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The Tactics Have Changed, but the Goal and the Failure of Leadership Remain the Same

by Caleb Rossiter*

This is not Vietnam," promised President Clinton in Bogota August 30, as he waived a congressional requirement that prominent military murderers be prosecuted, and transferred one billion dollars of arms and training to the Colombian armed forces: "There won't be American involvement in a shooting war." That same day The Washington Post intoned in support of this aid package, which will expand Colombia's armed forces as they try to defeat leftist rebels under the guise of an anti-narcotics campaign: "Talk of ëanother Vietnam' in Colombia is irresponsible hyperbole. (There will be) no introduction of U.S. combat forces." It appears that Clinton and the Post, who as anti-war student and pro-war newspaper disagreed about escalation in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, now agree on one thing about that war: its primary definition as a guerrilla war in which U.S. troops are killed and maimed in ground combat.

Until now, the most common American definition of "Vietnam" was the one used by President Bush when he declared after the Gulf War, "the Vietnam syndrome is dead." By this definition, Vietnam means a war America loses because the goals and tactics of its military forces have been limited by political constraints. In cruder terms, this is the myth Oliver North trotted out during the Iran-Contra hearings, when he said that we lost the war not in Vietnam but in Washington. North and millions of Americans believe that Congress, bent on appeasing screaming hippies and whining reporters, denied our troops the missions and the tools they needed to win the war. The inaccuracy of this "stab-in-the-back" syndrome can be seen in the Gulf War that supposedly ended it. The same fear of politically unacceptable casualties that kept us from invading and occupying North Vietnam -- the only addition to the staggering level of U.S. military violence in Indochina that could have won the war -- weighed heavily in Bush's decision not to seek a full victory by seizing Baghdad.

The definition of Vietnam used by Clinton and the Post is not a false one, like Bush's. Lyndon Johnson's approval of General William Westmoreland's request for ground combat divisions in 1965 was indeed a fateful development in America's strategies for pre-eminence, both globally and in Indochina. However, America waged war in Vietnam from 1948 to 1975, from long before until a few years after the presence of what grew to be half a million U.S combat troops, so this definition obscures the purpose, the complexity, and the devastation of America's war in Vietnam. It also fails to address the studied ignorance and political cowardice displayed during the war by our leaders in politics, the armed forces, and the media.

The ignorance came in 1964 and 1965, when these leaders limited the public debate to the "how" of our goals and tactics rather than the "why" of what could be called the "Vietnam foreign policy" -- our efforts to sustain post-colonial governments who would cooperate with the economic needs of American corporations and the military needs of the Pentagon's global deployment. The cowardice came after the Tet offensive in 1968, when they could see that the war wasn't winnable, yet opposed an unpopular, quick withdrawal, and so sacrificed to their careers and to U.S. "credibility" as many American and many more Vietnamese lives as had been lost up to that point.

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Some of the harshest critiques of the Vietnam War have come from officers who have honed in on the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-level leaders to fashion a winning strategy or to protest a losing one. In 1972 Edward King, the highest-ranking officer to resign rather than take part in the war, published The Death of the Army, which accused officers who did not speak out against the flawed purpose and failed mission of breaking their fundamental contract of trust with their soldiers. In 1982 Harry Summers, a staff planner in Vietnam, published On Strategy, which highlighted the fatal limitations imposed by U.S. goals and hammered top officers for not resigning over them. And since its publication in 1998, required reading for senior officers has been Dereliction of Duty, H. R. McMasters' indictment of the joint chiefs of 1961 to 1965 for approving John Kennedy's and then Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.

Using a treasure trove of recently-released internal documents, McMasters presented a strong case for what King, Summers, and even the anti-war movement of the 1960s could only guess at: the joint chiefs knew that nothing short of full-scale war -- the invasion and occupation of North Vietnam by massive U.S. forces -- would do the job, yet they put their public prestige behind a strategy of violent "message-sending" and "credibility" that led to the purposeless deaths of millions of Vietnamese and 55,000 Americans. His book lets Americans see for the first time how our military leaders, men with proven physical courage, can be betrayed by the human tendency to go along and get along rather than threaten one's career and reputation. Before McMasters, we only knew this in detail about civilian leaders like Robert MacNamara, McGeorge and William Bundy, Dean Rusk, and Henry Kissinger from biographies like Kai Bird's The Color of Truth and Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power.

