “peace in our time” bothers me too. And I certainly would not like to see a Jimmy Carter like president who would let the military miss a pay day (it happened back in 1978).
Hopefully this is not an either/or situation. There might be a third and acceptable way in all of this. A way we could phase out of the Middle East mess and still get something valuable out of it (oil?).
As for trying to create democracy in the Middle East, that has never interested me. Folks create their own democracy when they get good and ready. We didn’t invent democracy, I think it was the Greeks. The reason we have democracy in the United States is that it had already been developed in some form in England, and the colonists were only demanding that they have the rights of Englishmen.
If we mind our Ps and Qs here at home and practice what we preach about freedom instead of cloaking our government in secrecy and reducing individual liberties and creating a police state over the fear of terrorism and those terrible things that Bush knows and we don’t, the rest of the world might want to follow our pattern.
Yes, this was kind of a ramble or rant, but sometimes I just feel like writing what’s on my mind.
And who do I support for president? Haven’t made my mind up yet. I will certainly want to take a more studied approach than I did in writing off the top in this column. I would hope everyone does. I think this may well be the most important presidential election in a lifetime, or maybe that one eight years ago was…

Memorial Day…

May 25, 2008
(copyright ) 
By Tony Walther
It’s confusing because there is more than one day that celebrates the contributions of veterans, but this is Memorial Day, which specifically honors those who have sacrificed their lives in all of our wars.
Fortunately for my family, each of the three sons has served in the military, but each of us is alive. Dad missed World War I because he was too young, and World War II because he was too old by that day’s standards. But he was a cadet in high school. You should see the photo of him and his brother in their campaign hats and those ballooned trousers.
My oldest brother put in 20 years in the Navy. I joined the Army, serving something over three years altogether. My other brother was nabbed by Uncle Sam between college and law school and did a tour in Vietnam with the Army.
But this day is to honor those who did not return.
We’re flying a flag we purchased the other day. Put it up right away, and I think we’ll keep it up. Don’t need a holiday as an excuse to fly it.
I always say I don’t follow a standard political ideology, but anyone who knows me realizes that I tend to be progressive (the neocons would call me liberal, liberal, liberal) .
No, usually I’m no flag waver. And isn’t there a saying: “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”?
On the other hand, I have no use for flag burning or desecration of any kind. I see nothing good coming out of that. I would not forsake my country or dishonor it for anything. I may think that others, some politicians for instance, do, but I’m not going to stoop to their level to make a point.
And why do people sacrifice their lives for their country? Sometimes they may be just accidental heroes. I mean no disrespect there. Some just feel that strongly. They have a sense of duty. Some were forced into the situation. Remember, we used to have the draft.
In the end, it makes no difference. Dead is dead. Maybe they took one of our spots, so we could live.
If you’ve read my columns you know that I do not exactly support the war over in the Middle East. I have said, though, that if we must fight it, then we owe it to ourselves and our troops to go full out, win it and get out.
While I wholeheartedly believe in supporting our troops, I find the slogan “support our troops” to be mindless jingoism. It is a rhetorical device to make someone who does not support a war policy to have to commit to supporting it, because if one doesn’t, then one must be not in support of the troops in battle. And that would be shameful.
Well, Mr. and Mrs. Bumper Sticker, I do support our troops and think they need the supplies, the armor, and top medical and education benefits. I also think the policy that sends them where they are is a totally different matter. So if I were to say, for instance, that I am against the war, I could still rightfully proclaim to be in support of the troops. But you wouldn’t buy that. But I can, perhaps, think more complex thoughts than you, Mr. And Mrs. Bumper Sticker.
However, there is no complexity to my unwavering reverence to all who have made the ultimate sacrifice to their country. They were not allowed to decide the whys, they just performed the duty that was thrust upon them. Even those in our current all-volunteer military are doing simply what they are obligated to do. Someone has to fill the ranks. To all I say: Thank You!


