The War Nobody Won 9

Lyndon Johnson had been reluctant to go into Vietnam until, faced by the crumbling Saigon regime, he felt that he had no alternative. Even so, he tiptoed into war, never quite believing that it would reach the magnitude it did. Bush had the choice of maintaining the embargo against Iraq, and an array of specialists, including William Webster, the CIA director, predicted that it would eventually strangle Saddam Hussein. But Bush, fearful that time would erode his international coalition, impatiently rejected that option. His military advisers, among them General Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a Vietnam veteran, had long argued as well that Johnson’s incre¬mental escalation was disastrous. Thus Bush assembled a force that, combined with that of its allies, numbered more than six hundred thousand—larger than the U.S. military machine in Vietnam at its peak. And the initial American attack against Iraq, code-named Desert Storm, was indeed a hurricane of firepower guided by sophisticated technology of a kind and variety unseen in the history of warfare.
Not until the Vietnam war was in full swing did the U.S. public begin to question its merits in a bitter controversy that split the nation and persisted for years afterward. As they contemplated a collision in the Persian Gulf, however, Americans seemed to be alert, divided— and, above all, nervous. A Los Angeles Times poll published in No¬vember 1990 reported that while only 38 percent of Americans favored swift military action, 53 percent replied that, rather than resort to war, Bush should continue sanctions against Iraq “no matter how long it takes.” Vietnam was repeatedly evoked in these surveys, though re¬spondents drew diverse lessons from the experience. “The thing that bothered me most about Vietnam was that we fought so long and poured so many billions of dollars down the drain, and we got nothing from it,” Bill Gay of Marlington, West Virginia, told the Washington Post. “If you fight, you want to fight to win.” Bill Fournier, a former policeman in Auburn, Maine, implored Congress to look hard at the “human price” of war. “There’s so much at stake,” he said. “Are we willing to die for oil? Are we willing to sacrifice our kids for the sake of stimulating our economy? We’re still paying dearly for Vietnam.”
Doubts about the impending war in the Persian Gulf pervaded America—a far cry from the incipient opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which came primarily from a fringe of campus, religious and civil rights groups. Few Americans of prominence protested against the initial intervention in Vietnam. But as war in the Persian Gulf loomed, Bush was cautioned to exercise restraint by such lu¬minaries as Ross Perot, the billionaire Texas businessman, former secretary of defense James Schlesinger, and Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr. and General David C. Jones, both former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff. Unlike their passivity on the eve of the Vietnam strug-gle, when they gave Johnson a blank check to wage war, members of Congress conducted a lengthy and emotional debate over the ap¬proaching Persian Gulf conflict. And unlike their mute acquiescence to Johnson, they endorsed Bush’s request for war powers by only a narrow margin.
But despite the differences between the Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars, the U.S. public discerned parallels in the two conflicts.
Chief among them was the lack of a clear-cut purpose. Presidents from Harry S. Truman through Richard M. Nixon had justified America’s commitment to Vietnam as part of its policy to “contain” global Communism. They advanced the “domino theory,” submit¬ting that defeat in Southeast Asia would topple the other nations of the region—and even, as Lyndon Johnson warned, menace “the beaches of Waikiki.” Such themes at first swayed Congress and the U.S. public, which for decades had been convinced of a Communist menace. But as the Vietnam war dragged on, those arguments lost their allure—until, in retrospect, they would sound absurd.
Similarly, Bush failed to define the concept behind his attack against Iraq. He equated Saddam Hussein with Adolf Hitler, asserting that inaction would “reward aggression,” as appeasement of the Nazis had during the 1930s. Without specifically citing the Persian Gulfs petro¬leum reserves—which might have opened him to criticism that he was trading “blood for oil”—he sweepingly emphasized the economic value of the region. He also claimed that to do nothing would have jeopardized the “new world order,” his ambiguous formula for in¬ternational harmony in the aftermath of the cold war. But he did not adequately explain why Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States. Nor did he clarify his motives for liberating Kuwait when America had refrained from intervening in many other foreign disputes in recent years. So, for all Bush’s lofty rhetoric, it was uncertain whether the Persian Gulf was truly vital to U.S. interests—or, like Vietnam, of illusory importance.
The vast majority of Americans at first backed Lyndon Johnson’s intervention in Vietnam. Then, distressed by mounting losses and the war’s interminable quality, they gradually turned against the com¬mitment—and ultimately repudiated Johnson himself. Most Ameri¬cans discarded their earlier qualms and overwhelmingly approved Bush’s initial attack against Iraq. Surveys suggested, however, that U.S. attitudes toward his action might have devolved as they did toward Johnson’s policies had the war in the Persian Gulf dragged on, incurring high American casualties. A Washington Post poll published a week before the outbreak of hostilities in the Gulf indicated that while 63 percent of Americans favored the use of force unless Saddam Hussein withdrew from Kuwait, only 44 percent were willing to accept a thousand American dead, and the prospect of ten thousand killed drove the figure down to 35 percent. Thus the nation, still haunted by recollections of Vietnam, was prepared to tolerate only a bloodless war. Happily, the miraculously light American casualties elated the U.S. public.

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