American Exceptionalism: Why it’s time to dismantle misguided claims to global primacy — and the militarism that sustains it
In the long and storied history of the United States Army, many young officers have served in many war zones. Few, I suspect, were as sublimely ignorant as I was in the summer of 1970 upon my arrival at Cam Ranh Bay in the Republic of Vietnam.
Granted, during the years of schooling that preceded my deployment there, I had amassed all sorts of facts, some of them at least marginally relevant to the matter at hand. Yet despite the earnest efforts of some excellent teachers, I had managed to avoid acquiring anything that could be dignified with the term education. Now, however haltingly, that began to change. A year later, when my tour of duty ended, I carried home from Vietnam the barest inkling of a question: How had this massive cockup occurred and what did it signify?
Since that question implied rendering judgment on a war in which I had (however inconsequentially) participated, it wasn’t one that I welcomed. Even so, the question dogged me. During the ensuing decades, while expending considerable effort reflecting on America’s war in Vietnam, I never quite arrived at a fully satisfactory answer. At some level, the entire episode remained incomprehensible to me.
On that score, I suspect that I was hardly alone. No doubt many members of my generation, both those who served and those who protested (or those, like several recent U.S. presidents, who contrived to remain on the sidelines), have long since arrived at fixed conclusions about Vietnam. Yet, for others of us, that war has remained genuinely baffling — a puzzle that defies solution.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
In history, context is everything. Revise that context and the entire story changes, with the 1619 Project a timely but by no means unique example of that phenomenon.
For the successive administrations that took the United States to war in Vietnam, beginning with Harry Truman’s and culminating with Lyndon Johnson’s, the relevant context that justified our involvement in Southeast Asia was self-evident: the Cold War.
From the late 1940s on, the advertised purpose of basic American policy was to contain the spread of global communism. Across the ranks of the political establishment, anticommunism was tantamount to a religious obligation. For years, that alone sufficed to legitimize our military involvement in Vietnam. Whatever the immediate issue — whether supporting France against the communist Viet Minh there after World War II or midwifing an anticommunist Republic of Vietnam following the French defeat in 1954 — stopping the Red Menace rated as a national security priority of paramount importance. In Washington, just about everyone who was anyone agreed.
The actual course of events in Vietnam, however, played havoc with this interpretive framework. Once U.S. combat troops arrived in South Vietnam in 1965, while American bombers tried to pound the communist North into submission, the original rationale for the war became increasingly difficult to sustain. True, the enemy’s peasant army displayed a fondness for red flags and uniform accouterments. But so what? The threat posed to the United States itself was nonexistent.
When President Richard Nixon visited “Red” China in 1972, the Cold War morphed into something quite different. With the nation’s most prominent anticommunist taking obvious delight in shaking hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, the war effort in Vietnam became utterly inexplicable — and so it has remained ever since.
When the Cold War subsequently ended in what was ostensibly a victory of cosmic proportions, any urge to reckon with Vietnam disappeared entirely. After all, in comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, how much did the fall of Saigon in 1975 matter? In Washington, the answer was clear: not all that much. On an issue that far exceeded the Vietnam War in importance, history had rendered a definitive verdict. Only the churlish would disagree.
Then, quite literally out of the blue, came the events of 9/11. In an instant, the “end of history,” inaugurated by the passing of the Cold War, itself abruptly ended. Rather than pausing to consider the possibility that they might have again misconstrued the signs of the times, descendants of the political elite that had contrived the Vietnam War — including several who had found ways to sit out that conflict — devised a new framework for basic U.S. policy. The Global War on Terror now became the organizing principle for American statecraft, serving a function comparable to the Cold War during the second half of the prior century.
As had been the case during the early phases of the Cold War, the Manichean mood of that post-9/11 moment favored action over deliberation. So, within weeks of those attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States embarked on a new shooting war in — of all places — landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan, famous for being the “graveyard of empires” (including the Soviet one) but not much else.
That war was destined to continue for 20 years. By the time it ended, many observers had long since begun to compare it to Vietnam. The similarities were impossible to miss. Both were wars of doubtful strategic necessity. Both dragged on endlessly. Both concluded in mortifying failure. To capture the essence of the war in Afghanistan, it didn’t take long for critics to revive a term that had been widely used to describe Vietnam: each was a quagmire. Here was all you needed to know.
So based on outward appearances, the two wars seemed to be siblings. Yet when it came to substance, any relationship between the two rated as incidental. After all, the Vietnam and Afghan Wars occurred in entirely different periods of contemporary history, the one preceding the annus mirabilis of 1989 when that wall in Berlin came down and the other occurring in its wake.
But here’s the thing: in reality, the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t change everything. Among the things it left fully intact was a stubborn resistance to learning in Washington that poses a greater threat to the wellbeing of the American people than communism or terrorism ever did. To confirm that assertion, look no further than… well, yes, the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Changing the Frame
You can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War I (1914-1918). And you can learn a lot by studying the origins, conduct, and consequences of World War II (1939-1945). But to arrive at some approximation of definitive historical truth when it comes to twentieth-century Europe, you need to think of those two events as the Thirty Years War of 1914-1945. Only then is the connective tissue between the “Guns of August” and the horrors that were to befall Western civilization three decades later revealed.
Something similar applies to America’s wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In ways that may not be easily appreciated, the two are intimately related. Bringing to light their kinship — and, by extension, their true significance — requires situating them in a single historical framework. Classifying Vietnam as an episode in the Cold War and Afghanistan as an unrelated part of the Global War on Terror confers a certain superficial narrative order on the recent past. But doing so is like pretending that World War I and World War II were unrelated events. It overlooks essential connective tissue.
