HDS Greenway: Why couldn't the Vietnamese act more like Americans? Now we hear the same refrain for Afghanistan





[HDS Greenway leads the Opinion and Analysis section for GlobalPost. He has been a journalist for 50 years and recently retired from the Boston Globe after a distinguished career]

When the history of America’s Afghan war is written, a memorable moment will be President Obama’s solitary walk in Arlington Cemetery’s gardens of stone on Veteran’s day — the young, inexperienced commander-in-chief, with a portentous decision to make taking a moment to walk among those who died in what are now his wars. It is as if he sought to consult, just for a little while, with those who had gone before while he wrestled with whether to send more their way.

Not far away from where Obama walked is the grave of another young and inexperienced president who had exhorted his countrymen to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in the defense of freedom. As Joseph Galloway and Harold Moore wrote in their book, “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young, ” his call was heeded.

“John F. Kennedy waited for us on a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, and in time we came in our thousands to fill those slopes with our white marble markers and to ask on the murmur of the wind if that was truly the future he had envisioned for us.” ...

... Bundy and Robert McNamara, too, both of whom served Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, came to believe that the Americanization of the Vietnam War was a mistake, even though they argued in favor of it at the time. Bundy’s last words on the matter were: “My wish now is that we had done less.”

President Obama is said to have read Gordon Goldstein’s book “Lessons in Disaster” which chronicle Bundy’s tortured path toward realization that all he had believed about American intervention was flawed.

Obama must have had a flash of recognition when he read what Bundy had said when he served Johnson: “We cannot limit ourselves to one objective at a time. We, like Ceasar, have all things to do at once.” The Johnson administration, like Obama’s own, was in a hurry with a powerful domestic agenda, but had to make a painful decision about whether to escalate a war it had not started.

Americans then, like Americans now, were frustrated with the client state they were trying to save. Why couldn’t the Vietnamese act and think more like Americans? Today one hears the same refrain. Why can’t Hamid Karzai shape up and run Afghanistan the way Americans would?...

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