“Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President. Sorry you didn’t go when you had the chance.”
The president of the United States decides to go to war against a nation led by a brutal dictator supported by one-party rule. That dictator has made war on his neighbors. The president decides this is a threat to the United States.
In his campaign for president he gives no indication of wanting to go to war. In fact, he decries the overextension of American military might and says other nations must do more. However, unbeknownst to the American public, the president’s own Pentagon advisers have already cooked up a plan to go to war. All they are looking for is an excuse.
Based on faulty intelligence, cherry-picked information is fed to Congress and the American people. The president goes on national television to make the case for war, using as part of the rationale an incident that never happened. Congress buys the bait — hook, line and sinker — and passes a resolution giving the president the authority to use “all necessary means” to prosecute the war.
The war is started with an air and ground attack. Initially there is optimism. The president says we are winning. The cocky, self-assured secretary of defense says we are winning. As a matter of fact, the secretary of defense promises the troops will be home soon.
However, the truth on the ground that the soldiers face in the war is different than the political policy that sent them there. They face increased opposition from a determined enemy. They are surprised by terrorist attacks, village assassinations, increasing casualties and growing anti-American sentiment. They find themselves bogged down in a guerrilla land war, unable to move forward and unable to disengage because there are no allies to turn the war over to.
There is no plan B. There is no exit strategy. Military morale declines. The president’s popularity sinks and the American people are increasingly frustrated by the cost of blood and treasure poured into a never-ending war.
Sound familiar? It does to me.
The president was Lyndon Johnson. The cocky, self-assured secretary of defense was Robert McNamara. The congressional resolution was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. The war was the war that I, U.S. Sens. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John McCain and 3 1/2 million other Americans of our generation were caught up in. It was the scene of America’s longest war. It was also the locale of the most frustrating outcome of any war this nation has ever fought.
Unfortunately, the people who drove the engine to get into the war in Iraq never served in Vietnam. Not the president. Not the vice president. Not the secretary of defense. Not the deputy secretary of defense. Too bad. They could have learned some lessons:
Don’t underestimate the enemy. The enemy always has one option you cannot control. He always has the option to die. This is especially true if you are dealing with true believers and guerillas fighting for their version of reality, whether political or religious. They are what Tom Friedman of The New York Times calls the “non-deterrables.” If those non-deterrables are already in their country, they will be able to wait you out until you go home.
If the enemy adopts a “hit-and-run” strategy designed to inflict maximum casualties on you, you may win every battle, but (as Walter Lippman once said about Vietnam) you can’t win the war.
If you adopt a strategy of not just pre-emptive strike but also pre-emptive war, you own the aftermath. You better plan for it. You better have an exit strategy because you cannot stay there indefinitely unless you make it the 51st state.
If you do stay an extended period of time, you then become an occupier, not a liberator. That feeds the enemy against you.
. If you adopt the strategy of pre-emptive war, your intelligence must be not just “darn good,” as the president has said; it must be “bulletproof,” as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed the administration’s was against Saddam Hussein. Anything short of that saps credibility.
If you want to know what is really going on in the war, ask the troops on the ground, not the policy-makers in Washington.
In a democracy, instead of truth being the first casualty in war, it should be the first cause of war. It is the only way the Congress and the American people can cope with getting through it. As credibility is strained, support for the war and support for the troops go downhill. Continued loss of credibility drains troop morale, the media become more suspicious, the public becomes more incredulous and Congress is reduced to hearings and investigations.
Instead of learning the lessons of Vietnam, where all of the above happened, the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary of defense have gotten this country into a disaster in the desert.
They attacked a country that had not attacked us. They did so on intelligence that was faulty, misrepresented and highly questionable.
A key piece of that intelligence was an outright lie that the White House put into the president’s State of the Union speech. These officials have overextended the American military, including the National Guard and the Reserve, and have expanded the U.S. Army to the breaking point.
A quarter of a million troops are committed to the Iraq war theater, most of them bogged down in Baghdad. Morale is declining and casualties continue to increase. In addition to the human cost, the war in dollars costs $1 billion a week, adding to the additional burden of an already depressed economy.
The president has declared “major combat over” and sent a message to every terrorist, “Bring them on.” As a result, he has lost more people in his war than his father did in his and there is no end in sight.
Military commanders are left with extended tours of duty for servicemen and women who were told long ago they were going home. We are keeping American forces on the ground, where they have become sitting ducks in a shooting gallery for every terrorist in the Middle East.
–Max Cleland, former U.S. senator, was head of the Veterans Administration in the Carter administration. He teaches at American University in Washington.