Given the focus of nearly all military critics (King being the notable exception) on fixing the strategy of our interventions rather than the foreign policy that leads to them, it is probably not surprising that a Vietnam combat veteran, retired Army General and current U.S. anti-drug director Barry McCaffrey, is a major force behind aid to Colombia. In a recent response to criticism of his lengthy counter-attack on a retreating Iraqi division that blundered into his division during the Gulf War cease-fire, he offers Vietnam-based rationales for the use of military power and the need to obtain public support for it. McCaffrey calls Vietnam a "shameful chapter for America" ñ not because the war was wrong, but because when troops returned home they received "little of the respect and compassion that had been earned." His primary lesson of Vietnam is that we should "never again go to war without the full understanding and support of the American people." For that reason, he uses his bully pulpit to justify the use of the armed forces to meet the threat of illegal drugs, which each year "cost our nation 52,000 drug-related deaths and roughly $110 billion in societal costs."

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Our failure to confront both the policy assumptions that took us into the Vietnam War and the shallowness of the debates that kept us there has brought much misery to ourselves and the world. The track record of the Vietnam foreign policy, with or without U.S. troops, predicts that a U.S.-backed war in Colombia will be just as disastrous for the people of South America as the Vietnam War was for the people of Indochina. After Vietnam, the United States continued to support repressive yet cooperative governments, but stopped deploying U.S. combat units as part of its mix of tactics. The Pentagon claimed that by training and arming repressive armies in El Salvador, Indonesia, even Haiti and now Colombia it could inculcate respect for democracy and human rights, but the record shows that such aid only makes forces better at repression, not respect. The most appalling result of the Vietnam foreign policy, and the one with the closest parallel to Colombia, occurred in El Salvador in the 1980s, after Congress chose to pursue military victory rather than a negotiated settlement.

The Pentagon, the Agency for International Development, and the Central Intelligence Agency funded a five-fold expansion of the brutal Salvadoran Armed Forces as they tried to defeat leftist rebels and repress left-leaning social movements. The societal costs, to borrow McCaffrey's phrase, were heavy: over 80,000 dead and one million driven from their homes in a country of five million ñ comparatively, like four million dead and 50 million displaced in the United States. Still, the strategy failed. The rebels remained strong, the army remained corrupt and repressive, and only the assassination of Jesuit priests in 1989 by the premier U.S.-created battalion, on the orders of and covered up by the High Command, brought an end to the war.

The killings and particularly the cover-up led Congress to cut aid at the urging of disgusted former supporters of U.S. aid, like Representative Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Despite a Bush administration waiver of the first aid cuts, the handwriting on the wall convinced the High Command to take their money and run. This cleared the way for the rebels to run relatively safely and successfully for office and to join the armed police force in large numbers. This settlement was just the sort of political deal the United States had been rejecting throughout the decade.

In Colombia, as was the case in El Salvador and Vietnam, the military and political strength of the rebels and the popular appeal of their grievances means that there is no military victory possible for the American-backed side, short of "destroying the town in order to save it" ñ as a U.S. commander said of Ben Tre in 1968. This will be true whether the troops we fund in an impossible search for victory are Colombian or American. The Woodrow Wilson Center's Cynthia Arnson, in a forthcoming report on U.S. policy in the civil wars in El Salvador and Colombia, argues that Colombian society generally favors a settlement of the war rather than a military drive for victory, and is ready to discuss the profound reforms it will require:

The vigor of the civilian peace movement is unprecedented in Latin America. During the 1997 municipal elections, a "civilian mandate for peace" garnered 10 million votes. All major candidates in the 1998 presidential elections recognized the salience of the peace issue by making the search for a negotiated settlement a core component of their political platformÖThere is an insistence by the guerrillas, and a recognition by prominent Colombian academics and policymakers (including several former peace advisers), that the current peace process must go beyond prior formulas of disarmament, demobilization, and reincorporation and deal instead with the root causes of conflict. Reforms in Colombia must be deep and novel enough to warrant the risk of laying down weapons (and must address) structural economic issues.

