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Old 06-12-2009, 06:02 PM
 
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I was just recently found myself in a discussion on American apathy towards open ended wars and occupations. The once luke warm anti-war movement all but fizzled out with the election of Obama and many on the left then came into the fold, since Obama was going after the "real" bad guys, instead of our contrived war in Iraq. During this conversation we speculated as to various reasons why today people are so accepting of our foreign adventures, compared to Vietnam when an entire generation of people were motivated to change policy.

A few days later my phone rang and an acquaintance of mine suggested I read my latest edition of the American Conservative magazine, as towards the back was an article by Andrew Bacevich on just this exactly subject.

quick bio:

Andrew Bacevich, is a professor of international relations at Boston University, former director of its Center for International Relations (from 1998 to 2005) He graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. On May 13, 2007, Bacevich's son, also named Andrew J. Bacevich, was killed in action in Iraq.

Obviously the man has the bonafides, so I thought I would contact him and ask if I could reproduce his piece, in which much to my joy, he granted me permission to do.


To Die For a Mystique


In one of the most thoughtful Vietnam-era accounts written by a senior military officer, Gen. Bruce Palmer once observed, “With respect to Vietnam, our leaders should have known that the American people would not stand still for a protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the U.S. commitment.”

General Palmer thereby distilled into a single sentence the central lesson of Vietnam: to embark upon an open-ended war lacking clearly defined and achievable objectives was to forfeit public support, thereby courting disaster. The implications were clear: never again.

Palmer’s book, which he titled The Twenty-Five Year War, appeared in 1984. Today, exactly 25 years later, we once again find ourselves mired in a “protracted war of an indeterminate nature with no foreseeable end to the U. S. commitment.” It’s déjà vu all over again. How to explain this astonishing turn of events?

In the wake of Vietnam, the officer corps set out to preclude any recurrence of protracted, indeterminate conflict. The Armed Forces developed a new American way of war, emphasizing advanced technology and superior skills. The generals were by no means keen to put these new methods to the test: their preference was for wars to be fought infrequently and then only in pursuit of genuinely vital interests. Yet when war did come, they intended to dispatch any adversary promptly and economically, thereby protecting the military from the possibility of public abandonment. Finish the job quickly and go home: this defined the new paradigm to which the lessons of Vietnam had given rise.

In 1991, Operation Desert Storm seemingly validated that paradigm. Yet events since 9/11, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have now demolished it. Once again, as in Vietnam, the enemy calls the tune, obliging American soldiers to fight on his terms. Decision has become elusive. Costs skyrocket and are ignored. The fighting drags on. As it does so, the overall purpose of the undertaking—other than of avoiding the humiliation of abject failure—becomes increasingly difficult to discern.

The dirty little secret to which few in Washington will own up is that the United States now faces the prospect of perpetual conflict. We find ourselves in the midst of what the Pentagon calls the “Long War,” a conflict global in scope (if largely concentrated in the Greater Middle East) and expected to outlast even General Palmer’s “Twenty-Five Year War.” The present generation of senior civilians and officers have either forgotten or inverted the lessons of Vietnam, embracing open-ended war as an inescapable reality.

To apply to the Long War the plaintive query that Gen. David Petraeus once posed with regard to Iraq—“Tell me how this ends”—the answer is clear: no one has the foggiest idea. War has become like the changing phases of the moon. It’s part of everyday existence. For American soldiers there is no end in sight.

Yet there is one notable difference between today and the last time the United States found itself mired in a seemingly endless war. During the Vietnam era, even as some young Americans headed off to Indochina to fight in the jungles and rice paddies, many other young Americans back on the home front fought against the war itself. More than any other event of the 1960s, the war created a climate of intense political engagement. Today, in contrast, the civilian contemporaries of those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely tuned out the Long War. The predominant mood of the country is not one of anger or anxiety but of dull acceptance. Vietnam divided Americans; the Long War has rendered them inert.

To cite General Palmer’s formulation, the citizens of this country at present do appear willing to “stand still” when considering the prospect of war that goes on and on. While there are many explanations for why Americans have disengaged from the Long War, the most important, in my view, is that so few of us have any immediate personal stake in that conflict.

When the citizen-soldier tradition collapsed under the weight of Vietnam, the military rebuilt itself as a professional force. The creation of this all-volunteer military was widely hailed as a great success—well-trained and highly motivated soldiers made the new American way of war work. Only now are we beginning to glimpse the shortcomings of this arrangement, chief among them the fact that today’s “standing army” exists at considerable remove from the society it purports to defend. Americans today profess to “support the troops” but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious or sustained public concern about whether those same troops are being used wisely and well.

The upshot is that with the eighth anniversary of the Long War upon us, fundamental questions about this enterprise remain unasked. The contrast with Vietnam is striking: back then the core questions may not have gotten straight answers, but at least they got posed.

When testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, the young John Kerry famously—or infamously, in the eyes of some—asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

What exactly was that mistake? Well, there were many. Yet the most fundamental lay in President Johnson’s erroneous conviction that the Republic of Vietnam constituted a vital American security interest and that ensuring that country’s survival required direct and massive U.S. military intervention.

Johnson erred in his estimation of South Vietnam’s importance. He compounded that error with a tragic failure of imagination, persuading himself that once in, there was no way out. The United States needed to stay the course in Vietnam, regardless of the cost or consequences.

Now we are, in our own day and in our own way, repeating LBJ’s errors. In his 1971 Senate testimony, reflecting the views of other Vietnam veterans who had turned against the war in which they had fought, Kerry derisively remarked, “we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.”

The larger struggle against communism commonly referred to as the Cold War was both just and necessary. Yet the furies evoked by irresponsible (or cowardly) politicians more interested in partisan advantage than in advancing the common good transformed the Cold War from an enterprise governed by reason into one driven by fear. Beginning with McCarthyism and the post-1945 Red Scare and continuing on through phantasms such as the domino theory, bomber gap, missile gap, and the putative threat to our survival posed by a two-bit Cuban revolutionary, panic induced policies that were reckless, wrong-headed, and unnecessary, with Vietnam being just one particularly egregious example.

The mystical war against communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. As in the 1960s, so too today: mystification breeds misunderstanding and misjudgment. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.

As a direct result, it leads us to exaggerate the importance of places like Afghanistan and indeed to exaggerate the jihadist threat, which falls well short of being existential. It induces flights of fancy so that otherwise sensible people conjure up visions of providing clean water, functioning schools, and good governance to Afghanistan’s 40,000 villages, with expectations of thereby winning Afghan hearts and minds. It causes people to ignore considerations of cost. With the Long War already this nation’s second most expensive conflict, trailing only World War II, and with the federal government projecting trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, how much can we afford and where is the money coming from?

For political reasons the Obama administration may have banished the phrase “global war on terror,” yet the conviction persists that the United States is called upon to dominate or liberate or transform the Greater Middle East. Methods may be shifting, with the emphasis on pacification giving way to militarized nation-building. Priorities may be changing, Af-Pak now supplanting Iraq as the main effort. But by whatever name, the larger enterprise continues. The president who vows to “change the way Washington works” has not yet exhibited the imagination needed to conceive of an alternative to the project that his predecessor began.

The urgent need is to de-mystify that project, which was from the outset a misguided one. Just as in the 1960s we possessed neither the wisdom nor the means needed to determine the fate of Southeast Asia, so today we possess neither the wisdom nor the means necessary to determine the fate of the Greater Middle East. To persist in efforts to do so—as the Obama administration appears intent on doing in Afghanistan —will simply replicate on an even greater scale mistakes like those that Bruce Palmer and John Kerry once rightly decried.
__________________________________________

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, just out in paperback.

Mr. Bacevich has given his permission to post this article in whole as a topic of discussion in our forum. The full PDF version is also available at the following link.

The American Conservative -- To Die For a Mystique

Last edited by TnHilltopper; 06-13-2009 at 02:45 PM.. Reason: formatting
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Old 06-12-2009, 06:10 PM
 
2,105 posts, read 1,189,608 times
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Thanks for posting this. This is an issue that is always on my mind.

It isn't just Vietnam. We haven't learned from any of our nation building exercises. That goes for BOTH political parties.

P.S. My father was killed in the Vietnam "conflict", so I know first hand what a futile and wasteful excursion that was. Now I see that other kids are going to have to grow up without a father, thanks to our latest nation building attempt. That breaks my heart.
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Old 06-12-2009, 06:50 PM
 
11,127 posts, read 12,655,114 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ♠atizar♠ View Post
Thanks for posting this. This is an issue that is always on my mind.

It isn't just Vietnam. We haven't learned from any of our nation building exercises. That goes for BOTH political parties.

P.S. My father was killed in the Vietnam "conflict", so I know first hand what a futile and wasteful excursion that was. Now I see that other kids are going to have to grow up without a father, thanks to our latest nation building attempt. That breaks my heart.
Obama has certainly been a continuation of this idea of the open ended, perpetual war, even if his speech does signal a change, we shall have to see if this bears fruit.

There was one significant passage in this piece that I think many, including myself have never really considered. This is that of the professional soldier and the lack of our wars and occupations being personalized by our society in general.

Quote:
When the citizen-soldier tradition collapsed under the weight of Vietnam, the military rebuilt itself as a professional force. The creation of this all-volunteer military was widely hailed as a great success—well-trained and highly motivated soldiers made the new American way of war work. Only now are we beginning to glimpse the shortcomings of this arrangement, chief among them the fact that today’s “standing army” exists at considerable remove from the society it purports to defend. Americans today profess to “support the troops” but that support is a mile wide and an inch deep. It rarely translates into serious or sustained public concern about whether those same troops are being used wisely and well.
Over all, public reaction to Iraq anymore is usually preceded with a yawn, and I find that rather disturbing.
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Old 06-12-2009, 06:58 PM
 
2,105 posts, read 1,189,608 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by TnHilltopper View Post
Obama has certainly been a continuation of this idea of the open ended, perpetual war, even if his speech does signal a change, we shall have to see if this bears fruit.

