Remembrance of Wars Past–and Future
Hi, it’s me, Marcel Proust, and I’m here today to talk about Barack Obama and the forthcoming Syrian War. Maybe I have a useful perspective based on my reading of history—and my writing of psychological fantasies.
Yes, it’s true, I died in Paris back in 1922, but in my own neurotic way, I still linger in human consciousness. My novel, Remembrance of Things Past, captures the wistful and elegiac tone we all feel as we look back on our own lives. At least the title does capture it: I’m not sure if anyone has actually read all seven volumes, all 4,000 pages. Sigh. At least the book is still in print!
As for me, in the here and now—or, I guess, the hereafter and now—I like to keep up with the news.
So I have been closely following the news about Syria, which, of course, was a French colony for a long time. I never visited there; in fact, I spent much of my life in bed—in a cork-lined room, in fact—the better to insulate myself from the world. And also to give myself more time to read.
I got a laugh a couple of years ago, for example, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer.” But that was then. Now, of course, Assad has to go. And maybe he does, but you have to wonder what these Obama folks are thinking when they are talking. History, as we shall see, suggests that top officials are well able to think one thing—and say another thing.
Meanwhile, on August 28, as I was perusing The Los Angeles Times, I saw this argent quote—oops, I mean, money quote: A top US official is quoted as saying that the White House was planning military strikes “just muscular enough not to get mocked”—but not so “muscular” as to bring in the Iranians or the Russians. These things are hard to calibrate, but the Obama people seem to be giving it a go.
In addition, the same official said of the White House planners, “They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic.”
It’s worth pausing over, and parsing, those words for a moment. Consider: “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” And “just enough to be more than symbolic.” What sort of war is this going to be? What sort of victory are the Americans expecting?
By comparison, even the famous Obama administration quote about Libya in 2011, “leading from behind,” sounds positively Napoleonic.
Assuming that the air strikes do come, they will come well advertised—and thus, by the Syrians, well prepared for. Surely the Damascus regime will have found time to swap out a nerve gas stockpile somewhere with, say, an orphanage. And so if a US cruise missile hits, the media will be summoned to videotape weeping mothers, dead babies, and charred teddy bears. Mon Dieu! Even if the Americans don’t hit the orphanage, maybe the Syrians will do it themselves—just to blame Uncle Sam.
In my Remembrance novel, the action begins when I dip a madeleine—a cookie—into my tea, and the memories all come flooding back.
And so that LA Times article was like a new madeleine; My mind went wandering back to another war with a heavy French accent, Vietnam. Remember, we lost in Vietnam back in the '50s, two decades before you Americans did.
Your young president, John F. Kennedy, thought Vietnam would be a “cool” war, won by nimble U.S. Special Forces. But when it didn’t turn out to be so easy, he started sending in more troops. “Escalation”: that was the word you used back then.
In 1960, the year before Kennedy took office, American servicemen in South Vietnam numbered less than a thousand. By the time JFK died, in 1963, the figure had soared to around 16,000. In terms of percentage increase of escalation, Kennedy’s escalation dwarfed that of his successor, Lyndon Johnson. Poor LBJ: He thought he had no choice but to keep going; he thought he was simply keeping faith with the commitment that JFK had made.
Yet Kennedy loyalists like to say that the Lancelot of Camelot would have pulled US troops out after the 1964 election. But even the likelihood of that gutless move—JFK fans having thus conceded that if their man lived he would have cynically played presidential politics with American lives—is belied. How so? Because, in fact, that LBJ kept on JFK’s top war advisers when he succeeded to the Oval Office. It was JFK advisers who got the US “surge” going in 1965. That’s right, it was the Kennedy holdovers—the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser—who planned and escalated the war under Johnson.
Yet just because the war grew bigger—and deeper into the quagmire—that does not mean those same advisers thought the war was winnable. Instead, they chose to keep their thoughts well hidden from the public; they didn’t want to resign in protest and lose their prestige and their limos, and so they just went along with the flow—the flow they had created. Now that’s the sort of inner psychological drama I loved to write about.
Meanwhile, President Johnson told Americans that we were winning, yessiree. On October 26, 1966, he traveled to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and exhorted the troops—by then numbering nearly 400,000—that they should “Go out there and nail that coonskin to the wall.” In other words, go for the gusto, as they said back then—win big (in later decades, Cam Ranh Bay would become a Soviet naval base).