Arnson believes that the U.S. aid package gives the armed forces the means and the motive to disrupt the peace process, and she chides the Clinton administration and Congress for a strategy that makes sense for American politics, not for the Colombian reality: "In Colombia as in El Salvador, the political imperative to confront the central threat of drugs risks displacing a more complex, and thereby less politically appealing, analysis of the multiple ills besetting Colombian democracy: paramilitarism, human rights abuse, corruption, economic decline, institutional decay." She calls for a vigorous debate by Americans, reminding us that: "It was not policy consensus but its breakdown that opened the door to a negotiated solution in El Salvador."

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Claims by President Clinton and The Washington Post notwithstanding, Colombia already is Vietnam, already is El Salvador, in a number of important ways. Once again, millions of refugees displaced by war are straining the social and economic fabric of a country. Once again, a region's leaders are seeing an escalated war spilling over their borders. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez talks about the need to "avoid the Vietnamization of the region" he means that military pressure in Colombia is starting to push refugees, rebels, and drug operations are starting to spill over into Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Panama. Once again, U.S. forces patrol the skies, providing intelligence and communication, directing if not carrying out attacks. Once again, hundreds of combat trainers and advisers are in-country, helping run the war if not carrying out attacks. Once again, top U.S. diplomatic and military planners are ignorant of the ground they are treading. Those I speak with argue that reducing the income the rebels receive from protecting drug traffickers will cripple the insurgency. They have never heard of, let alone read, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1967 novel about the cyclical Colombian conflict, which shows that long before there was drug money, this conflict had deep social roots.

Once again, the Agency for International Development (AID) is dragging through the mud of civil war its reputation for helping the poor. In South Vietnam, it funded the government's war budget and the army's "strategic hamlets"; in El Salvador it paid for the dramatic expansion of the army by putting more cash into the government's budget that the government itself, and again picked up the tab for "community development" in army-controlled areas; in Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica it provided "humanitarian" and "non-lethal" assistance to the contra army and cash support to governments in return for their backing of the contras. Now in Colombia it is funding the fig-leaf of economic and legal reforms that has been placed over the military effort.

Once again, to maintain control over a region, our leaders are escalating a civil war that they know cannot be won but are scared to say they must be settled or lost. Once again they are dodging criticism by hiding behind a popular crusade. In Vietnam and El Salvador, the crusade was against communism. In Colombia it is against drugs, despite the fact that for forty years U.S. efforts to reduce the use of illegal drugs have pointlessly squeezed the balloon of drug supply from Thailand to Turkey to Peru to, most recently, Colombia, all with no impact on the availability of drugs for determined American consumers. As is the case with national missile defense, most of our leaders know that the drug war in Colombia cannot work at the present, probably can never work, and would be a disaster for our national security even if it could, but few of them dare to take the political hear of saying so.

Among the many definitions of "Vietnam," perhaps the most important is the one held by the people of Indochina. As George Kahin's America in Vietnam informed anyone who cared to hear criticism of U.S. policy in the mid-1960s, what we call the Vietnam War was for them the 20-year final chapter in the 60-year Vietnamese war of independence, waged first against the French and then against the Japanese. It was a particularly devastatingly chapter, this period of American control of South Vietnam, from the Geneva peace agreement of 1954 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The astounding level of power and violence applied by the United States dwarfed the efforts of France and Japan, and spread out to devastate Laos and Cambodia as well. The war resulted in millions of deaths, not even counting the millions slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, after its long-standing stability was ended by U.S. bombings and an invasion.

As we debate aid to Colombia, we should be keeping in mind the perspective of the Colombians and other Latin Americans who, like the Indochinese, will be trapped in the middle of our bloody morality play, victims of both our weak domestic politics and our too potent geopolitics. That should give us cause to build a sustained public response that can eventually discredit the goal of a military victory and lead to peace, just as it did in El Salvador and, yes, just as it did in Vietnam.

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* Caleb Rossiter is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a consultant on landmine policy at the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Formerly the deputy director of the congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, he is also the author of The Chimes of Freedom Flashing: A Personal History of the Vietnam Anti-war Movement and the 1960s (TCA Press, 1996).

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