Vietnam redux, and where Utah's special glow comes from

I finished up my class at Weber State University last week, studying Vietnam and Watergate through popular culture. High praise for Justina Bernstein for teaching it. The class was an eye-opener for a lot of reasons, not the least of which the miserable reminder that nothing really changes, including the seemingly inevitable forces that draw our politicians into foreign policy traps.

The last assignment was to ponder the Afghanistan “surge” President Obama just announced in light of our studies. What I did was compare Obama’s West Point speech with Richard Nixon’s 1970 speech announcing the incursion into Cambodia. It was distressing to see Obama and Nixon giving parallel speeches, structured the same way and attempting to achieve the same goals.

Both presidents were faced with wars they want to get out of. Both felt the need to up the ante to give the local forces a chance to build up and take on the fight. Both felt they had right on their sides, both claimed allies, both claimed that ultimate victory would be the result.

And we all know how Vietnam worked out.

I am not the only one pondering these things. Veteran reporter Helen Thomas had a marvelous column on this very subject (here click!) and former presidential candidate George McGovern reflected on his own case of deja vu here (click!)  here in the Washington Post.

Yes yes, I know, there are a lot of differences between these two wars. But, as McGovern and Thomas both make clear, the similarities are telling and where we need to be looking. Bottom line, we are fighting insurgents who oppose us for deep cultural reasons in Afghanistan. It is a very widely diverse cultural mix that few Americans even come close to understanding and that very lack of understanding is the biggest reason why we should not be there.

If Obama had asked me, I’d have told him we could stay in Afghanistan for 100 years, kill everyone who even thinks he’s an Al Quida or Taliban operative or sympathizer, and then leave. Within six months the country would be right back where it started from.

So, my own opionion: Accept that it’s a mess we created through our own incompetence and cultural illiteracy, get out and move on. Despite all our good intentions, we can do no good there.

Speaking of messes: My column Sunday was on nuclear waste being dumped on Utah, known to the rest of the country as “America’s Mormon toilet.”  The New York Times, on Sunday, had a good article (here!) looking at the Savannah River nuclear plant where all that waste, including depleted uranium which is what made all the original Gulf War soldiers sick, is coming from. What’s frightening, as you read the story, is all the confusion and accusations of mismanagement and general FUBAR feel to the whole thing. Just another example of how the nuclear industry uses up huge amounts of money nobody expected it to to clean up massive messes that everyone assured us would be no problem before they were made.

And in the end it all ends up dumped in Utah. And we’re supposed to accept this and feel good about it.

And don’t even get me started on those wing-nuts who want to build a nuclear plant near Kanab.

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18 Responses to Vietnam redux, and where Utah's special glow comes from

  1. Depleted Uranium is the modern Agent Orange. Sad that many will die before the GubMint admits to it.

  2. flatlander100 says:

    Well, since you posted your opinion on Afghanistan, here’s mine: There was probably a window of opportunity during which some substantive and lasting change could have been encouraged in Afghanistan when the US first invaded going after the Taliban for its involvement in 9/11. That window of opportunity was squandered when the Bush administration decided to provoke a pointless, hugely expensive [in lives and money] war with Iraq instead, and shifted resources there from Afghanistan, leaving American forces there engaged in largely a holding action.

    That window of opportunity, if it was ever there, closed long ago. It probably cannot now be reopened no matter how many more resources [human and financial] we pour in, and even if it could, the cost in lives and money will be so high that Americans will not tolerate it for long. The place is not governable on any terms but its own. Never has been. The British found that out. So did the Russians. I fear, so will we. It can no more be turned into a western pluralistic democracy by invasion than Iraq could.

    Those who are making the decisions have, clearly, more information than I have or could have. No gainsaying that. But that it’s necessarily good information, or that it will be sensibly interpreted are other matters entirely as anyone who recalls the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein didn’t have, or the African yellowcake he didn’t buy knows.

    All we can do now, I’m afraid, is await the outcome and hope for the best.

