Envy of the World?

Fifteen years ago, an historian of American culture captured in one sentence the essence of the decision-making that got us into Vietnam. In his brilliant (and therefore sadly ignored) book, “Backfire,” Loren Baritz called it the work of men “who didn’t know how to win, but couldn’t conceive of losing.”
Today, it’s reversed. The decisions of the Clinton administration regarding Iraq and the Balkans are the work of men–and women–who can’t conceive of winning, but don’t know how to lose.

Other than that, it all seems eerily the same. In early 1965, the United States adopted a policy of “sustained reprisal” in Vietnam. Retaliatory bombing would no longer be tied to specific enemy provocations. Is this our policy in our war with Iraq? Where will it lead?

In Vietnam, we decided that bombing would be used to “send messages.” LBJ and his shills began announcing that our goal was not to conquer anybody, but to get the enemy to “change his ways.” Has this been throughout the 90s our policy with regard to the ancient and horrific ways of the Balkans? Where will it lead?

“America,” wrote Baritz, “when its fist clenched, went forth not to pillage, but to instruct.”

Bombing proved insufficiently instructive in Vietnam. Indeed, however wondrous its capabilities, it has never been particularly instructive. Anywhere. In Vietnam, this failure meant seven years of American war in Southeast Asia, of piling up the rubble and the bodies, along with an ever-diminishing set of “objectives”–from saving the world to demonstrating our resolve to demonstrate our resolve, to getting our prisoners back. Ultimately, we came up with an exit strategy. We declared our objectives accomplished and left.

Since then, we’ve gotten used to fretting over exit strategies. Even before we fail. Comes with having made so many exits, one might suppose. A few more exits in the works, no doubt. Of course, when instruction fails and your objective becomes piling up the rubble and the bodies, you can declare success almost any time you want. That’s an exit strategy.

So why does it all keep on happening? Fifteen years ago, Prof. Baritz defined the confluence of forces that made Vietnam an acceptable, indeed a necessary venture for this country. “Our national myth showed us that we were good, our technology made us strong, and our bureaucracy gave us standard operating procedures. It was not a winning combination.”

Nor is it today. Especially the myth part. Because it has undergone, courtesy of Mr. Clinton and so many others, a deadening and a perversion far worse than the deadly tandem of legitimate anti-communism and ugly hubris that sent us into Vietnam.

The myth, Prof. Baritz held, had two parts. One is that America is so good that it must instruct the world, by force if necessary. The other is that the world wants to be instructed . . . that it wants to be like us. Solipsistic thinking is the technical term. More bluntly: “Inside every gook,” proclaimed the Marine colonel in “Full Metal Jacket,” “there’s a frustrated American, struggling to get out.”

Are the Iraqis and the Balkan peoples similarly frustrated? The Somalis? The Haitians? The Palestinians? The Russians? The Chinese?

Still, myths are never entirely fictional. They hold their truths. There is much that is good in us, and much good that we’ve done in the world. But our myth has been damaged beyond utility. Or, perhaps we now seek its vindication in a different, far less effectual and far more hideous way.

People and nations need to feel morally right about themselves. That makes our myth, and the myths of others, so durable. But for America until Vietnam, the operative word was “right,” a rightness at least tangentially related to objective moralities and realities. For Mr. Clinton and so many of this nation, the operative word is “feel.” This self-deluding substitution became a major political force when millions of young Americans, in order to rationalize their own cowardice and exalt their outrage that a war might dare inconvenience them, had to demonize this country far beyond its truthful failings.

And, in one form or another, it has gone on ever since–this quest for moral stature based upon neither accomplishment nor morality, but upon emotion and self-satisfaction. What began in the streets now continues in the citadels of power, regardless of the limits of power or the realities on the ground. False demonization long ago yielded to an array of reality-challenged assertions which reach their obscene absurdity in Mr. Clinton’s wooden claim that we’re bombing for the sake of the children.

At least until we feel good enough about ourselves to leave. Feeling good’s a dandy exit strategy. We can say we’re doing it for the children.

But there’s something else we can do for the children. We can recognize that perhaps we could use some instruction ourselves–in the realities of the world, in the pursuit of unearned moral stature, and in the perils of both.

Philip Gold is Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.