Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vietnam vis-a-vis Iraq in Congressional Debate

Lessons Learned? Or Biases Deeply Ingrained?

What, if anything, can be made of the fact that contemporary warhawks rely less on pragmatic analysis of current facts on the ground in Iraq than their prior personally traumatizing experiences in Vietnam?

Whether or not you think there are parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, the significance cannot be denied of the Vietnam experience nearly 40 years ago in producing two very opposite schools of thought among current congressional leaders. Views on what to do about Iraq seem to divide members of congress substantially based on how they processed their Vietnam experience, since each side's set of "lessons learned" is in direct opposition with the other's.

Vietnam was a terrible mistake

The majority camp consists of many who, having served in Vietnam, now view that war as a terrible mistake, from its inception based upon false reporting about the "Gulf of Tonkin" incident through the fallacy of the "domino theory" and the continuing "fog of war" public deception that lengthened U.S. involvement and casualties. A good example of the majority opinion came from Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968, who recently called the President's summons for more troops in Baghdad "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam." Senators John Kerry, Jim Webb and Congressman John Murtha are among those who have voiced similar sentiments.

The majority also includes those who, like Senator John Warner (R-Va) might not be willing to go so far as to call Vietnam an outright mistake but who, as a result of that war, have developed mature, sober assessments of the dangers and costs of war, including the blowback problem of veterans suffering for years from their physical and psychological wounds. A Washington Post news article recently described the guilt that Virginia Sen. John Warner still carries about the Vietnam War which explains "why this pillar of the Republican establishment is leading a bipartisan revolt against the (current) war plans of a president in his own party." The former Navy secretary said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office,
I regret that I was not more outspoken during the Vietnam War. The Army generals would come in, 'Just send in another five or ten thousand.' You know, month after month. Another ten or fifteen thousand. They thought they could win it. We kept surging in those years. It didn't work.
Beginning with the "Pentagon Papers," and other revelations, admissions of error and public apologies like those made by former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, the majority viewpoint had long ago gained substantial acceptance in popular culture and from historians. As a result of the commonly-held "Vietnam syndrome" mindset which began to take root (almost 30 years prior to the commencement of the Iraq War), it was believed leaders would be cautious of military engagement unless "Powell Doctrine" factors of justification, international support and winnability could be met.

Vietnam--the only mistake was in leaving

A minority viewpoint about Vietnam, however, has always quietly seethed, just below the surface, amongst the other camp of Vietnam veterans who turned their anger and shame at "losing" the war and perhaps even some of their "survivor's guilt" upon peace protesters like Jane Fonda, "traitors" like Daniel Ellsberg, the "liberal media" and the American public. According to this view, the United States did not fight long or hard enough despite devoting nearly ten years and sacrificing the lives of 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese. This group seems to believe that the U.S. could have "won the Vietnam War" had the American media and public opinion not turned against the war and had the presidents at the time not bowed to public and media pressure. In this category, you find Vietnam vets who have become congressmen like Duncan Hunter (R-California), Sam Johnson (R-Tex), John Kline (R-Minn), and former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-California) who apparently lamented they were not given the heroes' welcome home from Vietnam they were due. Some seem to think their early military careers were unnecessarily tarnished as a result. Rep. John Kline flew Marine Corps helicopters during the Vietnam War. In January 2007, while unveiling a resolution opposing any cutoff of funds to troops, Kline said,
I served at a time when we saw the Congress reduce funding for the military. We served at a time when the military did not have the support of the people, the press or the Congress. I don't ever want to see that again.
Recently asked what he thought for an opinion piece on "Lessons of Vietnam--How to Avoid a Repeat," Congressman Kline mentioned
. . . that while the nation was on the retreat in Southeast Asia, disdain for American military power abroad trickled down to disdain for American military personnel at home. And it wasn't only antiwar protestors. In the wake of Vietnam, military personnel were discouraged from wearing uniforms while off duty within the city limits, and the feeling in the ranks was that even senior officials in the government viewed the military as an embarrassment.
Swiftboating other Vietnam vets who learned different lessons

Hunter, Kline and others have consequently turned their anger and swift boat efforts upon the other Vietnam Veteran congressmen in the majority camp. In April 2004 Rep. Sam Johnson denounced Massachusetts Senator Kerry on the 33rd anniversary of his testimony before a Senate panel in which he (Kerry) had sharply criticized the conduct of some U.S. troops in Vietnam. (Kerry, a decorated Navy officer in Vietnam, had emerged as a prominent antiwar spokesman after his discharge.) Johnson, who spent seven years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, compared the young Kerry to former antiwar activist Jane Fonda:
. . . blasted our nation, chastised our troops and hurt our morale. . . . What he did was nothing short of aiding and abetting the enemy. . . He's called Hanoi John.
Other Republicans then poured it on with Rep. John Kline saying Kerry's service in the war "does not excuse his joining ranks with Jane Fonda and others in speaking ill of our troops or their service, then or now." Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.), whose plane was shot down over North Vietnam, said Kerry's 1971 remarks angered Cunningham and his comrades at the time. "We do not need a Jane Fonda as commander in chief," he said.

