The ghosts of wars lost

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy's statements Tuesday in support of stiffer sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons were justifiably heartening to many. Sarkozy's remarks, like his Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's trip to Iraq last week, marked a refreshing departure from his predecessor Jacques Chirac's knee-jerk anti-Americanism.


Yet while Sarkozy's open support for sanctions serves to distinguish him from Chirac, his justification of his position indicates that although much has changed, much has also remained the same in France. By Sarkozy's lights, "This [sanctions] initiative is the only one that can allow us to escape an alternative that I can only call catastrophic: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran."


Praising Sarkozy on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal was quick to conflate his remarks with those made by Sen. John McCain a few months ago about the prospect of a US military strike against Iran's nuclear installations. McCain said, "There's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option; that is a nuclear-armed Iran."


But these statements are not the same. A moral chasm divides them. Unlike McCain, Sarkozy makes no moral distinctions between a nuclear-armed Teheran and a military strike aimed at preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. For him, they are the same.


Sarkozy's moral blindness is rooted in post-World War II Europe's instrumental treatment of the legacy of that war. For the Europeans – and first and foremost for the Germans, and for the Dutch, French and Belgians who collaborated with the Germans during the war – the main lesson of the war was that militarism and nationalism are bad. This view informed post-war Europe's ideological embrace of pacifism and transnationalism.


But in truth, militarism and nationalism did not cause WWII. The true cause of that war was Germany's decision to embrace evil and depravity as its guiding philosophy and the willingness of the nations of Europe that collaborated with German authorities to also embrace this evil. That is, the real legacy of the war is a moral one and the real lesson to be learned from it is not that nations must allow themselves to be gobbled up into transnational entities or that they must eschew war at all costs. Rather, the true lesson is that nations should embrace morality that sanctifies life and freedom and that holds men and women accountable for their choices.


Europe's refusal to reckon with this central truth is what brings leaders like Sarkozy to ignore the real reason why Iran must not acquire nuclear weapons. As a regime that embraces evil and preaches genocide and global domination, Teheran cannot be trusted with weapons of genocide and global domination. War waged to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is preferable and less catastrophic than a war the Islamic Republic would wage if it were to acquire such weapons.


EUROPE IS far from unique in its refusal to accept and contend with the true legacy of its wars. Humanity as a whole more often than not prefers to evade the difficult lessons of war – and especially of lost wars. We see this very clearly today in the Islamic world, where the forces of global jihad base their efforts to destroy human freedom on their refusal to accept the reasons that Western nations, organized around the Judeo-Christian notion of human liberty, have defeated their forces in war for the past 500 years.


The refusal to reckon with the lessons of war is also the central unifying characteristic of Israel's political and intellectual establishment. The Israeli establishment's denials of the lessons of its military history began at the end of the Yom Kippur War, and extend to the 1982 Lebanon War, the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, the Oslo process, the 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the war in Lebanon last summer.


In the midst of all this evasion, something refreshing and, indeed, inspiring is happening today in America. There, a debate about the legacy of an unpopular lost war has recently begun in earnest. That war, of course, is the Vietnam War.


Last Wednesday, US President George W. Bush gave a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars where he discussed the consequences of America's defeat in Vietnam. Bush did not speak of the conflict itself. He did not connect then-president Lyndon Johnson's failure to explain the war to the American people to the US media's decision, made around 1967, to actively sue for American defeat at the hands of the Soviet and Chinese-backed Communists in North Vietnam. He did not discuss the defeat of the members of the American establishment at the hands of their children.


Bush made no mention of the fact that Congress's refusal to provide military assistance to the South Vietnamese made their loss of freedom a foregone conclusion. He didn't discuss how then-president Gerald Ford betrayed South Vietnam when he refused to provide air and naval support when the North Vietnamese invaded in 1975.


