Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vietnam war

The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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Veterans and the Price of Isolationism

If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

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If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

Over the course of the last 95 years since the first Armistice Day—which we now call by a different name—Americans have had a schizophrenic relationship with our military and the foreign policies that employed it. We have careened between a missionary impulse that saw us sending our armed forces around the globe in defense of our values and security and the flip side of the same coin in which a battle-fatigued nation sought to find comfort in ignoring foreign conflicts even when that brings danger closer to our shores. While our leaders have sometimes erred by fighting in places where wars might have been avoided, such as Vietnam or Iraq, the inclination to overreact to the cost of those fights has often proved just as costly. We did not honor the veterans of World War One by being unprepared for World War Two. Nor did we honor the bloody and unappreciated sacrifices of Americans in Vietnam by slumbering into the 21st century when the challenge of Islamist terrorists brought war to our doorsteps on 9/11. Today many Americans are sick of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and wish again to “come home” and let the rest of the world shift for itself by pretending that threats from Iran and its terror network can be appeased. But the cost of that folly will be paid not by failed politicians and diplomats but by U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who will once again be asked to step into the breach.

Honoring our veterans must also mean protecting the security that generations of American warriors have bought with their blood. Just as Americans must vow today to, as Abraham Lincoln said in the waning days of the Civil War, “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and orphan,” so, too, must we ensure that the policies our nation pursues must not foment future conflicts through lack of vigilance and foolish faith that evil can be ignored or bought off. Today is the day to remember those who served and to also keep in mind that feckless leaders sow the wind while it is the veterans who reap the whirlwind of war.

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Egypt’s Coup and the Vietnam Precedent

By coincidence, even as the coup in Egypt has been unfolding, I have been reading about the coup which occurred in Saigon on November 1-2, 1963. The generals who ousted Ngo Dinh Diem were also widely cheered by the people of South Vietnam–and by the United States government which played a much more active role in encouraging that change of regime than (at least as far as we know) the one currently unfolding. But the South Vietnamese generals found it much easier to topple the old government than to create a new government in its place.

The coup was led by General Duong Van Minh–known to Americans as “Big Minh”–but he lasted only three months as president before being pushed aside by another general. South Vietnam was to be in for constant turmoil and instability that lasted right up to the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 which ended the state’s existence. Indeed the political uncertainty which followed Diem’s demise–and that of his influential brother Ngo Dinh Nhu–made the Communists’ job of destabilizing the state much easier.

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By coincidence, even as the coup in Egypt has been unfolding, I have been reading about the coup which occurred in Saigon on November 1-2, 1963. The generals who ousted Ngo Dinh Diem were also widely cheered by the people of South Vietnam–and by the United States government which played a much more active role in encouraging that change of regime than (at least as far as we know) the one currently unfolding. But the South Vietnamese generals found it much easier to topple the old government than to create a new government in its place.

The coup was led by General Duong Van Minh–known to Americans as “Big Minh”–but he lasted only three months as president before being pushed aside by another general. South Vietnam was to be in for constant turmoil and instability that lasted right up to the North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 which ended the state’s existence. Indeed the political uncertainty which followed Diem’s demise–and that of his influential brother Ngo Dinh Nhu–made the Communists’ job of destabilizing the state much easier.

Is this an augury of what Egypt–which is under the threat not of a Communist but rather of a Salafist takeover–faces? It’s impossible to say, but the early signs are not promising. The generals won widespread backing for ousting the incompetent and unloved Mohamed Morsi. But their initial choice for prime minister, Mohamed ElBaradei, was withdrawn after objections from the Salafist Al Nour party. Al Nour, which was the second-largest vote getter after the Muslim Brotherhood, had initially backed the coup but now seems to have developed cold feet. Its leaders cited as the reason for withdrawing from the governing process the massacre carried out by troops who have killed more than 50 protesters backing a restoration of the Morsi regime.

This shocking violence–the worst such incident since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011–could be an anomaly or it could signal the start of more widespread fighting, even perhaps a civil war. The Muslim Brotherhood still retains mass support and it has an organizational structure that could easily go underground to wage its battle for power with bombs rather than ballots. The Salafists also have many armed extremists in their midst. This is, to put it mildly, a dangerous situation. The generals will have to show hitherto-unsuspected political wisdom in steering Egypt through the current crisis which occurs as the economy continues to tank and law and order continue to break down. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions–Ataturk comes to mind–few generals have proven very successful dictators: the skill sets needed to command troops are far different from those needed to play the political game.

