Boots on the Ground, Bombs From the Air: Vietnam to Syria: You’ve Come a Long Way Baby (Or Have You)

VietnamVietnam, 1968

“The United States could well declare…that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field…”
—1968 VT Senator George Aiken (R) on declaring victory and getting out of Vietnam

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
—2018 President Trump declaring victory and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria

Two different presidents, a half-century apart, but with a similar problem — mired in an intractable war with no light at the end of the tunnel. What’s a poor president to do? When all else fails (as it always does in the empire), the George Aiken (conservative Republican senator during the Vietnam war) solution comes to mind —declare victory and skedaddle. But at the time he proffered that sage advice, President Johnson, hemmed in by a collection of war hawks, leftovers from the Kennedy administration, and fearing the political fall-out of retreat, refused to take the plunge and wound up owning the war. The toll was mind boggling. In addition to the carnage and loss of life, his presidency went up in smoke along with programs that would have made a difference to millions of Americans: single payer health care, infrastructure repair and initiatives to feed, house and clothe America’s poor.  The better angels of his nature knew better “It’s damn easy to get into war, but it’s… awfully hard to extricate yourself if you get in”. But in the end ambition trumped logic and destroyed a presidency, a man and almost a country.

Today President Trump is facing the same dilemma. During the campaign in 2016, he promised “…I know our wars in the Mideast are stupid and they need to end.”  Right on Mr. Nominee. Recently, he took the bull by the horns and directed the Pentagon to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. In the face of withering criticism from the hardliners in his administration (Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton) and in his base, will he back down? Only time will tell.

Fifty years ago, egged on by politicians from both sides of the aisle, seduced by media claims of eventual victory, and bombarded by administration flacks with faux promises that the world-wide Communist conspiracy would be defeated in Vietnam, eighty-five percent of the public initially supported the Vietnam war (that support declined every year, reaching its nadir in 1971). At the height of public approval of the war, Congress, with democrats in charge, developed a bad case of war fever.

Richard Russell, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, became the senatorial mouthpiece of the President’s bellicosity “…how the hell are you going to tell the American people you’re getting out [of Vietnam]? They’ll think you’ve just been whipped…you’re scared. And it’d be disastrous.”  Not that the democrats were the sole cheerleaders. Barry Goldwater, the Republican’s pick to run against Johnson in 1964, thought LBJ wasn’t going far enough — “…we are at war…and yet the president…refuses to say whether the objective over there [Vietnam] is victory.”

 Not much has changed in fifty-two years.  Another failed presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, greeted the news of Trump’s withdrawal with routine fear-mongering …the people who want to harm us are there [in Syria] and at war. Isolationism (the current synonym for peace) is weakness. Empowering ISIS is dangerous. Playing into Russia and Iran’s hands is foolish. The President is putting our national security at risk.

Congress, wasn’t far behind in the outrage department. The democrats, who had the most to gain politically, roared the loudest. Jean Shaheen, Democrat from New Hampshire, “I think this will be considered one of the worst foreign policy blunders of the century to date…” Sorry, Ms. Shaheen, but it is generally agreed that the ‘worst foreign policy blunder of the current century’ was the U.S. invasion of Iraq which, by the way, according to the UN is a war crime. Senator Mark Warner, democratic blowhard from Virginia, dropped this gem — “This is scary. Secretary Mattis [who resigned in pique over the president’s announcement] has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”

While we’re on the subject: just who is General Jim Mattis?  Lionized in the media and on both sides of the aisle as an enduring symbol of American might, General James Mattis has quite a following. Unfortunately, his resume doesn’t live up to his reviews.  His contribution to the Iraq war effort reached a crescendo in 2004 as he led the marine assault on Iraq’s Fallujah (where he earned the nickname “Mad Dog”). That attack intended as a mission to liberate the city (as if any U.S. liberation operation has ever lived up to that billing) turned into a revenge killing spree (think My Lai) that reduced the city to rubble forcing 200,000 civilians from their homes and, according to the Red Cross, resulting in at least 800 civilian murders. This inglorious record marks Mattis as a man who over four decades has had no qualms about participating in countless U.S. illegal wars (aka bloodbaths), killing and maiming civilians, and turning modern countries into barren wastelands.

