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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/30/11

Vietnam and the New American Way of War

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Patriotic and even martial sentiments swelled.  Self-flagellation and self-absorption had gone on too long and aversion to the use of force had been a mistake.   People yearned for the day when America's prestige and might were supreme, when all nations respected the US or at least feared it.

In the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan invoked images of the Western frontier, old-time heroes, and the victory of World War Two.  This was based more on Hollywood than on actual events, but wars and politics are usually befogged by myth.  Reagan won handily and embarked on a concerted effort to revitalize patriotism, with pride in military power the centerpiece – as it more often than not is.

Military spending went up sharply.  The nation recommitted itself to the global contest with the Soviet Union – an "evil empire" against which American virtue and might were once again pitted.  WW2 battleships – symbols of the nation's power and its victory at sea – were returned to active duty.  As the economy recovered from a deep recession, all seemed right in the land once more. 

Today's Military

The early years of the volunteer army were unpromising.  Many recruits were disciplinary problems; morale and cohesion, already problematic after years of war and tumult, worsened; experienced NCOs and officers left the service in large numbers.  In less than a decade, however, as a result of both internal military policies and external social change, the military became highly skilled, exceptionally professional, and devastatingly effective.

The military is far more homogeneous than in conflicts of the previous century.  It is drawn disproportionately from rural areas and small towns where orientations toward military service and national traditions are far stronger than in most cities and suburbs, and where Vietnam is a shameful event in the nation's history – one that must never be repeated and one that had to be avenged.     

The experience of Vietnam left many cultural legacies, one of which was the diminution of unrealistic expectations about war.  Vietnam movies created a sobering template for young people just as WW2 movies had made a glorious one for their fathers.  In post-Vietnam movies, war is hard and cruel, often pointless.  Politicians are inept, spineless, and corrupt – polar opposites of the idealized soldier, who is often a maltreated Vietnam soldier.  

Victory in a traditional sense is elusive or even irrelevant; heroism goes unrewarded; suffering ennobles; and tragedy is simply part of the deal, raw as it is.  Meaning is found not in shining victory or effusive homecoming, but in the initiation into the brotherhood and an attendant sense of honor and accomplishment in playing parts in momentous events far from the ordinary – events few others will experience, comprehend, or appreciate.  

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Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard's Center for International (more...)

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