In May 2004, Rep. John Kline was quoted in a news report about Democrats' criticism of Donald Rumsfeld and the administration's failing policy in Iraq, including its handling of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, saying, "I am furious (with Murtha). Because when that message gets out to our forces they won't feel love and support. They'll feel betrayal." Kline later made further, similar comments to these in a lengthy interview on the Powerline Blog about his view that progress was being made in Iraq in December 2005. Duncan Hunter was also linked via his staff and a group called "Vietnam Vets for Truth" to the later swiftboating of John Murtha after Murtha's 2005 stance to redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq.

Rep. Sam Johnson emerged again as the GOP's point man in mid-February's debate in the House of a non-binding resolution expressing disapproval of President Bush's buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq. Using his POW experience in Vietnam for almost the entire time he was allotted, Johnson linked support of Bush's "surge" strategy with support for the troops. Rep. Sam Johnson was then chosen to give a second impassioned closing speech again linking the Iraq War with Vietnam: "Let my body serve as a brutal reminder that we must not repeat the mistakes of the past." Rep. Kline just took the lead in drafting the letter to House Leader Nancy Pelosi in March in which he and five other Vietnam veteran GOP congressmen argue against setting any timetables for withdrawing our troops from Iraq. His letter apparently blames congressional interference for hurting troop morale which in turn led to the lack of victory in Vietnam.

Fighting to write history

It should be acknowledged that a smaller number of historians who back this minority view may be gaining more prominence in military establishments. In his book Abandoning Vietnam, James Willbanks, a historian at the Combat Studies Institute at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, digs through the Nixon administration's series of decisions that finally resulted in the fall of Saigon in 1975. Mr. Willbanks, a military veteran who saw combat as an infantryman during North Vietnam's 1972 Easter Offensive, tries to show that the Nixon administration was focused more on ending the war than on winning it and that the U.S. came a lot closer to "winning" than many people believe today.

There are, of course, all kinds of other parallels being made between Vietnam and Iraq including the wild overstatements of the threat to the U.S. (LBJ said that if we didn't fight them over there, then we would have to fight them in Hawaii. Bush and McCain likewise claim the Iraqi terrorists will attack us here if we leave Iraq.) And in both wars, the advocates urged staying the course to achieve some unspecified goal of 'winning.' (What a victory in Iraq, however, would look like is hard to say, but most sober analysts think anything that could even be remotely portrayed as a victory in Iraq is receding over the horizon.)

Merging "Vietnam Syndrome" into "Iraq Syndrome"

In any event, we may have to wait to reach some cooler and saner point down the road before social psychologists, historians and/or military strategists are able to make sense of the difference in the radically different "lessons learned" of the two different camps of Vietnam veterans turned Congressmen. I did however recently see the following comment posted to a thought piece by Norman Soloman which might explain things:
As for Senator McCain, he typifies the major enduring difference between many infantry and air power guys, enlisted men and officers, where "learning the lessons of Vietnam" are concerned. . . men who drop bombs from on high are distanced from the sober political realities on the ground. In victory, they tend to take too much credit, and in stalemate or defeat, it's always because the bombing campaign was not intensive enough, or else it was imprecisely targeted. A winning strategic or tactical mix lies always just beyond the horizon, if only the civilian policymakers would just hunker down and persevere.
Exploitation of Vietnam has already taken on such importance in the debate in Congress, that it would be better if the experts could weigh in sooner rather than later. In an odd twist, comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam are now being used more by pro-Iraq War than anti-Iraq War figures. But even now one thing can be discerned about the group who, instead of talking about the harsh, current reality of facts on the ground in Iraq, constantly falls back, in a highly emotional way, on their Vietnam experiences as justification for their insistence upon "staying the course" to achieve "victory in Iraq" no matter the cost. One must question whether this group is being honest with themselves. Ego defense mechanisms do have a way of turning old psychological wounds into deeply ingrained biases. To quote Norman Soloman,
. . .the Congressional Record is filled with insistence that the lessons of Vietnam must not be forgotten. But they cannot be truly remembered if they were never learned in the first place.


  1. After getting her law degree from University of Iowa College of Law Coleen served as Special Agent with the FBI. She spent six years working in the New York Office on investigations involving organized crime. She also served in the U.S. embassy in Paris, and the consulate in Montreal. In 1990, she was assigned to the FBI's Minneapolis office where she became the chief legal adviser to the office.

