US War and the “Strength” Delusion

Christian AppyThe Real News Network released a great interview with Christian Appy, Vietnam Blood Bath to Prove America Had “Balls.” It is in support of his new book, American Reckoning: the Vietnam War and Our National Identity. But this interview is specifically about a little discussed aspect of our war making: the need to appear “strong.” We see this clearly today. After the Iraq War started to go south and the stated rationale for it was exposed as a lie, the primary justification for staying was that we couldn’t “cut and run.” It was all framed in terms of “strength” and the immorality of “cowardice.”

The irony of this approach to war is that these appeals to strength show the terror of the proponents. A strong person isn’t worried about what people think of her. It is the weak person who is concerned that others will see her as weak. By continuing an irrational policy in the name of appearing weak shows that you are, in fact, weak. This is a problem that plagues both conservatives and liberals in modern America. There is a strong tendency to mistake bluster for strength. That’s why Marco Rubio thinks he is projecting strength by quoting action movies.

Appy’s focus is on Vietnam, and so thus on presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It was, of course, Kennedy’s bluster that caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. Appy noted, “Kennedy even went so far as to suggest that Adlai Stevenson, who was representing us at the United Nations, had wanted to sell us out…” This supposed sellout was the suggestion that the USSR remove its missiles from Cuba in exchange for our removing missiles from Turkey. That was, after all, the primary reason that the Soviet Union put the missiles in Cuba in the first first place. And Stevenson’s proposal was the deal that ended the crisis. But Kennedy didn’t want this known. But to show just how pathetic this is: the only ones who were fooled were the American people; internationally, people knew what really happened. So this isn’t even about the US looking “strong,” but just Kennedy looking “strong” here at home.

Similarly, Johnson was once in a private meeting with journalists. He was pressed about why he continued pushing forward with the Vietnam war. Eventually, Johnson pulled his penis out of pants and said, “This is why.” The fact that our leaders are about as mature as 13-year-old boys should concern us greatly. But it shouldn’t surprise us. Regardless, if we weren’t so inclined toward the sunk costs fallacy, presidents wouldn’t be able to channel their inner adolescent.

The follow quote from Appy’s book provides a good condensation of the wider process:

By 1966, Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton concluded that avoiding humiliation had moved from 70% of America’s goal in Vietnam to 100%. “The reasons why we went into Vietnam to the present depth are varied, but they are now largely academic. Why we have not withdrawn is by all odds one reason: to preserve our reputation. We have not hung on to save a friend or to deny the communists the added acres and heads.”

There is no doubt that the people, at least, start off with some “good” reason for supporting wars. These are very often humanitarian. Remember how the gassing of the Kurds was used to justify the Iraq War? But after a short time, it becomes nothing more than saving face. We’ve made a terrible mistake, but if we just keep fighting, maybe we can turn it into a win. It’s total fantasy.

Afterword

Check out the excellent documentary, War Made Easy:

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