When it comes to war leadership, George W. Bush shows the calm of an incoming tide, or a lava flow.
My friend is only eight years younger than I am, but for memory of public events, the difference is crucial. I can just remember the middle and end of the Vietnam War; he can’t. Why, he asked, has the public reaction to this war been different than the reaction to Vietnam?
In one sense, it hasn’t been different at all. The anti-war left has been as bitter in its opposition now as it was then. The signage at demonstrations; the call-ins on TV and radio talk shows; the comments of crazy professors; the letters to the editor in upstate hippie-land newspapers are as filled with hatred of America (ignorant, blundering), the military (killers), the war (for oil) and the President (idiot) as they were then. The New York Times today is further to the left than it was then. Yet it all has no effect. What has changed?
The second most important factor, surely, is the volunteer military. No beating the bushes to fill draft quotas; no shaming tragicomedy of deferments; no melodrama of waiting for lottery numbers. There is no draft, therefore the colleges are calm (so much for the “idealism” of the baby boomers). There is no draft, and therefore the military is better. It sells itself as an avenue of opportunity, and it has had to make good on its offer. We think of our high-tech weaponry and flexible tactics as innovations trickling down from the top, from laboratories and military theorists. Haven’t they also rippled up from the bottom-not from the enlisted men themselves, but from a change of mind-set that the new realities of enlistment induced?
Another difference is duration. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was in August 1964. In the crucial year of 1968, the Vietnam War passed the Civil War and our participation in World War II in length. By the fall of Saigon, it had gone longer than the American Revolution. For a time-obsessed people, Vietnam was endless. Even if this war is dated (as it should be) from Sept. 11, 2001, the long gaps between actual fighting make it seem intermittent, shorter.
Vietnam was endless in another way. Since the Vietnamese Communists were backed by Communist China and the Soviet Union, there could be no victory, short of world conflagration. Therefore, the United States was forced to adopt a strategy of containment. No superpower patron looms behind our enemies now. We are not fighting Islam, the religion. (President Bush used the word “crusade” inadvertently once; only his critics repeat it endlessly.) We are fighting a band of fanatics, and a handful of terrorist states and paymasters. Make the list as long as you like, and throw in Saudi Arabia for good measure. Compared to the Communist world in its heyday, they are pipsqueaks.
The weakness of our enemies has allowed us to see their wickedness. The Vietnamese Communists were as wicked as anyone could wish. The Viet Cong were bandits, terrorists, murderous brutes. North Vietnam was a totalitarian country that filled the ocean with boat people once it took over the South. Go into any Vietnamese restaurant and ask the owners why they came here. But the inattentive learned this only when it was too late, after our troops had come home. In this war, every victory brings a cache of horrors. This week, we’ve had the coffins in Basra and the Goebbels-like ravings of Saddam’s minister of information. Victory also shows us local people celebrating their liberation. In Afghanistan, there were men shaving their beards and women dropping their burqas . In Iraq, we have villagers giving the thumbs-up to tanks and kids playing soccer with British marines.
Political leadership has been different, too. Compare and contrast the two Presidents from Texas. Lyndon Johnson was a wily and forceful man, capable of performing prodigies in a legislative context, especially when it concerned the domestic issues that were dearest to his heart. But when it came to war and peace, he was dismayed by the polls, and by the animosity of the Kennedy holdovers who turned on him. George W. Bush is dizzyingly erratic: He can win a midterm election, then lose his tax plan; he can tear through a State of the Union address, then sound tight and tinny. But when it comes to war leadership, he shows the calm of an incoming tide, or a lava flow. He doesn’t heed poll blips or chatter. He does what Lincoln told Ulysses Grant: “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.”
Firmness in prosecuting the war has been matched by a lack of firmness in opposing it. In 1968, Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy led an anti-war revolt in the Democratic Party. In 1972, George McGovern consummated it. The Democrats do not lack ill will now; they simply see no opportunity. Senator John Kerry’s remark about “regime change” was revealing: At some level, he sees Mr. Bush and Saddam Hussein as morally equivalent; probably he sees the 2000 election as illegitimate, a regime change effected by Mr. Bush that must be undone. Mr. Kerry is probably not the only Democrat who thinks so. Yet he is being incinerated. The pure anti-war position is left to Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton.
One cultural point is oblique, but telling. During the late 60’s, only the anti-war movement had the allure of open sex. “Make Love, Not War” was a more riveting slogan when the mainstream’s equivalent of lovemaking was leering at Marilyn Monroe’s panties over the subway grate. The cultural revolution succeeded too well. Now that everyone is naked, who needs to protest the war in order to get laid? Who would want to be laid by Michael Moore anyway?
But the most important reason this war is different from Vietnam is the way it began. The enemy in Vietnam was Communism-a serious enemy, though it was remote, and seemed abstract. The enemy in this war began it by attacking downtown. Sept. 11 was the Pearl Harbor of the terrorists and their friends-the brilliant tactical stroke that was a strategic and psychological disaster.
The New York Times ran a solemn story on April 6 about the Americans killed in Iraq. “Many Took Arms in Iraq With Images of Sept. 11 Etched in Their Memories,” the headline read. Friends and family spoke of the dead. Pfc. Diego Fernando Rincon, of Conyers, Ga.: “He [signed up] because he felt it was something he needed to do to make sure Sept. 11 couldn’t happen again.” Lance Cpl. Michael J. Williams, of Yuma, Ariz.: “He thought it was important that he do something to protect this country.” Lance Cpl. Patrick R. Nixon of Gallatin, Tenn.: He and his friends “really wanted to go after somebody at that point. They wanted to go get them.” Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Suarez del Solar of Escondido, Calif.: “He always told us that he wanted to go over there so they did not come over here and hurt us.” How many of them had ever been to New York? They died because New Yorkers died; because Americans died. Remember.