THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Before assuming command of the flagging ISAF mission in Afghanistan in June 2009, Stanley McChrystal was challenged by a reporter: wasn’t the general, he asked, stepping into another Vietnam quagmire? 'No', McChrystal replied emphatically, 'Afghanistan is not another Vietnam.' He was right, of course, but McChrystal was too smart an individual not to appreciate Mark Twain's old adage that history may not repeat itself, but it most certainly does rhyme.
There are many good reasons to study the tragic imbroglio of the Second Indochina War (1955-1975). One of the most important is that successive White House administrations continue to embroil America in ‘ridiculous, endless wars’, to borrow a Trump phrase. The cost of institutional amnesia over the lessons from past wars has proved very steep.
Why, President Lyndon B. Johnson, agonised, did Vietnam matter at all? He justified the engagement to an electorate on the grounds that previous American presidents had judged it necessary to make a stand in this corner of South-East Asia – which was no reason at all, and an example of gross buck-passing. The same entrapment and buck-passing has now snared five White House administrations – Republican and Democrat alike – in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict-blighted countries.
The intellectual under-pinning in the 1950s was a bar room game: dominos. That the foreign policy of a great nation should be based on the weak analogy of falling dominos struck nobody as strange (until the pain became too great to bear). Nor does a jihadist domino theory seem odd to us, but it should. Out there beyond America’s shores, the re-worked theory posits, an abstract ‘they’ ‘wish to do us harm’ (could the Bush speech writer who coined this phrase ever have imagined its consequences)? If this is true, then the jihadist domino theory demands, as President Bush asserted in his September 21 2001 address to Congress (attended by the acolyte Prime Minister Blair), that America not wait for her enemies to strike, but rather sally forth and ‘bring justice to our enemies.’
The messiness and difficulty of re-arranging a disorderly and intractable world through military action passed by this moment of high rhetoric. Johnson had his August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, with two dissenters. Bush was duly handed his September 2011 Authorisation for Use of Military Force - with just one dissenter who argued the White House incumbent was being handed a blank check to wage wars. So it has proved.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his successor Melvin Laird both fretted over the cost of war. What would they have made of America’s first trillion dollar wars? USAID poured billions into the corrupt black hole of Saigon run by the Ngo brothers, and later the ever-revolving carousel of venal South Vietnamese generals. More American aid has now been afforded to a bottomless, corrupt Afghanistan than was granted to war-shattered Europe under the Marshall Plan. Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) continued to report ‘progress’ until the word was drained of all meaning. The same ‘credibility gap’ undermined the ISAF spin machine that tossed out ‘progress reports’ like sweets to reporters who long stopped believing a word the military media machine spouted.
In Vietnam, America was served by an excellent and impeccable intelligence production line offered by the CIA (in sharp and acrimonious contrast to MACV reporting). It is still a thrill today to read the accuracy and foresight of this agency’s now declassified reporting. But what is the point of this excellence if after the intelligence crosses the threshold of the White House it becomes politicised information, or is abused, or is just plainly ignored because it does not serve the ‘political narrative’? When will the Washington DC executive office learn to appreciate its intelligence helps?
It is too easy to get into wars if you are super power. But the first question you must ask is: how does this war end? Nobody could answer the question in 1960s Indochina and nobody can answer the same question today in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, or Central Asia.
It is insufficient to act in good faith, the title of my first volume. Good sense is also necessary. American administrations would do well to remember the May 27 1964 private words exchanged between Senator Richard Russell, better remembered for his opposition to Civil Rights, and a tormented Johnson. What should he do: get in or get out? Where was the key to unlocking the terrible mess? What was the answer to the Vietnam domino? ‘It isn’t important to us a damn bit’, replied the senator.
Sergio Miller is a former British Army Intelligence Corps officer who served in Special Forces. He was deployed to Northern Ireland and undertook assignments in South America and East Asia. In the first Gulf War he served as an intelligence briefer to the UK Joint Commander. Since leaving the regular armed forces he has worked in the defence industry. He continues to support the Reserves and writes regularly on defence subjects.