Last Saturday evening a group of around 75 people braved Husky football traffic to attend a panel discussion about Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new documentary series, “The Vietnam War.” The event was organized by the Seattle chapter of Veterans for Peace and many in the audience were Vietnam vets. Others had been conscientious objectors or anti-war activists during the Vietnam era (one attendee commented he was all three). A number of aspects were challenged and errors critiqued, but a consensus arose: no matter how closely the film hewed to the conventional U.S. narrative (despite the filmmakers’ claims to the contrary), its benefit lay in renewing public debate about the war and prompting discussion. You can listen to the audiorecording of the full event here, and a video of the full event here.
One question the organizers asked at the outset was what the film told us about our current wars. Army Major Clifford Pederson is currently a Southeast Asia Foreign Area Officer and a second-year MA student in the Southeast Asian Studies program at the Jackson School of International Studies. As an infantry officer, he had two combat deployments to Afghanistan where he served as a Platoon Leader and Company Commander. He agreed to share his perspective on the legacy of Vietnam in this interview conducted via email.
SB: During the discussion, the rift between WWII and Vietnam veterans was raised. Vietnam vets felt they were spurned by veterans of earlier wars. Attempts at reconciling the divide have since occurred, but one of the panelists pointed out that the two groups had very different interests. Vietnam vets began to organize and fight for their rights after returning home from duty. They were the first to appreciate that the complex of symptoms they were experiencing warranted recognition from the medical community and were instrumental in getting PTSD included in the DSM-III in 1980. They also took on Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Napalm.
In that sense, it seems there’s at least a spiritual connection between Vietnam vets and veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have had to fight to get diagnoses of Traumatic Brain Injury and Gulf War Syndrome recognized. What is the current relationship between Vietnam vets and vets of more recent wars? Do you feel a common cause with them or are the needs too diverse?
CP: Currently, I am not sure that the connection between the Vietnam veterans and those of the post 9/11 conflicts is that strong. Two of the main gathering places for veterans of all conflicts over the last 100 years, the VFW and American Legion Posts, are generally unable to attract new members from the youngest generation of veterans. The reasons are multiple and have been well documented by major news outlets but in general the younger veterans do not feel as though these organizations represent their interests. Some posts have made efforts to attract younger veterans and female veterans but it has not been widespread. Due to this there has been a proliferation of newer veteran organizations. Organizations such as Student Veterans of America has helped fill a gap on college campuses and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) fills an advocacy and lobbying role for younger veterans that older organizations are unwilling or unable to support. Other organizations such as The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon focus on providing younger veterans opportunities to feel connected to other veterans and their communities though community service events and natural disaster relief.
This is frankly a missed opportunity for everyone involved. Mental health concerns such as PSTD do not have an expiration date and while post 9/11 veterans lack an environmental health issue with the complexity of Agent Orange or Napalm-exposure, toxicity from burn pits remains a largely unresolved issue. I think that one thing the documentary does a great job of is showing the universality of armed conflict and how the intense feelings during combat are similar on all sides. Veterans in America should be better at recognizing there exists a common cause across generations. I think both generations of veterans would benefit from dialogue and discussing their experiences. While there are a lot of differences between the wars, draftees compared to the all-volunteer force just to start, the documentary showed a striking number of similarities such as the high casualty rate from mines or buried explosive devices. Just as there were similarities in combat, there are similarities in veteran health requirements regardless of generation.
SB: When General H.R. McMaster was appointed National Security Advisor, I remember you mentioning to me that his PhD dissertation was a critique of American military strategy and leadership during the Vietnam War. While it’s commendable for the military to analyze past mistakes to learn from them, is there a “Monday morning quarterback” aspect to the public debate that tends to derail any serious questions about our involvement at the outset? While we debate who or what is responsible for the outcome (anti-war protestors, too few troops deployed) do we miss the opportunity to question the inherited narrative about honorable but mistaken intentions spurred on by a Cold War mindset?
CP: I think if anything there is too little public debate about the beginning of the Vietnam War and the strategic assumptions that led us to committing troops but this is an unfortunate trend in the application of American military force. There is very little public discussion of the initial deployment of force and instead the conversation turns to the arm chair quarterbacking that you mention. Such a debate quickly turns on counterfactuals that are of little utility to anyone. To me any present-day debates about who ‘lost’ the war and why, are only a continuation of the arguments in the 1960 and 70s. The debate should surround the quick approval of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with almost no public debate and why it took nearly a decade for Congress to correct that mistake with the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Furthermore, the debate about adequate troops levels continues in the present day with little substantive debate about how those troops will be deployed and what political ends that deployment envisions.
Clausewitz famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Yet in America we rarely have intense debate in Congress or in the public about what the political goals of a war are. A great democracy should be having debates about all aspects of its political power, its military included. Today, we are witnessing a continuation of this trend as four US Army Soldiers were killed in Niger last week. Niger currently hosts approximately 800 US military personnel yet the deployment and activities are not discussed by the public or Congress. President Obama deployed these troops not under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force but rather under the War Powers Resolution of 1973. If anything, this illustrates the incapability of the War Powers Resolution to force a greater public debate about the initial intentions and larger political objectives behind the application of US military force.
SB: One member of the audience brought up the parallel between the devastating and asymmetrical bombing campaign against Vietnam and the use of drones now. When American ground troops are kept out of harm’s way by employing airpower, I can understand the military’s impulse to use it. But could the asymmetry of power and detachment from the situation on the ground gradually undermine the US’s global reputation and negatively affect our national security?
CP: First, I do not think that the use of unmanned weapons systems post-9/11 is equivalent to the bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia. Such a comparison risks minimizing how destructive those campaigns were. The use of drones outside of combat areas in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed less 5000 combatants and civilians. This is a small fraction compared to the destruction caused by the Vietnam War era bombings that killed in the hundreds of thousands. Secondly, the use of drones does not seem to have had a large impact on the US global reputation. President Bush authorized drone strikes outside of combat areas 50 times, whereas President Obama authorized over 500 drone strikes and left office as a greatly respected world leader. Obviously, this could change under President Trump depending on how he decides to utilize unmanned aircraft but so far President Trump seems to prefer blunter tools such as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), commonly referred to as the Mother of All Bombs, which was used for the first time in combat shortly after he took office. Drone strikes have produced a backlash overseas and domestically but so far it has been quite small, especially compared to the world-wide demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the 2003 Iraq War.
I believe an appropriate comparison can be made with the secret decisions to bomb North Vietnam and its neighbors and the lack of public debate and secrecy surrounding the current application of drones. While the President can delegate authority for drone strikes to agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Defense, these decisions still rest with civilians and not uniformed military personnel. Additionally, Congress has not stepped up to debate how armed unmanned aircraft should be employed to achieve the political goals of the United States. Perhaps because as you mentioned, drones reduce the risk of American casualties, it makes them more likely to be employed and thus it is more likely that the application of American military power will trigger an erosion of US global reputation. Or perhaps the employment of drones should be treated as an extension of existing American defense planning and Congressional authorization. Either way, the topic currently receives little debate outside of defense intellectuals.
The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Prof. Giebel was also recently interviewed along with war veterans Mike Dedrick and Allen Tlusty at KEXP’s “Mind over Matters” on 90.3 FM with Mike McCormick. The segment focuses on the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on the Viet Nam War. You can listen to the show by clicking here.