Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How About A Sense of Proportion?

We’ve heard a lot about false equivalence these days, from Jon Stewart’s dubious claims that MSNBC personalities like Keith Olbermann are the equivalent on the left to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh on the right, to equally dubious claims by some of my fellow liberals that Pres. Obama’s no better than George W. Bush because he’s repeated a handful of mistakes that Forty-Three made. In either case the argument is weak at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Olbermann’s occasional rhetorical excesses hardly compare to Glenn Beck’s George-Soros-induced paranoia; and you can hardly say the guy who outlawed torture is “no better than” the guy who authorized torture, merely because the former hasn’t yet closed Guantánamo Bay. Which is not to say either Mr. Olbermann or Mr. Obama is or should be above criticism, but even they deserve to be treated fairly.

So, anyway, speaking of proportionality, last night Greg Mitchell of The Nation tweeted a link to an article by Robert Wright in The New York Times called “Worse Than Vietnam,” in which the author makes this observation:

Is Afghanistan, as some people say, America’s second Vietnam? Actually, a point-by-point comparison of the two wars suggests that it’s worse than that.

For starters, though Vietnam was hugely destructive in human terms, strategically it was just a medium-sized blunder. It was a waste of resources, yes, but the war didn’t make America more vulnerable to enemy attack.

The Afghanistan war does. Just as Al Qaeda planned, it empowers the narrative of terrorist recruiters — that America is at war with Islam. The would-be Times Square bomber said he was working to avenge the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was enraged by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Now, Mr. Wright makes some excellent points about the war in Afghanistan, and I agree that the policy itself has failed. But there are two huge problems with his central thesis – that Afghanistan is “worse than Vietnam” – and those problems highlight the fact that we on the left seem to have lost our sense proportionality lately.

First of all, you can’t talk about Afghanistan or Vietnam (or any war, frankly) without asking whether the war was justified in the first instance. In other words, you can’t divorce war from the central question of whether a moral and legal justification existed for the use of military force. If the decision to go to war is the heaviest and most consequential decision a nation ever makes – and it’s hard to argue otherwise – then threshold question you have to answer in every case is: Was it justified?

At least in Afghanistan, we had a clear legal justification to go to war. The al Qaeda network that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 was headquartered in Afghanistan, ran its operations out of that country, planned the 9/11 attacks there, and had a symbiotic relationship with the brutal Taliban regime then in power in Kabul. The Taliban sheltered al Qaeda and worked hand-in-glove with it, and it was entirely appropriate to hold the Taliban government responsible for the acts of its surrogate, al Qaeda. Which is not to say we should have gone to war in Afghanistan, only that legal justification for war existed. Personally, I never felt the Afghan war was a good idea as a matter of policy, and I said so at the time; but that’s a separate matter.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, the supposed justification for war was far from clear. Without belaboring the point, the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in late July and early August 1964 have always been suspect, and if the root underlying cause of the conflict was U.S. opposition to the elections called for in the Geneva Accords that ended the French Indochina War, you simply cannot compare Afghanistan and Vietnam in terms of the underlying justification for each. So, again, if Vietnam was an unjustified war from the get-go and Afghanistan was, legally at least, justified, it strains credibility to say Afghanistan is worse than Vietnam without at least acknowledging that enormously consequential moral difference.

But there’s another huge problem with Mr. Wright’s Afghanistan-is-worse-than-Vietnam hypothesis, and it’s underscored by this disturbingly flippant comment: “For starters, though Vietnam was hugely destructive in human terms, strategically it was just a medium-sized blunder.” Wait. What? You’re really going to gloss over the fact that “Vietnam was hugely destructive in human terms”?! Let’s be clear: The Vietnam War cost some 5 million lives, including roughly 1 million military casualties and about 4 million civilian deaths. The United States alone lost roughly 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in Vietnam. That’s not something you can ignore when you’re talking about Vietnam in any context.

Sadly, there is no way to know exactly how many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, but we do know there have been about 2,229 coalition deaths there. According to The Guardian, there have been nearly 7,000 civilian deaths in Afghanistan since 2006; and, of course, the total number of fatalities among civilians has to be many times higher than that, given that the war began in October 2001. While any deaths or injuries – whether military or civilian – are unacceptable in the pursuit of a failed policy, how do you say a war resulting in the deaths of, perhaps, tens of thousands is worse than a war that resulted in the deaths of nearly five million, particularly where at least some justification existed for the former but not the latter?

I guess the answer to that question is this: If you want to draw attention to yourself and make sensationalized claims that do not advance the substance of your argument, you can say Afghanistan is “worse than Vietnam.” But if you want to engage in an intelligent discussion about the serious problems with our Afghan strategy, about a war that may have been justified at one time but was nevertheless poorly executed and needs to be ended as expeditiously as possible, perhaps you might want to have a little more respect for the millions of people who died in Vietnam and a little more respect for the intelligence of your readers.

© 2010 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent point. I'd challenge Wright further on his point about Vietnam being a "medium-sized strategic blunder"; only now are its effects on many Southeast Asian countries' relationships with the United States starting to meaningfully fade. Also, it sent shockwaves through American culture -- we've never been the same.

    The human costs, of course, are immense -- and not just in terms of casualties. The Vietnam War created an entire new class of homeless veterans. Some 23 percent of America's homeless are veterans, and 47 percent of those served durin the Vietnam War.

    Anyway, excellent post. Have you read Hitchens' "The Trial of Henry Kissinger"?

  2. Thanks! No, I haven’t read Hitchen’s book yet but I’ve heard great things about it. Yet another book on my long to-read list.