Alex Massie

Vietnam Watch: Ben Macintyre

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An occasional series deploring pundits' determination to treat the curret Afghan campaign as though it were a replay of the Vietnam War. Today's episode disappoints me since I have a considerable regard for Ben Macintyre. Nevertheless, his column in the Times today is, right from the get-go, a classic of the genre:

An unquiet ghost stalks the White House Situation Room as Barack Obama, increasingly Hamlet-like, ponders what to do in Afghanistan: it is the spectre of the Vietnam War, America’s enduring historical hang-up.

The most important parallels with Vietnam are neither tactical nor practical, but cultural and emotional. Americans are not backward-looking by nature, but the trauma of Vietnam is seared on the national memory like no other event in US history.

Oh dear, oh dear.

To be fair, Mr Macintyre does his best to refute his own argument by admitting that a) casualty rates in Afghanistan are nothing like those suffered in Vietnam b) President Obama can hardly be traumatised by a conflict that ended when he was 13 years old and c) domestically, just about any comparison between the United States of the Vietnam era and contemporary American society is laughable.

Having admitted all that Mr Macintyre nonetheless stubbornly concludes:

But as he ponders whether to hurl more slings and arrows into that fight, Mr Obama is facing a conflict on another front, nearer to home, harder to pin down than the Taleban, and just as dangerous to his Administration — the growing perception that history is repeating itself. Fighting the ghosts of Vietnam has become an urgent military priority. If he loses that battle, he will have lost the war.

Well, perhaps. But as I've previously suggested comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan are more facile than persuasive. Disquiet, even increasing disqueit, over goals and progress is not the same as domestic rebellion. October may have been a bloody month, but 55 casualties scarcely compared to the three year period (1967-69) when each month 1,000 American troops were killed. That is, the harshest month of the Afghan campaign is about 5% as bloody as the worst of the Vietnam war.

Nor does Obama face any serious political opposition on the war. At least not yet. And the options being considered in Washington are instructive too since none of them involve abandoning the war. Even the most limited of them still call for a long-term US presence in the Afghan theatre.

Yes, Vietnam is the obvious, knee-jerk comparison - especially for baby-boomers. But that doesn't mean it is really terribly useful.

Finally: let's hope that Macintyre's suggestion that Obama is "Hamlet-like" proves ill-founded. For, if memory serves, everyone ends up dead in that play...


PS: Journalists have been making the Vietnam comparison ever since the conflict began. The Guardian ran a big spread asking "Is Aghanistan another Vietnam?" in, I think, December 2001.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.