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Déjà Vu All Over Again in Afghanistan

Seven lessons Obama could learn from Vietnam author Mary McCarthy

| Fri Apr. 17, 2009 12:18 PM EDT

[Note to TomDispatch Readers: A reminder—I'll be away and so unable to respond to letters or requests until next Monday or thereafter. Tom]

It didn't take long. Only 11 days after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, a Newsweek cover story proclaimed the Afghan War "Obama's Vietnam." And there wasn't even a question mark. As John Barry and Evan Thomas wrote grimly in that January piece, "[T]here is this stark similarity: in Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, we may now be facing a situation where we can win every battle and still not win the war—at least not within a time frame and at a cost that is acceptable to the American people." In the two and a half months since that piece appeared, the President and his advisors have, in fact, doubled-down on what is increasingly the Af-Pak War—with the expanding fighting in Pakistan's tribal borderlands helping to destabilize that regional nuclear power. As a result, it would hardly be surprising if "Obama's Vietnam" became an ever more common refrain in the year ahead.

In a number of ways, however, the Af-Pak War couldn't bear less of a relationship to the Vietnam one. After all, this time around there is no superpower enemy like the Soviet Union or regional power like China supporting and arming the Taliban (or, for that matter, like the United States, which supported and armed the mujahideen to give the Soviets their own "Vietnam" in Afghanistan in the 1980s). In Vietnam, the U.S. faced a North Vietnamese professional army, well-trained, superbly disciplined, and supplied with the best the Soviets and Chinese could produce, including heavy weapons; while the guerrilla organization we fought in South Vietnam, which Americans knew as "the Vietcong," had widespread popular support, was unified, dedicated, well structured, and highly regimented.

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The "Taliban," on the other hand, is a rag-tag, under-armed set of largely localized militias adding up to only perhaps 10,000-15,000 armed fighters, loyal to a range of leaders, including the pre-2001 Taliban leadership headed by Mullah Omar, various former mujahideen commanders of the anti-Soviet War, or sometimes just local warlords. Even where firmly lodged itself, the Taliban's support in rural Afghanistan, as far as can be told from what opinion polls exist, is at best unenthusiastic, and based largely on its ability to bring some safety to rural areas the corrupt central government has no control over, and above all, on its ability to present itself as the only real opposition to a foreign military occupation of the country.

Unlike the Vietnamese, the Taliban are largely incapable of bringing down American and NATO planes or helicopters, attacking big American bases, or massing for major offensives of any sort. While growing in strength by every measure available, what they are largely capable of doing, in military terms, is blowing things up via roadside bombs or suicide attacks (which is, of course, no small thing). As a result, American casualties, while serious and possibly due to rise this year (along with Afghan civilian casualties), are exceedingly modest if measured by a Vietnam-era yardstick.

In other words, in scale, the Af-Pak War is unlikely ever to become a real "Vietnam" (Obama's or otherwise). Looked at another way, however, this war may have the capacity to inflict upon the U.S. the kind of defeat that the Vietnamese, for all their strength and nationalist fervor, were incapable of. In a sense, Af-Pak threatens to be, in the personalized terms the American media often favors, not "Obama's Vietnam," but "Obama's Afghanistan"—that is, our version of the defeat we once helped inflict on the Russians which played a role in breaking the back of the Soviet empire. The U.S. suffered a genuine defeat in Vietnam and its army nearly collapsed in the process, but the American empire and the American economic system stood in no mortal danger from it.

By the end of 2009, the cost of the Iraq War—that is, of putting down another set of rag-tag insurgents—will pass that of the Vietnam War and, in dollars spent, stand second only to World War II in U.S. history. Add to that the rising expense of a never-ending Af-Pak War and—in the worst of economic times—you have the equivalent of a vast financial hemorrhage, an economic sinkhole. In short, if "Obama's war" proves a "quagmire," it may not be a Vietnamese-style one.

In one way, however, the Af-Pak War has borne, and continues to bear, a certain eerie resemblance to the Vietnam one: in the manner in which Americans have chosen to fight it. Not surprisingly, as retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore points out in the following striking piece, in this we resemble ourselves 40 years ago. As a result, for anyone who remembers Vietnam, much of our military's "new thinking" on counterinsurgency warfare, which has gotten such media praise, looks old and tired indeed. But let Astore take up the tale from here. Tom

Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan

Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore

In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country's role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy's accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.

Those who'd say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist's keen eye to America's activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam—she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon—her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.

Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama's next press conference should consider asking him:

1. McCarthy's most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply "technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this." At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as "wicked" because of its "absolute indifference to the cost in human lives" to the Vietnamese people.

Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.

In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.

Questions for President Obama: Aren't we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to "solve" complex political and religious struggles? Aren't we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we're using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren't we still morally culpable when these "precision-guided munitions" miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected "terrorists" who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C'est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?

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