A Conversation with Christian Appy on the Fragility of American Exceptionalism

Your book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (Viking), discusses this syndrome of “No More Vietnams,” which you argue faded after the 9/11 attacks and invasion of Iraq. You come across as harshly against the interventions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But do you think there is a danger in over-learning the past and lurching too far in the other direction?  

Given the fact that the U.S. remains a military colossus with more than 800 bases on foreign soil, and last year conducted special military operations—most of them secretin roughly 70 percent of the world’s countries, I see no danger that we will lurch toward pacifism. And while it is true that post-Vietnam presidents were waryuntil 9/11of interventions that might drag on with high U.S. casualties and no clear success to proclaim, no modern president has ever questioned the need to maintain a permanent and superior national security state. For me, the only major example of an instance in which the “Vietnam syndrome” may have kept us from intervening in a just cause was our failure to do anything in response to the genocide in Rwanda. You could also make the case that fears of “another Vietnam” kept us from intervening soon enough in Bosnia.

You describe in your first chapter George Evans who did not believe in such thing as a bad war. What’s a “bad” war in your estimation, and by contrast, what’s a “good” war? Here I am interested more in the conditions of when we should intervene versus sitting a conflict out, less than pointing at specific wars. 

I believe there have been some just wars. There is a huge literature debating what conditions must be satisfied to wage a just war, but the most agreed upon principles in just war theory are a sensible place to start: armed violence should be a last resort defense against violent aggression. Part of what makes the subject so complicated is the great range of cases to be consideredfrom the foreign invasion of a sovereign nation, to terrorist attacks by sub-national groups, to armed revolution, to genocide. And bear in mind that a just cause, such as the war against fascism in World War II, does not justify unjust means i.e. the aerial bombing of civilian populations.

We have not won our last few wars yet we still cling to this belief in American exceptionalism, which will be whipped up again next year during the presidential elections. What role did Vietnam, and perhaps the sour aftermath of that conflict, play in our belief in American exceptionalism, if any?

In American Reckoning, I argue that the Vietnam War, more than any event in our history, shattered the once broad faith in American exceptionalism, a central tenet of which is the idea that we are a superior and invincible force for good in the world. In the decades since 1975 many people have tried to cobble that faith back together again. But it is now, I believe, a more defensive and fragile faith. And precisely because there is so much evidence to challenge the “we’re number one” creed, it has become all the more bombastic.

We seem to vote on candidates based on the size of their US flag pin. How did Vietnam shape patriotism and how we think about war? It would be unheard of for a candidate for president to be anti-war. Yes, Obama sought to pull us out of Iraq in 2008 but nobody is calling for reducing the size of the military for fear of being seen as not fully supporting the troops.

The whole flag pin phenomenon began with Nixon. He was the first president to routinely wear one. He and his staff regarded it as a political emblem, a badge of loyalty to Nixon’s policies—especially in Vietnam—and a rebuke of the peace sign. Now virtually every politician wears the pin, some of them out of fear that they might otherwise be viewed as insufficiently patriotic. And you are certainly right to suggest that no ambitious politician would ever wear a peace sign! The “support our troops” mantra was, I believe, a legacy of post-Vietnam efforts to re-imagine the war as primarily an American tragedy in which U.S. soldiers and veterans were the primary victims. So even though a majority of Americans came to oppose the two major wars of the 21st century, war managers could use the “support our troops” rallying cry to dampen dissent and prolong war.

Take us back to the Eisenhower era before Vietnam. Why did we tacitly support colonialist wars in French Indo-China in the beginning, especially somebody who warned us against the “military industrial complex” from getting too big?

Eisenhower, and Truman before him, supported the French war in Indochina because they believed supporting colonialism was better than having another Asian country become communist. When the Chinese Communist came to power in 1949, Truman was attacked with tremendous political effectiveness. Of course Truman did not “lose” China, but that was beside the point. Every Cold War leader who followed drew the same political lessonyou should never be seen as weak on Communism. It might not have been an accurate conclusion. LBJ might have been re-elected had he pulled us out of Vietnam. Instead, his escalation destroyed his presidency.