Instead, to identify a historical frame that encompasses both Vietnam and Afghanistan, consider this proposition: however momentous they were for Europeans, the events of 1989-1991, when the Soviet Union imploded, left the American way of life all but untouched. True, the end of the Cold War had enormous implications for Western and Eastern Europe (soon to merge), for the states of the former Soviet Union (cut loose to pursue their own destinies), and for Russia itself (diminished and humiliated, but still a mammoth successor state to the USSR).
While these events unleashed a torrent of self-congratulation in the U.S., the passing of the Cold War did not substantively modify the aspirations or expectations of the American people. For decades, the United States had exerted itself to uphold and enhance the advantageous position it gained in 1945. Its tacit goal was not only to hold the communist world in check but to achieve ideological, economic, political, and military primacy on a global scale, with all but the most cynical American leaders genuinely persuaded that U.S. supremacy served the interests of humankind.
Attach to this outlook whatever label you like: innocence, intractable ignorance, megalomania, naked imperialism, historical myopia, divine will, or destiny. Subsuming them, however, was the concept of American exceptionalism. Whatever your preferred term, here we come to the essence of the American project.
The fall of the Berlin Wall did nothing to dislodge or even modify this strategy. Indeed, the collapse of communism seemingly affirmed the plausibility of pre-existing American aspirations and expectations. So, too, did the events of 9/11. Bizarrely but crucially, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only imparted to American exceptionalism a renewed sense that here was the very foundation of the nation’s identity. Beginning with the administration of President George W. Bush but continuing to the present moment, the United States regularly doubled down on its quest for a global primacy that was to be achieved largely, though by no means entirely, through the use or threatened use of military power.
We’re now in a position to assess the consequences of such an approach. An essential preliminary step toward doing so is to discard the narrative of contemporary history that centers on the Cold War, succeeded, after a brief but blissful interval, by an unrelated Global War on Terror. It’s time to substitute a narrative describing an American military enterprise that began when the first U.S. combat troops came ashore in South Vietnam and persisted until the last American soldier departed Kabul in defeat some 56 years later. While thinking of this conflict as the Fifty-Six Year War may be accurate, it lacks a certain ring to it. So, let’s call it the Very Long War (1965-2021), or VLW, instead.
At the outset of the VLW, this country’s global preeminence was, of course, self-evident. At home, the constitutional order, however imperfect, appeared sacrosanct. By the time that Very Long War had reached its climax, however, informed observers were debating the international implications of American decline, while speculating anxiously about whether the domestic political order, as it had existed since at least the end of the Civil War, would even survive.
As the episodes that launched, concluded, and defined the essential character of the VLW, the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan hold the key to understanding its dismal outcome. Whether considered separately or together, they exhibit with unmistakable clarity the grotesque military malpractice that forms the VLW’s abiding theme.
Why did the United States fail so ignominiously in Vietnam? Why did it fail again in Afghanistan? The answers to these two questions turn out to be similar.
Begin with the fact that neither the survival of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s nor the ouster of the Taliban regime after 9/11 qualified as in any way vital to this country’s national interest. Both were wars of choice undertaken in places of (at best) tangential importance to the United States.
Then, add into the mix a near total absence of competent political oversight; deficient generalship, with senior officers struggling to comprehend the nature of the wars they were charged with waging; unwarranted confidence in the utility of advanced military technology; an excessive reliance on firepower that killed, maimed, and displaced noncombatants in striking numbers, thereby alienating the local population; nation-building efforts that succeeded chiefly in spawning widespread corruption; an inability to inculcate in local militaries the capacity and motivation to defend their country; and not least of all, determined enemies who made up for their material shortcomings by outpacing their adversaries in a willingness to fight and die for the cause.
Each one of these factors informed the way the United States fought in Vietnam. A half-century later, each reappeared in Afghanistan.
In terms of their conduct, the two campaigns differed only in one important respect: the role allotted to the American people. Reliance on conscription to raise the force that fought in Vietnam spurred widespread popular opposition to that war. Reliance on a so-called volunteer military to carry the burden of waging the Afghan War allowed ordinary Americans to ignore what was being done in their name, especially when field commanders devised methods for keeping a lid on U.S. casualties.
The Very Long War has, in fact, exacted an immense toll, essentially without benefits. Bookended by Vietnam and Afghanistan, the entire enterprise yielded almost nothing of value and contributed significantly to the rise to power of Donald Trump and the wounding of this country’s political system. Yet even today, too few Americans are willing to confront the disaster that has befallen the United States as a consequence of our serial misuse of military power.
This represents a grievous failure of imagination.
On that score, just consider for a moment if this country had neither intervened in Vietnam nor responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. What would have happened?
Almost certainly, the North Vietnamese would have succeeded in uniting their divided country with much less bloodshed. And Taliban control of Afghanistan would in all likelihood have continued without interruption in the years following 2001, with the Afghan people left to sort out their own destiny. Yet, despite immense sacrifices by U.S. troops, a vast expenditure of treasure, and quite literally millions of dead in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, that’s exactly how things turned out anyway.
Would the United States be worse off had it chosen not to engage in those twin wars of choice? Would the Soviet Union back in the 1960s and the People’s Republic of China more recently have interpreted such self-restraint as evidence of weakness? Or might this country’s adversaries have seen the avoidance of needless war as an indication of prudence and sound judgment by a powerful country? And had the follies of war in Vietnam and Afghanistan been avoided, might it not have been possible to avert, or at least diminish, the pathologies currently afflicting this country, including Trumpism and our deepening culture wars? Certainly, that possibility should haunt us all.
Of one thing only can we be certain: it’s past time to be done with the Very Long War and the misguided aspirations to global primacy that inspired it. Only if Americans abandon their fealty to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the militarism that has sustained it, might it be possible to conclude that the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan served some faintly useful purpose.
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