Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Vietnam Factor

It looks like John McCain is gaining enough momentum to win the Republican nomination for President. McCain's main claim to fame is his experience as a Vietnam veteran.

The Vietnam war is a very important event in recent American history. The Vietnamese may have got over it a long time ago, but Americans still haven't. Some Americans still contend they could have won if only they'd stayed and fought and they blame the "liberal establishment" for the pull-out, despite the fact that it took place under Gerald Ford. Other Americans blame the loss on the soldiers who ran amuk, burning villages and killing indiscriminately, turning the South Vietnamese to the Vietcong in the process. Still other Americans are more charitable, but believe that Vietnam veterans are "unstable" due to their over-long tours of duty and the horrors they experienced (I recall meeting a particularly intense Vietnam veteran, and an American colleague shaking his head and remarking "They're all like that, Vietnam really screwed with their heads").

The first Vietnam-era person to challenge for the Presidency was Bill Clinton. Clinton managed to avoid going to Vietnam by studying at Oxford University, and his Republican opponents were quick to label him "the draft dodger". However this had no effect on the voters. Most of them thought Clinton was smart to have avoided the ill-fated war, and younger Americans thought "I would have done that too" (i.e. "I'm also smart"). Bob Dole, who was a WW2 veteran, tried again in 1996 to attack Clinton on Vietnam and failed again.

The next Vietnam-era person to challenge for the Presidency was George W Bush. His father famously got his son a safe position in the reserves, where it is rumoured Dubya didn't even show up most of the time. Again American voters didn't mind. They thought he too was smart to have avoided the war. But voters were harsher on his challenger for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain. The Bush team successfully spread rumours that McCain was traumatised by his experience in Vietnam, which they said resulted in a short-fuse and unstable behaviour. The tactics were cruel and reprehensible, but they resonated with that part of America that believes that Vietnam vets are unbalanced. Bush defeated McCain handily.

The next challenger for the presidency was John Kerry. Dems thought that while the war in Iraq was raging it would look good to have a Vietnam vet run against a man who talked war but didn't fight. Kerry had been decorated in Vietnam and fondly imagined this gave him a Kennedy-like aura. However Kennedy had fought in WW2, which was a glorious win for America, and further, his exploits took place in the Pacific, against the hated Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbour (Americans have always demonised the Japanese more than the Germans for this reason). There was nothing glorious about Vietnam at all. In addition many Americans believed that purple hearts were handed out like sweeties in Vietnam for exploits that wouldn't have rated a mention in WW2, to boost troop morale - which made it easy to mock and "swift-boat" Kerry.

The only Vietnam veteran not stigmatised is Colin Powell, and that's because his loss as a young soldier is more than offset by the Gulf War, where as General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was the architect of a decisive victory.

This time the Dems have been smart enough to stay well away from any connection with Vietnam. Hillary is well clear because women weren't drafted, and Obama is well clear because he is too young.

Which leaves McCain on the Republican side to be the Vietnam standard-bearer. McCain is more vulnerable than Kerry because he was captured and tortured for five years, during which he released a statement condemning America and the war they were waging. This is normal, torture victims will say anything to stop the pain, it's a defence mechanism, which is why torture is useless as an interrogation tool, as well as being morally reprehensible. However, swathes of right-wing America - whom McCain depends on for votes - think torture is acceptable, Guantanamo Bay is acceptable and don't see anything wrong with Abu Ghraib at all. They've been quieter in the last year, but there is no evidence that they've really changed their minds. Can they really stomach a man who cracked under torture as their candidate? Or will they stay home on polling day? Left-wing America is inclined to be more compassionate - but they won't be voting Republican.

Americans think of themselves as Winners. They believe they are a superpower because they have a special propensity for winning that other nations haven't. It's notable they only began to question Iraq when it started to look like they were losing, whereas most of Europe was against Iraq in principle before the war commenced. Americans find losing almost unbearable because it challenges their self-image as winners. I don't believe a Vietnam veteran will ever become president, because secretly Americans believe almost everyone associated with that war is a loser. When Iraq-era people come to challenge for the presidency in thirty years time, I believe that Iraq-war veterans will find the same problem, Americans will conclude that the Iraq debacle was not just down to the politicians and generals but also poor soldiering on the ground and they will refuse to put these perceived "losers" into the White House. This attitude might change if they stop thinking of themselves as a superpower, but I wouldn't count on it.


Aaron Murin-Heath said...

Personally, I think McCain, after winning Florida, has an excellent chance. Against Clinton? I wonder how low the Clinton's would go to ruin a war-hero? Pretty low, I'd guess.

BTW. This is a really good analysis, Snow.x

snowflake5 said...

It might not be Clinton that raises it. It could be one of McCain's opponents on the Republican side.

Also, nothing stopping the Dems from simply congratulating McCain for surviving torture - that means it will get covered in great length in the US press, complete with details of how he cracked and denounced the US. Lefties will sigh sympathetically but continue to vote Dem, Republicans will get un-nerved.

jams o donnell said...

I've already seen right wing republicans slamming McCain because he succumbed to torture...

On the other haqnd will they be "swift boating" him to prevent him getting the Republican nomination if the only serious opponent left is Romney?

I agree with Tyger. Great analysis Snowflake. Good to see you back blogging

Anonymous said...

The American people, in their eternal narcissism and self-absorption deliberately chose to persecute the Vietnam veterans.

They have also DELIBERATELY CHOSEN to tar the veterans of this war as losers despite its outcome. That way it gives them a free pass to deny them any benefits, socially ostracize them for the remainder of their lives, and deny them any of the pleasures of life to which they are endowed.

Sort of the same things they, the AMERICAN PEOPLE DELIBERATELY CHOSE to inflict upon the Vietnam veterans.

Political Umpire said...

"I don't believe a Vietnam veteran will ever become president, because secretly Americans believe almost everyone associated with that war is a loser. "

I don't know. Oliver Stone became very successful by making anti-VW films partly because he was a vet and therefore seen as an authoritative commentator. Would it actually have harmed Clinton had he served?

I think most Americans hold soldiers in much higher esteem than politicians. After all, Vietnam was the classic war that was not lost in the field - America was never defeated in a major engagement; in military terms the Tet offensive was a total disaster for the North - but they lost politically. By refusing to invade, they made the war unwinnable no matter how many VC were killed or individual battles won. And of course meant that it dragged on and on till everyone lost patience. (Never mind of course the political joke that was the South Vietnamese government.)