It’s all pretty poignant, isn’t it? See? That’s why my kind of nostalgic memory-tripping is still in so many heads.
But here’s where it gets really rich: if you study the deliberations of the Kennedy/Johnson team as they teetered into a big commitment to Vietnam—the first units of combat Marines going ashore on March 8, 1965—you see language that eerily foreshadows the language of the Obama team today. That is, “not get mocked,” “symbolic,” all that. But of course, nobody had explained those optics—only objectives to the Marines hitting the beach. Those poor Leathernecks—they thought they were fighting to win.
Here, for example, is a memo from National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, writing on February 7, 1965. As the national security team pondered the tit-for-tat nature of the early stages of the war, Bundy tried to put an intellectual framework around the effort. We can see that Bundy wasn’t overly optimistic that it would work—but that was okay:
We cannot assert that a policy of sustained reprisal will succeed in changing the course of the contest in Vietnam. It may fail, and we cannot estimate the odds of success with any accuracy they may be somewhere between 25% and 75%. What we can say is that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it. At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own. [emphasis added]
A month later, here’s another memo from Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton, writing on March 10, 1965. He says we have to lose some American lives to prove that we’re serious—once again, even if we don’t win:
It is essential--however badly SEA [South East Asia] may go over the next 2 - 4 years - that US emerge as a "good doctor." We must have kept promises, been tough, taken risks, gotten bloodied, and hurt the enemy very badly. [emphasis added]
One of the truisms about troops is that they don’t like to fight without clear and worthy objectives. For soldiers, a particularly clear and worthy objective is winning—that’s worth sacrificing for. As your Gen. Douglas MacArthur said in his famous speech before Congress in 1951, “In war there can be no substitute for victory.”
So there was nothing wrong then with opposing communists, and there is nothing wrong now with opposing nerve-gassing terrorists—but it really helps if you are honest about what you are doing. And if you’re not fighting to win, then you ought to ask, “Why are we doing this at all?”
As we have seen by now, the Kennedy-Johnson team didn’t have a plan for victory; indeed, they didn’t particularly think they could win. They just kept those thoughts to themselves as the American commitment—and the Killed in Action—mounted and mounted.
Defense Secretary McNamara finally unburdened himself of his own early-on pessimism in his 1996 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. That sure is a Proustian title, isn’t it?
Yet here’s the kicker: while these men were a) privately doubting to themselves the idea that victory was possible, and b) publicly assuring Americans that victory was inevitable, they were also c) secretly preparing excuses for their own failure.
Here’s McNaughton—the fellow who suggested that we get “bloodied” to prove a point to... er, somebody—and his March 1965 memo again, detailing the real stakes at hand. He told his colleagues that they must: “have a contingency plan to downgrade the apparent stakes... to be initiated when/if necessary to confuse the issue and diffuse the blame.” [emphasis added]
Got that? Even in 1965, McNaughton was detailing the bureaucrats’ equivalent of an “exit strategy.” That is, if the war turned out badly, well, he and his crew would have a “contingency plan” to “confuse the issue and diffuse the blame.” You know, the blame for what would grow to become 58,220 combat deaths. If I had that on my record, I, too, would be writing memos aimed at confusing and diffusing things.
The McNaughton plan didn’t work, of course. Those advisers did, and do, get the blame. But they sure tried to wriggle out of responsibility, and the rest of us can see the paper trail that proves it.
Meanwhile, even an old soul like mine is saddened—and I was kinda gloomy to start with!—to sit back and realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nearly 50 years after the machinations of the bureaucratic illusionists of the Johnson presidency, those confusions and diffusions are now being rivaled in, uh, audacity by the bureaucratic illusionists of the Obama presidency.
So, Yanks, take your President’s word for it. Don’t worry if he bypasses anything so fussy and—what’s that old word? ah yes, “Constitutional,” how quaint!—as Congressional advise and consent. Go ahead: serve as the air force for Al Qaeda in Syria. Look for those “moderate” Syrian rebels. Tell the 9-11 families that the goal of achieving Obama’s objectives in Syria required us to team up with—yes, the Bin Laden types. And team up, too, with the Benghazi killers.
I’ll be watching, wistful as always.
And in the years and decades ahead, when we meet again around the bend, I suspect we’ll all agree that the contemporary official who spoke of “symbolic action” was just the tip of a devious and monstrous iceberg.