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Repeating Past Errors
by George de Poor Handlery
05 March 2004

Repeating past errors might be sugar for those who erred. It is acid to those who allow it to be elevated to the level of statecraft.


Supposedly, politics make for strange bedfellows. America is becoming a show-tent where bedfellows are making strange politics. The “issue,” more properly the accusation around which the scenario unfolds, involves “Vietnam.” Like “Fascism,” the term has become a basket suited to carry and conceal nearly anything its weavers want to store in it.

The popularity of these two phrases led to their misuse and corruption into a devalued curse. Anybody can be called a fascist. Most notably the term is used not to pillory real Fascists but to defame nearly anything to the right of Joe Stalin, but especially Conservatives and Libertarians. About these is to be known that not being authoritarian collectivist radicals, in the real world they certainly do not fit the label. Amusingly enough the National Socialists are also referred to as Fascists –which in a way upgrades them. This, courtesy of the “Left du jour,” is due to the “Socialist” in the name and the practice of Nazism. Sometimes birds of the same feathers prefer not to stick together.

“Vietnam” has also become a bendable idiom with the benefit of accepted universal misapplication. This is bad for reality and the accurate use of our terms, but on account of Pavlovian salivation, effective in politics. One should amend: “for leftist politics.” Interestingly enough, the “Right” refrains from using Nam as a base-ball bat. This is odd, because there is no logical reason to surrender the term to the Left.  As ammunition in the “battle of the camps,” Nam has armor piercing potential if fired skillfully from Right to Left. In fact, if you think it through, you might conclude that Nam’s greatest value for the Left is not the damage caused to the Right. If the Left fumbles this rusting cannon ball, the Right might take possession and run it into the end zone.

Why should the Left, in practical terms the official and especially the unofficial Kerry campaign, avoid Viet Nam like snow-men steer clear of hell?  Risking the vigorous disapproval of some readers and also aware of the fact that short presentations inevitably leave some gaps uncovered, here are a few samples. Those inclined to consider the thesis with sympathy will undoubtedly be able to add their own points.

“Nam” does not necessarily prove that US armed opposition to Communist or other ideological domination is a mistake. The defeat in the rice paddies -- often predicted unwisely before the fact in the Gulf War and in the military phase of the war against Hussein -- was not inevitable. That war was lost in “Washington,” not on the scene. Interventions since then, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, two campaigns in Iraq, and Somalia in the negative, bear a message. Contrary to the Vietniks’ implication, militarily “even America” can win. If the right strategy in the field and the correct and principled political leadership from the “center” are paired and then resolutely applied, it is hard to escape success. If, on this level this is so, then Nam has, indeed, a paramount “lesson.” This deduction, however, might not be to the liking of those who ritually invoke the litany of the conjured “lessons of Viet Nam.” There is a right way and a wrong way. The lesson of Nam is that the US has the choice of the right way and it only need to stick to it.

There is something else to rub the nose into of those who got in the 60s “fondad” into the movement, hidden behind beards and under VC flags. Regardless of their political success in sabotaging the USA, they were wrong on every count. For this, the case of one of their major achievements, the “Boat People,” serve as decisive proof. As the pre- and post-history of WW2 shows, peace can be bloodier than war. The post-conflict treatment of the allegedly “liberated,” the fate of peoples thrown as spoils to devouring Pol Pot types, do not cast an advantageous light on the foreign policy competence or the honesty of the once-retired-now-reactivated peaceniks. These might claim now that they were young and innocent at the time. Meanwhile, however, they have become strikingly un-young. Has more wisdom come with every new wrinkle? (The analogy limps. So please forget botox.) Hardly! Have you ever heard a word of regret or a hint of self criticism from the aroused “humanists” of yesteryear? In fact, they not only demonstrate retroactively (forgivable) immaturity in their ‘twens, they are still proud of what they have done and therefore demonstrate that they did not mature in three decades. (The only concession they are willing to make on account of their fallibility is some effort invested to hide or distort their past.) So, they were not only wrong then. They are wrong now: they are likely to remain wrong in the future. Resolution is a trait of leadership. The dogged denial of facts is not. Repeating past errors might be sugar for those who erred. It is acid to those who allow it to be elevated to the level of statecraft. For outside observers the attitude they kerry on is filed under the term: incorrigible.

Now, consider this: what if the President would have handled foreign policy after 9/11 according to the Left’s “lessons of Viet Nam,” that is, had he followed the Fonda-Moore-Streisand troika’s line? Rest assured that things would not be worse. They would be much worse.

And now, let us tackle some aspects of the coming election’s Viet Nam related aspects. A leading Demo candidate is, as the writer can tell from abroad, accusing Bush of “repeating the errors of Viet Nam” in Iraq. Given American involuntary reflexes (that Pavlov, again), the volley fired as an accusation strikes the target destructively. At least at first sight is seems to be so. If, however, the “error of VN” was the lack of resolution in the area of implementation, then Bush is not repeating any of the past errors of Johnson. (Oh, was he not a Democrat?) Lo and behold -- and hold on firmly to the chair on which you are sitting: George Bush’s supposed sin is that he is too resolute and rather unwilling to capitulate under pressure. (That would put him in the Churchill class -- a conjecture that might be too non-PC to mention.) Whatever was done at the time and whatever is being done today might be more connected by the cleavage between the VN-Iraq policies than by their similarities. This in itself would invalidate for those with an IQ much above 80 the foundations of the charge.

Disliked as this assertion might be, it must be asserted that, additionally, also the facts of the two cases diverge significantly. During the Vietnam War there was a -- mistaken -- official US notion that restraint was warranted lest the USSR and China be provoked. After all, they might intervene on behalf of their North Vietnamese minion that supported, as its alter ego, the Viet Cong. (Remember it? That was the supposedly autonomous local force headed by a government that miraculously disappeared once the North’s troops had marched into Saigon.) There is now no “Democratic Republic of Northern Iraq” to accept American capitulation as a proxy of a Superpower (such as the USSR that has gone out of business). Thus the policies and advocacies of the fonda-mentalists of old are passé; unkindly put, they are as irrelevant now as they were originally. If you consider the consequences of America’s final duck and run “solution” in Vietnam, the odium of “repeating mistakes” does not rest on George Bush’ current Iraq policy. If Bush is wrong he is not wrong in the ‘Nam way. No, the peccadillo is the non-accidental error of Bush’ detractors. It is these folks who, joyously, advocate the duplication of the past’s mistakes. They are already crowding on the scene and are wearing the masks they chose to exhibit before. Will the public “buy” the old warmed up script that went over so well in an age that still assumed that America is untouchable and (ignoring Pearl Harbor) invulnerable. All that is now part of a past from before the political equivalent of the Bark. 9/11 might prove to be the beginning of a new era. If its memory will not be sustained, one can (sadly) say that international terrorism will take care of a refresher course.

Decades of well observed “history” reveal to this writer: a mistaken step that makes one land in the middle of a cow-drop placed by the ruse of another, is to be blamed on the perpetrator. If you land in the middle of the same cow-pancake again, it is your mistake. Where the dropping is and what it is, we can now know. Whether America will again soil its hind legs by repeating old mistakes is up to her electorate. Whatever his shortcoming might be, Dubya is not going to be the president of the country if and when it repeats the (Democratic and Republican) errors of Vietnam.

George Handlery is a recently retired historian. He has lived and taught in Europe since 1976.

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