In choosing a title for his final, posthumously published book, the prominent public intellectual Tony Judt turned to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, published in 1770. Judt found his book’s title in the first words of this couplet:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay
A poignant sentiment but let me acknowledge that I’m not a big Goldsmith fan. My own preferences in verse run more toward Merle Haggard, whose country music hits include the following lyric from his 1982 song “Are the Good Times Really Over?”:
Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?
I wonder, though: Is it possible that the insights of an eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist-poet and a twentieth-century American singer-songwriter, each reflecting on a common theme of decadence and each served up with a dollop of nostalgia, just might intersect?
Allow me to try the reader’s patience with a bit more of Goldsmith:
O luxury! thou curst by Heaven’s decree,
How ill exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions, with insidious joy,
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!
Kingdoms, by thee, to sickly greatness grown,
Boast of a florid vigour not their own;
At every draught more large and large they grow
A bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe.
Down, down they sink, and spread a ruin round.
Powerful stuff, but here’s Haggard making a similar point without frills:
I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
Before the Vietnam War came along…
Are we rolling down hill
Like a snowball headed for Hell?
With no kind of chance
For the Flag or the Liberty Bell
Let me concede from the outset that these laments emerge directly from the heart of the patriarchy. In our present moment, some will discount the complaints of Messrs. Goldsmith and Haggard as not to be taken seriously. As the second decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, bellyaching white guys tend not to command a lot of sympathy.
Still, with this abysmal year finally ending, the melancholy notes sounded by Goldsmith and Haggard strike me as apt. The Age of Biden — or given our preference for faux intimacy, the Age of Joe and Kamala — beckons. Yet I’m anything but certain that 2021 will inaugurate a happier time.
That said, for those who believe history has its own rhymes and rhythms, the election of Biden and Harris just might herald a turning point of sorts. After all, for more than a century now, presidential elections occurring in even numbered years ending in zero have resulted in big changes.
Don’t take my word for it. Check the record.
Thanks to the assassin who prematurely terminated William McKinley’s presidency, the election of 1900 inaugurated the reformist Progressive Era. Two decades later, Americans yearning for a return to “normalcy” voted for Warren G. Harding. Instead of normalcy, they got the splashy upheaval of the Twenties and the ensuing Great Depression.
Once the balloting in 1940 handed Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term, hopes entertained by some Americans of staying out of World War II were doomed. Global war vaulted the United States to a position of global primacy — and soon gave rise to new challenges. John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 empowered a generation “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace” to address those challenges. Unanticipated complications ensued, as they did again in 1980 and 2000, the former initiating the Reagan Revolution, the latter election of George W. Bush setting the stage for the Global War on Terror and, by extension, Donald Trump.
The challenges awaiting Biden and Harris arguably outweigh those that confronted any of those past administrations, Roosevelt’s excepted. In a recent New York Times column, the man who lost that disputed 2000 election, Al Gore, inventoried the most pressing problems that Biden’s team will confront. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, they include:
“40 years of economic stagnation for middle-income families; hyper-inequality of incomes and wealth, with high levels of poverty; horrific structural racism; toxic partisanship; the impending collapse of nuclear arms control agreements; an epistemological crisis undermining the authority of knowledge; recklessly unprincipled behavior by social media companies; and, most dangerous of all, the climate crisis.”
That makes for quite a daunting catalog. Yet note this one striking omission: Gore makes no mention of America’s seemingly never-ending penchant for war and military adventurism.
Before the Vietnam War came along
Surely, though, war has contributed in no small way to “the bloated mass of rank unwieldy woe” besetting our nation today. And were Merle Haggard to update “Are the Good Times Really Over?” he would doubtless include the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq alongside Vietnam as prominent among the factors that have sent this country caroming downward.
In the evening of my life, as I reflect on the events of our time that ended up mattering most, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq top my list. Together, they define the poles around which much of my professional life has revolved, whether as a soldier, teacher, or writer. It would be fair to say that I’m haunted by those two conflicts.
I could write pages and pages on how Vietnam and Iraq differ from each other, beginning with the fact that they are separated in time by nearly a half-century. Locale, the contours of the battlefields, the character of combat, the casualties inflicted and sustained, the sheer quantity of ordnance expended — when it comes to such measures and others, Vietnam and Iraq differ greatly. Yet while those differences are worth noting, it’s the unappreciated similarities between them that are truly instructive.
Seven such similarities stand out:
First, Vietnam and Iraq were both avoidable: For the United States, they were wars of choice. No one pushed us. We dove in headfirst.
Second, both turned out to be superfluous, undertaken in response to threats — monolithic Communism and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — that were figments of fevered imaginations. In both cases, cynicism and moral cowardice played a role in paving the way toward war. Dissenting voices were ignored.
Third, both conflicts proved to be costly distractions. Each devoured on a prodigious scale resources that might have been used so much more productively elsewhere. Each diverted attention from matters of far more immediate importance to Americans. Each, in other words, triggered a massive hemorrhage of blood, treasure, and influence to no purpose whatsoever.
Fourth, in each instance, political leaders in Washington and senior commanders in the field collaborated in committing grievous blunders. War is complicated. All wars see their share of mistakes and misjudgments. But those two featured a level of incompetence unmatched since Custer’s Last Stand.
Fifth, thanks to that incompetence, both devolved into self-inflicted quagmires. In Washington, in Saigon, and in Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” baffled authorities watched as the control of events slipped from their grasp. Meanwhile, in the field, U.S. troops flailed about for years in futile pursuit of a satisfactory outcome.
