Memories of Vietnam

In a courtroom in Washington DC, where Scooter Libby’s trial is in progress, faulty memories are on display on a daily basis. That isn’t the only place in Washington, however, where recollections are untrustworthy. Recall, a few weeks ago, Ted Kennedy’s dismissal of the suggestion the precipitous withdrawal from Iraq could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. Nonsense, Kennedy said; people predicted disaster if we withdrew from Vietnam, too, and nothing happened.
It’s easy to imagine, of course, that Kennedy’s rewriting of history could be due to a guilty conscience. It’s harder to understand why John Warner would invent a guilty conscience over Vietnam, again in the context of urging withdrawal from Iraq. Bill Kristol makes the point in his Weekly Standard editorial, “A Terrible Ignominy,” which decries the drift of some Senate Republicans toward defeatism:

Consider John Warner. Is he worried about 2008? No. It’s memories of Vietnam that suddenly haunt him. As the Washington Post reported on its front page recently:

“I regret that I was not more outspoken” during the Vietnam War, the former Navy secretary said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “The Army generals would come in, ‘Just send in another five or ten thousand.’ You know, month after month. Another ten or fifteen thousand. They thought they could win it. We kept surging in those years. It didn’t work.”

In fact, John Warner was Richard Nixon’s undersecretary of the Navy from 1969 to 1972, then Navy secretary until 1974. No admiral (or Army general) showed up in either his undersecretarial or secretarial office in those years to urge more troops for Vietnam–because we were then drawing down as part of Vietnamization. So Warner would seem to be making up these conversations with foolishly optimistic Army generals–unless they visited him before 1969 in his office at the law firm of Hogan and Hartson, where he was ensconced during the period of the Vietnam buildup.

Check the numbers; it’s true that the peak year for troops in Vietnam was 1968. By the time Warner became Secretary of the Navy in 1972, the troops were pretty much all gone.
I’m sure it’s true, as Kristol suggests, that Warner is concerned about re-election. But that doesn’t seem to fully explain his rather weird bout of Recovered Memory Syndrome. For reasons that I don’t pretend to understand, the nation’s perception of Vietnam has always been more myth than history. It’s as though there are two parallel worlds; the actual Vietnam, where real but mostly-forgotten events actually happened, and “Vietnam,” the myth-country where reality has long been optional. Unfortunately, it is the mythical “Vietnam” that policymakers seem to have in mind when they think about Iraq.
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