May 16, 2008
By Tony Walther
(copyright 2008)
Two magazines: National Geographic, October 1961, and The Economist, April 26-May 2, 2008 edition. Both have stories about Vietnam.
It was spelled as two words back in 1961, Viet Nam. At that time the nation had been partitioned into North Viet Nam, with communist rule, and South Viet Nam, with a pro-western government.
The story line in the National Geographic back in 1961 was about a beautiful nation, South Viet Nam, undergoing a modern transformation while fighting off a vicious communist insurgency in the countryside in which Viet Cong guerillas whacked off the heads of local villagers that did not go their way.
And the story in the recent issue of The Economist tells of a unified Vietnam that has become an economic miracle and powerhouse in Southeast Asia. It still has a communist government, there since they took over the south back in 1975 and made it into one nation, Vietnam. But as China, it has introduced western style free market reforms into its economy. Vietnam did that in the late 1980s, not long after the Chinese. The reason for the move in both countries was because the communist system was an economic disaster.
So the two magazines provide a kind of before and after view. But of course the real story is what happened in the middle.
Back in 1961, few Americans had ever heard of Viet Nam. They may have had some recognition that there was some place called Indo China (that’s what it was listed as on the old globe we had in our home when I was a kid).
Through the centuries, the Vietnamese had fought off the Chinese, and the French had colonized the area in the 19th Century, the Japanese occupied it during World War II, and the French came back after the war. They finally kicked out the French in 1954, after which the nation was divided in two.
President Eisenhower was the first on record as suggesting a domino theory in which he said that if we let South Viet Nam fall all the other nations in the region would fall to the communists too, like a row of dominoes. We sent military advisers there to help out the South Vietnamese.But really, not many people here in the USA thought much about it.
John Kennedy was elected president, partly on the grounds that he would strengthen our defenses against communist aggression. “We will fight any foe…” and so on.
After Kennedy’s assassination, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, became president and was handed what he would later refer to as the Vietnam tar baby. You just couldn’t let the thing loose. “We can’t win this thing,” he told one of his cronies in a taped phone conversation. He then lamented that he would be damned if he pulled out of Vietnam and damned if he stayed. He apparently didn’t want to go through the who lost China thing, ala 1949.
What really got us involved, though, was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. And really that incident was a non-deadly form of 9/11, but the results were eerily similar, in that in both instances we were plunged into wars with seemingly little results and no end.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was really two incidents, in both of which North Vietnamese ships allegedly fired upon our ships on the open seas. What really happened is up to interpretation. Some accounts now say we fired first and some say the second incident may have never really happened.
But our domino theory made us predisposed to find some pretext to act. So we did. There was debate at the time on whether we should get involved in a “land war in Southeast Asia.” We had a hard time beating the Japanese at that game. But we had the resources, a protection that geography then afforded us, and ultimately, we had the bomb.
The 9/11 attack was used as a pretext to go to war in the Middle East, something George W. Bush had been itching to do since he first became president. Nearly 3000 people were killed at the World Trade Center in New York, more than in the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941. And just as neocon policy wonks had anticipated, such an act by the Islamic terrorists, amounted to a new Pearl Harbor in the minds of many citizens.
While 9/11 was pulled off by Saudi Arabians (apparently not acting for their government) and led by Osama Bin Laden, who hid in Afghanistan, the Bush administration successfully morphed the whole thing into a dispute with Iraq. Bush simply called it all a “war on terror.” So we are now fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and eyeing Iran.
The Tonkin incident was used as a pretext to go to all out war with communist aggression in South Viet Nam.
So for nearly a decade after that we fought a war we could not or would not win. Some sixty thousand dead American soldiers and thousands wounded, thousands maimed for life.
We had the lessons of the French before us who could not win a war against guerrillas who struck from the bushes, and often at night, and often unseen. They would hit and run and often couldn’t be found. When we tried to fight it like a conventional war and, say, take a hill, we’d secure it, no enemy after that, so we’d abandon it. It was not a war of territory (although we did also fight regular uniformed North Vietnamese forces in the south). We were trying to win the hearts and minds of people, many of whom did not even want our help or at least were afraid to be seen getting it. We ignored the lessons of the French, perhaps thinking America is invincible.
There was the famous quote from an American officer who said, “we had to burn the village to save it.”
And there was the My Lai Massacre in which American soldiers weary from getting hit in ambush from a virtually unseen enemy, apparently suffered from some type of mass hysteria and wiped out nearly a whole village, killing hundreds of old men, women, and babies. You don’t win the hearts and minds of people that way. The communist Viet Cong did things just as bad, and many times over. But in other instances they came to the rescue of villagers suffering from corrupt local leaders. The Vietnamese peasants also suffered from corruption of the south’s central government. The poor Vietnamese were caught in the crossfire (and doesn’t that sound something like Iraq?).
All through this, it was charged time and again that the South Vietnamese Army did not do their part in the fighting (sounds like Iraq), although, of course, their casualties were high too. They tended to let the U.S. stay out front. The U.S. decided early on in the war to take the lead, not trusting the job to the Vietnamese.
While we were trying to save South Viet Nam from communist tyranny, we wound up backing tyrannical and undemocratic leaders of that nation.
As the casualties mounted and the realization dawned on the majority of the public that we were not making headway there, public support (our nation was hotly divided throughout the war) waned. It all came to a head in the Tet Offensive of 1968 when the enemy proved it could hit us right in the heart of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. Sure they were beaten back. But they made their point.
It was downhill after that. Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president on the promise he had a secret plan to end the war. That secret was really that we would essentially surrender. In 1973, we gave up. In 1975, the communists overran the south and renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, after the father of their revolution.
It was an ugly defeat for us. Desperate South Vietnamese who had cooperated with us hung onto the skids of helicopters as they lifted off the roof the American embassy, with the enemy at the gates.
For the next decade or so, it was hell for the Vietnamese, especially for those who had not been communists. There were re-education camps, deaths, and starvation, with the economic and human disaster the communist system brought.
But the communists adapted. The Vietnamese people adapted. Today they still have a communist government, but a nearly free market economy. And there is some sign that they could move toward democracy in the future.
So are there lessons here? Could there be some parallels to what is going on in the Middle East? Some of the factors are different and although it is said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, it is also said, history never really repeats itself.
Now, John McCain predicts we can win the current war by 2013. We kept being assured by the government and the military that we were winning in Vietnam. There was “light at the end of the tunnel” (actually that was the headlamp of a freight train coming at us).
I don’t know. I just remember the refrain from that 60s folk song, “when will they ever learn?”