Saturday, June 07, 2008

McCain on Vietnam (but not Iraq)

In his 2001 foreword to the late David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, John McCain wrote the following about the war in Vietnam:
"It was a shameful thing to ask men to suffer and die, to persevere through god-awful afflictions and heartache, to endure the dehumanizing experiences that are unavoidable in combat, for a cause that the country wouldn’t support over time and that our leaders so wrongly believed could be achieved at a smaller cost than our enemy was prepared to make us pay. No other national endeavor requires as much unshakable resolve as war. If the nation and the government lack that resolve, it is criminal to expect men in the field to carry it alone...

"For anyone who aspires to a position of national leadership, no matter the circumstances of his or her birth, this book should be mandatory reading. And anyone who feels a need, as a confused former prisoner of war once felt the need, for insights into how a great and good nation can lose a war and see its worthy purposes and principles destroyed by self-delusion can do no better than to read and reread David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest."
Yet this is the same candidate who has declared victory in Iraq, some five years (or 10.0 Friedman Units) in advance. And if that doesn't work, he'd embrace a whole century of U.S. occupation. Go figure.

But there's a deeper consistency here. McCain, after all, has complained that the U.S. didn't "fight to win" in Vietnam due to a lack of political will. This lack of "unshakable resolve," in turn, resulted from the failure of the civilian political leadership to rally support on the home front. Responsibility falls most heavily on liberal politicians in Washington, notably LBJ and Robert McNamara, and the antiwar movement.

McCain invokes the central tenet of right-wing mythologies about the Vietnam war: The troops were defeated at home, not on the battlefield. The various military outcomes over a dozen years may be debatable, but in this view the blame falls squarely on the civilian leadership and lack of popular support at home. Never mind that military successes are meaningless unless they achieve the political goals that are used to justify a war.*

The lack of "unshakable resolve" is McCain's variant on the infamous Dolchsto├člegende, or "stabbed in the back legend," from World War I. By that account, Germany lost the war due to the lack of will and duplicity of its politicians rather than any failures on the battlefield. Hitler later blamed the "November criminals" of 1918 including German Jews and the socialists who agitated against the war for Germany's betrayal. The Rambo series is a Hollywood version of the same mythology, which will certainly be resurrected by the right to account for failure in Iraq.

The fundamental problem, in this right-wing fantasy, is sheer lack of will as if "will" is a pure abstraction, a unique virtue unrelated to the actual political motives that caused the U.S. to wage war in Vietnam and Iraq. It seems this flawed ideology of "will," the legacy of two world wars and Vietnam, is very resilient.

For McCain, "unshakable resolve" magically assures success in war. But the deeper issue is always: resolve to do what, exactly? If the end is morally flawed or morally ambiguous, the war is unlikely to generate "unshakable resolve" on the home front and within the military itself. Tactical successes in combat become irrelevant or even, as in Iraq, counterproductive. High casualties, for no defensible purpose, combine with the slaughter of civilians to undermine any initial "resolve" that an invasion may have generated.

Colonel Kurtz aptly describes McCain's version of "will" in Apocalypse Now:
"You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us."
If there's anything that describes McCain's policies on Iraq and the Middle East, it's that one simple phrase: "without judgment..."

NOTES

* The far right likes to think that the U.S. was never "defeated" militarily in Vietnam (or in Iraq for that matter). The Tet offensive of 1968 is often invoked as proof of that claim. While it's true that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese were unable to hold many of their initial objectives, it can't be denied that Tet was an enormous political victory for their forces. Contrary to the Johnson administration's specious claims, Tet demonstrated that the insurgency, and not the U.S., held the strategic initiative in the war.

[H/T tip to The Cunning Realist and Digby]

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