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Cheez Whiz

Thanks for this. You realize that you've described about 80% of a pundit's job here (I think the other 20% is divided between misrepresenting conclusions of studies and going to parties).

El Jefe

Cheez Whiz,

There's an economy of awesome to your second sentence that ought to get mentioned in the "Best Comment" section of any number of web awards. (No, really. Given what I'm about to say that bears clarification.) It also has the virtue of confirming something I already believe to be true ;)


The whole "ghosts of Vietnam/no more Vietnams" thing is a very interesting canard, and unfortunately for you it's one where I have some research background :) I think there are really three "homes" for that particular narrative:
1) The culture wars, where it is just one more part of the Doxology on each side, for the right "No more Vietnams because we coulda won if only..." and on the left "No more Vietnams because it degraded our national character in these ways...." Do I have more sympathy for the left's case? Damn right. And it's not like it didn't hit home right where I lived: one uncle who was branched armor as an Army officer, his kid brother with a high draft number waiting every year, my mother's first fiance (she was married to Dad by the time of this event, but still) killed in the Ia Drang early on. But the language of "Vietnam ghosts/never again" has a particular place in the living-room set of the Culture Wars.
2) The culture of the military itself, where "no more Vietnams" quite specifically meant "no more conflicts where we get thrown in by the politicians and then hung out to dry when it gets intractable or unpopular." This involved a fair amount of historical misrepresentation, and also meant placing responsibility for politicians' fecklessness in places it did not always belong. In particular that meant blaming Democrats when Republicans (especially Kissinger and Ford) were as much to blame for what bothered the serving officers, but in that day and age, much as the Church of England was once described as "the Tory Party at prayer," the senior officer corps was even more than now the Republican Party in uniform, there's some fudge factor on facts there.
3)The really big one -- them there media folks. It's a quick, universally grasped, emotionally wrenching notion that grabs people's attention, plays to their assumptions no matter what those happen to be(every salesman who ever lived wants you to seem them as being on your side) and generally does every other thing you've sketched out in these pieces of late.

The difficulty of course, is that it has only one basis in actual fact over the past forty-odd years: the collection of strategic sentiments that got summed up in the Weinberger Doctrine (later renamed the Powell Doctrine because Colin was always good at cadging off other people's ideas and passing them off as his own. It's what the most politically-successful staff officers do for a living for which see also Petraeus, David.) The friction is there, on that front, but this notion of American caution or aversion, and specifically Democratic caution or aversion (again the only way this works is Carter/Hippie Derangement Syndrome and God knows there was plenty of that in two generations' worth of reporters.) It's just not there in the actual record.

Forty three years ago this September, my beloved late uncle (died last December of a sudden, massive heart attack while snorkeling in the Caribbean because he knew how to live, dammit) sat on two different runways on two different occasions, one in Turkey and one in West Germany, at the head of his troop of airborne-qualified light armor attached to the 1st (Airborne) Brigade of the old 8th Infantry Division in Europe, waiting for the runway light to go green so they could fly the long way round various countries that wanted no part of the politics and jump into Jordan to, in the brigade CO's words, "hold Jordan for King Hussein." This was Black September, and we got that close to our first shooting war in the Middle East, still eyeballs deep in Vietnam, and it was this part -- launching off into another conflict in a place the uniformed Pentagon considered a strategic backwater vis-a-vis the Soviets while we were still trying to "win" Vietnam, that probably did as much as anything to develop a working model of the syndrome. In other words, the sentiment existed specifically because over the coming decades it was violated in practice so very, very often.

It just goes on from there. The October War in 1973? There was a huge desire not to get involved but when it went south Nixon and Kissinger stepped on the gas of the resupply airlift and it turned (needlessly) into a Cold War confrontation by the end, with the Sixth Fleet bumping prows with Soviet ships and B-52s in the air just to make the point. Even Vietnam was not immune to "no more Vietnams" because one of the graduated series of options in the evacuation of Saigon was landing the Marines used to evacuate as a beachead and sending an Army division from Hawaii to cut off the North's supply lines before starting another round of bombing. It took Eisenhower-like sangfroid from Ford, to his credit, to tamp down the crazy on that one. Hell, even the Mayaguez incident was supposed to kick the "Vietnam syndrome": look at the newsmags' headlines from then, or Barry Goldwater's comment about the US finally getting back to its customary business of kicking ass and taking names. 'Round the same time you get the "Paul Bunyan" incident in Korea that would, at least, have ended up a brutal firefight in the DMZ if fingers on either side had gotten itchy, or the detailed plans (drawn up on Ford/Kissinger's instructions by one Donald Rumsfeld) to put American troops in between the Israelis and Syrians in Lebanon's civil war in 1976, long before Reagan.