That is why, however happy most Americans (including me) are to see Morsi ousted from power, the U.S. government needs to make clear it will not tolerate indefinite unconstitutional rule by the Egyptian military. The U.S. has limited leverage but the $1.5 billion in aid we provide annually does give us some influence, and we need to use it to press for return to civilian rule, the promulgation of a new constitution, and the holding of elections. Egypt is far too important a country to drift along as South Vietnam did in the 1960s after its own military coup.

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Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part One

Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

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Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

The idea that partisan affiliation determines an individual’s position on war and peace issues seems to go against the grain in an era in which we have been led to believe that partisan affiliation is declining. Yet there is no way to avoid the conclusion that party labels have more to do with whether there is widespread dissension about American wars than many of us would like to think. Democrats and liberals can only be counted on to support wars that are launched by a member of their party. Yet while Republicans are no slouches when it comes to trashing Democratic presidents, they can generally be counted on to follow the flag and back any war effort no matter who is sitting in the White House.

The roots of the current phenomenon can be traced backed to the Vietnam War. Though the anti-war movement began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and led to his decision not to seek re-election, one of the myths about that conflict is the idea that partisanship had nothing to do with the protests. Throughout Johnson’s presidency and even during the fateful year of 1968 when the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy exploited anti-war sentiments, polls showed that Johnson’s policies and the war were still supported by comfortable majorities of the American public. Campus protests against the war shocked the nation but the idea that most Americans shared their sentiments at that time was untrue even if there was little enthusiasm for the struggle in Southeast Asia. Republicans backed the war as did a sizeable portion if not a majority of Democrats who still saw the world through the Cold War prism of the need to “bear any burden” in the struggle against Communism that John F. Kennedy had articulated.

It was only after November 1968 that most Democrats, who despised the newly elected Richard Nixon, felt free to join in the anti-war movement. After that point, anti-war demonstrations were no longer limited to college campuses but went mainstream in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. What followed was the conversion of the Democrats from a party that was primarily composed of Cold Warriors to one that would cut off funds to South Vietnam even after Nixon had withdrawn U.S. combat troops.

Democrats may argue that the first Gulf War fought by President George H.W. Bush and the initial popularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under his son disproves this thesis. Though many Democrats voted against the authorization of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the country was united in support of the troops that won the swift victory in Kuwait. The carping from the left after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was minimal. There were massive anti-war demonstrations against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 though when Saddam fell quickly and the coalition forces were initially greeted as liberators, there was silence from the anti-war crowd.

But, as was the case in Vietnam, Democratic willingness to go along with a war that could not be easily concluded in days and weeks was limited. The first President Bush avoided this problem when he shut down the conflict and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre Iraqi Shiites and dissidents while American forces stood by in liberated Kuwait. But George W. Bush’s decision not to cut and run in either Afghanistan or Iraq led most Democrats to oppose those wars.

It’s important to remember that Bill Clinton authorized missile strikes on terror targets and made terrible mistakes about intelligence such as the milk factory in Sudan that was leveled by an American attack because it was thought to be a terror target without so much as a peep of protest from liberals. Clinton even launched an air war in the Balkans to support the cause of independence for Kosovo without fear of much criticism.

It should be specified that there was much to criticize about the administration’s conduct of the Iraq War but the idea that America was swindled into backing the conflict was always more about partisanship than Bush’s alleged deceptions. Most Democrats had believed in the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Many also understood that removing Saddam was in America’s interests for other strategic reasons. But it was only when the war proved costly and messy that they bailed on it as neo-liberals who supported the war on terror soon became its critics. Not even the U.S. victory won by the Iraq surge that liberals opposed, was enough to change the minds of most Democrats about Bush’s war. Though many, including Barack Obama, said at the time that Afghanistan was the “good war” America should be fighting rather than Iraq, the enthusiasm on the left for that war disappeared when it was no longer a useful cudgel to be employed against Bush and Cheney. But the main conclusion to be drawn from the transition from a Republican-led war to one led by a Democrat was that the latter had the latitude to carry out his policies without fear of much criticism from the mainstream media or the left that had taken to the streets to defame his predecessor.

In part two of this post, I will further explore the implications of this partisan divide about war and discuss whether it will impact America’s efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

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The Sorry Legacy of McGovern Democrats

The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

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The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

The decisions by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to make Vietnam an American war may have been ill-advised, but the animating spirit of the anti-war left that McGovern led was not so much about the wisdom of that commitment as it was agnostic about the need to stop the Communists. Vietnam is now buried so deep in our political history that one might as well talk about the Spanish-American War as that conflict. But one unfortunate aspect of the way America moved on after the fall of Saigon is the way the political left avoided responsibility for the tragedy that America’s defeat created. American disgust with the waste and loss of life in Vietnam was understandable, but the war helped turn the Democrats from a bulwark of the Cold War coalition to its critics. This led not only to the abandonment of South Vietnam to the tender mercies of North Vietnamese commissars and “re-education” camps, but also helped set the stage for a decade of Soviet adventurism that was only halted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The McGovern Democrats didn’t just hijack their party. They led it to a historic defeat at the hands of one of the least popular incumbent presidents. Richard Nixon’s lies and follies have allowed his opponents to portray themselves as being before their time. But it was the radicalism of McGovern’s followers that scared the nation into giving Nixon a landslide re-election.

