Paul R. Pillar: The Vietnam War and Lessons of History





Paul R. Pillar is director of graduate studies at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and a former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

Every generation has its own defining historical events that shape its attitudes toward current events. Members of later generations easily become disdainful of what they regard as preoccupations with the past. This pattern comes through in an article by James Mann about the different generations represented in the Obama administration's foreign policy apparatus. Mann divides the administration team into a Vietnam generation, which does not want to repeat the misery of that war, a post-Vietnam generation that believes the first generation's reaction to the war made the Democratic Party look too wimpy and naïve about the use of military force, and a still-younger generation that believes both of the previous two cohorts have over-reacted in their different ways to a long-ago and increasingly irrelevant conflict. The attitude of the third group is bluntly expressed by the ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Unlike the previous two administrations, says Rice,

"We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover. It is not the framework for every decision — or any decision, for that matter. I’m sick and tired of reprising all of the traumas and the battles and the psychoses of the 1960s....What frustrated me about the 2004 campaign was, there we were, relitigating ‘Where were you in nineteen sixty-whatever?’ as the big freaking issue between Bush and Kerry — you know, "Did you serve, did you not serve, what did your swift boat brothers think?"  And I’m thinking, "What does that have to do with me and the world we’re living in today?"

Given the ridiculous, or outrageous, way that the Vietnam War was swift-boated into the 2004 election campaign, one can understand Ambassador Rice's disgust. She is too quick, however, to dismiss the relevance of what individual personal histories related to that war, among those who served in it and those who had other priorities, may say about the individuals in question. Sure, it's hard for anyone who has come of age in the era of the all-volunteer military to relate to the situation that young males of a previous generation faced, but that hardly means the responses of those males were irrelevant.

Beyond the personal level, there are all the lessons that have to do with larger issues of national policy and the use of military force...



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