Chuck Hagel, former Republican Senator and decorated Vietnam vet, is the latest voice in a growing chorus that could shift the Afghanistan debate in profound ways. Like other analysts he creates a nuanced picture of Afghan parallels with the tragedy of the Vietnam war.
His piece in the Washington Post opens and goes right to the heart of the matter in a very personal and human way:
The other night I watched the film “The Deer Hunter.” Afterward, I remembered why it took me so many years to be able to watch Vietnam movies.
It all came tumbling back — the tragedy, the innocent victims, the waste. Too often in Washington we tend to see foreign policy as an abstraction, with little understanding of what we are committing our country to: the complications and consequences of endeavors. It is easy to get into war, not so easy to get out. Vietnam lasted more than 10 years; soon, we will slip into our ninth year in Afghanistan. We have been in Iraq for almost seven years.
The refreshing humanity in Hagel’s op-ed appears when he pays respect to the flesh and blood lives of innocent victims. But it’s equally importantly when he shines a self-reflective light on decisionmakers in the US. He highlights the way political actors half way around the world transform the tragedy of war into an lifeless policy debate. All the while, military and political inertia allows for more deaths, broken bodies, and broken hearts. I think this is a subtle but crucial point. I am saddened but not surprised by this very culture of abstraction every time I lobby in Washington. Needless to say, administration figures, committee staff, or members of Congress are not cold or heartless people. But life and death matters consitently, inexoribly get transformed into brittle policy debates. “Death panels” are today’s tragic-comic extreme example but every profound issue seems touched by this dynamic.
Hegel goes on to speak to how “bogging down large armies in historically complex, dangerous areas ends in disaster.”:
In Vietnam, we kept feeding more men, material and money into a corrupt Vietnamese government as our own leaders continued to deceive themselves and the American people. Today’s wars are quite different from Vietnam. But the Obama administration, Congress and the Pentagon must get this right because it will frame the global architecture for the next generation. We must put forward fresh thinking. We can no longer hold ourselves to narrow “single issue” engagement when dealing with nations such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, Turkey or South Korea. The United States needs all these countries and many more if we are to engage the most dangerous challenges — not one at a time but all together. Our relationships with these nations have matured since World War II, as these nations have matured. Does anyone believe we will get to a responsible resolution on Iran without Russia? There’s a reason we are part of a Group of 20 rather than a G-8. Even the world’s largest economies cannot handle today’s problems alone.
At the end of the op-ed Hagel suggests that courage for Obama will come from abandoning a military dominated strategy of “peace through war” that did not work in the 20th century. Instead Obama needs the stregth to articualte and lead the country to a wiser path for foreign policy in the 21st century.
Are our policies worthy of these Americans’ great sacrifices? That question must always be at the fore of our leaders’ decisions. Threats to America come from more than Afghanistan. Consider Yemen and Somalia. Are we prepared to put U.S. ground troops there? I doubt we would seriously consider putting forces in Pakistan, yet its vast Federally Administered Tribal Areas and mountainous western border harbor our most dangerous enemies today. We must shift our thinking, now, to pursue wiser courses of action and sharper, more relevant policies.
The president and his national security team should listen to recordings of conversations that President Lyndon B. Johnson had with Sen. Richard Russell about Vietnam, especially those in which LBJ told Russell that we could not win in Vietnam but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war. Difficult decisions with historic consequences are coming soon for President Obama.
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