America in the 1970s and ‘80s was said to be captive to 'Vietnam syndrome'. Narrowly speaking, this meant that the wrenching US experience in the Vietnam War had made foreign military adventures close to impossible. Taken more broadly it referred to the war’s lasting ideological fault lines and how they defined American politics.
The elder George Bush, flush with victory after the 1991 Gulf War, had famously declared: “We’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” On hindsight, it is clear that Bush was right only in the narrow sense. Over the last two decades, America has proved itself quite capable of drawn-out foreign wars, even when the purpose of those wars is poorly defined.
It is equally clear, however, that the country has not moved beyond the bigger political divisions created by Vietnam. As events in Washington last week demonstrated, Vietnam’s toxic legacy has been given new life by America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The clearest example of this came during Secretary of Defence nominee Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee. Senator John McCain hounded his former colleague, and fellow Vietnam veteran, relentlessly, demanding that Hagel recant and apologise for his criticism of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq.
There was a lot to criticise in the Hagel hearings: The nominee’s own stumbling performance; the hypocrisy of senators who called him unfit to serve then used the remainder of their question time to plead for defence expenditures in their states; the obsession of Republicans and Democrats alike with a handful of mildly critical remarks Hagel has made over the years about Israel; the fact that the two biggest issues facing the next Defence Secretary — managing America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and cutting the Pentagon budget — were barely mentioned.
The tone of the Iraq portion of the questions, however, was especially chilling. It indicated more clearly than any previous Washington debate that the Vietnam-bred ideological divisions of the 1970s have survived into the 21st century, reborn now as arguments over whether Iraq was “worth it”.
Listening to McCain and other Republicans defend the Iraq War, I had an eerie flashback to the 1980s when similar debates about whether or not the Vietnam War was, to quote Ronald Reagan, “a noble cause” polarised the country. Long after America’s political middle had joined the left in concluding that the entire Vietnam adventure was a mistake supporting it remained an article of faith on the political right.
More recently, as America’s disenchantment with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew, the right became ever more deeply attached to both. To its partisans, this attachment requires not only that one continue to believe that invading Iraq a decade ago was a good, even a necessary, thing. It requires belief in the broader idea of a US-led “war on terror” that began with 9/11, will continue for another generation or more and places the country on a permanent “war footing” with all the loss of civil liberties and increase of government power that term implies.
There was a moment last week when a senator asked Hagel whether he believed America was at war. Hagel replied that with tens of thousands of troops still in Afghanistan the answer was, obviously, “yes”. In the process, he carefully avoided the question’s real point: Whether Afghanistan is a self-contained conflict or represents merely a single theatre in a broad, on-going global war.
Most of the American left believes the idea of a generations-long war against “terror” and, by implication, militant Islam to be militarily and ideologically absurd, fiscally impractical and diplomatically counterproductive. Few Democratic politicians will say this out loud for fear of having their patriotism questioned, but it is a strain that runs deep in their party.
In contrast, large sections of the American right sincerely believe that commitment to semi-permanent war is all that stands between the US and a catastrophe that will make 9/11 look tame by comparison. For them, mistakes may have been made in Iraq, but the essential nobility, and necessity, of that war is not a subject for legitimate debate.
That is the real reason why the right does not like Hagel: As a Vietnam veteran wounded in battle, as a Republican and as an early Iraq hawk who later came to question that war he represents a threat to their preferred narrative. When he voices doubts about war as a permanent policy and wonders aloud whether military action against Iran is really the only option available, he speaks with credibility that many of his opponents lack.
In doing so, he demonstrates another truth — Hagel proves that well-intentioned as the first President Bush may have been, he was wrong. America’s “Vietnam syndrome” did not end with the Gulf War. It merely evolved.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.