The Magazine

No More Vietnams

This time, let's finish the job.

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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NOT LONG AGO RICHARD COHEN of the Washington Post wrote a column about Iraq headlined "As in Vietnam, dereliction of duty all over again." The Vietnam analogy has been part of the Iraq war story since the fighting started (in fact, since before it started). The Bush administration often deals with its critics by ignoring them. This time it can't. Too much rides on the president looking these critics in the eye and telling them: Damned right this is Vietnam all over again. Only this time we will not get scared and walk out in the middle. This time we will stand fast, and repair a piece of the American psyche that has been damaged and hurting ever since we ran from Vietnam in disgrace way back in April 1975.

Of course any citizen is welcome to criticize the conduct of any war--tactfully, without giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Maybe we are doing things all wrong in Iraq. But those who launch the Vietnam analogy at the administration are lobbing heavy artillery for a different reason. They are predicting (with obnoxious schadenfreude) that Iraq will turn out like Vietnam in the end: We will proclaim ourselves beaten, give up, and go home. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we will do the intelligent and humane thing and surrender.

These critics ought to be told firmly that Iraq is indeed another Vietnam. Once again we are in the middle of cleaning out one of the world's ugliest abscesses, which turns out (again) to be infected and putrefying.

In Iraq as in Vietnam, the government gave the American people an unrealistic estimate of how hard the war would be. Both times it was an honest but costly mistake, which could probably have been avoided.

In Iraq as in Vietnam, it's impossible to say whether our intervention was justified by self-interest. (Churchill: "It is not given to the cleverest and most calculating of mortals to know with certainty what is their interest. Yet it is given to quite a lot of simple folk to know every day what is their duty.") In Iraq as in Vietnam, we have promised to rescue a suffering people from its tormentors. (Our duty was not to plant democracy in Iraq; our duty was to put an end to unbearable suffering. But planting democracy seemed like the only way to accomplish this goal, unless we were bucking for a new colony.) In Iraq as in Vietnam, the fighting is ugly and bloody. But in Iraq, unlike Vietnam, we will stay until we are finished.

Not many nations get a second chance to show the world and themselves that they are serious after all, that their friends can trust them and their enemies ought to fear them. There is no way we can atone for the blood and death we inflicted (indirectly) on South Vietnam by abandoning it to Communist tyranny. That failure can never be put right. But we can make clear that "No More Vietnams" is a Republican slogan. It means that we will never again go back on our word and betray our friends, our soldiers, and ourselves.

Most wars bog down in hard fighting at some point or other. When that happens, America must be able to trust itself not to run away. George Washington and his men did not run away after General Howe took Philadelphia for the British in September 1777, and Washington's counterattack on Germantown failed in October, and the brand new American army had to settle into miserable, freezing winter quarters at Valley Forge. Every American schoolchild used to know what Valley Forge meant: Stand firm and fight, no matter how terrible things are. The Union army did not run away in the fall of 1862, although Lee and Jackson had won a huge Confederate victory at Second Bull Run, and Lee had crossed the Potomac into Maryland and was threatening Washington, Baltimore, and (again) Philadelphia, and was expected to capture all of Maryland and a crucial railroad bridge in Pennsylvania--which would just about cut the Union in two. But Lincoln and the Union did not give up.The Confederates didn't run away either. Their cause was wrong, but they stood up heroically and fought till they were crushed to bits.

Nor did the American army run away 80 years later in the spring of 1942, although the Pacific fleet had been smashed at Pearl Harbor, Manila had been evacuated, Bataan had surrendered after a desperate, starving defense--and then Corregidor had surrendered too. But MacArthur promised that Americans would return to liberate the Philippines, and that's just what happened.

The United States has no tradition of running away. The left had better get this straight: Vietnam was an aberration. There will be no more Vietnams.

THOSE WHO THINK that "no more Vietnams" means that cowardice is the better part of wisdom don't know their Vietnam history either. There are many important lies in circulation about Vietnam, like counterfeit $50 bills that keep resurfacing. Those who held these views during the war itself weren't liars; in most cases they were telling the truth as they understood it. But decades later, it requires an act of will to keep one's ignorance pristine.

