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.