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John McCain's Vietnam-Based View of War

Glenn Greenwald

 by Salon

Former Army Captain and military analyst Phillip Carter writes today in his Washington Post blog of the "stabbed in the back narrative" of Vietnam in the context of a new book advancing that narrative by Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces during the disastrous 2003-2004 period when, among other things, the Abu Ghraib abuses occurred. That narrative, says Carter, "is popular among American military officers of a certain age, who believe if only they'd had gutsy political leadership, support from the homefront, and a willingness to steamroll North Vietnam with overwhelming force, we might have won the war." As Carter documents (emphasis in original): "It's a good story, but it's wrong. No amount of America firepower could have crushed the North Vietnamese people's will."

What almost always goes unmentioned when this myth is discussed is that one its most faithful adherents is John McCain, and he applies this mentality not only to Vietnam but also to every subsequent military conflict, including the current one in Iraq. During the debate in late 1990 over whether Congress should authorize the first President Bush to use military force against Iraq to repel the invasion of Kuwait, Henry Kissinger testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and had the following exchange with McCain:

MCCAIN: You know, one of the things I regret more than anything else when we ever hear there's a chance of conflict or a possibility of a conflict, is we always re-visit the Vietnam War as some sort of role model when, in fact, the model of the Vietnam War is exactly what not to do in the conduct of war, including actions on the part of Congress. But to say that there was, quote, "fifty-two thousand casualties in the surgical strikes of North Vietnam" is just darn foolishness. The fact is, as you know, Dr. Kissinger, that in 1972, for the first time, there was significant bombing which was not constrained by either congressional or presidential mandate which virtually brought that nation to its knees with a minimum of casualties despite the hue and cry over one bomb that hit one hospital which seemed to be the biggest attack in the history of warfare, which still angers me. The Vietnamese and North Vietnamese themselves have stated that there was minimum casualties -- in the 19 -- in the Christmas '72 bombing raids. And the fact is, to purvey the idea that somehow -- that airpower failed in Vietnam because airpower was not capable certainly is an insult to the experience and the intelligence of those of us who served there. . . . .

The -- and Mr. Kissinger, isn't it true that the reason why the North Vietnamese came back to the bargaining table at Christmas in 1972 was because they were virtually brought to their knees by the bombing of North Vietnam?

MR. KISSINGER: They certainly agreed after the bombing to things that they had not agreed before, and were very eager to settle. I believe they were brought back to the bargaining table -- yes.

SEN. MCCAIN: Do you believe that 52,000 casualties over a seven-eight period or eight -- let's see, '65 -- eight-year period is some kind of exorbitant number of casualties?

MR. KISSINGER: I have no -- I have no independent knowledge of that figure one way or the other although it sounds credible to me.

That's the very embodiment of the "stabbed-in-the-back" Vietnam narrative. We had our greatest success when we could bomb North Vietnam "not constrained by either congressional or presidential mandate." That's when we almost brought them "to their knees." But incessant complaints about civilian casualties and anger over irrelevant matters such as the bombing of hospitals is what prevented us from winning -- "which still angers him," because the number of dead North Vietnamese wasn't really "exorbitant." There was room for plenty more. Ponder what that means for Iraq, Afghanistan and any other new countries on which a President McCain decides to wage war.

This simplistic message is all McCain has been saying for years about Iraq as well. One of the greatest myths about McCain now -- mostly propagated by the candidate himself and then amplified by his media allies -- is that, since 2004, he had been calling for the surge strategy to be used in Iraq. That's just false. McCain wasn't calling for the counter-insurgency strategies implemented by Gen. Petraeus. As surge advocates endlessly argue, the "Surge" isn't exclusively or even primarily about more troops, but rather, is defined by its shift to a "population-centric approach."
That's not what McCain was advocating. All he was complaining about was that we weren't deploying enough troops and using enough force. From his April 22, 2004 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations:

Third, it is painfully clear that we need more troops. Before the war, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff said that several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to keep the peace. While criticized at the time, General Shinseki now looks prescient. . . . .

Fourth, we must ensure that our understandable efforts to minimize collateral damage in Fallujah are not seen as a victory for the hardest of the hard core killers. Our goal in places like Fallujah where unreconstructed Baathists, former intelligence officers, and foreign jihadists converge should be to capture or destroy them. We face implacable enemies who reject a peaceful role in the new Iraq. We must be careful not to be seen by Iraqis as responding to direct attacks with accommodation.