Need further proof that Mattis in all his splendor is merely an out-of-touch throwback to generals like Curtis Lemay (who led the firebombing of Tokyo killing 105,400 civilians and advocated for the use of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam)?  Here he is describing his favorite pastime: killing people. “It’s quite fun to shoot them [Muslims]…it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. And the clearest portrait of this ‘island of stability’ in his own words: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

 In light of this record of unvarnished savagery, judge for yourself the value of the “advice” Mattis gave the president in his resignation letter — “…my views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about malign actors and strategic competitors …informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues”

 The care and feeding of allies sparked another wave of outrage from assorted politicos. Senator Marco Rubio (R, FL) who regularly raises tons of cash from events hosted by lobbyists for the defense and arms industries: “…we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will…damage our alliances and empower our adversaries.”  Senator Lindsay Graham (R, SC) took a more global view of the ‘dire’ consequences if U.S. troops left Syria, although as the good senator undoubtedly knows being the biggest war hawk in the Senate, there are at least seven other wars currently getting the green light. “I fear it [withdrawal from Syria] will have devastating consequences for our nation, the region and throughout the world.

 The U.S. has a long history of using treaties and relationships with allies to either start, continue or resume wars (think Iraq 1991 and 2003). They came in handy as President Johnson was searching for justifications for ordering U.S. ground troops into Vietnam: “We are party to a treaty and if we don’t pay attention to this treaty, then…they [U.S. allies] think we don’t pay attention to any of them.” Which prompted this golden piece of wisdom from Senator Russell: “Yeah but we’re the only ones paying attention to it [the treaty]. LBJ knew that but as always political considerations triumphed over strategic thinking. LBJ might not have known the full dimensions of the calamity to come, but he knew that many American lives would be sacrificed (58,000 as it turned out) and many more Vietnamese civilians (over two million). His real worry They’d [voters] impeach a president who’d run out…everybody I talked to said you’ve got to go in…”

To be sure, treaties come in handy when the U.S. war machine roars out of the gate. But most U.S. wars are advertised as freeing citizens from the autocratic rule of military strongmen (most of whom counted on and received U.S. support to take over).  Like all protection racquets, this one (the installation of autocrats) doesn’t come cheap— the cost measured in countries trashed, whole villages blown away, and lives lost.  President Johnson was a great fan of the humanitarian justification for mayhem— “…in our own evolution, we wanted freedom and naturally…look with sympathy on other people who want freedom…We have a commitment to Vietnam freedom.”

Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in RaqqaSyria, 2018

Fifty years later, the same imperial hubris prompted the (illegal) invasion of Syria. To get the common folk behind the war, the support of Hollywood ‘liberals’ was a must. That’s where a little doctrine known as R2P (responsibility to protect) got the nod. Celebrities (many of them major democratic donors) wanting to do something for the cause of perpetual war take to twitter to vent their outrage at the slightest sign of a peace initiative. Mia Farrow, a habitual do-gooder, spluttered— You [Donald Trump] are putting American lives in danger. Military experts tell us [the same ones who told us Saddam Hussein had WMDs] that…if we leave [Syria] ISIS will expand…while they celebrate in Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.”

When it comes to shining a spotlight on the trajectory of U.S. wars from Vietnam to Syria, the differences are as stark as the similarities: Vietnam was fifty years ago; Syria is now. Donald Trump is not LBJ and the 2,000 troops in Syria can’t hold a candle to the half-million that surged into Vietnam. But the similarities are equally revealing. War or the threat of war have dominated U.S. foreign policy for decades. Diplomacy, negotiation, compromise —more like quaint practices of a bygone era, their meanings blotted out by the xenophobia and hyper-patriotism that have become American staples.

What of Congress, the body constitutionally obligated to debate and sign off on U.S. wars? You can hear a pin drop in both chambers when a back-bencher has the temerity to propose a debate on any one or all of the wars the U.S. is engaged in. The chambers liven up when it comes to authorizing the annual defense budget. By huge majorities, year after year, ridiculously inflated defense budgets are authorized in both houses on a bipartisan basis. In 2019, the Pentagon will have $717 billion dollars to squander. Before heading for the door, General Mattis proposed an increase of 5% in 2020 (Trump agreed) bringing the projected 2020 budget to $750 billion.

Whatever phony excuse political leaders use to justify war —R2P, or the 21st century rebirth of the domino theory (“a gift to Iran, to Hezbollah, and to Putin”), or concern for U.S. allies, the U.S. war machine is off and running. Even with the removal of ground forces, the U.S. military is not really leaving — “…warplanes and drones are going to continue bombing in Syria…when we look at…the…cities that have been largely destroyed by U.S. bombing…This is not going to qualitatively change that on the ground.” (Phyllis Bennis, foreign policy analyst)

How can the lessons of Vietnam illuminate the mess the U.S. shows little enthusiasm for ending in Syria? “We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said No to more war. We know what happened because he said Yes.” (Bill Moyers, Press Secretary for LBJ). The U.S. is perilously close to embracing the same argument that kept us in Vietnam — war as the only way to keep us safe. Perhaps the time is fast approaching when another journalist will have to report “We will never know what would have happened if Donald Trump had really ended U.S. involvement in Syria. We know what happened when he didn’t.”

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