Nothing that’s happened in this summer’s Silly Season so far has amused me half so much as President Bush’s suddenly upsetting the media’s whole rhetorical apple-cart by comparing Iraq to Vietnam. The media take that has now prevailed since the American-backed overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 — that every further step in the War on Terror is further progress into a Vietnam-like “quagmire” — has done a 180. Now they’re dragging onto the stage one anti-Bush historian after another to proclaim that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam and that the President, as usual, has got it all wrong.
“What is Bush suggesting? That we didn’t fight hard enough, stay long enough?” asks Robert Dallek in the Los Angeles Times. “That’s nonsense. It’s a distortion.” Likewise, “Vietnam was not a bunch of sectarian groups fighting each other,” Stanley Karnow told USA Today before asking: “Does he think we should have stayed in Vietnam?” Well, yes, I suppose he does think that. But I suspect that he also thinks we should have stayed not to keep on losing for even longer than we did but rather to win.
For in spite of all the differences between Iraq and Vietnam that the administration’s apologists are right to identify, there is one salient point of similarity that the anti-war left is powerfully invested in denying. It is that American national honor is at stake in Iraq just as it was in Vietnam, and that a premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq — and what we know would follow for the Iraqis who have trusted us and been our friends — would be a stain on that honor as great or greater than the stain it incurred from the abandonment of our friends in Indochina in 1975. Then, in the President’s words, “the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.'”
Yet the word “honor” never passed his lips. He was reduced to appealing to our sense of altruism and compassion on behalf of the presumptive victims of the Iraqi civil war that may be expected to ensue upon our withdrawal, rather than to our own self-interest, as (I think) he should have done. This is because honor remains a radioactive concept politically. Some of the reasons for that unfortunate state of affairs are outlined in my book, Honor: A History, but the fact that a feeling for American honor before the world still exists in the absence of the word is attested to by this further evidence that, as we also learned during the presidential election campaign of 2004, the history of America’s involvement in Vietnam remains an open sore on the body politic.
Such reminders are particularly irksome to the media and the mainstream of academic historians, for whom Vietnam was merely the long-delayed triumph of youthful and journalistic idealism over a corrupt political and military establishment. That was the version of America’s abandonment of her allies that was once again on sale a few months ago on the death of David Halberstam, but it’s no more persuasive now than it was then. The media’s belief in the glory — at least their own glory — in America’s retreat, is also what blinds them to the irrelevance of the administration’s mistakes in Iraq, which they also keep harping on — as if those mistakes were of the slightest relevance now. What they can’t understand is that it doesn’t matter, even if the whole Iraqi invasion were a mistake, in terms of America’s national honor. If President Bush has been right about nothing else, he is right about this. If American troops leave before the insurgency is defeated, it will be as much of a dishonor to us as it would have been had the administration been right about everything.
The anti-war crowd have never been able to understand this: war is always stupid, immoral, unjust, hateful, but once a country is engaged in one the national honor is also engaged, and the consequences of dishonor are incalculable. There is no way to “redeploy” American troops, to use a favorite euphemism of the Democrats, so long as there is still fight in the enemy, without surrendering. And surrender is always a dishonor. For us to surrender to the terror campaign — whether “al Qaeda” or “civil war” makes no difference — would be to devalue America’s word in the international arena forever. This would be disastrous not only to us but to the world order that we uphold and must uphold in spite of the Buchananites and others who think we can simply refuse this role and go back to being Fortress America. They, too, fail to understand national honor.
For, it doesn’t matter, either, if the American imperium is a good or bad thing, though we ought naturally to want to make it as good as it can be; it doesn’t matter if we think it is primitive and immoral for the world to judge us by our willingness to go on making sacrifices of our young men and women on behalf of something as stupid as trying to make Iraq into even a vaguely Western-style democracy. For better or for worse, this is the task that we have undertaken, and it will be a shame and a disaster to us now to fail in it. It’s encouraging to me to think that President Bush understands this, even if his critics don’t.
But I wonder if he also understands another lesson of Vietnam. It is that you can’t fight a liberal war. When you’re strangling a cat, you can’t stop halfway through, and when you’re fighting a war against a determined enemy you can’t take it easy on him in the hope that he’ll be grateful to you for it and so come to terms. “In war, there is no substitute for victory,” General Douglas MacArthur said in Korea — and he got the sack for it. We didn’t learn that lesson in Korea, and the result was Vietnam. If we don’t learn that lesson from Vietnam, the result will be an even bigger blow to American honor. Not that, living as we do in the media’s echo chamber, we’ll necessarily know this right away.