During the last month, particularly at their convention, the Republicans have been doing their best to convince the world that the War on Terror is progressing steadily. It became all the more important for the GOP to stay on message following Bush’s slip-up last month during his interview on the “Today Show,” when he said, referring to the War on Terror, “I don’t think you can win it.” Granted, he tempered his remarks by adding that he thinks the United States can “create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world,” but to the GOP hawks, this first evidence of a somewhat nuanced understanding of our campaign against terror immediately spawned a massive effort to make up for the Commander in Chief’s slip of the tongue.
But for those of us who are not used to agreeing with anything the president says, his remarks on the “Today Show” offered a refreshing glimpse at the truth that, perhaps, this war cannot be won — at least in the traditional sense of the word. In re-examining our reasons for engaging, particularly in Iraq, we should look back to the Vietnam War.
Make no mistake — I have not fallen prey to the Swift Boat slander; rather, I am looking back to 1986 when Hendrik Hertzberg wrote an article for The New Republic that forced me, upon recent reading, to see the parallels between the war we face today and that faraway war that proved to be unwinnable.
Hertzberg claims that the very nature of the Vietnam War made it impossible for America to be victorious, and thus our engagement was immoral. He argues that “for the ‘moral cause’ to be clinched, the war must be judged to have been winnable — winnable, moreover, at a lower cost in suffering and death than the cost of the communist victory.” Thus to determine if the ends justify the means, there must be an end to journey toward. The War on Terror seems to have no such end — a reality even the president seems to see now.
Hertzberg argues that the Vietnam War was unwinnable not because we lacked military strength or even the will, but because the North Vietnamese were willing to pay any price, were willing to suffer any millions of causalities, for the sake of victory. Thus, it does not seem to defy logic to declare that terrorists whose sole combat technique is to kill themselves along with their victims will, too, suffer any amount of causalities to destroy their enemies. This war, then, is unending, so long as Islamist terrorists can find even one more person willing to die for the cause. If it is unending, then it is unwinnable as well. According to Hertzberg, then, we are fighting an immoral war.
If the label “immoral” strikes readers as too harsh, consider Hetzberg’s analysis of the Vietnam War. According to Hertzberg, the American conscience led us to “choose to not win” the war — the only way to win would have been to completely destroy all of North Vietnam, which was “beyond our moral capabilities,” as Hertzberg quotes author Norman Podhoretz as putting it. “It wasn’t cowardice that finally impressed us to quit,” argues Hertzberg. “It was conscience.” The reward of the war’s end and the likely temporary safety of South Vietnam was not valuable enough to justify the moral cost of obliterating North Vietnam, and thus the American conscience deemed the war unwinnable.
But what does this have to do with Iraq? Hertzberg’s argument forces us to think about what the American conscience would allow today. If “winning” the war on terror demands the destruction of a handful of terrorist-harboring Middle Eastern countries, as it very well could, are we as a people prepared to pay that price? We were not in 1974; does the fact that America was attacked on our own soil change that fact 30 years later? It seems that Bush hopes that our thirst for revenge is so insatiable that Americans will abandon the conscience that demanded the end of a mistaken war in Vietnam and will willingly support him as he plunges blindly ahead toward an unseen and, what’s worse, unattainable goal.
Most frightening about Hertzberg’s prescient article is his closing words where he naively declares that if America launches an invasion of another country for similar reasons as it did Vietnam “the public would insist on a full and prompt discussion of its aims, purposes, and prospects — not out of cynicism but out of a healthy, skeptical, democratic spirit of self-government.” How unfortunately wrong Hertzberg’s convictions proved to be — when Bush declared Iraq the next front in the terror campaign, skeptics were labeled un-American. In fact, when the War on Terror itself became the centerpiece of all political dialogue after Sept. 11, Americans were not granted the luxury, or did not demand the duty, of examining the morality of this war — instead, we allowed our conscience to tilt, wholeheartedly dashing into what should have been the familiar territory, the battlefield morass.
Ho Chi Minh declared to the French in the late 1940s, “You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” When we are up against a force that will suffer any number of casualties, withstand any amount of beating, we must decide if it is beyond our moral capabilities to win this war. Our collective conscience eventually prevailed in Vietnam. And since it failed to even slow our rush into this next quagmire, I at least hope it can ultimately prevail today.
Ali Frick is a sophomore in Davenport College.