I'll never forget the day we finally won the Vietnam War. Now I'm not talking about March of 1973, when the last of the American combat soldiers left South Vietnam. I'm not referring to the 21st of January in 1977, when President Carter pardoned all the men who had 'dodged' the draft during the war either. No, the day I'm thinking of was one of the last days in February 1991, when the first President Bush declared a ceasefire in the first Gulf War. That was a mere one hundred hours after the ground campaign started, and not long before we began to move 540,000 American troops out of the Persian Gulf. I remember calling a bunch of friends and family back then, to tell them we had finally won the Vietnam War. It really felt like that at the time.
My father, unlike nearly three million Americans from his generation, never served in Vietnam. In fact, I was conceived in the mid-sixties specifically to keep my father from being drafted and, my birth at the end of 1966 managed to accomplish that goal. By the time 'fatherhood' was no longer a way to defer the draft, my father was old enough to have missed compulsory service in Vietnam. He was lucky and, so was I. Many children of my generation grew up with fathers haunted by their experiences fighting in that war. Moreover, the experience of coming home from the most unpopular war in US history compounded the difficulties that any soldier has when trying to return to civilian life.
The way Americans think of the Vietnam War is complex, varied, has evolved, and continues to. That said, like many of my generation, I grew up believing that it was the first war that America had ever lost. Since it was also the only full-blown war during my lifetime, while I was growing up, the military seemed to live under the dark cloud of its failure. So when Bush announced the end of the relatively brief and successful war in the Persian Gulf, suddenly people were acting as though this had been some kind of a mulligan...as though finally we had been granted the opportunity to redeem ourselves with a war that we not only had won, but had won handily, with hardly any casualties. We had finally won the Vietnam War!
A decade and a half ago, when the first President Bush and his advisors decided to go to war with Iraq, they knew it was a risky proposition politically. They knew it would need to be an unmitigated success. To this end, they limited their objectives, in order to maximize their chances of achieving them. In a speech on April 27, 1991, entitled, "The Gulf War: A First Assessment," then Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, explained the administration's thinking along these lines:
Should we, perhaps, have gone into Baghdad? Should we have gotten involved to a greater extent than we did? Did we leave the job in some respects unfinished? I think the answer is a resounding 'no.'
One of the reasons we were successful, from a military perspective, was because we had very clear-cut military objectives. The President gave us an assignment that could be achieved by the application of military force. He said, "Liberate Kuwait." He said, "Destroy Saddam Hussein's offensive capability," his capacity to threaten his neighbors—both definable military objectives. You give me that kind of an assignment, I can go put together, as the Chiefs, General Powell and General Schwarzkopf masterfully did, a battle plan to do exactly that. And as soon as we had achieved those objectives, we stopped hostilities, on the grounds that we had in fact fulfilled our objective.
Today I was reading an Op-Ed piece from the New York Times called, "Home Alone," by Danielle Trussoni, about her father's difficulties as a Vietnam Veteran. She mentions that, "It saddens him (her father) to watch a new generation of soldiers going off to fight what is becoming an increasingly unpopular war." So how did we get here from there?
For answers, we need look no further than to the architects of the first Gulf War. In the same speech from 1991, Cheney demonstrates an eerily portentous understanding of the pitfalls involved in removing Hussein from power. In the speech, he defends the first Bush administration's decision, during the first Gulf War, to withdraw troops before taking Baghdad:
I think if we were going to remove Saddam Hussein we would have had to go all the way to Baghdad; we would have had to commit a lot of force, because I do not believe he would wait in the Presidential Palace for us to arrive. I think we'd have had to hunt him down. And once we'd done that and we'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein and his government, then we'd have had to put another government in its place.
What kind of government? Should it be a Sunni government or Shi'i government or a Kurdish government or Ba'athist regime? Or maybe we want to bring in some of the Islamic fundamentalists? How long would we have had to stay in Baghdad to keep that government in place? What would happen to the government once U.S. forces withdrew? How many casualties should the United States accept in that effort to try to create clarity and stability in a situation that is inherently unstable?
I think it is vitally important for a President to know when to use military force. I think it is also very important for him to know when not to commit U.S. military force. And it's my view that the President got it right both times; that it would have been a mistake for us to get bogged down in the quagmire inside Iraq.
It's just too bad that Cheney didn't heed his own advice. I guess that's what you get when you elect flip-floppers.