Another American president is trying to find a middle ground between the rock of the right-wing hawks and the hard place of the left-wing pacifists. Another American president is trying to be a little bit at war by dribbling troops into a far place, using borrowed money, to fight and die for no clear purpose. Another American president is trying to stake out high moral ground with both feet sunk deep in the sewer of a partnership with a corrupt government. Welcome to Afghanistan.
Last Friday, Bill Moyers did a great service to the country, on his PBS program Bill Moyers Journal, by playing extensive excerpts from the recordings made of President Lyndon Johnson’s anguished conversations with his cabinet, members of Congress and others about what to do about Vietnam. What emerged forcefully from these tapes was a picture of a man hobbled by unexamined assumptions that were rooted in ignorance. And, it appears, we have learned little since.
Johnson invariably referred to the enemy in Vietnam as the “Communists,” and made no distinction between, for example, Soviet Communists, Chinese Communists and Vietnamese Communists. He and his generals and his defense secretary and everyone involved seemed to think the Chinese and Vietnamese Communists were allies, when their countries had been bitter enemies for centuries. Had he read one book on the history of the region, Johnson would never have said, as he did over and over, that a war with China was inevitable if the United States acted too vigorously in Vietnam.
Today, the all-purpose enemy is known as “terrorism,” and our government’s war on it makes no apparent distinction between Al Qaeda (which appears to have left fewer than 500 members), the Taliban (which is about as homogeneous and unified as, say, Christians), and a variety of other ethnic and religious groups whose only common characteristic is our ignorance of them.
Johnson repeated, in almost every conversation he had, the rubric that if US forces left Vietnam, “dominoes” would fall all over Southeast Asia, which would accordingly fall under Communist domination. Like the hegemony of China and Vietnam, this was myth, and could be believed only by someone utterly unfamiliar with the region.
Today, our government continues to believe, as George Bush put it, that we have to fight them over there if we do not want to fight them over here. The Obama adminsitration has a slightly more sophisticated rationale for Afghanistan — that the job is to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven from which to attack the United States. Two of the problems with the formulation are that the havens Al Qaeda used to attack us on 9/11 were all over the world, including Florida (but not Iraq); and that in the age of the Internet, cell phones and the like, no particular physical haven is needed to conspire, organize and administer terrorism.
Johnson made one other assumption that made getting out of Vietnam an unthinkable option; the American people, he said repeatedly, would stand for anything but failure and cowardice. This high-school, bully-boy attitude, adopted by Johnson and most of his successors and attributed to “the American people,” is so lacking in ethical content that it takes one’s breath away. This is a world view that says any fight, no matter how or why started, must be won at all costs; and that anyone who declines to fight, for any reason, is a coward. Not only is this contrary to the teachings of every religion, it contradicts the moral of every western movie you have ever seen, starting with High Noon.
Today, to avoid appearing soft, to finish the job, whatever the job is, to stay the course whatever the course is, to keep America safe from a vague threat posed by an amorphous, homogenous, all-purpose enemy, we stride purposefully forward into yet another quagmire of death, destruction and debt.
Here we go again.