Ghosts of Vietnam haunt US policy

'Operations other than war'

his week, witTh the horrific terrorist attacks around the country, the United States is learning that foreign wars may not be the country's biggest security concern. A generation ago, this was not the case. The spread of communism and the fall of "dominoes" was the prime concern, and the focus was on a little-known country in Southeast Asia.

Any short list of books on the Vietnam War would include David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," the 1973 classic that devastatingly looks at the US government architects of this country's longest and most disruptive conflict. It remains a text for those wanting to understand how the commitment of a few American military advisers in Southeast Asia became a quagmire involving a force that escalated to more than half a million US servicemen.

That the Vietnam War would have profound impact on how Americans view their military - and, more obviously, how the military services view themselves - was inevitable. Civilians (and especially politicians) had no interest in repeating a tragic fiasco that cost more than 58,000 American lives. Even more so, career military officers did not want to find themselves in another costly war halfway around the world with no clear objective (no definition of "winning") and a level of public support that dwindled to virtually nothing, and left holding the bag for misguided political decisions.

"War in a Time of Peace," Halberstam's new work, takes the same kind of look at American foreign and military policy in the 1990s - emphasizing the background, experience, and personalities of the key players.

Everywhere he looks, Halberstam finds the "ghosts of Vietnam": among the civilians in the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton, few of whom served in Vietnam and some of whom had actively opposed the war; among the Pentagon brass - junior combat officers in Vietnam and now running the largest and most powerful military force in human history; and among the American public and the media, which lost interest in most of what constitutes "foreign affairs" after the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union fractured.

Bill Clinton, who had no foreign policy experience and who had avoided military service, entered his first presidential race chiding incumbent Bush for caring more about obscure foreign places than he did about hometown America. ("It's the economy, stupid.") Bush had just presided over the brief and clearly successful Gulf War, and yet Clinton accurately read the public mood, and Bush was out.

But "teacup wars," as analyst Les Gelb had called them - Iraq, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo - had a way of intruding on the lone and now more inward-looking superpower, and the Clinton team had little choice but to get involved.

Even stickier in the post-Vietnam era were those "Operations Other Than War" (OOTW, as the acronym-addicted Pentagon calls them) - dealing with human rights violations, in some cases (like Rwanda) amounting to genocide. Or "nation building" in places like Somalia where tribalism and warlords prevail.

The relationship between the Clinton administration and Pentagon generals and admirals was bumpy from the start (as it was likely to be, to some extent, with any civilian-run White House). But Halberstam, who interviewed just about every key figure and scores of minor ones, finds this to have been true throughout the 1990s.

"By 1998 the senior military men still did not really trust Clinton and the people around him, and he, in turn, still did not trust them," Halberstam writes. "Their purposes were more often than not different, their codes were different, their journeys to the top were different, their Americas were different, and their worlds were different."

But it was even more complicated than that, with competing factions - hawks and doves - within the military and civilian camps. And always, Vietnam - "a graveyard of good intentions and false hopes and artificially distilled optimism" - hung over the discussions and intra-government struggles.

Halberstam is at his best when describing why that was so - particularly in his profiles of top officials at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon. Of these, the portraits of Richard Holbrooke and General Wesley Clark stand out. When he gets off into other political struggles (the Monica Lewinsky affair, etc.) he is less original. I also found myself wanting more analysis based on his 30 years of observation of US foreign policy making.

The end of the Clinton years was not the end of Vietnam-tinged struggles between (and among) civilian and military leaders, as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush are now finding out. It may take another generation, and another Halberstam, to chronicle the full exorcism.

Monitor staff writer Brad Knickerbocker was a US Navy combat pilot in Vietnam.

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