Goodnight, Saigon (For Real This Time)

The State of the Union address is always a highlight of my winter. Not that there’s much competition when you live in the Northeast — NFL playoff games on the weekend, the mad rush to the liquor store at the first hint of a snow day and unlimited excuses to make unlimited casseroles. But for a political junkie, as watered down and repetitious as the speech has become, there’s budding excitement as the event approaches. Over the last decade or so, the rise of social media has made it even more interesting. Watching it with my wife has always been fun, but watching it with friends and strangers across the country has only added to the virtual party atmosphere. (Primarily because I have my wife who can tell me just by looking at my facial muscles whether I should post/tweet what I’m about to put out there).

As President Obama’s final SotU approached, I found myself getting a bit nostalgic. His presidency is beginning to come into an historical perspective, the seedlings of his narrative beginning to sprout. He’s obviously a transformative president — and those are the presidents that have some of the most vocal detractors — but his seven years and counting have been anything but mundane, making impacts home and abroad that will last generations. 
I couldn’t help but think back to his Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, at the biggest height of division I’ve ever seen in this country when he said:

“We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”

Dug up an email I sent to fellow travelers the day after that speech:

Fucking awesome. Not since Clinton’s millennium address did a public speech bring me to tears. Move over “only thing to fear”, “luckiest man on the face of the earth”, “ask not what your country”, “tear down this wall”, etc; there’s a new standard bearer for public speaking, and his name is Barack Obama…he’s gonna be sittin in the Oval someday.

I thought about his first Inaugural in January 2009 and the line that almost made me drop the coffee out of my hand as I watched from my desk: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”

See, as one of those “non-believers” and being accustomed to having disingenuous references to the Almighty shoved down my throat in every damn speech ranging from a Declaration of War to the pardoning of a turkey, it was shocking and refreshing to hear the incoming President of the United States reference the fact that yes, in this land founded upon religious freedom, there ARE people who exercise their freedom to choose NO religion.

And of course, I thought about “Amazing Grace” in Charleston.

So as I settled in on my recliner to watch the 44th President of the United States — a President whom more likely than not I will be holding up as THE benchmark for all future Presidents the way others have done with names like FDR and Ronald Reagan, my expectations were high despite the fabricated lame-duck status that the national media insists exists as they move their attention to the platitudes and demagoguery of the primary elections. I knew there would be that line. That one line that would resonate harder and longer than the rest of the speech. And in the latter half of the address, the President delivered:

We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.

Now, this one snippet hasn’t been discussed or dissected much in the post-speech analysis. Most of the coverage has focused on the not-so-subtle shots across the bow at a certain hate-mongering candidate that’s more than happy to tell you about how excellent and very well he’s doing in the polls. But more than anything else, more than Clinton needed to declare “The Era of Big Government is over”, more than Kennedy needed to challenge us to walk on the moon, this was two simple sentences that a President of the United States needed to say.

Though I was born twenty months after the Fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War loomed large in my social, cultural and educational rearing. It’s kind of hard as a kid to gain perspective on the past. Sure, you know that Vietnam peaked 15 years ago and the Second World War ended 25 years before that, but you can’t really grasp how long or short fifteen or thirty years really are. You know your grandparents are about 25 years older than your parents, but you can’t really account for what 25 years means when you’ve only been alive for half of that. What I realize now is that the time I really began to develop a love of history — and a keen interest in the Vietnam War — is as far away from the Fall of Saigon as the President’s last State of the Union address was to the Invasion of Iraq. Perspective can be frightening (and depressing).

Since the Baby Boomers were the ones writing the films and television or publishing the textbooks, I grew up with this romanticized notion that The War was basically ended by Jimi Hendrix playing the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and women burning their bras. Two of the most acclaimed and discussed movies at the peak of the VHS Rental era were “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket”. I gravitated towards the music of counterculture. As I advanced as an upper classman in high school and eventually earned a Bachelor’s in History, the period between the Kennedy Assassination and the Nixon Resignation became the nucleus of my studies — so much so that I barely feigned passing interest in just about every other subject.

The more my fascination grew, the more my fundamental takeaway from what I had learned was simple: Vietnam was a tragic error, dictated by politicians fighting an ideological war with an undefined objective beyond “Containment”. It was an unconventional battle that our military was not trained to successfully execute and the necessity for the escalation was never clearly articulated to an originally willing public. The trust in our elected and military leadership — at an all-time high thanks to names like Roosevelt and Eisenhower — had completely eroded.

And there was another takeaway from the experience: We must never forget the lessons of Vietnam. For twenty five years in America, that seemed to be the case. The vehemently anti-communist rhetoric of Ronald Reagan was tempered by his consistent attempts at diplomatic solutions to the Cold War, or his tactical air strikes in Libya. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, decorated soldiers Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf demanded the use of overwhelming force and a clear and stated objective. Hussein was driven out of Kuwait in a quarter of the time it took the NFL to examine Tom Brady’s balls. When it became clear that Slobodan Milosevic was committing crimes against humanity in the Balkans, Bill Clinton assembled an international coalition under NATO to force him into submission and peaceably bring the region stability. If you were to stop history around the time our VCRs and ATMs were supposed to stop working due to the Y2K scare, you’d argue that we successfully learned the lessons of Vietnam. Those names on that wall did not die in vain.

Then George Walker Fucking Bush happened.

It was the Tet Offensive all over again. Fabricated evidence. Undefined Victory. Inept civilian leadership handcuffing military brass. Military brass, mind you, that had fought and learned the lessons of the guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia at an all too intimate level. Throw in the squandering of public trust that came not only from being the surviving post-Cold War Superpower, but garnishing global goodwill and support in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. We even had the Dixie Chicks playing the part of Jane Fonda.

You almost couldn’t make this up. We were taking the biggest foreign policy blunder in our nation’s history and using it’s playbook! It wasn’t long before the 85% of Americans who blindly marched to the drumbeat of war came to the same conclusion. And almost 13 years after the Invasion, we still find ourselves unable to completely detach from the conflict, and likely won’t for another generation.

But what we will be able to do is to really digest the lessons that our President spoke of on Tuesday night. This notion that we can indiscriminately bomb anyone we disagree with is just false. The machismo blabbering of the chickenhawks that usually accompanies it? Dangerous. Lacking the ability to see the next step — what happens after the first objective/enemy is conquered is a quality we can ill afford in our leaders. If you’re going to ask our boys and girls to put their lives on the line on foreign soil, you sure as bloody hell be able to tell their parents why.

This isn’t something to be said in the pages of the New York Times Op-Ed section. It carries little weight as a talking point on Anderson Cooper 360 or Hardball. This has got to be policy. This needs to be dogmatic among Commanders In Chief long after any future President alive today has left this world. We’ve failed twice. Three strikes and we’re out. This has got to be something that comes directly from the lips of the President of the United States.

And I’m damn proud I heard it.