In the years that followed, Democrats would be careful not to put on another left-wing freak show like the 1972 convention that nominated McGovern, but the South Dakotan’s followers would nevertheless have their way in terms of setting the agenda for the party. In the decades that followed, the bulk of Democrats would become reflexive opponents of restraining the Soviet Union as well as embracing the welfare state in a way that earlier generations of Democrats would have found troubling.

Despite the nostalgia for the anti-war movement and the ongoing dislike of Nixon, history’s verdict will not be kind to the McGovern Democrats. They helped defend the excesses of modern liberalism that wreaked havoc on the poor and built the infrastructure for our out-of-control government debt. If the Soviet empire fell, it was in spite of the efforts of the McGovern Democrats to prop it up and to oppose anti-Communist measures. While today’s Democratic Party is a very different animal than the one he led in 1972, we can hear echoes of his influence in its equivocal stance towards American global power and its addiction to big government.

We should honor George McGovern the man, but we should remember that the political influence of his movement did the country and the world great harm.

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Re: The “Crazed Veteran”

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”

Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.

And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.

Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.

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The Consequences of Obama’s Conceit

Mark down the president’s Memorial Day speech as another solemn occasion this administration has gratingly managed to politicize. The blockquote is from an email the White House Updates account is sending around, suggesting Vietnam vets “never received the hero’s welcome they deserved” until “Obama told their story as it should have been told all along”:

In his speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., President Obama did more than just mark Memorial Day; he began the 50th commemoration of that conflict and those who served in one of America’s longest wars.

Fifty years ago, American forces stepped up operations in Vietnam. During the conflict, more than three million Americans served in the Vietnam war, and more than 58,000 American patriots gave their lives. And when U.S. forces returned home, too many never received the hero’s welcome they deserved.

Yesterday, President Obama told their story as it should have been told all along — a story of patriotism, honor, and courage. Here’s a short video to mark this important moment that you can share to help set the record straight and honor the service of Americans who fought in Vietnam.

That Vietnam Vets had to wait until this week for a president to properly honor them will be news to, among others, Ronald Reagan.

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Mark down the president’s Memorial Day speech as another solemn occasion this administration has gratingly managed to politicize. The blockquote is from an email the White House Updates account is sending around, suggesting Vietnam vets “never received the hero’s welcome they deserved” until “Obama told their story as it should have been told all along”:

In his speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., President Obama did more than just mark Memorial Day; he began the 50th commemoration of that conflict and those who served in one of America’s longest wars.

Fifty years ago, American forces stepped up operations in Vietnam. During the conflict, more than three million Americans served in the Vietnam war, and more than 58,000 American patriots gave their lives. And when U.S. forces returned home, too many never received the hero’s welcome they deserved.

Yesterday, President Obama told their story as it should have been told all along — a story of patriotism, honor, and courage. Here’s a short video to mark this important moment that you can share to help set the record straight and honor the service of Americans who fought in Vietnam.

That Vietnam Vets had to wait until this week for a president to properly honor them will be news to, among others, Ronald Reagan.

The White House’s pomposity is the flip side of Obama’s long-incubated self-pity, which holds that no president since the 1930ss has had things as rough as this one has. Not Truman ending World War II, not Eisenhower struggling with the Cold War’s first hot conflict, not JFK and LBJ navigating Vietnam, and so on.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss these Year 0 delusions with an eyeroll. They have policy implications. It was the core conceit that history began with this White House, after all, that had the president pursuing engagement with Syria’s Assad, Iran’s mullahs, and the Palestinian Authority’s kleptocrats. Outreach from multiple administrations had been consistently rebuffed. But this White House was going to inaugurate a historical break.

Three and a half years later, thousands of Syrian civilians have been murdered, the peace process has been suspended, and the Middle East has been brought to the brink of regional war on account of Iran’s ongoing nuclear program.

Individual psychology matters. Group worldviews matter. Whether policymakers take themselves to be modifying previous efforts or revolutionizing everything matters. If only there had been some way to know, during the election, that Obama would end up embracing tired old policies even as he made literally messianic promises.

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