Once upon a time (say, 50 years ago), we stood for something as a civilization. We had just fought some incredibly bloody wars which we could have easily avoided at that time by appeasing or ignoring Japan, Germany, and soon after, North Korea. In the course of these conflicts, we affirmed what we stood for as a society. Little things like democracy, religious tolerance, free speech, human rights, etc.
Then, we got involved in a war – largely, if imperfectly, in support of these principles – in a place called Vietnam. This war, like most wars, was not really about “bad guys versus good guys”, but “bad guys versus worse guys”. This kind of ambiguity is difficult for our rather idealistic polity to deal with. At the same time, we were in the midst of a kind of national soul-searching related to a very necessary civil rights movement, which revealed to ourselves and the world that we were not quite as perfect as we liked to believe ourselves to be.
Meanwhile, our allies in SE Asia were terribly corrupt. So much so, that in hindsight, perhaps it would have been best if we had let them fall early on before we got in too deep. But we did not; we chose to stand by them anyway for a variety of reasons, some more noble than others.
Our adversary was incredibly cunning, led by a singular military genius, General Vo Nguyen Giap. Despite being outgunned by the U.S. in every way that such things were normally measured, he discovered and exploited a new dimension of warfare related to the manipulation of public opinion through mass communications. While we were playing “chess” on a two-dimensional board that represented a clash of arms, our enemy was playing in three dimensions, in which there was also a “clash of perceptions” at play.
In this way, an outright invasion led by a ruthless army of guerrillas, fighting with no moral floor, using child warriors, combatants dressed as civilians, carrying out all manner of terrorism (sound familiar?!), became a “beleaguered liberation movement” pitted against a big bad bully imperialist (that would be us). Idealistic young people, attracted to the civil rights movement (for example), and thus filled with self-doubt about the morality of the society in which they lived, were easily co-opted and recruited into supporting this narrative.
And so, our leaders of that time - standing for the 'traditional American values' - were cast as hypocritical liars (and, being mortal, sometimes they actually did lie). At the same time, murderous totalitarians bent on self-aggrandizement – to include the likes of Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong - became “hip” folk heroes. Atrocities like the Viet Cong massacre of civilians in Hue were largely ignored, while the inadvertent civilian casualties caused by American efforts to root out the terrorist guerrillas who hid behind them – (sound familiar?!) - were splashed across all of our news media.
In what proved to be a crowning propaganda achievement of our enemies in this war, our decisive defeat of a desperate action on their part – the "Tet Offensive” – morphed into a ‘victory’ for them in terms of public perceptions here at home: the only place it counts. This was incredible.
In the end, even though materially we could have easily won, we walked away, we abandoned our ally, and we lost. We, who simultaneously defeated Nazi Germany and Japan a scant 30 years before (not even).
Since, per the American narrative, “good guys” are never supposed to “lose”, the only way we could make sense of this to ourselves was to tell ourselves that WE were the bad guys. Since only the "good guys" in any war "deserve" to win, lo and behold, the North Vietnamese communists became, in the eyes of many Americans, the "good guys"! So, as a political culture, a huge segment of our population, starting with the generation who experienced that war and the resultant political fallout, passed this narrative down ever since, and it became particularly institutionalized in academia and the media: the organs of thought control. In effect, we have internalized that 2+2=5. Anyone who suggested otherwise – such as Vietnam veterans who knew differently - were cast in the popular imagination as embittered psychopaths or rednecks, likened to the disgruntled German WW1 veterans who claimed that their government 'stabbed them in the back'. White is now black. We had lost our moorings. Once this occurs, anything can be rationalized.
Self-flagellation, contempt for anything resembling “patriotism” as this term was understood pre-Vietnam, a highly rationalized form of guilt-fed cowardice then went on to pass for “enlightened” thought… this has even become a perverse kind of “patriotism” in its own right! Such a mindset is now taken for granted as the "correct" way of looking at our country on college campuses today, and among many in the media and Hollywood as well.
After 40 years of this nonsense, we don’t know what we stand for anymore.
