Wednesday, March 17, 2010

From Fifty Year War to Forever War

Last November Jonathan Schell wrote an article in The Nation titled "The Fifty Year War." It was written a few weeks before President Obama announced his Afghanistan troop surge, when there still was some question about what policy he would decide on.

Schell looked back at what we now know about how the U.s. got bogged down in Vietnam. He points out that, far from being the gung-ho, cocky cold warriors of myth and legend, U.S. officials -- from MacNamara to the Bundys all the way to LBJ himself -- knew that we could never win that war. And yet they went ahead and escalated. Why? They were afraid of the wrath of the right, and a new outbreak of McCarthyism if they "lost Vietnam." These were not idle fears, as George McGovern's massive defeat demonstrated in the 1972 presidential race.

Schell wonders if anything has changed.
In short, in strictly political terms, the Vietnam dilemma has been handed down to Obama virtually intact. Now as then, the issue politically is whether the United States is able to fail in a war without coming unhinged. Does the American body politic have a reverse gear? Does it know how to cut losses? Is it capable of learning from experience? Or must it plunge unchecked over every cliff it approaches? And at the heart of these questions is another: must liberals and moderates always bow down before the crazy right when it comes to war and peace? Must presidents behave like Johnson, of whom his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, later said, "It would not have made any difference what anybody advised him--he would have done what he did [in Vietnam].... It was fear of the right wing." What is the source of this raw power, this right-wing veto over presidents, Congresses and public opinion? The person who can answer these questions will have discovered one of the keys to a half-century of American history--and the forces that, even now, bear down on Obama as he considers what to do in Afghanistan.
Now, four months later, it's pretty clear that nothing has changed. The Forever War continues with little hope of ending anytime soon. It seems as if our political leaders, when confronted by a quagmire, can think of nothing better than to jump right in. Getting out? Let somebody else worry about it.

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