  3. ctrentelman says:

    what makes you think they have more, or better, information than you do, Flatlander? Hate to break it to you, but the White House has no better sources of information than the same things you and I have access to. Obama’s decision is probably the best he could make given the hometown political realities of the situation. That doesn’t change the fact that we’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the British and the Russians, because the mistake is being there in the first place.

    I saw no mention, in Obama’s speech, about Pastunistan. This deeply concerns me because Pashtunistan is the key to this mess. The artificial borders created by the British — look up Daurand Line, I think it’s called — are a fiction that we ignore at our peril.

    And if you don’t know what Pashtunistan is, well, you just proved my point. We don’t know enough about that mess of countries over there to be fighting a war there.

    Andrew Bacevich said it best — to hell with political realities, real courage would be to get out now. Obama wants to serve two terms, though, so he could not go that direction.

  4. flatlander100 says:


    We agree, I’m pretty sure, that the course of wisdom would have been to begin a withdrawal rather than to raise our ante in Afghanistan, so to speak.

    But the WH does have access to classified intelligence from the theater and elsewhere, military and not, that you and I and the press in general does not have ready access to. Again, whether it’s always reliable information, and whether it will be intelligently analyzed as a basis for policy are other matters. But that the WH has access to more — much more — information about current circumstances in theater than you and I seems pretty obvious [unless you're getting daily briefings on the classified intel. I know I'm not. And no, I don't mean intel only on the military situation on the ground, but the overall situation in country, and in region --- military, economic, political and cultural. ]

    I think the President probably made a poor decision on Afghanistan. But we won’t know that for certain until we see how things play out from this point on, as it becomes history. [ Historians have it easy. They get to look back on decisions after the outcomes are already known.] We just don’t know, either of us, how this will play out yet. We may suspect, fear, anticipate, etc. but we don’t know. We”ll just have to wait and see.

  5. Mike Trujillo says:

    Ah, the ubiquitous access to \information that I(we) don’t have\. With that sentiment, people place the mantel of divinity on government leaders. Or, maybe it’s not as much a matter of endowing government with godly knowledge, but more akin to accepting a master/servant relationship in regards to civic leaders. To paraphrase the slave in \Gone With the Wind\: \I don’t know nuthin’ bout wagin’ no war, Mistuh Prezdent.\

    I’m with Charles on this one.

  6. ctrentelman says:

    One of the lessons we learned in this history course I just took — thanks justina! — is that government information is quite often wrong because it comes up through the bureaucracy, and that bureaucracy has an inherent tendency to make the news sound good to the boss because then the bureaucrats look good to the boss.

    in the book “Strange Ground” we see articles by many of the people running, and working in, the strategic hamlet program of vietnam, the tactic that was going to win the war. Inevitably, those people had to put a positive spin on how things were going because their job depended on success. Their bosses, in turn, would do the same thing, although on the ground everyone knew it was a failure. So what president johnson got was a lot of official reports that looked good, while on the ground everyone knew it was a complete sham.

    In this light — and i am positive bureaucracy has not changed — I’d say you and I have access to better information that the president does because he gets his information through the federal bureaucracy not the least of which is the CIA, which as we have seen, can be easily cherry picked.

    For very disquieting reports on Pashtunistan, see the recnet NYTimes article (week in review two weeks ago) and check out the reports by their reporter who was captured over there for 6 months or so — they paint a very very bad picture of the situation, vastly worse than what the president would lead us to think.

    To paraphrase groucho, who do you believe, the bureaucracy or your lying eyes?

  7. flatlander100 says:


    You wrote: “With that sentiment, people place the mantel of divinity on government leaders.”

    Nonsense. That’s a gross distortion of a simple point: the President has access to much information about the situation in Afghanistan that the general public does not. That is a fact. That all of the information is reliable, or that it will be intelligently analyzed in deciding policy is, another matter. Clearly, that has not always been the case. But to claim that a simple recognition of the fact that the President has access to classified information the public does not have involves conferring “the mantel of divinity on government leaders” is nonsense.

