In Vietnam of the 1960s, the troops had a fatalistic, all-purpose phrase to express their horror, disgust, or even contempt: “There it is.” Platoon sergeants heard it as their grunts slogged past a body in a ditch; war correspondents reported it after listening to reactions to visits from the brass. The phrase popped into my head the other night when I unexpectedly had the chance to watch retrospectively a president of the United States and his secretary of defense bat around on national television the military fate of my lost youth.
The scene was the Oval Office. There, on July 2, 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson rang up Robert Strange McNamara to compare notes on what both men referred to as a “helluva mess in Vietnam.” The issue du jour was whether and how best to escalate the American military presence in Vietnam from 75,000 to 150,000 troops against the background of an uninformed but restive public, a highly ambivalent Congress, and a hawkish political opposition led by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. McNamara’s advice – secretly recorded by LBJ and broadcast on PBS a few days ago – was to move forward with doubling America’s troop commitment but to begin to “educate” the public and rally Congress to the president’s side. McNamara’s mechanism for doing all this was to call up the reserves. LBJ grunted and kept his own counsel while he continued to worry the problem and shop for advice.
Before the month was out, I and six Air National Guard squadrons from bases in New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky were standing runway-alert in Newfoundland. There, on July 28, 1965 we awaited a presidential address to announce whether we were flying next to a base near Saigon or to our previously scheduled summer assignment in pastoral southern Germany to monitor MiG traffic in and out of Czech airfields. I had always wanted to see Newfoundland, my mother’s childhood home, but not this way.
Left behind that morning at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Naval Air Station was my appalled fiancée. Given the fact that our wedding date was only two months away, her commonsense question as I boarded a troop transport was, “When are you coming back?” Before the day was out she, I, and the American public had LBJ’s answer over national television, or in my case, through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at Ernest Harmon Air Base (“Gateway to the North”). The contemplated escalation would take place, but the reserves would not be mobilized. Draft calls would rise from 13,000 to 37,000 men a month. It was LBJ’s fateful “guns and butter” decision – the judgment to escalate an undeclared war that would soon peak with a stunning commitment of 500,000 American troops. The president would do this in the most politically “quiet” way possible – by having draftees disappear off streets throughout the country in ones and twos rather than by having large units of reservists and guardsmen jerked out of politically sensitive states whose leaders might balk, as the governor of Iowa later did in near-mutinous fashion. The rest was history – personal and otherwise.
President Barack Obama now faces a similar crossroads decision about prosecution of the conflict in Afghanistan. It is another decades-long, undeclared war far from home being prosecuted at unknown but staggering cost by an untested president beset by rising casualties, his own doubts, and background chatter about falling dominoes. As did Lyndon Johnson, President Obama makes his decision on behalf of not only the United States but a regime widely viewed as both unstable and corrupt.
Despite these obvious similarities, it would be a mistake to accept the growing and seductive mantra that Afghanistan is Vietnam or, as Yogi Berra once famously phrased it, that we are into a case of “déjà vu all over again.” There are differences – big ones – between the two wars, although as a nation we seem to be as riveted on President Karzai’s elegant capes and headgear as we once were on Premier Ky’s lavender aviator scarves as he flew in and out of Saigon at the controls of his own jet. American involvement in Afghanistan began in 2001 as the direct result of an attack on U.S. civilians on American soil rather than through a murky colonial conflict passed from the French to President Eisenhower to LBJ via JFK. Afghanistan is a war being prosecuted by a professional (all volunteer) U.S. Army and Marine Corps fighting under NATO’s aegis rather than by the valiant draftees of the 1960s. Then there is the quite different circumstance of today’s near-meltdown of the U.S. economy, our wholly changed relationship with China and a U.S.S.R. that went out of business in 1989, and Afghanistan’s strategic location wedged between the nuclear as well as politically unstable Iran and Pakistan. Unlike the Vietnam era, American units drawn from the federal reserves and state national guards are now fully and openly involved in the thick of the fighting.
Yet if the conflict in Afghanistan is not a replay of the Vietnam muddle, understanding the conflicting advice received by President Johnson is still instructive in thinking about the decision that bedevils President Obama. I hope that Obama caught the PBS show I watched the other night – “Bill Moyers’s Journal” of November 20. The program was essentially a replay of LBJ’s taped 1964-1965 phone conversations with not only Secretary McNamara but Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Senators Richard Russell and J. William Fulbright, as well as National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. They were part of the crowd that David Halberstrom later dubbed “the best and the brightest.” I especially hope Obama noticed the unbelievably important assumptions and observations embedded in the midst of the banter between Lyndon Johnson and his most important civilian advisors – ruminations that history has judged to be fatally flawed in some cases and dead right in still others:
- We have to get in or get out.
- This looks like Korea all over again. Will China come in?
- The South Vietnamese are hopelessly corrupt. But if we get out it will look like “running,” with a presidential impeachment sure to follow.
- We have treaty obligations to honor even if other countries don’t.
- If we give the Joint Chiefs 150,000 troops they’ll be back for 300,000. Pretty soon it will be 450,000. Where do we draw the line?
- Once we’re into this, how do we get out?
- What are Congress and the American people going to say?
- General Westmoreland insists on more troops or run the risk of catastrophe.
- If we get out, South Vietnam will fall and then Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Will this stop at Malaysia?
- The more we pour into South Vietnam the more they turn the fighting over to us. Their troops are deserting in droves.
- How did we get into this? It’s a helluva mess.
If President Obama thinks hard about the folly and wisdom that lard these Oval Office conversations of forty-five years ago and challenges the assumptions of his own advisors rigorously, he will make a better decision about Afghanistan. Here’s hoping.
After watching LBJ and a sleek Bob McNamara chew over the 1965 fate of me and my comrades in the 152d Tactical Control Group, I switched off Bill Moyers and PBS, trudged to the refrigerator for a dollop of forbidden ice cream, and sought refuge in the familiar stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. With their tales of Victorian mystery, surely one could escape the modernity of rice paddies, strafing runs, flight lines, and C-97s turning into the wind. But what I found in the first of the Holmes tales that night was – gasp! – Afghanistan. There, in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle provides a description of how in the 1880s Sherlock Holmes had first met his new roommate, Dr. John Watson, a veteran of the Royal Army’s ongoing Afghanistan debacle. Seeking to explain his presence in London with a deep tan, military bearing, and disabled left arm, Watson provided Holmes with a rueful account of the campaign while serving up to American readers of the early twenty-first century a reminder of how long “the Afghanistan problem” has vexed one great power after another:
The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I … succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties. The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. … I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines. Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawar.
One can almost imagine Sherlock Holmes, if not Yogi Berra, shrugging and muttering, “there it is.”
Editorial note: If you’re new to Keepa, or even if you’re not, know that we “play nice” here, even when it comes to politics. Be courteous, avoid extreme partisanship, and don’t get into extended debates by responding at length to every comment you might disagree with. Steve Evans’s BCC Bannination Stick is as a fairy godmother’s magic wand when it comes to my small tolerance for political fights.