Lie #1: We were wrong to fight the Vietnamese Communists in the first place; they only wanted what was best for their country. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz summarizes Vietnam after the Communist victory. He quotes the liberal New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, outspoken critic of the war, on its aftermath. "What Vietnam has given us instead of a bloodbath [is] a vast tide of human misery in southeast Asia." He quotes Truong Nhu Tang, minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government that ruled South Vietnam after the Americans were ordered by Congress to run away: "Never has any previous regime [previous to the Communists] brought such masses of people to such desperation. Not the military dictators, not the colonialists, not even the ancient Chinese overlords." Prominent South Vietnamese were thrown into prison and tortured with revoltingly inventive cruelty. Virtually the whole South Vietnamese army and government were herded into concentration camps. Tang fled Vietnam in 1979, one of untold thousands who put to sea in crowded, rickety boats. Anything to get free of Communist Vietnam, the workers' and peasants' paradise, Fonda-land by the Sea. In Vietnam, as everywhere else on earth, communism was another word for death.

Lie #2: The Vietnam war was unwinnable. We had no business sending our men to a war they were bound to lose. The Communist Vietcong launched their first major coordinated offensive in January 1968--the "Tet offensive." "Tet was a military disaster for Hanoi," writes the historian Derek Leebaert. "Intended to destroy South Vietnamese officialdom and spark a popular uprising, Tet ironically had more of an effect in turning South Vietnam's people against the North." But America had been fighting ineffectively. In May 1968, Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as supreme American commander in Vietnam and U.S. strategy snapped to, immediately. With Abrams in charge, the war "was being won on the ground," writes the historian Lewis Sorley, "even as it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress." The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson commented on America's "Christmas bombing" campaign of 1972, which devastated the North: "You had won the war. It was over." American anti-warriors insisted on losing it anyway.

Lie #3: As the American people learned the facts, they turned against the war and forced America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Actually, Americans continued to support the war nearly until the end. The 1972 presidential election was a referendum on the war; "Come home, America!" said the antiwar Democrat George McGovern--and he lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Of all U.S. population segments, 18-to-24-year-old men--who were subject to the draft, who did the fighting--were consistently the war's strongest supporters. "It was not the American people which lost its stomach," writes historian Paul Johnson, "it was the American leadership."

Lie #4: The real heroes of Vietnam were the protesters and draft-resisters who forced America to give up a disastrously wrong policy. If this was heroism, it was dirt cheap heroism. While college students paraded and protested and whooped it up, America's working classes bore the brunt of the fighting, bleeding, and dying. Around 80 percent of the 2.5 million enlisted men who fought in Vietnam came from poor or working class families. They lacked the law-breaking and draft-evading skills that their better-educated countrymen could draw on. And they lacked the heart to say no when their country called. Reread Norman Mailer's gorgeously written yet (like the smell of marijuana) faintly disgusting Armies of the Night, about a massive antiwar march on the Pentagon. You will learn or relearn all about the passionate ingenuity of left-wing lawyers fighting for clients they admired--who were innately superior to the law but scared of the consequences when they broke it.

All these lies are present symbolically in the Vietnam wall near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Many other memorials, in Europe especially, have commemorated fallen soldiers by listing every name. The soaring (yet knotted-up, anguished) Thiepval Memorial Arch at the Somme, by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1924), is the most extraordinary and celebrated instance of the list-every-name school of memorial design. Our own wall is different, for one, insofar as it stands in a scraped-out hole in the ground; a symbolic open grave. Some day we will tear down that wall and fill up the open grave, and rebuild the wall above ground and re-engrave every name, and add two more words at the end. Two words the designer did not see fit to include. Thank you. On that day we will finally have gotten over Vietnam.

IN THE ARGUMENT OVER IRAQ we can see reflected (like ominous headlights in a rearview mirror) one of the central disputes of modern times--between a traditional "morality of duties" and a modern "morality of rights." Philosophers like to argue that these two worldviews are complementary. In fact they are contradictory. Each of these two worldviews yields an all-inclusive blueprint for society, with no room for further contributions.

Granted, it's convenient to speak of one's "duty" to help the poor and one's "right" of self-defense. No contradiction there. But think it over and you will see that, by laying out everyone's duties explicitly, you lay out everyone's rights implicitly; and vice versa. You have a right to self-defense--or, to put it differently, a duty to use no violence except (among other cases) in self-defense. Both formulas reach the same destination by different routes. By means of the "morality of duty," you shape society the way a sculptor carves stone; by the "morality of rights," you shape it the way a sculptor models clay. Two different, contradictory techniques.