  8. flatlander100 says:


    That information collected by government is often wrong is a fact. We all know about the “Five O:Clock Follies” in Saigon, inflated body counts, etc. However, to say that much of the information the government receives raw, or passes up the line, is inaccurate and self serving is not the same thing as saying that all the information that arrives at the President’s desk is inaccurate or self serving. Let’s remember that in his first months in office, President Bush received an accurate briefing on the imminent danger of an attack on US territory by Al-Queda. He ignored it. Accurate classified intelligence delivered to the President. Foolishly dismissed. It’s not all wrong, Charlie, and it would be as foolish to dismiss everything classified that arrives on the President’s desk as inaccurate and unreliable as it would be to accept it all as graven in stone and handed down from the mount. Neither extreme position — it’s all crap/it’s all good — is defensible on the evidence.

    Now, as for you and I and John Q. Public in general necessarily having access to better information than the President on such matters, I presume you’re referring to the role the press plays in digging out information and exposing bad information. Certainly it has, at times, done that. It’s one of the vital, perhaps the most vital, role a free press plays in a free country.

    But however warm and glowy recalling Sy Hersh’s work on VN makes us, it’d be wise to recall how many press people became “home team” players and reported inaccurate information to the nation as fact. Recall Judith Miller for example who for well over a year put wholly false information regarding the war in Iraq on the front pages of the NY Times.

    We elect presidents to exercise their best judgment regarding the whole range of matters that come before them. And we judge them [at the polls and in history books] based on how well they exercise that judgment. Presidents Johnson and Bush II botched the job, cooked the evidence for PR purposes, cherry picked the intel and dismissed good intel and embraced bad to justify their actions and win public support. In the end, their choices served neither the nation or themselves well.

    We now have President Obama in office. He’s got coming in I expect the same mix of sound intel, crap, good advice and careerist-driven bad advice that every president gets. [And no, reporters aside, the general public does not have access to all of what the president sees.] Whether he makes sound decisions, whether he is sharp enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to make good decisions with good outcomes neither of us knows yet. And remember, the president reads newspapers — this one reportedly even reads books — and so has access to the same sources you and I, as members of the public, have access to as well. He has access to what we have, plus more. The issue is, how he chooses to use it.

    I suspect he’s made a wrong choice on Afghanistan, as do you. But, Charlie, neither of us know that for a fact. The consequences of his decisions haven’t played out yet. I could be wrong. I hope I am. We will have to wait and see.

  9. Michael Trujillo says:

    Perhaps from your lips, flatlander, the sentiment is well thought out. Most people, though, in my experience, use the “President knows things that we don’t” mantra as an excuse to throw their hands up and disengage their brains. It’s a kind of blind trust that one also sees in religion. “Someone” has access to knowledge not meant for the average person’s ears. I acknowledge that you don’t think that way. Maybe I’m just a little irritable this morning.

    I was all in favor of going after Al-qaeda after they attacked us. They were in Afghanistan, so I was in favor of going there. Now, all these years later, the situation is so convoluted that I doubt anything can be accomplished there, even if we were to kill or capture the Al-qaeda leaders. Before everyone starts yapping about establishing a stable government in the country now called Afghanistan and improving the “Afghanis’” lives, bear in mind that there’s never been a single, stable government in what is now called Afghanistan. And THAT information is available to anyone, President Obama and the members of Congress included.

  10. flatlander100 says:


    We’re not far apart, I think, and are absolutely on the same page in re: whatever window of opportunity there may have been just after 9/11 in Afghanistan now being long long gone.

    And certainly people who put blind trust in a president — any president — [emphasis on the term "blind"] are being lazy, and therefor poor, citizens. What I was concerned about, still am, in Charlie’s approach is that it can lead to a kind of nihilism, a belief that “the government/president” is always dishonest or corrupt or acting foolishly or being misled, that its the very nature of government and of presidents to be so Regardless of who the president is. Which attitude can lead to a general throwing up of hands on grounds that “what the hell. It doesn’t matter who’s in or what he does. It’s all bogus.” I see that attitude in a lot of young people now, and I find it scary. As scary as those who grant a president their uncritical and blind trust on any grounds — “he knows more than we do” or any other.

