What important military defeats has America ever known? If you don’t count the South in the Civil War, we have a single one: Vietnam.
The consequences of that defeat, in a land so far away, were easy for Americans to ignore or whitewash, or to pin on our conduct during the war itself rather than our decision to abandon the South Vietnamese to their fate.
The Left, for example, has always blamed America’s actions during the Vietnam war—and especially the bombing of Cambodia—for the ascendance of the brutal Pol Pot regime and its later killing fields (see this article, especially pages 6-7, for an argument against that controversial theory, as well as an explanation of its journalistic origins). The Left has also consistently minimized the suffering of the people of South Vietnam when the North took over. To the Left, the Northern Vietnamese Communists weren’t so bad, and the Cambodian Communists (who even they have to admit were pretty nasty folk) would never have succeeded but for the actions of the US in fighting them and their North Vietnamese allies.
Not only does the Left whitewash the consequences of the American defeat in Vietnam. I’ll go even further and say that to the Left, the Vietnam pullout was actually a victory—for them. It’s something they had promoted for a long time, and they finally won. What’s more, except for the rare Vietnam revisionist historian, their version of history won; it has come to dominate the texts and the press. And so the Left neither wanted—nor needed—to look at the negative consequences of the defeat for others.
Vietnam has been the template for the Left in most of our subsequent wars. They tried to repeat the experience in Afghanistan, but it didn’t quite work because that country’s American casualties, and the length of time we were in active fighting there, were insufficient to generate enough revulsion on the part of the American public.
But Iraq was going very well for the Left for quite a while, much in the Vietnam mode. It went on for a long time and was more bloody. And, although casualties were nowhere near those sustained in the Vietnam conflict, American sensibilities had become more delicate in the ensuing years, and tolerance for death in wartime was much lower.
In Bush, as in Nixon, the Left was gifted with a president who was vulnerable to personal attack, and both men played into the Left’s hands in various ways (Bush through his tendency to strut and his relative inarticulateness, Nixon through his paranoia and ultimately Watergate). In both wars the press changed from initial (although somewhat wary) enthusiasm for the war to outright condemnation (see this and this for a discussion of Vietnam and the press).
Vietnam was not just the template for the Left’s approach to war, it was the template for defeat without consequences. But there were negative consequences; just not for the Left. Not only did our withdrawal from Vietnam negatively impact the people of South Vietnam and Cambodia, it offered encouragement to those who would challenge the US, by letting them know that the American people lacked the stamina for a long fight. Thereafter, enemies assumed they might have a good chance of wining against the larger and more powerful US through a three-pronged strategy: (a) wear us out while (b) simultaneously allying with the Left in this country to spread propaganda points, and (c) counting on the US press to ultimately join forces with the Left in that endeavor, either through ignorance or design.
The Iraqi insurgents and terrorists expected to win in a manner similar to North Vietnam. It was reasonable of them to assume that they would, and in fact they came perilously close. The Democrats, the Left, and the press played their parts to perfection. The 2006 Congress had become controlled by Democrats, and was eager to be part of the production.
The stumbling blocks turned out to be a few Democrats, most of the remaining Republicans, and especially the stubborn Bush. The former managed to block some of the legislation the majority of Democrats wished to pass, and Bush vetoed the rest. Bush remained committed to the surge, and appointed the brilliant General Petraeus to be in charge of its implementation.
And so there remained enough time left for the surge to succeed beyond the Left’s and the Democrats’ wildest dreams. Paradoxically, however, this meant that once again, those who had either advocated or prematurely accepted defeat never had to face the consequences of what such a defeat might mean. Protected by their enemy Bush and his victory (at least so far; nothing is permanent or written in stone in Iraq), they can now bask in the glow of their devotion to peace at any price, and yet not be saddled with the burden of dealing with defeat there.
Thus, President Obama can speak of “ending” the war in his recent speech to Marines at Camp Lejeune while studiously avoiding all mention of victory, the surge, or including a single word of praise for his predecessor. The closest he comes is to say “you got the job done,” after speaking at length of dangers, loneliness, and burdens, as well as “difficult days ahead.”
I’m not sure what message the Marines heard. But I think the message our enemies have heard—loud and clear—is that President Obama and the Democrats may mouth intimidating words about Afghanistan and Pakistan, but when push comes to shove, they’ll be shoving off.