A veteran of the Vietnam War era, I am not a pacifist. But as a Christian I am a strong believer that war is a last alternative. While I feel it is just to take up arms sometimes in the course of a nation’s history, it should be done so only when there is no other alternative left. Military conflict with another nation is a last resort.
In the 1980’s historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a very interesting and insightful book called The March of Folly. Using historical examples she explored one of those paradoxes of history: Why governments pursue policies contrary to their own interests. Folly is not just a case of misgovernment. It is the pursuit of a self-destructive policy when a readily recognized feasible alternative exists. Vietnam is one such case.
Before World War II Vietnam was a colony of the French. When the war ended FDR seriously wanted the French to give up its colonial interests in Indochina, establish a “trusteeship” with Vietnam and set Vietnam on an eventual path to Independence.
The French, in particular De Gaul, refused, asserting their right to take up where they left off before the war. De Gaul even required U.S. aid before he would commit France to the European Defense Community. De Gaul also hinted at the possible threat that the French could even slide over to the side of Soviet Communism, seriously upsetting the balance of power in Europe. The U.S. backed off. (Besides, Churchill and the British were not anxious to see any trusteeships established with colonies. Why? Because they had their own colonial interests in India.) Moreover, the U.S. continued its aid and its escalating involvement with the French in Vietnam because of the European threat of communism.
While Ho Chi Minh was a proclaimed communist, many doubted the depth of this commitment, at least in those early years. Like many Vietnamese his main interest was nationalistic with the goal of independence. The French would fail miserably to gather real support from the Vietnamese populace. There were those who questioned our growing involvement in Vietnam. But the growth of worldwide communism, Joseph McCarthyism and America’s growing anti-communist feelings gave strength to the supposition that a domino threat existed in Southeast Asia.
This threat was blown way out of proportion. But the Korean War got China involved in aggression against the U.S. and the U.S. State Department believed that after the Korean armistice, the Chinese would focus their war efforts in Vietnam. But China was not anxious to get involved in another war. Mao was not the puppet of the Soviet Union and Ho Chi Minh was not the puppet of China. The international solidarity of communism supposed by the U.S. State Department did not exist. But having gotten so deeply involved with the French and the war effort in Vietnam, they began to sell the domino threat to the American public (remember, it was the McCarthy era).
Our involvement in the Vietnam War promoted the need for public support, and public support made escalation of the war possible. It would of course all end in folly. Neither the French nor, later, the U.S. ever had something like popular support in Vietnam.
It seems to me the U.S. has been involved in two more follies since Mrs. Tuchman wrote her book. Iraq is as I have believed from the beginning on the verge of civil war between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Just as the Big Man Tito kept Yugoslavia from disintegrating into civil war, so Saddam Hussein did for Iraq. Not only did he keep civil war at bay, he allowed the Christian church to prosper and grow in Iraq, protecting it from the Muslims. Under Saddam, Iraq also provided a buffer between Iran and the rest of the Middle East, tempering the expansionist interests of Iran. Unfortunately, Iraq’s civil war will be fought as soon as the U.S. truly withdraws from Iraq.
Are we willing and is the U.S. economy able to sustain a perpetual military presence in Afghanistan? The time is way past due to discontinue this folly. Besides, as was highlighted with the execution of Osama Bin Laden, Pakistan is the place that needs to be invaded in order to defeat our enemies from Afghanistan. But this is not going to happen. President Obama is right to get us out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. He knows it is not a winnable war. The Soviet Union also learned this lesson, as did every army throughout history that ever invaded Afghanistan.
Having served in the military I think I need to emphasize one last point. The men and women who served and are serving in these wars are in no way less than honorable. They are doing their duty. For this they deserve America’s deepest respect. Those in positions of power and authority who got our nation involved in these follies do not in any way detract from the military men and women who served their country faithfully and honorably as they were instructed to do.
May it be that all Americans will someday appreciate the last resort policy. Only as a last alternative and under no other circumstances should our nation invade another nation.