Bush did not discuss the reasons the US was defeated at all. He limited his remarks to the consequences of that defeat on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and on the US's position in the world to this very day. He noted that some two million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot's murderous Communist regime, which rose to power after South Vietnam was overrun. He recalled the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who were imprisoned in concentration camps, the tens of thousands who were killed and the hundreds of thousands who took to sea in rickety boats in a desperate bid to find freedom in the America that had just abandoned them. He noted statements by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri asserting the US defeat in Vietnam as proof that the US can and will be defeated by Islam.


The US mass media reacted to Bush's speech with fits of hysterical rage. The New York Times, which together with CBS News led the media war against the US defense of South Vietnam, dismissed the president's remarks as "bizarre." Major newspapers and television networks excoriated Bush for remembering the heavy and abiding toll of that lost war and for warning against repeating the mistake by embracing defeat in Iraq.

Christopher Hitchens' response to Bush's speech in The Observer was emblematic of the Left's condemnations. Hitchens wrote: "If one question is rightly settled in the American and, indeed, the international memory, it is that the Vietnam War was at best a titanic blunder and at worst a campaign of atrocity and aggression."


But contrary to the claims of Hitchens and his comrades, the question of America's memory of Vietnam was never settled. They never managed to successfully dictate America's national memory, even as they succeeded in squelching popular debate of history.


THIS WEEK, author Robert Kaplan published an article in The Atlantic Monthly pointing out the unbridgeable gap between popular histories of the Vietnam War, which are largely based on the views of that war espoused by Hitchens and The New York Times, and the literature of the war read by the American military. In an article entitled "Re-reading Vietnam," Kaplan gives an overview of that literature, which in contrast to the Left's bestsellers, has generally been published by boutique presses.


These books tell the stories of the warriors who fought in Vietnam. They discuss the stoic heroism of the American POWs who were subjected to years of physical torture and unrelenting psychological abuse during their captivity in North Vietnamese prison camps. They describe the counterinsurgency tactics employed by anti-communist forces that by 1970 had succeeded in politically defeating the Viet Cong in 90 percent of South Vie


As Kaplan notes, in recent years these books have been supplemented by new histories, like Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, which examine the strategic success of the American and South Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam after Gen. Creighton Abrams took command from Gen. William Westmoreland in 1968.


After the September 11 attacks, the American public began expressing a willingness to reassess Vietnam. This newfound openness was manifested in the public's belated embrace of Vietnam veterans, who had been shunned and silenced upon their return home.


The force of that embrace was felt strongly in the 2004 presidential elections.


Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry had built his political career on public condemnations of his brothers in arms when he joined the anti-war movement after being released from the US Navy in 1970. The veterans banded together and, with massive public support, launched a successful campaign against him.


Although the Left has denounced Bush for his use of Vietnam as a warning for what will occur if the US is defeated in Iraq, the war's opponents have made near obsessive use of the Vietnam War as a means of convincing the American public that the war in Iraq is unwinnable. Just a week after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, major media outlets were invoking Vietnam and warning that "a Vietnam-like quagmire" was ensuing in Iraq.


In a recently released study of the US media's treatment of the war in Iraq, the Internet blog "Media Busters" noted that a document search showed that since March 2003, The New York Times has published some 2,500 articles that make mention of both Vietnam and Iraq. CNN has run more than 3,000 stories that discuss the wars side by side. And always, the message is the same: As then, so today, the US cannot win, and so every American life sacrificed in Iraq is sacrificed in vain.


BUSH'S CHALLENGE to the received wisdom about the Vietnam War came then against the backdrop of these cultural crosscurrents, which also inform the current debate on the war in Iraq and the war against Islamic fascism in general. Bush is to be applauded for raising the story of Vietnam's legacy. His entrance into the debate will no doubt speed up the long-delayed moral reckoning with the legacy of Vietnam – of America's betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies, and of the consequences of that betrayal for America's international standing and its own self-assessment.


Hopefully, America's newfound readiness to reckon with the lessons of Vietnam will bring about a renewed and realistic American assessment and discussion of the current war against Islamic fascism.


And perhaps America's willingness to examine the demons of its past will prompt Europe and Israel, and perhaps one day even the Islamic world, to honestly study their military pasts. For until we recognize the causes of our past failures, we will be doomed to repeat them, time after time after time.




Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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