TOWN SQUARE

Lehigh Valley historian sees Vietnam, Afghanistan similarities

On Oct. 1, 2009, Gary Olson, head of the Political Science Department at Moravian College, said in a column in The Morning Call that the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan "has never been the 'good and necessary war' defended by President Obama."

Olson said "Washington's motive is control of oil," observing that oil interests planned a $7.5 billion gas pipeline through Afghanistan from Turkmenistan.

I did not agree that the incursion was unnecessary, because the 2001 terrorist attacks were hatched at least in part in Afghanistan, and it was certainly more justified than the incursion in Iraq. The real 2001 culprit was the tyrannical Saudi Arabian theocracy, but our top government leaders had business interests there, so they targeted Iraq.

Some of Olson's points, however, were a birthday present.

He said terrorists in Afghanistan "were created by the CIA" (referring to President Reagan's moves to arm and organize Islamic fanatics fighting a Soviet incursion in the 1980s), and promises by U.S. brass about the war in Afghanistan were "eerily reminiscent of Gen. William Westmoreland's 'light at the end of the tunnel' comments" about Vietnam. This was before Olson knew Obama would make similarly rosy prognostications this past week.

On Friday, I mentioned "the tragic historical ironies" involving Vietnam and Afghanistan, but focused mainly on the successful effort by a Lehigh Valley historian to find and bring home the remains of an Army pilot from the Lehigh Valley killed in Vietnam in 1969. (No matter how bad the government's decisions have been about getting us into wars, no one can deny the courage and sacrifice of American military people who do their duty. Capt. Charles Barnes of Fullerton was one of thousands who fit that category, and he deserves to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.)

As for irony, Obama visited Afghanistan on Wednesday and said, "We can see the light of a new day on the horizon."

In 1967, both President Johnson and Westmoreland began repeatedly spewing the "light at the end of the tunnel" refrain.

After 1967, Americans were increasingly disturbed by pictures of flag-draped coffins and atrocities, such as a Vietnamese general (our ally) shooting a helpless handcuffed man in Saigon, or the My Lai massacre of hundreds of unarmed women and children. In the years after the "light at the end of the tunnel" nostrum, twice as many American GIs were killed in Vietnam as in all the years prior to it, to say nothing of civilians.

In Afghanistan, Obama spoke of the need to deny enemies "safe haven in Pakistan" (previously Cambodia), he said "Afghan security forces are moving into the lead" (called "Vietnamization" in 1969), and promised that "we're pursuing a negotiated peace" (but not in Paris this time).

I hope I'm wrong, but Obama now sounds a lot like LBJ and President Nixon.

Politicians did learn one thing from Vietnam. The freedom of the press was reversed when it came to later wars. What the American government has been doing in Iraq or Afghanistan is none of the American public's business, except for a few episodes that slipped past the censors.

On Friday, I discussed historian Joseph Garrera, director of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, who helped me find details about Capt. Barnes. I asked about his reaction to Obama's "light of day" speech.

"That grabbed me as an optimistic note," Garrera said. "Some people just think it's the rhetoric of the past [but] I do not believe this is Vietnam. … If you don't have optimism, you don't have anything. … We can achieve nothing in life with pessimism."

That, if true, does not bode well for me, I'm afraid. I have been around politicians of the modern era much too long to be anything but abjectly pessimistic about any and all government schemes.

I also asked Olson about his reaction to Obama's blissful predictions.

"Yes, I'm old enough to vividly recall hearing Westmoreland's comment," he replied. "I was struck by the similarity of Obama's odious and myopic disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Afghans. … Again, this is so reminiscent of Vietnam."

History illustrates that politicians who oppose war are seldom successful — and it does not just repeat itself; it lets politicians rule badly over and over in the same way.

Maybe Garrera is right about optimism. Maybe the Afghan puppets we now prop up will not collapse as soon as their strings are cut, as happened in Vietnam. Maybe the Taliban will not crawl from under their rocks and start over. Maybe they will not stone Afghan women to death for failing to wear burkas or remain illiterate. Maybe a long-lasting peace is at hand.

I doubt it, though.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
mc-pc-afghanistan-history-20120505
 
Advertisement

PHOTO GALLERIES

TOP VIDEO

CONNECT WITH US


2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Google Plus
  • RSS Feeds
  • Mobile Alerts and Apps