Many uncertainties remain regarding Syria, but one thing is certain about public attitudes in this country: the Vietnam syndrome is restored. The "Vietnam Syndrome" (VS) refers to the U.S. reluctance to use military force. After the attenuated invasion and attenuated defeat that the U.S. experienced in Vietnam, the U.S public was generally unenthusiastic about military interventions. When Reagan ran for the presidency in 1980 he lamented this attitude: "For too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome."
The Reagan-Bush administration (1981-1989) made vanquishing the VS a priority. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger said troops would only be deployed "with the clear intention of winning." Critics noted that Weinberger policies were devoid of morals; for example, the Nazi high command would have been inclined to have a similar directive after their massive defeat at Stalingrad. Weinberger's policy that victory was a necessity had three implications, in my opinion. (1.) Rather than using its troops, the U.S. would rely more on mercenaries and proxies, thus insuring that U.S. troops would not be placed in a no-win situation. (2.) Because U.S. troops would be out of the picture, the U.S. could make a "plausible denial" of involvement in international terrorism and thus U.S. surrogates could use terrorism more extensively. Bob Woodward, in his book, "Veil," and others have described a March 8, 1985, U.S. CIA car bombing in Lebanon that killed 80 people and wounded 200, but missed its intended target.
(3.) The U.S. would only target and invade nations that were a tiny fraction of our size.
Reagan found a minuscule target and made a first step to reverse the VS in October of 1983. Several days after one man had killed 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon, Reagan ended a string of U.S. humiliations by invading Grenada, a nation 133 square miles in size with 110,000 people. After this, the U.S. was "standing tall." Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, felt the invasion enabled us to overcome our "sickly inhibitions against the use of military force." Yet the world largely concurred with a former U.S. State Department employee who observed; "America had regained its manhood, by stepping on a flea."
Reagan's successor, Bush, invaded Panama (Dec.1989) causing hundreds of civilian deaths and about $2 billion in damages.
The U.S. was condemned by the Organization of American States. But the VS was further diminished, since as Grenada showed, the costs others bear are irrelevant to U.S. attitudes toward war.
There is enormous evidence that when Bush I invaded Iraq, a major motivation was to erase the VS. Several weeks before the invasion his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell "concluded that George Bush no longer wanted an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait." When Iraq rebuffed an ultimatum from the U.S., on Jan. 9, 1991, "Bush was jubilant because it was the best news possible, although he would have to conceal it publicly," wrote Bob Woodward.
After the main road out of Kuwait "turned into a shooting gallery for our fliers" writes Powell in his autobiography, he reminded Bush that, "We don't want to be seen as killing for the sake of killing."
The war ended about six weeks after it started with Bush declaring the day it ended, according to Powell's autobiography, "My American Journey." "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." Bush's approval rating soared to levels that Reagan had never enjoyed.
Bill Clinton's deft handling of the military in the interventions he undertook never threatened to undo what Bush had achieved in Iraq.
Perhaps G. W. Bush thought he could handle military interventions as skillfully as Clinton. But it was not to be. G. W. Bush, in my opinion a man of questionable intelligence, but of confirmed poor judgment, totally ignored countless warnings of the immense cost and little or dubious benefit of invading Iraq. Shortly after the Bush/ Cheney administration invaded Iraq, in March 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld assured that nation that the war would not last six months.
In the invasion's aftermath, media personalities such as Brit Hume, Cal Thomas, Charles Krauthammer, Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, Morton Kondracke and Lou Dobbs had glowing acclaim for G. W. Bush. Apparently this went to his head: about six weeks after the attack on Iraq, he donned flight gear and landed a plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce "Mission Accomplished" with regard to Iraq.
As U.S. war deaths climbed into the thousands and war costs into the trillions, the VS returned with a vengeance. Ironically, the man who believed he had forever buried the VS saw it restored by his own son. Even though Obama's handling of intervention would more likely resemble Clinton than G. W. Bush, the public has seen again that sometimes the immense and awesome military might of the U.S. does not enable it to shape events to its liking. The Vietnam Syndrome will probably be with us for some time now.
Rick Jones lives in West Haven.