Tag Archives: Military

Some Thoughts on the Lessons of Vietnam and the General Who “Lost” the War

A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)

I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?

Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.

We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.

I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.

An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.

Some of these myths took hold naturally, as veterans told their personal stories, relating with frustration how the body counts didn’t seem to matter, that the V.C. would return again and again, that the stupid war of attrition didn’t work, and what’s more, nobody seemed to give a damn that it wasn’t working. That much was true.
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So it has come to this?

I have never visited the United States of America and have no plans to do so. (I must add that I have been told by some good American friends that there are certain pockets I would love and where I would feel very comfortable with people I really would like, and that not all Americans are racist, gun wielding, bible-bashing, anti-intellectual, loud-mouth, ignorant conspicuous consumers.) Nor have I ever taken a strong enough interest in sports events to attend major football (rugby, AFL) matches here in Australia. So I cannot seriously compare the following account with what happens here but I would be very surprised (and disappointed) if major Australian sports events were following suit.

To what extent has sports and the military become “increasingly fused” in the US? I ask because of an article by William Astore on TomDispatch about the militarization of sports and the redefinition of patriotism.

Since 9/11, however, sports and the military have become increasingly fused in this country. Professional athletes now consider it perfectly natural to don uniforms that feature camouflage patterns. (They do this, teams say, as a form of “military appreciation.”) Indeed, for only $39.99 you, too, can buy your own Major League Baseball-sanctioned camo cap at MLB’s official site. And then, of course, you can use that cap in any stadium to shade your eyes as you watch flyovers, parades, reunions of service members returning from our country’s war zones and their families, and a multitude of other increasingly militarized ceremonies that celebrate both veterans and troops in uniform at sports stadiums across what, in the post-9/11 years, has come to be known as “the homeland.”

These days, you can hardly miss moments when, for instance, playing fields are covered with gigantic American flags, often unfurled and held either by scores of military personnel or civilian defense contractors. Such ceremonies are invariably touted as natural expressions of patriotism, part of a continual public expression of gratitude for America’s “warfighters” and “heroes.”

. . . . .

Highlighting the other pre-game ceremonies the next night was a celebration of Medal of Honor recipients. I have deep respect for such heroes, but what were they doing on a baseball diamond? The ceremony would have been appropriate on, say, Veterans Day in November.

There is more but you get the idea.

Then there is this:

What started as a post-9/11 drive to get an American public to “thank” the troops endlessly for their service in distant conflicts — stifling criticism of those wars by linking it to ingratitude — has morphed into a new form of national reverence. And much credit goes to professional sports for that transformation. In conjunction with the military and marketed by corporations, they have reshaped the very practice of patriotism in America. 

Now there I do see a synchronicity with Australia. There has never been a repeat of the public insults directed at troops, many conscripts, returning from Vietnam. Now we see what I can’t help thinking is an opposite extreme, equally ignorant: the call for gratitude and honour that must stifle any public questioning of the motives and morality of those who sent them to kill and die. The masters of propaganda learned their lessons well.

I sometimes wonder if what we are witnessing now, but as an outsider it is difficult for me to say too much about America, is a gradual infusion of a type of fascism and militarism by stealth. The ignorant personalities don’t lead the way as they once did; but they do emerge somehow as symptoms or afterthoughts as the tide is changing.

I don’t know. Just thinking, wondering.