For younger viewers, the recent PBS series on the Vietnam War was an in-depth introduction to a history otherwise known only haphazardly. For the more senior set, the series reviewed issues in a period of history to which they were at least close observers and in which they may have been very personally involved.
From one senior perspective, the film lacked the emphasis on why we got into the war, now a puzzle but at the time a matter of persuasive urgency. Our intervention in Vietnam was an essential reaction to communist expansion. The moniker "Domino Theory" gave us an understanding that if we didn't fight here, the communist legions would sweep through south Asia. From Vietnam, they would go on to take Thailand and sweep west and south through Indonesia, a suggestion sufficiently persuasive to induce Australia to commit thousands of its young men to our war.
Most historians knew better. All these countries had recent experience with colonial oppression and had deeply imbedded cultures of their own which were not going to yield to a Russian-based, thin, new ideology and its unworkable economic system. But as America buddied up to French colonial power, the colonized leaders saw communist USSR and China as potential, temporarily useful allies.
Alaska's Sen. Ernest Gruening, with a scholar's deep knowledge of historical currents, knew that Vietnam's primary fight was with colonialism and that President Johnson was making a mistake in expanding the U.S. role. Sen. Gruening sadly lost his seat in the Congress largely because he was seen as lacking the appropriate patriotic war fervor. Mike Gravel campaigned successfully against Gruening for his opposition to the war and then a few years later, campaigned against the war himself with even greater fervor, a painful irony to friends of Gruening.
In the film, perhaps the most startling revelation was the number, within America's top leadership hierarchy, that believed early on, that the war was unwinnable. Yes, there was a military tradition, personified in Gen. Westmoreland, that American military might could win any war and that if things were not going well, it just required a larger commitment of troops.
That got us in. But as we learned more about who the Vietnamese were, the undisclosed deduction of the president's men, both Johnson's and Nixon's, that the war was unwinnable became public conclusions. The presidential issue was how to get out of it as if it were a win.
The deduction that the same process has been going on in Afghanistan is all but inescapable. To begin with, we began our war in Afghanistan for the wrong reasons and adopted a policy of replacement colonialism that compares uncomfortably with Vietnam.
The 9/11 attacks, perhaps understandably, set off a series of responses that ultimately evolved into some bad policies. Our national leadership decided to make war on Afghanistan under Congress's over-generalized authorization of a war against "terrorism." Some critics say we should have thrown more military resources at this war earlier. The reality is that we should never have undertaken a war on the country called Afghanistan at all.
Al-Qaida was a small terrorist group financed by Saudi radicals. It consisted, in part, of leftovers from the mujahedeen, a group we financed to beat the USSR's occupation in northern Afghanistan. Its leader was a rebellious Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden. Osama's main objective, on the way to establishing radical Sunni rule in the Middle East, was to get the profane U.S. out of holy Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaida, kicked out of Saudi Arabia, had been encamped in a relatively remote part of the Pashtun area of Afghanistan, as guests of sorts (a status, Mullah Omar protested, required under Islamic law). Many ethnic groups and tribes claimed some sovereignty over Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, the largest group, led by Mullah Omar organized militarily as "the Taliban." But until our invasion, they were fighting their own war within Afghanistan, not as international terrorists.
Don't try to win wars with ethnic groups. Maybe President Clinton could have taken out Osama and al-Qaida by striking earlier at that encampment. Too bad. But our later invasion of Afghanistan and war with the Taliban/Pashtun tribal consortium after the al-Qaida strike on 9/11 was a bad alternative. Undefined, inherently endless "terrorism" is as poor a justification for international war as the domino theory. After a staggering investment of blood and treasure, we have established a North Afghanistan that looks like South Vietnam. It is time to declare victory and get out.
John Havelock is an Army veteran whose 1968 visit to Vietnam in a civilian capacity turned him against the war. He later served as Alaska's attorney general and as professor of justice at UAA.
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