Recently, historians Samuel Moyn and Stephen Wertheim wrote an interesting New York Times op-ed on why the last 15 years of failed American wars across the Greater Middle East seem to have taught our military and civilian leadership absolutely nothing. Hence, the recent 59-missile strike against a Syrian airfield — just the latest act that has “this can’t end well” written all over it. One small thing in their essay, however, caught my attention on a personal level. As a point of comparison for America’s twenty-first-century wars, in which lessons were the last thing to be drawn, the authors point to this country’s “long reckoning” with the consequences of the Vietnam War with which they are evidently impressed.
That comment hit a nerve in me, since the “reckoning” was, to my mind, largely one by the military high command, which proceeded to draw the lesson that protesters in arms were not the military force it had in mind and so junked the draft and the concept of a true citizen’s army. Similarly, the Reaganite right redefined Vietnam as a “noble cause” and then went about its war-making business (though — lessons learned, assumedly — largely by proxy), while Congress, which did indeed pass the War Powers Act in 1973 before Vietnam was even over, theoretically limiting the scope of presidential war-making powers, thereafter gave up the ghost of its own war powers. As a result, by my calculations, Americans had all of four war-less years (1975-1979) before the Reagan administration started all over again in Afghanistan (and, speaking of lessons unlearned, you know where that led in blowback terms). America’s two Afghan wars — with just over a decade off between the Soviet withdrawal from that country and 9/11 — have now lasted almost three decades with no end in sight. Then there were the three Iraq Wars, starting with Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The most recent is still underway. And don’t forget the Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the invasion of Grenada (1983), the intervention in Lebanon (1983), the invasion of Panama (1989-1990), the Bosnian intervention (1992-1995), conflicts in two phases in Somalia (the early 1990s and post-9/11), and of course the present ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and so on.
In other words, those four years of “peace” aside, the years from 1975 to 2017 have been a veritable war fest for Washington. So let it not be said that, in the post-Vietnam era, we have ever truly come to grips with war, American-style, and what to make of it, no less what lessons to draw from it.
This came to mind because, in today’s post, TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus plunges into movements past and oh-so-present, including the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, and the degree to which they either have or, in the age of Trump, may come to grips with the deeper maladies of American society. It led me to remember my own experience in those Vietnam years. From perhaps 1968 to 1973 or 1974, I worked incessantly against America’s wars in Southeast Asia in a variety of ways. It was an essential part of my life. When Vietnam ended, however, like much of the antiwar movement of that time, I essentially moved on. It’s a great sadness, looking back, to realize that such a large-scale mobilization of the American spirit against the grimmest of wars, a movement whose members plunged deep into questions of American war-making and the nature of a society that could pursue such a conflict, somehow didn’t make it beyond the war years with its conclusions intact and so didn’t help prevent the endless wars to come. In that spirit and in the memory of what wasn’t, I hope Chernus’s piece sparks some thought about what could be.