The morality of duties originated in Judeo-Christianity, the morality of rights in Roman jurisprudence. The Hebrew tradition knows about rights--but only in the context of covenants, where two parties each acquire rights and responsibilities simultaneously. America's Founders and Framers spoke of rights, but might well have had this Judeo-Christian idea in mind.

But the modern preference for rights over duties has nothing to do with religion or covenants. And your choice between these two worldviews is important. Morality deals, after all, with how to conduct yourself--whereas a right ordinarily confers an advantageous position, to put it formally; having a right means that your will is favored over someone else's. It's therefore conceivable that the morality of duties is the one and only kind of morality; that a morality of rights is a contradiction in terms. It's conceivable that a "morality of rights" actually rejects morality in favor of some other way to organize society--I'll call it "rights-liberalism." Rights-liberalism might be better than traditional Judeo-Christian morality, or worse, or neither, but in any case I believe it is not morality. In fact, proponents of rights-liberalism seem to believe (though they rarely say so point blank) that it is the next step beyond morality.

Even if you don't care about religion, you might still choose the morality of duty, with its focus on an individual's obligations, over rights-liberalism--which focuses not on your duty but on what is coming to you. Many Republicans and conservatives do prefer to discuss duties; many Democrats and liberals would rather talk about rights.

Now when you assign someone a duty, he is responsible for carrying it out; when you assign him a right, someone else is responsible for guaranteeing it. Rights-liberalism is a worldview that centers on "make way for me"--and some find it unattractive for just this reason. "Ask not what your country can do for you," said JFK, "ask what you can do for your country." In other words: Don't ask for rights, dammit; ask for duties. Nowadays Kennedy's most famous line is dismissed as a routine call for good citizenship. But there is more to it than that. The statement was taken up with amazing enthusiasm. Every schoolchild knew it. The enthusiasm was partly because the line is catchy; it might also have reflected a deep-lying sympathy over the rising call for civil rights. But it's also true that America in 1961 was just on the point of seeing traditional morality swamped by rights-liberalism. People felt what was happening. No doubt some felt, too, that Kennedy was sticking up for an older, better worldview that was on its way out.

We find this same deep disagreement over Iraq. Should we talk about America's duty to protect itself, and do its best to protect other, weaker peoples? Or should we talk about Saddam Hussein's right to develop weapons so long as they aren't "weapons of mass destruction," and the Iraqi people's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The problem with the second formulation is that it blacks out whenever we reach the hard questions. Who will police the rights of Iraq, and guarantee the rights of Iraqis? The usual answer is the U.N. or some other multinational concoction. In other words: nobody. Sometimes we do leave things largely to the U.N. The Security Council has just voted to freeze the assets of four prominent Sudanese: the first punitive measures ever against instigators of violence in the Darfur region--which so far has killed hundreds of thousands.

When conservatives repossess the motto "No more Vietnams," it will be a perfect occasion to address one of the most important questions of our time. Is American policy based on rights or on duties? Is America in Iraq because of our duties or their rights? If "their rights" is the answer, liberals are correct: We have stuck our necks out unnecessarily; we could just as easily have let someone else worry about it, the way France and Germany did. If the answer is "our duties," we had no choice. We had an obligation to take charge of our own safety in a world that is lousy with terrorists, and we had to face up to our obligations as the world's strongest nation. And obviously we have duties in nations besides Iraq also. America doesn't have the power to help everybody--which is no excuse for helping nobody.

American character is on the line. For the sake of this nation--of its good name, its big heart, the sacrifices of its many brave defenders, the genius of its creators--of its greatness, in short--conservatives had better not lose this fight.

The administration was wrong to let Americans get the idea that Iraq would be easy. But it was right to fight. And because Iraq is exactly Vietnam all over again, our eventual victory won't only be good for Iraq, the Middle East, and peace on earth. It will repair American self-respect. And it will turn the Friends of Cowardice, the U.S. Mothers for Despair, and all their allied groups back into the peripheral players they always used to be in this country--until Vietnam.

David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.