September 03, 2008

Was McCain the Bomber Pilot a Hero? Republicans and Vietnam

After the American Century

The Republican Party has never come to terms with the Vietnam War, as the McCain candidacy underscores. For as Ronald Reagan once put it, Vietnam was a "noble cause," to considerable right-wing applause. Standing at the then new Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, he declared, "who can doubt that the cause for which our men fought was just?" I can. What Reagan said was pseudo-patriotic nonsense. Which part of the Vietnam War was noble? Was it noble to pretend that the Vietnamese War was about communism, when it began as a nationalist uprising against the French colonial power? Was it noble to concoct a "domino theory" to justify the war, when area specialists at the time knew that it was not true? (Indeed, once the US lost the war, other nations did not "fall" into communism.) Was it noble to overthrow Diem and then support an unpopular South Vietnamese military regime? Was it noble to spray chemical defoliants, notably Agent Orange over large parts of the nation, poisoning both the habitat and US soldiers on the ground? Was dropping napalm on civilians noble? Was support for a wealthy landowning class against landless peasants a noble democratic aim? Was it noble to round up South Vietnamese into compounds and force them to live there rather than in their ancestral villages? Was it noble to be allied with a regime that at times shot prisoners, that was known to mistreat its prisoners, and even to throw them alive out of airplanes? Was it noble to bomb North Vietnam, attacking not only military targets but cities as well, killing thousands of civilians?

Let us focus on that last question, because the future Republican candidate John McCain was flying over North Vietnam in 1967. What was he doing there when he was shot down? People focus on McCain in a prisoner of war camp, but forget to ask why he was there, or whether the US war in Vietnam made any sense. Yes, he was shot down. Yes, he was mistreated. Yes, he suffered. But the Democrats have been reluctant to ask the real question: What was McCain's role in that unjust war, which was condemned by most European nations? Did he drop agent orange on agricultural lands? Did he drop napalm on villages? Did he bomb women and children? And just as importantly, what does McCain think of the Vietnam War today? Does he agree with Reagan's absurd idea that the war was a noble cause? Does he think that massive strategic bombing was a successful tactic? A morally defensible tactic? A good tactic in future wars? If so, then why did the US lose that war? Why did the US lose the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people? Has McCain, have the Republicans, any new ideas, or will they keep trying the same failed military "solutions"?

What does McCain think of the "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq? Does the United States want a president who jokes about bombing Iran, by intoning a Beach Boys tune as he warbles, "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran?" This might sound like a joke, but the threat of strategic bombing is the essense of McCain's foreign policy. There is nothing heroic or noble about dominating the air space over a nation, whether Vietnam or Iraq or Iran, and carpeting it with deadly bombs. That is why McCain is a dangerous choice for president, just as the Republicans are a dangerous party to entrust with foreign policy.

After eight years of George Bush, where in the world is the US in a sronger foreign policy position than it was in 2000? Not in Europe. Not in the Middle East. Not in China. Not in Latin America. Where is it more popular than in 2000? It is hard to make a case for many places. John McCain has a millitaristic conception of foreign affairs, and he is accompanied by a vice-presidential nominee who thinks the Iraq War is a holy mission.

Vietnam was not a noble cause, but an enormous mistake. McCain and the Republicans have never understood it, and remain prisoners of a distorted sense of history. That is why they are unfit to hold power.