Fast forward to the present:
This dynamic explains, for example, how someone like Barack Obama could have considered himself as “patriotic” as John McCain. Objectively, this is simply absurd, but what I’ve described above is the paradigm by which he could convince himself of this lie, and how others could readily be persuaded to buy this garbage. This is also how someone like Obama’s former communications director, Anita Dunn, could find it perfectly acceptable to sing the praises of Mao before a high school graduating class. This is how someone like Obama’s former “green jobs czar”, Vann Jones, could rationalize signing petitions that claimed Bush was behind 9-11, and so on.
In the current war against Islamic extremism, we have every advantage over our Islamist adversaries….except that, as I just noted earlier, we don't seem to believe in anything anymore.except perhaps being comfortable. On the other hand, the Islamists know very well what they believe in, and horrendous though it may be (after all, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese were quite sincere in their “beliefs” as well), such naked commitment and confidence is very impressive to someone who believes in NOTHING....(and, to put the final piece in the puzzle, if the Barack Obamas and Anita Dunns can't bring themselves to believe in what America is supposed to stand for, but they feel driven to believe in SOMETHING, then they will look elsewhere for their heroes, to Mao, to Che, to Castro, ad nauseam).
Building on this, our enemy has adopted and fine-tuned General Giap’s tactics, and this is no coincidence. In fact, Yasser Arafat traveled to Hanoi during the late 1960s in order to glean tactics for defeating a materially superior foe. General Giap’s book on such tactics is widely translated and circulated around the Arab world. What is worse, our enemy today has financial resources with which to pursue these tactics that Ho Chi Minh could have only dreamed of.
Again, in the aggregate, as Americans, we don’t know what we are about, except for being comfortable. We are loathe to making any genuine sacrifices for anything. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, we embarked on the most expensive and second bloodiest war in our history. In the course of a single battle in that war - Iwo Jima - we lost more American dead in the space of about a month than we did in the whole of our war in Iraq. We endured near-universal conscription, we rationed food and other consumables, we grew "victory gardens". In the wake of 9-11, we were urged to "go shopping".
In the absence of integrity, values, and most of all, genuine patriotism as these concepts were once broadly understood here, especially by many who were expected to set an example - from political leaders to celebrities - money dominates; everyone is for sale. Through petrodollars, the Arabs - among others, but they are most relevant with respect to the war we are now fighting - are making sure that we won't do what needs to be done to win, if they have anything to say about it. In this example, if the object of the game is to have the most toys, why not have a Swiss bank account that the Arabs can dump money into, if all one has to do for this largesse is beat up on Israel, or make excuses for Islamists? Sure beats working!
I highlight the Saudis here for a reason. On nearly every major relevant issue, Obama is doing PRECISELY what they would have him do, up to the very edge of political possibility...but that is another subject. What is most important here is how people who would presume to lead our country could become so shallow, so hollow, and so cowardly, as to leave themselves open to such malevolent influences.
THAT is ‘how the heck we got here’.
How do we get out? Keep trying to speak the truth about this everywhere we can, to anyone who will listen. But one should be warned:
The most dangerous, politically incorrect thing you can ever say in the America of today is to suggest that we really were on the right side of history in Vietnam, and that despite this, we simply gave up, walked away, and let those who were on the wrong side win anyway. This is a political/cultural stink bomb of nuclear proportions.
Today, with the re-election of Barack Obama, our descent continues. This is clearly evident in his cabinet picks for both Secretary of State in John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense in Chuck Hagel. While both served honorably in Vietnam, these individuals are thoroughly steeped in the defeatism and amoral, opportunistic cynicism that has tainted American foreign policy since that time.
In the face of a resurgent Islamist movement, as recently evidenced by the attacks on our embassies this past fall, as well as an increasingly bold and assertive China, it is more important than ever that we recognize, confront, and defeat those who weaken us from within, before it is too late.
Robert Vincent, a U.S. Army veteran, obtained his BA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Michigan, his MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and his MBA from the University of Findlay. He lives and works in Northwest Ohio.