Unkicking the Vietnam Syndrome

At the height of his Gulf War triumph in 1991, President Bush Sr. impulsively and defiantly exulted, "By God We've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." Bush misspoke and badly misunderstood.

Saddam Hussein's brutal and naked aggression against and occupation of Kuwait ignited international outrage and loathing. Bush got United Nations approval, and troops, the support of nearly all the Middle Eastern States and Iran to force Hussein out of Kuwait. No effort was made to topple his regime or impose a prolonged and murky U.S. occupation. It was a short, limited, low cost, mostly electronic push button war in which more Americans died from accidents and friendly fire than from Iraqi army fire. Some Gulf War veterans complained of illness caused by exposure to chemical and biological contamination weapons during the conflict. But that came years later, and military officials and some medical experts vigorously denied the claims. The issue quickly receded from the news.

America's wars and military engagements in Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama, Somalia, and Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s were quick strike, limited, covert operations, or were fought by coalition forces or proxy armies. The UN military strikes in Kosovo were a textbook example of a war that wasn't a war. There were no large American ground troop engagements, and not a single American pilot was killed in the aerial attacks. As long as the U.S. military action's costs were low, and relatively bloodless, U.S. policy makers could delude themselves that a martial spirit again gripped Americans.

The Vietnam War was the exact opposite of the Gulf War and America's other recent military engagements. It lasted fourteen years. At its peak, more than 3 million soldiers saw duty in Vietnam with nearly 60,000 American soldiers killed, and an estimated forty times more Vietnamese killed. Despite then President Lyndon Johnson's phony and self-serving claim that the loss of Vietnam was tantamount to dominoes falling in Southeast Asia to the Communists in Moscow and Beijing, there was never any direct threat by Vietnamese insurgents to U.S. security interests. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in his much belated mea culpa on Vietnam, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, admitted that Kennedy and Johnson officials, and that includes himself, were, as he put it, "wrong, terribly wrong" about the war and that they did not debate the immense scale of military involvement, the chances of success, or the financial, political, and human costs of the war. It didn't take forty years for experts and critics like McNamara to figure out that Bush Jr.'s Iraq war is riddled with the same wrong-headed assumptions and miscalculations.

Though the Iraq war so far has cost much less than the Vietnam War (nearly $500 billion in today's dollars), involves far fewer troops and is barely a year old, the Vietnam syndrome kicked in before the first missiles flew and the first American troops hit the ground. Thousands of protestors hit the streets, and within months, top Democrats and even some Republicans, notably John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and war prisoner, Vietnam veterans groups and military experts slammed Bush and the war. Even a few of President Bush's conservative faithful have taken took pot shots at him claiming that they feel hurt, betrayed, conned, and lied to about Iraq, and the phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Also, Vietnam was not a sink the presidency issue for Kennedy or even for Johnson during the first years of his administration. The tormenting issue that preoccupied both Kennedy and Johnson was the escalating racial conflict and civil rights movement. Their performance and popularity in opinion polls were measured by how effectively they dealt with racial issues. The public's deep preoccupation with race deflected attention from the mounting quagmire that Vietnam had become by 1965 . That also gave Johnson the political breathing space to lie and deceive Americans that Vietnam was a crusade against Communism. This was crucial to sell the war to Congress and the public.

Bush, by contrast, doesn't have the time or the luxury of a compelling racial crisis to cajole and massage Congress and the public on the Iraq War. Almost instantly, the war muscled out domestic issues to become the defining issue on which Bush, and much of the American public, measure his administration's success or failure. His performance and approval ratings have and will continue to take hits when battlefield casualties mount and the administration's explanations as to why we're there sound even more hollow. Pew pollster Andrew Kohut has even gone so far as to predict that if Bush's approval ratings on the handling of the Iraq War dips below fifty percent that could write his political epitaph.

Bush Jr. has resuscitated with a vengeance the Vietnam syndrome that Papa Bush gleefully pronounced dead more than a decade ago. Unlike Vietnam, it didn't take nearly a decade for Americans to exhibit the syndrome's symptoms.


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