President Barack Obama’s decision to set a timeline for the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. forces from Afghanistan against the advice of his generals begs the question: Will populist reflexes inevitably prevent democracies from winning wars of long duration?
One of democracy’s most determined antagonists came to this conclusion 60 years ago. North Vietnamese defense minister
declared that “the enemy,” meaning the West, “does not possess … the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.” Fighting the French and later the Americans, he based his whole strategy on this insight – successfully, as we now know.
In all likelihood, Giap explained, public opinion in the democracy would demand an end to the “useless bloodshed,” or its legislature will insist on knowing how long it will have to vote astronomical credits without a clear-cut victory in sight. This is what eternally compelled democratic politicians to agree to almost any kind of humiliating compromise rather than to accept the idea of a semi-permanent anti-guerilla operation, he added.
In a cartoon in The Oregonian newspaper, Jack Ohman recently sketched a hand drawing dotted lines mapping “The Way out of Afghanistan.” The last image of this political comic strip showed the contours of Vietnam next to a briefer saying, “UM.”
Given General Giap’s statement about the political-psychological shortcomings of the democratic system when faced with an inconclusive military operation, Ohman’s analogy was frighteningly accurate. Once again, we keep hearing the term, “war fatigue,” though not in reference to the military but to civilian populations far, far away in the United States where 56 percent of the Americans demand a U.S. troop withdrawal as soon as possible.
Once again, maligning local allies as corrupt has become fashionable, so as if Western politicians were paragons of honesty. Once again, wordsmiths craft smarmy euphemisms for defeatist courses of action. In the Vietnam days the slogan was “peace with honor,” today it is “responsible peace” (Obama), although there was nothing honorable about handing over South Vietnam to totalitarian aggressors, from whom millions fled with many drowning in the South China Sea. And there would be nothing honorable in surrendering Afghanistan once again to fanatics manifestly belonging to the global Islamist movement that is determined to subjugate the world to its hideous faith.
Jack Ohman’s analogy was correct as far as it went. But I wonder if in a future cartoon he would remind the Oregonian’s readers of how the Vietnam story continued, for example with “reeducation camps” where hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were interned, starved and subjected to unspeakable pain; thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the United States are still suffering from the effects of torture inflicted on them during communist captivity decades ago, according to a recent study led by Harvard psychiatrist Richard F. Mollica. This is a story you can only read in a student publication; the mainline media did not consider it newsworthy.
Mr. Obama spoke of his desire for peace negotiations in which the Taliban should be included. Before Saigon fell in 1975, there were also “peace negotiations” with Hanoi and the Vietcong. In the end, the Communist invaders vanquished the democratic half of their country. It is not hip to say that South Vietnam was a democracy, albeit a flawed one. It had one of the most elegant constitutions and, fighting for its survival, conducted admirably free elections while back home in the U.S.A. hordes of Boomers marched through the streets waving Vietcong flags and shouting “Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh.”
So now “peace talks” have again become the mantra. But peace talks with whom? With insurgents believing that they are under God’s command to impose their system on the whole world? What concessions can we expect from such interlocutors? That they proceed at first gingerly in whipping and stoning their women should they dare to drive, study, leave their husbands or, Allah forbid, resist arranged marriages at an age when others have just stopped toddling? Knowing the Taliban’s past, I marvel at the Western women’s movement atypical restraint when pondering the possibility; hypocrisy is of course another feature of populism.
One can be grateful that comparison between Vietnam and Afghanistan ends when it comes to the treatment of returning warriors. Four decades ago they were badmouthed, called baby killers, abandoned by wives and girl friends, even asked not to attend their home churches in uniform; this was a time when America truly showed its ugly side.
Today this is not the case, thank God, but it seems that once again populists, driven by the growing impatience of their home front, might deprive their military from completing their mission victoriously. If so, populism will trump democracy. The consequences will be much more dire than in Vietnam. There the adversaries were Marxists, belonging to a movement that soon imploded worldwide. In Afghanistan the foe is a radical strain of a religion with a 1,400-year history and global missionary aspirations, though they are currently in the defensive, just like the Vietcong after the Têt Offensive of 1968. Still, they might yet succeed. How? Read General Giap.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, is conducting a lecture tour related to the 50th anniversary of the erection of the Berlin Wall, which he covered as a young reporter of The Associated Press. For information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. He has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.