There was one significant passage in this piece that I think many, including myself have never really considered. This is that of the professional soldier and the lack of our wars and occupations being personalized by our society in general.



Over all, public reaction to Iraq anymore is usually preceded with a yawn, and I find that rather disturbing.
Agreed.

One part that irks me is the blind "support the troops!" stuff. Sure, there are many who truly do, but for every one of those there's another who thinks that simply placing that bumper sticker or lapel pin means they are a patriot and that this gives them some sort of infallible perspective the rest of us aren't capable of seeing. Which I find insulting, as a vet myself.
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:19 PM
 
11,127 posts, read 12,655,114 times
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ♠atizar♠ View Post
Agreed.

One part that irks me is the blind "support the troops!" stuff. Sure, there are many who truly do, but for every one of those there's another who thinks that simply placing that bumper sticker or lapel pin means they are a patriot and that this gives them some sort of infallible perspective the rest of us aren't capable of seeing. Which I find insulting, as a vet myself.

Well with lack of personal stake in our wars and occupations it does make such expressions ring rather hollow. As General Patreas said:

Quote:
To apply to the Long War the plaintive query that Gen. David Petraeus once posed with regard to Iraq—“Tell me how this ends”—the answer is clear: no one has the foggiest idea.
I would think that there would be at least some national debate as to what supporting the troops actually entails outside of mere platitudes and bumper stickers. The questioning of the wisdom behind having our professional soldiers pull two and three tours of duty or more, asking them to put their lives on the line for a goal that even the generals are unsure about.

The biggest issue I had with Bush is now the biggest issue I have with Obama, which is the continuation of our occupations under no clear, definable goal or exit. While I understood and even expected support from the more militant right, I did not expect such acquiesced consensus from the left after Obama was elected. Just as baffling is the silence of the right to point this out.


Quote:
For political reasons the Obama administration may have banished the phrase “global war on terror,” yet the conviction persists that the United States is called upon to dominate or liberate or transform the Greater Middle East. Methods may be shifting, with the emphasis on pacification giving way to militarized nation-building. Priorities may be changing, Af-Pak now supplanting Iraq as the main effort
I was just thinking about this the other day, as I posted a piece here called, "The forgotten war" nearly two years ago. Back when Iraq was in vogue and all the rage, Afghanistan barely registered as a blip on the screen with only scant mention on page 17. Today, the reverse is almost true and while Iraq isn't totally forgotten, it is rarely spoken of on our nightly news. In fact, you stand a better chance of seeing a monkey run loose in an Asian airport than you are likely to see a piece on Iraq.
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:22 PM
 
Location: Chicagoland
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Quote:
Today, the reverse is almost true and while Iraq isn't totally forgotten, it is rarely spoken of on our nightly news. In fact, you stand a better chance of seeing a monkey run loose in an Asian airport than you are likely to see a piece on Iraq.
That is because violence is down 95%, the country is booming, schools are open, hospitals are open, infrastructure is improving and most importantly, we succeeded in our mission - that's why you don't hear about it. It just doesn't fit the MSM leftist agenda.

Of course, we should wait a bit and see if obama, through his decisions and policies, doesn't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:30 PM
LML
 
Location: Wisconsin
7,109 posts, read 8,099,343 times
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Generation after generation we offer up our young as cannon fodder. What or who do we think we appease with this sacrifice. Empire after empire crumbles under the twin weight of war debt and war dead....and each one thinks that their empire will endure forever. Wives mourn a lifetime, mothers wounds will never heal, fatherless...and now motherless.... children grow up amputated from a portion of their nurturing system....and swear it won't happen to their children. But the drum beat begins again and great...and not so great...orators come forth to convince yet another generation that they have the duty to die and kill for another's greed. Heaven help us all.
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:48 PM
 
Location: Chicagoland
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Heaven help us all.
Sometimes praying and talking just doesn't cut it. Sometimes evil must be confronted with force and defeated.

I assume you thought the US should not have involved itself in WWII?
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:53 PM
 
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Originally Posted by LML View Post
Generation after generation we offer up our young as cannon fodder. What or who do we think we appease with this sacrifice.
Maybe it's just because young people run faster.
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Old 06-12-2009, 09:53 PM
 
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Originally Posted by sanrene View Post
Sometimes praying and talking just doesn't cut it. Sometimes evil must be confronted with force and defeated.

I assume you thought the US should not have involved itself in WWII?
Do you understand the difference between a just and necessary war and invading a sovereign nation who was not attacking anyone?

And I shouldn't have to repeat this again, but I will:

We were dragged, kicking and screaming, into WWII.
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