    After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Rowley wrote a paper for FBI Director Robert Mueller documenting how FBI HQ personnel in Washington, D.C., had mishandled and failed to take action on information provided by the Minneapolis, Minnesota Field Office regarding its investigation of suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

    In 2006 Coleen ran for Representative John Kline for Minnesota's 2nd District. Despite the fact that Coleen won the endorsement of Rep. John Murtha who campaigned for her, Kline achieved a 2-1 advantage in raising funds and retained his seat.

    Coleen obviously does not feel finished, and we welcome her to The Vigil for as long and often as she wishes to participate.

  2. The Iraq war parallel I see is not just to the U.S. in Vietnam but to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, 1979-1989. In no apparent order:

    1. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are "cobbled together" nations of several often warring ethnic groups.

    2. There are religious divides between Sunni and Shiite.

    3. While the occupying army is welcomed by some, it is opposed by most.

    4. The occupying army is mostly Christian.

    5. Both occupations have led to mass exoduses from the countries, most of all the educated elite.

    6. Islamic fundamentalism is a major factor in the conflict.

    7. Brutality and the killing of civilians is widespread.

    8. Since the coming of Islam, no Christian occupying army has held either Iraq or Afghanistan for more than a decade.

    9. Both occupying armies set up puppet governments that were/are largely unsuccessful.

    For more see Vox Verax.

  3. Vox's comment above runs the risk of conflating our occupation of Iraq with our war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This is a common confusion promoted by Bush & Cheney.

    Vox is also actually comparing apples to oranges in comparing Soviets in Afghanistan to Americans in Iraq. Maybe. (It's not clear.) It would be much more relevant to compare Soviet and American invasions in Afghanistan.

    To compare the USA's experience in Viet-Nam and Iraq-Nam might also be comparing apples to oranges. But that is the subject Special Agent Rowley (Ret.) has offered up, (and I thank her for doing so and her presence here).

    I think the thrust of Agent Rowley's article is that there are two edges to the sword known as the Vietnam Syndrome, and both are serrated.

  4. Tuesday, Senator Reid was on CSPAN with Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard Jr. (USA, Ret.) and Brigadier General John H. Johns (USA, Ret.) who were both active during the Vietnam conflict.
    "GARD: You know what? The current situation is reminiscent of the spring of 1965 in Vietnam. Both the then-secretary of defense and the president knew the war was unwinnable militarily, just as our own military leadership has said over and over again, including General Petraeus, the war is not winnable militarily.
    Well, we had a surge in March of 1965, 20,000 more troops to Vietnam. At that point, there had been 24,000 battle deaths in Vietnam. But because the president didn't want to be tarred with losing a war, we continued on for five more years and 34,000 more combat deaths, with an outcome we could have achieved at the time of the surge.
    We're at a turning point like that now. To continue on, to continue when the violence is increasing -- we're not getting anywhere militarily -- is foolhardy and will have the same result.

    Haunting forecast, indeed.

    I have often found that people have a tendency to want to compare Iraq to Vietnam, but that may be more substantiate their own analysis than reality. Vox Verax’s comment comparing Iraq to Afghanistan is more valid. Wasn’t Vietnam more of a proxy war with Russia / China providing support while America was there in the trenches? With Iraq, it is largely a civil war with fighting for domination of the country. There may be some support from outsiders, but they are more likely private individuals rather than governments. Iraq also has outside agitators – al Queda – but large it is a civil war. They are fighting for who controls their holy sites, their country and their oil (you pick the order of these three).

    Why should there be a comparison to Vietnam … why not a comparison to the first Gulf War? Or Kosovo? Shouldn’t we be asking what was done right and work to repeat those practices? The big difference in this conflict is that there is minimal international support for America’s actions.

  5. Former Special Agent Rowley figured prominently in a paper I wrote while pursuing my doctorate. I marvelled at her tenacity in exposing the action, or should I say inaction of the FBI hierarchy before, during and immediately after that black September day. I have long been an admirer of this courageous woman and would most certainly support her in any political endeavor. I am delighted to see her contribution to Vigil's blog, and hope to see more of her in the days and weeks to come.

  6. Very astute point that today we more often use Vietnam as an emotional argument rather than a reasoned lesson. That's so pathetic of our leaders!! It's truly frightening that the minority of vets who feel so much anger and shame about that war are now dominating the "stories" about Vietnam in our time. My ex-father-in-law was one of those, he was a silent and angry man, whose workaholic life was dominated by fear and prejudice. So, I look at this skewed picture that is now defining then and I think, these emotionally unhealed vets are today arguing to continue an illogical war that is already producing more physically and emotionally hurt vets. It is easy for men to want what they have suffered, and it is harder for other men to stop that desire, yet it is imperative that we do.

