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Vietnam and the New American Way of War

By       Message Brian Downing     Permalink
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Here was a new generation . . . grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.

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F Scott Fitzgerald

Baghdad falls to US forces.

2003 headline

When Saigon fell and the last Huey was pushed overboard into the sea, Americans looked back with dismay on their many foreign entanglements that had culminated in the recent calamity.  Those who cared to look ahead saw little prospect of war.  Surely, they thought, the nation had learned from a war that had brought so much turmoil, cost fifty-eight thousand lives, and ended in defeat.  

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But Americans settled into a period of inwardness and few saw the new way of war coming into being.  The military rebuilt itself, largely independent of the breadth of society, and became the most fearsome army in the world.  War-making, in astonishing contrast to post-Vietnam sensibilities, became a de facto presidential power, legitimized by invocation of national security arguments only desultorily debated.  This power was ceded by congress and endorsed by a gratefully uninvolved nation.  

The Post-Vietnam Nation

Confident that an old militarized society had expended itself, Americans embarked on lives of career, consumerism, and privacy.  Rootedness in a past and the hold of religion had given way amid the war.  Life became more atomized and hedonistic and less deferent to old notions of propriety and civility.  The insightful historian Christopher Lasch noted in 1979 that Americans had created for themselves a "culture of narcissism."

Postwar sensibilities held that military gambits had been integral parts of US history and had led the country onto the path of global empire.  William Appleman Williams observed at the intemperate high point of the war: "Empire is as American as apple pie.  Or as American as the ever westward moving frontier. . . .  Or as American as saving the world from the devil.  Or as American as the veils that Americans have woven to obscure the harsh reality of their imperial record."  ("Rise of an American World Power Complex," in N. D. Houghton, ed., Struggle against History: U.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Revolution [New York: Clarion, 1968], p. 1.)  Embarking on another foreign war was thought impossible. 

After the incandescent victory of the Second World War, generals were revered, but twenty-five years later they were vilified as hidebound militarists.  The armed forces were seen as a redoubt of an atavistic warrior caste and the unfortunate youths forced or tricked into serving.  Veterans of the war in Vietnam were deemed losers, or deranged, or at least as people to be avoided lest they remind one of a disagreeable past.

The military drafted over a million young men during the war a major basis for opposition to the war.  Military service had once been an obligation, a duty owed one's country, but amid the war, it was seen as an unjustifiable intrusion on education and privacy.   When Richard Nixon became president in early 1969, he shifted the combat burden onto the S. Vietnamese army.  By the end of 1970, US troop levels had been reduced 30%, casualties 55%, and draftees 45%.  Concurrently, Nixon reduced then later ended conscription and based the military on volunteers attracted by pay incentives.  Most saw this a victory and happily returned to personal concerns.  Military service was now for others.

Partial Reemergence of the Martial Spirit

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In the fall of 1979, Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage for well over a year.  Many Americans saw the events as an understandable response to past meddling when the US (and Britain) overthrew the Mossadegh government and reinstalled the shah.  Many others, however, were angered that a small country could humiliate them.  

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.

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Brian M Downing is a political-military analyst, and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.

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