This Sure Seems Like Vietnam

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The Albany Times-Union (New York)

This Sure Seems Like Vietnam

President Barack Obama insists that his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending in 30,000 more troops is not Vietnam all over again.

Well, it sure reminds me of the perils and the price of that unwinnable war and the political chaos it wreaked at home.

In Afghanistan, the designated enemies are remnants of the weakened al-Qaida network and the native Taliban, which has been growing in strength despite the eight-year war started by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe.

Obama is too young to remember the national turmoil during the Vietnam War that resulted in the deaths of more than 58,000 Americans and thousands of Vietnamese. That war also ended the political career of President Lyndon Johnson, who decided not to seek re-election in 1968.

In his remarks Tuesday, Obama rejected any comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam, calling it "a false reading of history." He claimed that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is supported by "a broad coalition of 43 nations," that "unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency" and, unlike Vietnam, "the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan."

Well, yes and no.

The U.S. effort in Vietnam had its own coalition of anti-communist allies, including South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Laos. As in Afghanistan, the U.S. provided vastly more manpower than any of its allies in the Vietnam War.

Broad-based insurgency? By his own statements, Obama acknowledged Tuesday night that "momentum" has been with the Taliban and said his goal is to reverse that trend and deny the Taliban "the ability to overthrow the government."

That sounds like the makings of a civil war, as was the case in Vietnam, where the United States intervened to prop up the corrupt Saigon government against the Viet Cong insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies.

There is another huge -- but unspoken -- similarity between the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the Vietnamese War. In both cases, the American people became fed up with pouring more and more men and women and money into wars that went on for years, with no end in sight. (We've been in Afghanistan for eight years; U.S. military involvement in Vietnam also lasted eight years, 1965-1973.)

The war fatigue is aggravated by the devastating 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, where we still have more than 100,000 military personnel and where we have lost more than 4,000 Americans.

Obama omitted the single biggest difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan when he failed to mention that the military draft was roaring through every American town, suburb and city during the Vietnam War. Now, the U.S. military relies exclusively on volunteers.

The draft focused public attention -- and ultimately, public outrage -- on our strategy, our allies, the corrupt South Vietnamese leadership, the colonial legacy we inherited from the French and the failure of Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon to articulate credible goals that would justify the continued loss of lives. The American people ended up rejecting both the Vietnam War and the national leaders who took us there.

President Obama, take note.

By choosing to deliver his historic address at West Point, Obama also evoked past memories of the times when both Johnson and Nixon could only travel to military bases and aircraft carriers without encountering loud crowds of protesters. Our investment in the Vietnam quagmire was incremental. But Gen. William Westmoreland's strategy of wearing down the insurgents through attrition required more and more U.S. troops. LBJ obliged -- up to a point.

That point was reached in 1968 when Westmoreland told the White House he needed 206,000 more troops, a surge that would have brought U.S. military forces in Vietnam to more than 700,000.

Johnson griped to reporters at the time that "all the generals wanted was more and more" troops. He gave Westmoreland 13,500 reinforcements, but shortly thereafter replaced him as the U.S. military commander in Vietnam.

Obama won a mandate in 2008 to pull up Bush's war stakes. He should listen to the people, not the generals, not the neocons and certainly not former Vice President Dick Cheney. That would be the same Dick Cheney who notably dodged the Vietnam draft but now is gung ho for more war in Afghanistan.

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas was an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. Among other books she was the author of Front Row at The White House: My Life and Times. Helen passed away on July 20, 2013.

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