McCain also warned that "we need a constructive domestic debate" and that those who were opposing the war were being "irresponsible": "We must show bipartisan resolve to prevail in Iraq, and not allow the insurgents to believe that they are winning minds in Washington. Our troops, the Iraqi people, and the world need to see unified American political leadership."

This is all just classic, Vietnam-based "stabbed-in-the-back" mythology. We win wars when we unleash our glorious deadly force with no constraints -- neither "efforts to minimize collateral damage" (which are "seen as accommodation") nor "irresponsible" domestic debates where citizens question the wisdom of the war. We lose wars because we restrain ourselves in the use of force or lack political will.

It's hard to overstate how pervasive this mindset was and is among the Pentagon leadership over the last seven years. In fact, the 8,000 pages of documents which the New York Times forced the Pentagon to release concerning its "military analyst" program is suffuse with arguments of this type concerning both Vietnam and Iraq. It was that mentality which spawned the domestic propaganda campaign. As David Barstow wrote in his article exposing the program:

Many also shared with Mr. Bush's national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation's will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.

This was a major theme, for example, with Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007. A retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare, Mr. Vallely co-authored a paper in 1980 that accused American news organizations of failing to defend the nation from "enemy" propaganda during Vietnam.

"We lost the war -- not because we were outfought, but because we were out Psyoped," he wrote. He urged a radically new approach to psychological operations in future wars -- taking aim at not just foreign adversaries but domestic audiences, too. He called his approach "MindWar" -- using network TV and radio to "strengthen our national will to victory."

Valleley was a frequent participant in the military analyst program and a prolific email contributor to their communications. This belief in the need to "avoid Vietnam" by manipulating domestic political support for the Iraq war was pervasive at the Pentagon. As Barstow writes:

On Tuesday, April 18, some 17 analysts assembled at the Pentagon with Mr. Rumsfeld and General Pace, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

A transcript of that session, never before disclosed, shows a shared determination to marginalize war critics and revive public support for the war.

"I'm an old intel guy," said one analyst. (The transcript omits speakers' names.) "And I can sum all of this up, unfortunately, with one word. That is Psyops. Now most people may hear that and they think, 'Oh my God, they're trying to brainwash.'"

"What are you, some kind of a nut?" Mr. Rumsfeld cut in, drawing laughter. "You don't believe in the Constitution?"

McCain, to my knowledge, has not been asked his views on the NYT's military analyst story, but he certainly subscribes in full to the underlying mentality expressed here, as retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. William Astore wrote recently:

While the Vietnam War was disastrous, McCain conceded, our military had -- he argued -- turned the tide after the enemy's Tet Offensive in 1968 and the replacement of Gen. William Westmoreland with Gen. Creighton Abrams as commander of our forces there. Precisely at that tipping-point moment, he insisted, the American people, their patience exhausted, had lost their will to win. For McCain, there really was a light at the end of that Vietnamese tunnel -- the military saw it, yet the American people, blinded by bad news, never did.

In today's Iraq -- again the McCain version -- Gen. David Petraeus is the new Abrams, finally the right general for the job. And his new tactic of protecting the Iraqi people, thereby winning their hearts and minds, is working. Victory beckons at the end of the "long, hard path" (that evidently has replaced the Vietnamese tunnel), unless the American people run out of patience, as they did back in the late 1960s.

McCain is no Hindenburg. Yet his almost automatic displacement of ultimate responsibility from the Bush administration and the military to the American people indicates the traction the stab-in-the-back myth has already gained in mainstream politics. For the moment, with hope for some kind of victory, however defined, not quite vanquished in official circles, our latest dagger-myth remains sheathed, its murderous power as yet unwielded.

John McCain is the ultimate embodiment of America's hoary, Vietnam era "stabbed-in-the-back" myth. We should fight wars with massive bombing campaigns and unleashed force, unconstrained by excessive concerns over "collateral damage" and unimpeded by domestic questioning. That's how we could have (and should have) "won" in Vietnam and how we'll "win" in Iraq. That's why the central truth of the 2008 election is that, when it comes to foreign policy, the Kristol/Lieberman-supported John McCain is a carbon copy of the Bush/Cheney warmongering mentality except that he's actually more extreme about its core premises.

UPDATE: There's a lack of clarity as to whether McCain, in the exchange with Kissinger, was referring to "casualties" of North Vietnamese civilians or American troops. As LWM points out, the number of North Vietnamese civilian deaths is unclear (since, as always, we didn't count the number of civilians killed by our bombing campaigns and other attacks), but is certainly far, far more than 52,000. The 52,000 number which McCain was dismissing as not "exorbitant" likely refers to American deaths through 1968.

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.


Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a former staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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