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What the Afghan War Has in Common With the Vietnam War

Civilian massacres, no end in sight, and mounting public disapproval are just a start.

| Tue Apr. 10, 2012 2:18 PM EDT

While the Afghan War has always had its many non-Vietnam aspects—geographical, historical, geopolitical, and in terms of casualties—anyone could have had a Vietnam field day with the present situation. At almost any previous moment in the last decades, many undoubtedly would have, and yet what's striking is that this time around no one has. Unlike any administration since the Nixon years, nobody in Obama's crowd now seems to have Vietnam obsessively on the brain.

What was taken as the last significant reference to the war from a major official came from Bush holdover Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In February 2011, four months before he left the Pentagon, Gates gave a "farewell" address at West Point in which he told the cadets, "[I]n my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it." This, press reports incorrectly claimed, was that general's Vietnam advice for President Kennedy in 1961. (The statement Gates quoted, however, was made in 1950 after the North Koreans invaded South Korea.)


A Vietnam Analogy Memorial

Since then, Washington generally seems to have dropped Vietnam through the memory hole. Well-connected pundits seldom mention its example any more. Critics have generally stopped using it to anathematize the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In a wasteland of growing disasters, that war now seems to have gained full recognition as a quagmire in its own right. No help needed.

And yet I did find one recent exception to the general rule. Let me offer it here as my own memorial to the Vietnam analogy. Recently in a news briefing, US war commander in Afghanistan General John Allen tried to offer context for a phenomenon that seems close to unique in modern history. (You might have to go back to the Sepoy Rebellion in British India of the nineteenth century to find its like.) Afghan "allies" in police or army uniforms have been continually blasting away American and NATO soldiers they live and work with—something now common enough to have its own military term: "green on blue" violence. In doing so, Allen made a passing comment that might be thought of as the last Vietnam War analogy of our era. "I think it is a characteristic of counterinsurgencies that we've experienced before," he said. "We experienced these in Iraq. We experienced them in Vietnam... It is a characteristic of this kind of warfare."

How appropriate that, almost 40 years later, the general, who was still attending the US Naval Academy when Vietnam ended, evidently remembers that war about as accurately as he might recall the War of 1812. In fact, Vietnamese allies did not regularly, or even rarely, turn their guns on their American allies. In the far more "fratricidal" acts of that era, what might then have been termed "khaki on khaki" violence, the "Afghans" of the moment were American troops who reasonably regularly committed acts of violence—called "fragging" for the fragmentation grenades of the period—against their own officers. ("Word of the deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of certain units," wrote Marine historian Col. Robert Heinl, Jr., in 1971. "In one such division... fraggings during 1971 have been authoritatively estimated to be running about one a week.")

Still, credit must be given. Increasingly poorly remembered, Vietnam is now one for the ages. After so many years, Afghanistan has finally emerged as a quagmire beholden to no other war. What an achievement! Our moment, Afghanistan included, has proven so extreme, so disastrous, that it's finally put the unquiet ghost of Vietnam in its grave. And here's the miracle: it has all happened without anyone in Washington grasping the essence of that now-ancient defeat, or understanding a thing.

The "lessons of Vietnam," fruitlessly discussed for five decades, taught Washington so little that it remains trapped in a hopeless war on the Eurasian mainland, continues to pursue a military-first policy globally that might even surprise American leaders of the Vietnam era, has turned the planet into a "free fire zone," and considers military power its major asset, a first not a last resort, and the Pentagon the appropriate place to burn its national treasure.

After Vietnam, the US at least took a few years to lick its wounds. Now, it just ramps up the latest military flavor of the month—at the moment, special operations forces and drones—elsewhere.

Call it not the fog, but the smog of war.

And in case you haven't noticed, the vans are already on the block. The Afghan Syndrome is moving into the neighborhood and the welcome wagons are out.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. Click here to catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt reflects on one theme from his new book, the unnatural growth of the US national security state, or click here to watch him discuss another, the way post-Cold-War Washington chose "the Soviet Path," at the Nation magazine's website. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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