Friday, October 23, 2009I hesitate to compare Vietnam to Afghanistan. We are far too ready to compare wars of the present to wars of the past, and the circumstances of this conflict are in many ways quite different. What inspires to make such a comparison, however, is the eerie sense of deja vu I had recently while reading David Halberstam's "Best and the Brightest." It's a wonderfully written book, but aside from its literary merits it also gives a disturbing account of how pride in one's country and one's intellect can lure the most experienced and brilliant men into catastrophe. In fact, the greater a man's success in life, the more vulnerable he appears to making such disastrous errors. Perhaps this is a banal point, nothing more than the typical identification of hubris. But whatever its originality, it is always best - especially in foreign affairs, where the stakes are so great - to move cautiously, with a profound respect for the limitations of one's own knowledge and power. In Halberstam's book, a well-meaning President with little experience in foreign affairs found himself entangled in a war that he never wanted. Lyndon Johnson feared that withdrawing from Vietnam would destroy the Great Society (because hawks would use it to weaken him), but by temporizing, by escalating in such small moves, he found himself in a great war after all. It is a story of how the military, which knows how to fight great conventional wars, attempted to impose that conception on a war which was in no way conventional, however tediously common guerilla warfare has become in the last generation or so. The generals in Vietnam knew no more about diplomacy or politics than the civilians knew about war, with disastrous consequences for both.
The debates I see now over the decision to escalate or nearly carbon copies of the debates over whether to escalate in Vietnam in 1964-1965. The military wants 40,000 troops, but will accept less if they can get the civilian command to accept a given strategy. Once that strategy is in place, they will call from another 40,000. And another. And another. We have a political discourse which presumes that Republicans are the only ones "strong" enough to handle foreign policy, a Democratic President will be afraid to cut his losses or even reduce the mission to as modest a set of aims as possible. So he will be tempted to accept the strategy put forth by "his" generals while trying to draw the line on the number of troops. If Obama does so, the game is up. It is the strategy that has to be addressed, before tactical or logistical questions.
To be more specific, the strategy we are supposed to accept from the generals is the doctrine of counterinsurgency. If anyone thinks that doctrine sounds familiar, they should. It was originally championed by the Kennedy Administration as a means of combating communist-supported revolutionary movements in the third worlds. Its first great test was in Vietnam. No, there is nothing new here, and little to be optimistic about.
I am no expert on Afghanistan, obviously. But I am a student of history, and I know that western military powers from Alexander the Great through the British and Russians have come to grief in those mountains. I have no desire to see us follow in the footsteps of the Russians as well did so with the French in Vietnam. Let us try to learn, if not from others mistakes, then at least our own.