  11. ctrentelman says:

    I think saying “the government knows better” is more an expression of hope than actual fact. The White House is like any other information gathering institution — it depends on what people see and tell it. The critical issue is how information gets passed up the line, who is doing the the passing, and what other considerations come to bear on that person.

    In this regard, people who are put in charge of a program to do something, and whose jobs are dependent on that job succeeding, cannot be relied on to tell the truth of how well that job is succeeding. Their supervisors, in turn, need their underlings to look good so THEY look good, and so on and so on.

    New reporters, on the other hand, are paid to find dirt and weedle out b-s.

    before we discuss this any farther, I would like all of you to go to:

    and read about Pashtunistan. It is an (in its own eyes, and those are the only eyes that matter) independent and autonomous area overlapping what the rest of us laughingly call the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    You might also look up what is called the “Durand Line,” — — and follow the links.

    I repeat: President Obama, in his speech, made no mention of Pashtunistan. This deeply concerns me. I like to think he understands these things but has structured his speech, and strategy, based on things he can control and deal with, not things he cannot.

    But, that is vastly more dangerous than we should ever tolerate. We are fighting a war that we are structuring based on boundaries that the people living over large expanses of Afghanistan and Pakistan DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE OR RECOGNIZE.

    Ignoring this reality on the ground, this cultural force that goes back thousands of years and that we do not understand, will doom anything we attempt.

  12. Michael Trujillo says:

    I’ll read your links a little later today.

    This is sort of a segue, but I just read Jon Krakauer’s latest book: Where Men Win Glory. It’s a really interesting read, not only about Pat Tillman’s life and death and the government’s/army’s institutional denialism (don’t know if that’s an actual word), but also the situation in Afghanistan as it existed during the 2004.

  13. Mark Shenefelt says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of early-America history lately, and it’s so refreshing to be reminded that presidents then concentrated on avoiding wars, often successfully.

    Now we’re bleeding out in two wars and our more hawkish elements think we’ll need to fight North Korea and Iran. No wonder some young people are reflexively putting their heads in the sand.

  14. “And we all know how Vietnam worked out.” Actually, most people don’t know how Vietnam turned out. They think the US “lost,” and that’s all they “know” about it. What they aren’t aware of is that after the last US combat troops were pulled out in 1973, the South Vietnamese army never lost a major ground action against the VC or NVA for two years…until 1975, when the US congress reneged on the agreement we had with South Vietnam and cut off all funding for ammunition, spare parts, supplies, and replacement weapons. (The Soviets, of course, continued to supply their NVA proteges to the tune of $1 Billion a year). At which point the end for South Vietnam did become inevitable. We will, of course, never know — but it is still interesting to speculate whether a viable South Vietnam might yet be around had we actually given it a chance to succeed instead of cutting its legs out from under it….

  15. ctrentelman says:

    there’s real debate over where Vietnam would have ended up had we not cut off aid — History tells us that the north and Viet Cong would not have quit, which means we would have ended up funding the south for a very, very long time, an incredible expense and increasing futility.

    Cutting aid off ended the war, perhaps — but you have to keep in mind that the N. Viet commander had planned on a two-year campaign to defeat the south and it actually took 3 months or thereabouts, which tells me that the US funds were the sole prop and probably would not have been enough in any event, even if they had continued, to much beyond delay the inevitable.

    Whatever, Vietnam is now a reasonably capitalistic society, with “Most Favored Trading Status” with us. The dreaded domino theory turned out to be a myth.

  16. Michael Trujillo says:

    And, don’t forget, the unified Vietnam defeated the Khmer Rouge. I don’t think anyone could argue that’s a bad thing.

    I think the big lesson learned is that Communism didn’t leap frog across South East Asia and threaten to engulf other governments. There was no domino effect. And we’re now on friendly terms with Vietnam and China, two communist govts.

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