As for Carter? We were a couple of rickety DC-3s owned by an American mining company, used to pull the company's US employees out of a war zone, from ending the rebel invasion of southern Zaire in '78 with the 82nd Airborne plus some Belgian paratroopers in tow. (The company got the Yanks out, the French charged in for reasons of state, and we were able to get by doing the airlift.) And Iran? There are so, so many ways that it's incredible that did not end up with Carter -- who often wanted to -- unleashing the Strategic Air Command and various bits of the US Navy. Carter wanted a blockade, and the port at the Kharg Island refinery mined, in November. Had to be talked out of it by his ultra-hawk Zbigniew Brzezhinski: Brzezhinski pushed for the April rescue to reinvigorate national pride and found a receptive audience, but talked Carter down from heavier force (which might have had more leverage against the chaotic, factionalized politics in Tehran) because Brzezhinski feared it might push Iran towards the Russians and queer the pitch on his master plan to "hand the Soviets their Vietnam" in Afghanistan. We were even luckier with the actual revolution the February before, when north of six thousand American corporate gypsies and technical advisors to the Shahs' regime were stuck in hotels in downtown Tehran waiting for flights out when Khomeini came home. A few armed crowds blockading the lobbies and it would've made the Embassy crisis look like a teddy bear's picnic and, at that point in the Cold War, demanded a response a frustrated Carter would willingly have given. At the end of his administration he even asked for a formal declaration of war to be drawn up in case the Iranians (who didn't have an actual political process for deciding what to do with the hostages until after Iraq invaded) reneged on the deal that ultimately freed our diplomats.

Saint Ronnie? Don't get me started. Including the fact that, in a delightful cognitive disconnect (one of so many in those eight years) he foisted a Vietnam-syndrome-in-miniature on the military in Lebanon. Then there are the if-necessary plans for invading Libya during the skirmishes of '86, the near-war on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border (the 82nd Airborne parachuted in expecting to fight) a year later, or the "tanker war" in the Gulf that started as a far larger plan to lay waste Iran's commercial and military ports with aircraft carriers and our recommissioned battleships. Makes "Poppy" Bush's three wars in four years (Panama, the Gulf, Somalia) look more of a piece.

And Bubba? He took office with U.S. Marines physically trading pot-shots with Somali bandits in the Horn of Africa's back country, and in less than a year staged his first round of "cruise missile diplomacy" with Saddam Hussein. I would say -- and it's a very specific thing, one Bill would talk his way around the other side of -- that the roots of his haphazard policy on degrees of military intervention lay in Somalia. And they lie there because of his desire to outflank the Mighty Wurlitzer on his draft dodging, to show he was an LBJ rather than a Carter, and pursued the disastrous extension of the Somalia mission past the Marines' famine-relief/peace enforcement gig. That effort to have a big swinging foreign policy of course went south, through no direct fault of his own, in the Bakara Market that October and afterwards it was not at all Clinton himself, but Clinton and his political advisers' response to the media's response -- things we think we already know rear their head again -- that guided the unforgivable handling of Rwanda, the Grenada-like heavy hand on Haiti (although to be fair it was a far better thought-through, vastly less shambolic operation at both the political and military levels), and the various contortions of Bosnia and Kosovo policy. It also started the whole business about the American public "not tolerating casualties." We lost more people in one Beruit barracks than in the Battle of Hue, and in one of his moments of human decency Reagan showed up at Dover to pin the Purple Hearts on each casket. We lost roughly that many people in the Gulf in what seems like a fit of absence of mind between Schwartzkopf's press conferences. We've argued and protested over Iraq because it was criminal foolishness (the Dubya remix) and Afghanistan because it profoundly lost its way. The problem about casualties was that they became a problem when a President the Republicans needed to have the media tar as un-masculine (Bubba? Really? I don't actually like the man much but I've never gotten that vibe) and useless on national security happened to suffer unexpected casualties one day in October 1993. Now that is a genius piece of building a first draft of history out of whole cloth.

Sorry for the ramble; like I say it's a bit of a pet subject, one of many I fear ....

mac macgillicuddy

"It’s a pretty good book, well-written, informative, factual, or at least I trust that it is factual. Bergen has a good reputation as a journalist. His previous books on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were well-received and, as far as I know, haven’t been shown up as bunk."

Often books that are called "factual" ought to be more accurately described as "bibliographied." The certainty of the "facts" of the items footnoted in turn is based on their legacy of facts, and so on, as in the barber's mirror where you are really just looking at yourself. Tradition as a force is a generally accepted theory to base one's "facts" on, and as you point out, this bias is everywhere.

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