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The Afghan Syndrome

Posted on Apr 11, 2012
United States Marine Corps Official Page (CC-BY)

A Marine searches for hidden weapons in Afghanistan.

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Take off your hat. Taps is playing. Almost four decades late, the Vietnam War and its post-war spawn, the Vietnam Syndrome, are finally heading for their American grave.  It may qualify as the longest attempted burial in history.  Last words—both eulogies and curses—have been offered too many times to mention, and yet no American administration found the silver bullet that would put that war away for keeps.

Richard Nixon tried to get rid of it while it was still going on by “Vietnamizing” it.  Seven years after it ended, Ronald Reagan tried to praise it into the dustbin of history, hailing it as “a noble cause.”  Instead, it morphed from a defeat in the imperium into a “syndrome,” an unhealthy aversion to war-making believed to afflict the American people to their core.

A decade later, after the U.S. military smashed Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait in the First Gulf War, George H.W. Bush exulted that the country had finally “kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”  As it turned out, despite the organization of massive “victory parades” at home to prove that this hadn’t been Vietnam redux, that war kicked back.  Another decade passed and there were H.W.’s son W. and his advisors planning the invasion of Iraq through a haze of Vietnam-constrained obsessions.

W.’s top officials and the Pentagon would actually organize the public relations aspect of that invasion and the occupation that followed as a Vietnam opposite’s game—no “body counts” to turn off the public, plenty of embedded reporters so that journalists couldn’t roam free and (as in Vietnam) harm the war effort, and so on.  The one thing they weren’t going to do was lose another war the way Vietnam had been lost.  Yet they managed once again to bog the U.S. military down in disaster on the Eurasian mainland, could barely manage to win a heart or a mind, and even began issuing body counts of the enemy dead.


Square, Site wide

“We don’t do body counts,” General Tommy Franks, Afghan War commander, had insisted in 2001, and as late as November 2006, the president was still expressing his irritation about Iraq to a group of conservative news columnists this way: “We don’t get to say that—a thousand of the enemy killed or whatever the number was.  It’s happening.  You just don’t know it.”  The problem, he explained, was: “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body count team” (à la Vietnam).  And then, of course, those body counts began appearing.

Somehow, over the endless years, no matter what any American president tried, The War—that war—and its doppelganger of a syndrome, a symbol of defeat so deep and puzzling Americans could never bear to fully take it in, refused to depart town.  They were the ghosts on the battlements of American life, representing—despite the application of firepower of a historic nature—a defeat by a small Asian peasant land so unexpected that it simply couldn’t be shaken, nor its “lessons” learned.

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger was typical at the time in dismissing North Vietnam in disgust as “a little fourth rate power,” just as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer would term it “a third-rate country with a population of less than two counties in one of the 50 states of the United States.”  All of which made its victory, in some sense, beyond comprehension.

A Titleholder for Pure, Long-Term Futility

That was then.  This is now and, though the frustration must seem familiar, Washington has gotten itself into a situation on the Eurasian mainland so vexing and perplexing that Vietnam has finally been left in the dust.  In fact, if you hadn’t noticed—and weirdly enough no one has—that former war finally seems to have all but vanished.

If you care to pick a moment when it first headed for the exits, when we all should have registered something new in American consciousness, it would undoubtedly have been mid-2010 when the media decided that the Afghan War, then 8½ years old, had superseded Vietnam as “the longest war” in U.S. history.  Today, that claim has become commonplace, even though it remains historically dubious (which may be why it’s significant).

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blogdog's avatar

By blogdog, April 12, 2012 at 11:24 pm Link to this comment

The Odysseys of Homer, vol. 1.  1857
Chapman, George, trans. (1559?–1634)

Of human frailty, that to see a man
Could so revive from death, yet no way can
Defend from death, his own quick powers it made
Feel there death’s horrors, and he felt life fade
In tears his feeling brain swet; for, in things    
That move past utterance, tears ope all their springs.
Nor are there in the powers that all life bears
More true interpreters of all than tears.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 12, 2012 at 7:37 am Link to this comment

There’s one of those ugly MIA flags, mostly black, flying in the park opposite my front door so, no, Vietnam isn’t over. 

I approve.  Every day it reminds people of the costs of empire.

