A month-and-a-half ago, before the nation’s attention was diverted by the unnecessary and artificial shutdown crisis, the United States government was on the verge of embroiling itself in another war, this time in Syria. Public opposition stopped it, evoking comparison to the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” the aversion that the US public had to war for a generation after Vietnam. Hopefully the American public has learned from the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan and entered a similar period of aversion to war that lasts for at least the next generation. Because of the historical precedence of the term “Vietnam Syndrome” we are probably stuck calling it the Iraq Syndrome, although that makes sounds like an abnormal ailment, a temporary illness to overcome; it would better to recognize that the desire for peace is a learned experience of a people and call it War Wisdom or something similar. I’ll use both.
A month-and-a-half ago, the DC establishment doggedly argued for military action in Syria despite the weakness of their case. Everyone agreed that strikes would not reduce Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles, degrade his ability to deliver them, nor even deter Assad from using them. But the DC elite who favored military strikes argued that they somehow would “send a message” that chemical weapons were unacceptable and therefore, I don’t know, through some “message” magic, bombs would stop Assad from using them. A major public outcry quashed the very, very bad idea of starting yet another war, and this forced our government to find a diplomatic rather than a violent solution, and to cooperate with other countries, including Russia, to achieve our end goal. Since then, both the United States and Russia have praised the Assad regime’s compliance in dismantling chemical weapons and inspectors have proceeded with their mission to catalog and disable Syria’s chemical weapons, with the cooperation of the Syrian government.
A Washington media consensus quickly emerged that the threat of US military violence forced Assad to compromise, and there may be some truth to that claim. I am not expert enough in such matter to judge, but the claim that coercive diplomacy worked in this case, or works in general, has been questioned by those more knowledgeable.
The Vietnam Syndrome helped keep America resistant to wars for about 25 years after the fall of Saigon; at least during that period wars had to be quick and above all they had to have few causalities. (If you think about it, the US has always had relatively low casualties in its wars compared to other countries. Only the Civil War and WWII involved large numbers of war dead, and in the latter war we suffered far fewer than many other belligerents like Russia.) The post-Vietnam demand by the public to, as much as possible, stay out of wars was a real sociological phenomenon, and the power of mass opinion can keep politicians restrained to at least some degree. The Vietnam Syndrome underwent a process of weakening from the 1990s with Bush Sr.’s invasion of Panama, and then with the Gulf War – but both of those wars were still relatively quick and resulted in few American body bags. The Syndrome persisted through the 1990s, however, as demonstrated by the reluctance to intervene in the Balkans War and Rwanda (a case that illustrates that aversion to war sometimes leads to overcautious failures to intervene when needed - but the Rwanda genocide may have been preventable only by occupying the country with tens or hundred of thousands of troops and making it into a virtual colony). It was only 9/11 that fully overcame the Vietnam Syndrome and allowed for multiple, full-scale warfare again; yet even then, aversion to casualties has driven developments like better body armor and military drones to keep troops out of harm’s way as much as possible.
The re-emergence of War Wisdom again signals a shift in public attitude back to the pre-9/11 period. Whereas after 9/11 people were angry, hungry for revenge, and tribalistic, after more than a decade of war people are tired of it, they don’t think we can afford it, and they’ve seen great failures in the wars we’ve embarked on. The killing of Osama bin Ladin, the big victory of the Global War on Terror, has not brought it to an end; how could the elite think that high levels of public enthusiasm could literally be maintained indefinitely for this endless project? Furthermore, the spin and deceit by those who made a false case for war in Iraq are now well known, and the people don’t trust their leaders about war anymore. That advertising campaign also focused on claims about chemical weapons. Remember the boy who cried wolf? The elite have no more credibility to make the case for war.
Now the public mood will no longer brook invading or striking far away places, risking the uncertainties of blowback and quagmire based solely on intelligence reports that are not transparent or verifiable, where the victory conditions aren’t clear, and the threat to the United States isn’t apparent. If the country was actually attacked again or invaded things would undoubtedly be different, but hammering some tin-pot dictator in a far-off place? Forget it.
There does seem to be some degree of war resistance built into democracies: scholars of international relations have long pointed to the “democratic peace,” the fact that modern democracies do not, empirically, go to war with one another. This built-in resistance is present in the United States too: while America was imperialist inside North America and willing to conquer Native Peoples, the country was averse to wars and adventures overseas; before WWII the American tradition was deeply isolationist. While isolationism was not the most prudent of philosophies, and would be entirely untenable in today’s globalized, interconnected world, perhaps a residual of it, a healthy dose of skepticism about foreign intervention, survived in a valuable way first in the Vietnam Syndrome and now in our current War Wisdom. One question that only the future can tell: is this new resistance to war a blip in an otherwise warlike culture, or was 9/11 the blip and we are now returning to a natural level of American war resistance? Or is it a cycle?
Why is the Syndrome feared by politicians? Why do they respond to it? Obama, surprisingly, did so; Lyndon Johnson withdrew from running for a second full term because of it. I think this is a positive indicator that there is still some responsiveness to public opinion in our system, at least for really major things: politicians still fear the disapproval of the people for major economic failures and for long, bloody wars. War is still something that rallies people, primarily because they don’t like the thought of American soldiers being injured, maimed, and dying. They also want to avoid failure in war, and there is less patience for the great expense of war during tough economic times. Ironically rising inequality may breed a degree of resistance to the aims of the economic elite and military elite: the middle class squeeze increases resistance to imperial adventures because “we can’t afford it,” and so the armchair generals have a harder time justifying such wars when times are tough.
There may also be unintended consequences to the Vietnam and Iraq syndromes that aren't quite so positive. The resistance to American casualties of the Vietnam Syndrome fueled a demand for high tech weapons and an end to the draft, which have now led to warfare by drones and a professional, special forces-oriented military. As classical republicans have observed for centuries, it's a bad idea to have a professional military class that is too far removed from the rest of the people: their interests aren't the same, and they're really good at using force to get their way, a combination of factors that are a potential threat to democracy. We could add that it's also bad to have semi-automated machines like drones that make dealing death easier, because they make imperialism easier. What unintended consequences will the Iraq Syndrome have? Might it lead to more, and worse, robotic killing machines? Longer distance, super-smart weapons? Such things would make it easier and more palatable to initiate imperial adventures, but also less able to occupy and govern the neo-colonies we conquer as fewer troops connect at an intimate level with the culture. In the wrong circumstances the Iraq Syndrome could result not in diplomatic solutions in lieu of way, but in very messy, very badly executed imperial occupations.
I would favor expansion of militia and restoration of the draft, to make sure that regular people are connected to and have a stake in our foreign policy. But the details of that augment are for another post.
One hopes that this new War Wisdom, grown from the hard lessons of the past decade, will foster a resistance to warfare for at least one generation (but hopefully may more), and that we use this period to address the problems of economic equality, dysfunctional politics, and environmental destruction, rather than go off half-cocked into additional poorly thought-through military adventures.