This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
I recently read Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. No book -- that antiquated object that displays writing on pages of paper -- has gotten news attention quite like it in a long time. Of course, that's what happens when only one person truly matters anymore -- and you know just whom I mean. Wolff's account is claustrophobic in a way only imaginable in the age of Trump. Once you plunge into the White House with him, you never again leave the premises or the company of the bizarre cast of characters inhabiting it.
Still, amid the controversy that began with the initial revelations of that book's explosive contents; the instant threat from President Trump's lawyers to sue if it were actually published ("defamation by libel"); the record book sales that followed; Trump's tweets about the book ("a work of fiction"), Wolff ("a total loser"), and those who spilled the beans to him ("sloppy Steve Bannon"); Wolff's claims about Trump's mental state ("he's lost it") and the president's defense of it ("a very stable genius"); and Trump's further attacks on Wolff followed by more bombshells about life in Trumpland via Wolff's interviews with various media figures; and... well, you get the idea. Yet there was one line that no one seemed to quote. Amid all the claustrophobic fire and fury of the news coverage, I suspect no one (except me) even noticed it. So let me offer it to you with a little context as my own contribution to the Wolff imbroglio. Trump adviser Steve Bannon, whose revelations to Wolff blew him out of Trump's orbit, evidently wasn't a great fan of the president's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. According to Wolff, he "began a campaign to brand McMaster as a globalist, interventionist, and all around not-our-kind-of-Trumper -- and, to boot, soft on Israel."
In a manner not atypical of the book, Wolff adds, "It was a scurrilous, albeit partly true, attack." And then came that (to me) telltale sentence: "McMaster was in fact talking to Petraeus often." The reference is to former General and CIA Director David Petraeus (who lost that position by passing classified information to his biographer, also his lover, for which he pled guilty to a crime). Petraeus nonetheless remains the go-to military god of the twenty-first-century American pantheon of war. He's the modern stand-in for Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur -- the only catch being that, unlike them, he didn't win his wars; not via his famous "surge" in Iraq, nor as the head of U.S. Central Command overseeing the war on terror in the Greater Middle East, nor in his commandership of the war in Afghanistan. In an age when winning American generals are like polar bears in the tropics, after 16 years of constant warfare across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, he's the best this country has to offer.
Under the circumstances, perhaps it should be no surprise that the first bit of notoriety for the man who became America's "surge general" par excellence came from his defense of a losing war he had had no part in: Vietnam. As TomDispatch regular U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad, shows today in stunning detail, he wasn't alone. It seems that the military brass of the present era is still wedded to that war (or at least a "winning" version of it) in a way unlikely to be "put asunder" anytime soon.
So read Sjursen and think again about just what it means that one of the three key generals Donald Trump placed atop his administration is talking regularly (and assumedly getting advice from) David Petraeus and probably isn't alone in doing so. Tom
The War That Never Ends (for the U.S. Military High Command)
And It's Not the War on Terror
By Danny Sjursen- Advertisement -
Vietnam: it's always there. Looming in the past, informing American futures.
A 50-year-old war, once labeled the longest in our history, is still alive and well and still being refought by one group of Americans: the military high command. And almost half a century later, they're still losing it and blaming others for doing so.
Of course, the U.S. military and Washington policymakers lost the war in Vietnam in the previous century and perhaps it's well that they did. The United States really had no business intervening in that anti-colonial civil war in the first place, supporting a South Vietnamese government of questionable legitimacy, and stifling promised nationwide elections on both sides of that country's artificial border. In doing so, Washington presented an easy villain for a North Vietnamese-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency, a group known to Americans in those years as the Vietcong.
More than two decades of involvement and, at the war's peak, half a million American troops never altered the basic weakness of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon. Despite millions of Asian deaths and 58,000 American ones, South Vietnam's military could not, in the end, hold the line without American support and finally collapsed under the weight of a conventional North Vietnamese invasion in April 1975.
There's just one thing. Though a majority of historians (known in academia as the "orthodox" school) subscribe to the basic contours of the above narrative, the vast majority of senior American military officers do not. Instead, they're still refighting the Vietnam War to a far cheerier outcome through the books they read, the scholarship they publish, and (most disturbingly) the policies they continue to pursue in the Greater Middle East.
The Big Re-Write- Advertisement -
In 1986, future general, Iraq-Afghan War commander, and CIA director David Petraeus penned an article for the military journal Parameters that summarized his Princeton doctoral dissertation on the Vietnam War. It was a piece commensurate with then-Major Petraeus's impressive intellect, except for its disastrous conclusions on the lessons of that war. Though he did observe that Vietnam had "cost the military dearly" and that "the frustrations of Vietnam are deeply etched in the minds of those who lead the services," his real fear was that the war had left the military unprepared to wage what were then called "low-intensity conflicts" and are now known as counterinsurgencies. His takeaway: what the country needed wasn't less Vietnams but better-fought ones. The next time, he concluded fatefully, the military should do a far better job of implementing counterinsurgency forces, equipment, tactics, and doctrine to win such wars.
Two decades later, when the next Vietnam-like quagmire did indeed present itself in Iraq, he and a whole generation of COINdinistas (like-minded officers devoted to his favored counterinsurgency approach to modern warfare) embraced those very conclusions to win the war on terror. The names of some of them -- H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, for instance -- should ring a bell or two these days. In Iraq and later in Afghanistan, Petraeus and his acolytes would get their chance to translate theory into practice. Americans -- and much of the rest of the planet -- still live with the results.
Like Petraeus, an entire generation of senior military leaders, commissioned in the years after the Vietnam War and now atop the defense behemoth, remain fixated on that ancient conflict. After all these decades, such "thinking" generals and "soldier-scholars" continue to draw all the wrong lessons from what, thanks in part to them, has now become America's second longest war.