For better or worse, the Vietnam War proved itself to be a learning experience for Americans and the U.S. government. In the military, it resulted in what became known as “The Weinberger Doctrine,” which set up a number of demanding conditions for a president to consider before committing significant numbers of troops to foreign wars. For the public, it led to the derisively termed “Vietnam Syndrome,” which combines skepticism toward the nation’s foreign policymakers with weariness about America’s often self-imposed global “policing” role in other countries.
It is unwise to rely on counterfactual history, but after the Vietnam War, it is worth examining the U.S. military’s avoidance of certain unpopular wars. Consider, for example, the opinion conveyed by the bumper sticker “’El Salvador’ is Spanish for ‘Vietnam.’” These kind of sentiments, coupled with the military’s own desire to avoid wars that lacked strong public support, prevented U.S. proxy wars in Central America, southern Africa, and possibly the Middle East—at least for a little while.
In many respects, former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq was an even greater catastrophe than Vietnam—one that is even less morally and intellectually defensible. And yet, as a nation, we appear to have learned virtually nothing this time around. As Peter Baker noted in The New York Times, “a conspiracy of silence” surrounded the recently observed 10th anniversary of the invasion. “Republicans and Democrats agreed that they did not really want to talk about the Iraq war,” wrote Baker.
This past month, the media has sought out some of the war’s most vocal supporters to reflect on lessons learned, if any, from their errors 10 years ago. A small percentage of the war hawks who originally supported the invasion sought to defend their initial views. An even smaller group apologized for their errors. But the overwhelming tendency among these formerly loquacious pundits and ex-officials was to change the subject away from the war itself. Read, for instance, George Packer’s 10th-anniversary essay in The New Yorker or Paul Berman’s in The New Republic or Kenneth Pollack’s interview featured in Ezra Klein’s column on Bloomberg.com to see if you can determine whether these one-time armchair warriors were expressing regret, or attempting to excuse their own lack of judgment. I sure couldn’t.
Then again, why should they reconsider? It’s not as if anyone—with the possible exception of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Bush—paid any kind of professional price for their colossal errors regarding Iraq. Certainly nobody’s career was hurt by the inaccuracy of rosy predictions about the war. Indeed, the opposite proved true: The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol perhaps predicted the outcome of the war most inaccurately, and yet he ended up with opinion columns in Time magazine and on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Once the war’s failure became clear, it’s as if the entire mainstream media decided to adopt the sentiments expressed by the liberal Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen, borrowed from the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade: “You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong.”
Upon rereading their prewar arguments, one can understand the liberal pundits’ desire to change the subject 10 years later rather than revisit their fallacious arguments, or try to draw larger lessons from their mistakes. The liberal hawks—almost exclusively men—became men of ideas wanting to be men of action. They embraced what the historian Christopher Lasch called “the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals”—to be bold, to reject doubt, and to fight with ideas rather than guns.
Instead of careful cost-benefit analyses of invading Iraq, these intellectual war hawks gave us airy phrases that did not address the actual difficulties the United States was likely to face in Iraq after the initial fighting was over. Many preferred to focus on what the war would do for America’s self-regard as a nation. When the twin towers went down in 2001, the liberal journalist George Packer began a collected set of essays called “The Fight is for Democracy.” Ten years later, he reminisced about his first thoughts after 9/11: “Maybe this will make us better.”
Packer and other liberal hawks, including Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Cohen, David Rieff, Roger Cohen, and Jacob Weisberg, gained popularity in the media despite a gap in their lack of military experience. Indeed, none possessed any particular professional expertise on military strategy, Iraqi society, or the Arab world more generally. They saw their own ideas, as the neoconservative writer Jacob Heilbrunn would write, “as weapons in a moral struggle.”
Indeed, most liberal hawks gave little thought to the Bush administration’s ability to carry out the complicated tasks that would follow the relatively simple task of facing a badly armed third-world military force in open battle. Apparently they expected the postwar reconstruction of Iraqi governance and civil society to take care of itself. The hawks flattered themselves that they knew bigger, more important things than such trivial details. Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens made this plain in his 2010 memoir, when he casually observed that he and his comrades “rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of.”
That’s as far as they got before making assertions and statements about why we needed to go to war. Now take a look at this chart to see where the war ultimately got us. The Vietnam War led to many tragic results, but at least it briefly taught the United States that wars in far-off nations were not endeavors to be taken lightly, or without an understanding of the culture we were seeking to reform—at least until 2003.
Many of the same people who treated the cautionary signals regarding Iraq so blithely 10 years ago now appear to be agitating for yet another adventure, this time in Iran. It would behoove us to ensure that we focus on the lessons of that catastrophe before embarking on yet another one. This time it won’t do to merely change the subject.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.