  7. I have read and re-read the comments above so anything I say should be in some way taken to responsive to all of them.

    Personally, I find the scope of Agent Rowley's original piece quite confining. Which is okay, which is okay indeed. So many times we find ourselves saying that we can't hear exactly what someone is saying, because who she is speaks so loudly, we can't hear or closely attend to her words. Coleen has led an exemplary, courageous and outspoken life. She has stood up, spoken up, and - instead of sitting down - run for Congress to back it up. How many of the rest of us can say as much for ourselves? (I thank MadMike for his comments.)

    One of the reasons I prevaricated for so long after Coleen and I first bumped into each other on the Internet was her preoccupation with the Vietnam Syndrome. One should take care in how one takes up this polemical weapon because Messenger is right: it's a two-sided scimitar with serrated edges. And that's why I say this subject of Vietnam and Iraq is bigger than debates among Congressional leaders: it's a profoundly personal and existential issue for all of us Americans.

    (Instead of going further at this point - jumping off the precipice of profundity - I think safer that I should go back to bed and my repetitive nightmares.)

  8. Coleen...brilliant! You remind me that John Kerry demonstrated great courage to speak out against Viet Nam and be branded a "traitor," despite his service to his country, as are our soldiers who return from Iraq.

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

  9. Since no self-respecting whistleblower can afford not to get the last word in, I’ll just say this:

    1) I so appreciate the Vigil publishing this piece because, as painful as all lessons learned from war are, including examining whatever syndrome or baggage lingers, it’s very important to do so for purposes of future decision-making.

    2) I was prompted to write this initially because of being able to see up close, (because I ran against him for Congress), how Vietnam affected the thinking of my own Congressman John Kline vis a vis Iraq. As I began to write the piece, Kline took the lead nationally on behalf of the war hawks in Congress and specifically on behalf of GOP Vietnam veterans opposing Nancy Pelosi’s stance to end the war. I have also discovered how Kline continues to be instrumental in supporting Bush’s “surge” in a variety of other behind the scene ways—what one of his supporter websites terms “information warfare.” "Swiftboating" is the other term we've heard which makes clear the actual impact Vietnam is playing on current debate.

    3) “Urbanpink” nailed the main point that Vietnam is sadly being used more as an emotional argument rather than a reasoned lesson. Again, I find it instructive that no one in the pro-war group wanted to examine any possible comparisons with Vietnam, and certainly not comparisons with the Vietnam Quagmire, in the lead-up to and during the early part of the Iraq War. But beginning a couple of years into it, when the Iraq War started, in fact, to take on the trappings of the Vietnam quagmire, then and only then was it that the pro-war group started referring to Vietnam for their emotional stay-the-course arguments.

    4) Finally I could only scratch the surface on this topic which Vigilante correctly notes is a profoundly personal and existential issue for all of us Americans. I was given (as all FBI agents are) several hours of “behavioral profiling” training as it applies to criminal psychology. Effective interviewing skills test investigators’ understanding and use of human psychology. And in the course of my ethics writing and talks, I’ve studied other socio-psychological concepts. But I just don’t have sufficient expertise or credentials to go much further with this topic. I would hope that those type of experts—psychologists and military strategists—would do so despite the emotional minefield.

  10. I hope I am not violating an unspoken protocol here but I cannot allow the Special Agent have the last word because I find her 3rd point especially evocative:

    "I find it instructive that no one in the pro-war group wanted to examine any possible comparisons with Vietnam, and certainly not comparisons with the Vietnam Quagmire, in the lead-up to and during the early part of the Iraq War. But beginning a couple of years into it, when the Iraq War started, in fact, to take on the trappings of the Vietnam quagmire, then and only then was it that the pro-war group started referring to Vietnam for their emotional stay-the-course arguments."

    Two points: Only after

    (a) the war's false premises were fully exposed and

    (b) the occupation foundered and proved how poorly advised the invasion had been,

    did its backers grab on to the trappings of the Vietnam MYTHOLOGY in order to gird up their loins for one more shot of redeeming Vietnam on the backs and blood of Iraqis.

    The carcass of Vietnam will not be revived in Mesopotamia but, perhaps it can be further mutilated.

  11. men who drop bombs from on high are distanced from the sober political realities on the ground.

    Now I understand:

    "That old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran ... bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb," the Vietnam War veteran warbled softly to the band's Barbara Ann when he was asked when the United States would send an "airmail message" to Iran.,23599,21589382-2,00.html

  12. Between Vietnam and Iraq? There are some similarities, of course. Death is terrible.