Sixth, on the home front, both conflicts left behind a poisonous legacy of unrest, rancor, and bitterness. Members of the Baby Boom generation (to which I belong) have chosen to enshrine Vietnam-era protest as high-minded and admirable. Many Americans then held and still hold a different opinion. As for the Iraq War, it contributed mightily to yawning political cleavages that appear unlikely to heal anytime soon.
And finally, with both political and military elites alike preferring simply to move on, neither war has received a proper accounting. Their place in the larger narrative of American history is still unsettled. This may be the most important similarity of all. Both Vietnam and Iraq remain bizarrely undigested, their true meaning yet to be discerned and acknowledged. Too recent to forget, too confounding to ignore, they remain anomalous.
The American wars in Vietnam and Iraq are contradictions that await resolution.
Jaw, jaw, not war, war
For that very reason, when politicians (including Joe Biden) talk about war, they talk about others, their all-time favorite being the one fought against Nazi Germany between December 1941 and May 1945. There — and not in Vietnam or Iraq — do members of the establishment find the lessons that they have enshrined as permanently relevant.
The first American war against Germany in 1917-1918 doesn’t carry much weight at all. Just a couple of years ago, its centennial came and went virtually unnoticed. Likewise, the war against Japan that occurred in tandem with the second war against Germany seldom gets much attention either. We “remember Pearl Harbor” and that’s about it.
The war against the Nazis, however, is a gift that never stops giving. It yields a great bounty of lessons: never appease; never hesitate to call evil by its name; never back down; and never flinch from the challenges of leadership, which necessarily implies a willingness to use force. And in moments of distress, channel your inner Winston Churchill circa 1940: “Never surrender!”
The problem with clinging to such ostensibly canonical lessons today is that we are no longer the nation that defeated Nazi Germany. The United States was establishing itself as the dominant industrial power on the planet then, while Washington still had the capacity to mobilize the American people pursuant to what was described at the time as a “Great Crusade.” A taken-for-granted tradition of white supremacy underwrote a cultural unity that lent more than a modicum of substance to the claims of e pluribus unum. None of this remains faintly relevant today.
When it comes to present-day policy, the relevant fact is that we are the nation that failed in both Vietnam and Iraq. Along the way, we lost our status as the planet’s dominant industrial power. Meanwhile, Washington forfeited its authority to mobilize the American people for war. More recently, cleavages stemming from class, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity, split the country into antagonistic factions. Al Gore was merely premature when, as vice president, he famously mistranslated the nation’s motto as “out of one, many.”
Now, if you prioritize Vietnam and Iraq over the war against Nazi Germany, you’ll come face-to-face with a very different set of lessons. Here are four that the Biden administration might do well to contemplate.
First, situating the United States within a larger entity called the West — a notion dating from the time when America and Great Britain (with plentiful help from the Soviet Union) rallied to defeat Hitler — no longer works. The West doesn’t exist. These days when the United States opts for war, it must expect to fight alone or with only nominal allied assistance. This was true in Vietnam and again in Iraq. No grand coalition will form.
Second, however gussied up or camouflaged, imperialism no longer retains the slightest legitimacy. Peoples once classified as inferior, usually on the basis of skin color, no longer tolerate outsiders telling them how to govern themselves. Few Americans are willing to acknowledge the imperial motives that have long shaped this country’s global policies. The Vietnamese and Iraqis opposing the U.S. military presence in their midst entertained few doubts on that score; hence, the fierceness with which they defended their right to self-determination.
Third, if the United States remains intent on exporting its version of freedom and democracy, it will have to devise far less coercive ways of doing so. Rather than using armed force to alter the political landscape in faraway places, elites should acknowledge the limited utility of military power. Calling on the troops to defend, deter, and contain works far better than charging them to invade, occupy, and transform.
Fourth, dumb wars deplete. Vietnam and Iraq both inflicted untold damage on the American economy. With the U.S. government currently running an annual deficit of some $3 trillion, we can’t afford to squander any more money on ill-advised military campaigns. A less known quote attributed to Churchill commends itself in our present situation: “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war.”
As it enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, the United States is badly in need of more jaw, jaw and less war, war — more fix, fix, and less fight, fight.
Over to you, Joe
I am not enamored of presidents. I’m even less of a fan of “presidentialism” — the belief, firmly held by American elites, that the fate of the planet turns on what the president of the United States says or does (or doesn’t do). For that reason, I have learned not to expect much of whoever happens to occupy the Oval Office.
In practice, the Most Powerful Man in the World usually turns out to be not all that powerful. Rather than directing History with a capital H, he (not yet she), like the rest of us, is pretty much just along for the ride. In their own ways, Goldsmith and Haggard implicitly endorsed such a fatalistic perspective.
In political circles, a different view tends to prevail. Today, virtually all Democrats and many in the media ascribe to Donald Trump full blame for the mess in which this country finds itself. Yet Americans would do well to temper their expectations of what supplanting Trumpism with Bidenism is likely to produce.
On January 20, 2021, the “torch” to which John F. Kennedy memorably referred in his inaugural address will once again be passed. Let’s hope that, in grasping it, Biden and Harris will heed one of the principal lessons of the Kennedy era: no more Vietnams. To which I would simply add: no more Iraqs (or Afghanistans, or Yemens, or… well, you know the list). Only then might it become possible to undertake the daunting task of repairing our country.
Good luck, Joe. You, too, Kamala. In the coming days, you’re both going to need a truckful of it.
This article originally appeared in TomDispatch.