The about-face performed by commanders of the war in Afghanistan over the past week - prompted by the discovery that hundreds, and perhaps thousands of al-Qaida and Taliban troops had regrouped in the southeastern mountains - brought the American public face-to-face with the reality of the conflict for the first time. Strangely, the military is acting as if the public’s tolerance for such things is being sorely tested, as if our troops are engaged in some kind of unpopular and abstract intervention.
YEARS OF absorbing the “lessons of Vietnam” appear to have innoculated the military from the idea that a war which begins with an attack on the American homeland is one that bears no relation to the debacle in Southeast Asia. Compared with the Vietnam years, there is virtually no dissent over these matters. No American cities were devastated by the Vietnamese; no threat of further attacks weighed on the public’s mind. Yet the military apologizes for combat casualties - though not the civilian casualties it failed to prevent - as if it has now become normal to win wars without them.
Of course, the military does not believe this, but they do fear that the American public does. As a result, caution, or more specifically, a risk-averse strategy, has led to the war’s two big mistakes: the failure to prevent the escape of Osama bin Laden and his clique in November, and now, a miscalculation that led to the first significant American combat casualties.
The force sent to engage last weekend what were assumed to be disorganized remnants of the enemy turned out to be woefully insufficient, both in numbers and the punch they packed. After regrouping and reinforcing the original force with European, Afghan and American troops, the Battle of Shah-e-Kot appears to be going the Pentagon’s way.
But at least eight Americans died there, along with at least three of our Afghan allies. Many others were wounded. Even worse, it appears that the military repeated the same error it made back in November when al-Qaida’s leadership high-tailed it to safety: the escape routes to Pakistan, either by choice or by accident, were left open. One of the battle’s Afghan commanders confirmed as much on Thursday, assuring reporters that now, five days after the battle began, “the enemy is surrounded.”
Why the caution? If anyone needed reminding of what it is that haunts the military, the general in charge said it inadvertently this week when he opened Monday’s briefing by offering prayers for the families of those killed “in our ongoing operations in Vietnam.”
Gen. Tommy Franks, a highly decorated artillery officer during that war, quickly corrected himself, saying “Vietnam was a long time ago, and not at all like what we’re seeing now.” But it is very clear that this generation of military commanders will do almost anything to hold down military casualties.
To be fair, it has been a very long time since combat casualties were a “normal” part of American life. Since Vietnam, death more often than not has found American troops off the battlefield, not on it. The 1993 raid in Mogadishu aside, American troops generally have routed their foes on the battlefield - in Grenada, in Panama and, of course, in Iraq. The large casualties of recent years are the result of terrorism, whether it is a poorly defended Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 (241 dead), or a similarly exposed dormitory in the Saudi desert in 1996 (19 dead), or an unsuspecting Navy destroyer in Aden harbor in 2000 (17 dead).
So, in some ways, you can’t blame Franks and Rumsfeld and the rest for worrying. They don’t doubt the mettle of their troops; they doubt the mettle of the American public to accept the reality of war. How could they not, given that Vietnam was their formative experience?
SOFT AND CODDLED
Vietnam taught the military that when wars start, the public is highly suspect. From their view, there are an awful lot of people of voting age and well beyond these days who don’t understand the most basic realities about the military. This may even be the majority of the population by now. If you’re 45 or younger - or if you’re older and happened to be rich enough or lucky enough to be in college during the Vietnam draft - it’s a pretty good bet you don’t know a CPO from a GTO. You think “chevron” is a gas station, and “epaulet” is Web where some French woman makes you pay to see her naked.*
If you are one of these people, (and I should say right here, there but for my Marine sergeant dad go I), chances are you are beginning to become extremely concerned about the “high” casualty rate of the past week’s fighting in Afghanistan. In a war, however - not an intervention, but a WAR - should the propensity of the American public to misunderstand military matters be driving strategy and tactics? For instance, if our generals choose not to risk lives in November to cut off retreating al-Qaida forces only to have to engage them in far more perilous and defensible terrain in March, isn’t that a Pyhrric victory? I wish someone would ask that question at those briefings.
MISREADING THE PUBLIC
Perhaps the most puzzling part of the tip-toe tactics being pursued right now is the complete lack of evidence that anyone in the United States would object to something more aggressive. Are the “lessons of Vietnam” driving this tendency, or is it the “lesson of the first Bush administration,” whereby a president with sky-high approval ratings at the mid-term elections finds himself consigned to one term when, two years later, his victory on the battlefield is a distant memory?
The idea that casualties will suddenly dampen support in the Untied States for pursuing the architects of the Sept. 11 attacks is patently ridiculous. There really is no analogy to be made with Vietnam, which makes the obsession with its “lessons” all the more infuriating. Is there a single home in America divided over this question? Is there a single campus in this country that has experienced an upsurge in anti-war protests? Is there a draft?
A HOUSE DIVIDED
For those with no point of reference on the Vietnam years, for those who don’t understand why the military fears divisions in the country, let me add some perspective with a personal story.
One summer’s day in 1970, I arrived home from Camp Harmony and did just what Linda, the pretty hippie who taught arts and crafts, had asked all of us campers to do: I taped my construction-paper peace sign onto the door of my parent’s home. Later that evening, when my dad crossed his threshold, retired Sgt. Eddie Moran, normally careful what he said around his children, let loose a string of expletives rarely heard outside the confines of Parris Island.
“Do you know what would happen if a Marine knocked on my door tonight Michael,” he said when he found me, trying unsuccessfully to be tender. “He’d spit in my face! Do you want someone to spit in your daddy’s face?”
No, of course I didn’t. I wept and tore up my art project, mumbling an apology for something I couldn’t possibly understand.
Later that same year, in an act equally oblivious to the politics and bitterness swirling all around me during my eighth year of life, I hung an old National Geographic map of “French Indo-China” on my bedroom door. Each night, I put a pin in the map on the site of any of the hamlets Walter Cronkite said we were pacifying that day. This thrilled my dad, but angered my mother to no end, and not only because pins from her sewing box were turning up occasionally in the tiny toes of my little brothers.
My mom, nine years younger than my dad, watched her school friends go off to Vietnam. Her brother came back alive, her ex-boyfriend and many others, I later discovered, did not. Mom hadn’t yet worked up the courage to take on my dad at the dinner table, but she sure wasn’t going to sit by while her eldest son put pins in country he might be slogging through in ten years.
This fissure played out in every community in the nation and in almost every home in some form. Today, to some degree, you have to say of our military commanders, ‘thank God they remember that nightmare.’ And yet to equate what is going on right now with our intervention in a civil war between the Vietnamese is absurd.
Tommy, Donald: America’s with you. Do what you have to do. Forget the election! This isn’t a battle for the hearts and minds of any foreign population, or even the American public. The war we’re fighting now began with the murder of thousands of Americans. Thousands more could die tomorrow. Please act as if you know the difference between that, and the geopolitical chess matches of the Cold War.
*ANSWERS: An epaulet is a rectangular shoulder ornament on a uniform; chevrons are the “stripes” that distinguish privates from corporals and sergeants; a CPO is a Chief Petty Officer, the Navy equivalent of a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, while a GTO is a “Gran Tourismo Omologato,” Pontiac’s famous muscle car of the 1960s and early 1970s.