People remember some wars for a long time.  In recent years we have frequently heard about Munich, Pearl Harbor, the mushroom cloud, and the benefits of American occupation as it was practiced on Germany and Japan, and did not work out so well in Iraq.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as tragedy.  The gods people have worshiped visit us, and are in no hurry to depart.

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By heterochromatic, April 12, 2012 at 7:02 am Link to this comment

crandall——- aces.

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By john crandell, April 11, 2012 at 11:08 pm Link to this comment

Mister Englehardt seems to know a lot about the Vietnam War.

On second thought, we’ve heard this thesis before - and I truly doubt that if they
were still with us, that such persons as Gloria Emerson or David Halberstam would
agree whatsoever. As would Frances Fitzgerald or Neil Sheehan or Michael Herr or
Ron Glasser or Peter Arnett or Bernard Fall or Stanley Karnow or John Laurence or
Larry Burrows or Horst Faas or Macolm Browne or Tim Page or Robert Capa or Ray
Herndon or Charley Mohr or Homer Bigart or John Mecklin or Lucien Conein or
John Paul Vann or Francois Sully or Mert and Darlene Perry or Morley Safer or
William Tuohy or Don Becker or Sean Flynn or even Graham Greene.

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By heterochromatic, April 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment

jimmmmmmmmmmmmmy—- you ain’t all wrong at all….. we wasted a hell of a
lot of our good people in Iraq.

not as many died as in Viet, but a whole hell of a lot were wounded, 10,000 of
them severely.

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By jimmmmmy, April 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm Link to this comment

I realize even though we use a common language our perspectives and word definitions are different in most instances. I make the mistake a lot of times when I post by assuming facts in evidence when that may not be so.  I simply meant that we have wasted many soldiers in various shitholes killing people since 1950.None of these people were ant threat to us. 50 thousand dead in Korea 60 thousand dead in Vietnam 20 or so thousand dead in the middle east and Afghanistan so far This isn’t including the unreported deaths in various small actions like the hunt down of Che [ several chopper crashes with loss of life ] .Panama . Nicaragua, Honduras . Chile, Grenada , Lebanon, and on and on. “War is a racket” Smedley Butler.

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By heterochromatic, April 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm Link to this comment

PH—- we’ve been there so long there’s a syndrome named after it.—-

wait till we occupy China again.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, April 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm Link to this comment

Great, we’ve been there so long there’s a syndrome named after it.

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By heterochromatic, April 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm Link to this comment

jimmmmmmmmmmmmmmy——you think that we’ve used
soldiers up in Afghanistan same as in Viet-nam?

you don’t really mean that, d’ya? I’m just not reading
ya right. Right?

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By jimmmmmy, April 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

As a Vietnam vet I thought the article was thoughtful and made its point. This empire is using up its soldiers stupidly and quickly in historical terms. Its well known that they put something in the soda pop in the U.S. to ensure memory

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By heterochromatic, April 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm Link to this comment

prisdilemia——-No it’s not ove…...

was it over when the germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

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prisnersdilema's avatar

By prisnersdilema, April 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment

No it’s not over… because Vietnam would set the pattern for decaders and generations
to come.. The lies, the misdirections, the disinformaiton, and the enormous profits of the
military industrial complex, that had the government by the balls.

Then there are the rows and rows of flag draped coffins we are no longer allowed to
see, and the families, who suffer and continue to suffer trying to fill the empty spaces in
their life, with the tin ornaments of a false patriotism that was used as a justification for
the sacrifice of so much.

The better question, is when will we learn?

When will we learn?

No Vietnam is not over… Nor is Iraq, and Afganistan… or the other countless atrocities
we have committed in the name of Freedom, while granting precious little freedom to
any of those we allegedly fought for. No is it over as long as anyone of our service men
and women bear the pain of the wounds they received, from our so called leaders. As
long as their families members wonder if their sacrifice was worth it.

As long as our leaders lie, and tell tall tales, about what we have done over there,
Vietnam is not over.  Nor will it ever be.

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By heterochromatic, April 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm Link to this comment

Tom Englehardt is no fool.

He just plays one on the internet.

He could have done a hell of a lot better comparing and
contrasting if he wasn’t tied to pushing an agenda.

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