Later it seems we were always relying on intelligence agents to install non-communist rulers during the Cold War and this policy invariably always backfired. Is this a misreading of our foreign policy under Eisenhower and later Kennedy and Nixon? Given what we know about current CIA operations, have we learned anything in half a century?

You’re quite right. Blowback, as Chalmers Johnson pointed out in his landmark book by the same name, is a CIA term for the unintended consequences of covert U.S. operations. It often takes the form of anti-American retaliations for prior interventions that were well known overseas but not by most Americans. A classic example was the Iran hostage crisis (1979-81) when 52 Americans were held captive as blowback for 25 years of U.S. policy in Iran beginning with the CIA’s overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh. Policymakers do not want to learn lessons that require fundamental rethinking of our role in the world, especially our short-term goals. Zbigniew Brzezinski was once asked if he had any regrets for supporting the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan who went on to attack the U.S. He had no regrets. The short term goal was to bloody the Soviets by every means necessary.

Is it fair to compare Vietnam to Iraq? Obama has famously made all of his staff read McGeorge Bundy’s biography, Lessons in Disaster.

It’s true that Obama understood that the war in Iraq was at least unwise, but it took him almost three years to get out and now we’re back in fighting ISIS, a new threat spawned by our prior intervention. Of course Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different countries but there are certainly troubling parallels in terms of U.S. policy. In both instances the U.S. government waged war under false pretexts, in countries where our troops were widely perceived as foreign invaders and given the impossible task of crushing insurgencies that opposed them and the unpopular governments they were fighting to prop up. In both cases, the government prolonged the fighting long after the public had come to oppose it, and in the end still failed to achieve their stated objectives.

You write about the My Lai massacre, which obviously draws comparisons to the torture at Abu Ghraib. Yet neither war crime saw top-level officials held accountable. Why have we not learned from such events?

Again, knowledge is selective. Our war managers view certain ideas as illegitimate by definition, even if the historical record suggests that they should be taken seriously. We should have learned from Vietnam that using military force to crush counter-insurgencies in places where the U.S. is widely regarded as a hostile force creates an atrocity-producing mechanism. It doesn’t mean every U.S. troop targets civilians or commits war crimes (far from it), but it does make the abuse and killing of civilians all too commonplace. Instead of accepting that idea as “knowledge,” our leaders respond to every U.S. war crime in the same way: “That’s not who we are.” The “we” remains good; any bad is carried out by “a few bad apples.”

How has America changed since the Vietnam War? Here I’m thinking about how did we go from a country with a vibrant anti-war movement to one where it would be unthinkable to say anything negative about the military, whereby soldiers are revered? Why is there no more anti-war pop or folk music?

There probably is some good antiwar music now, but I’ve been asked this recently by a number of young people so I take the point. There is a lot of antiwar opinion, but not a pervasive antiwar culture or movement. The absence of a draft that would raise the possibility of military service to an entire generation is part of the answer of course. It is possible for most of us to completely tune out the wars fought in our name by less than one percent of our population. I also think we lack the 1960s conviction and hope that social movements can make a difference. There’s a lot more cynicism today. Many people believe the military-industrial complex, ever larger and more secretive, has a life of its own, impervious to public challenge. That view is unfortunate, but understandable.

You have this chapter about Tom Dooley, who is one of my childhood idols and whose autobiography I remember reading in the 1990s and inspiring me to go abroad and teach English for a year after college. We obviously don’t have a draft today but should there be some kind of year of voluntary service required of younger Americans?

I might support a thoughtful plan to require a year of service with lots of options, but I just can’t imagine that Congress would fund such a program. It won’t even pass modest bills on education and transportation. So maybe we should start with the reform that seems a precondition to so much else—really getting money out of politics. Some campaign experts are projecting that the 2016 presidential race will cost $5 billion. No wonder people feel alienated from politics.


[Photo source: Flickr Creative Commons]


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